Saturday, June 9, 2012

Strategies for Composting in Bear Country by Ashley McNamara

Red worm indoor composting box
Composting sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? Instead of trucking food waste to a landfill, where it will only take up space and generate methane gas, it can be turned into a product that does wonders for virtually any soil and that you would pay big bucks for if you bought it at a garden center. There's just one small problem; your leftovers may attract wildlife. If the wildlife you're attracting weighs upwards of 500 pounds and comes with sharp claws, powerful teeth and an attitude, you've got a serious dilemna on your hands (and you were just trying to be environmentally friendly!) 

The good news is there are several strategies you can use to deter bears from considering your compost pile an all-you-can-eat buffet. Choose one or more of these that seem the most practical, time-saving and cost effective for your own situation. (For general advice on composting at home, visit the CSU Extension website and look for the fact sheet "Making Compost"). 

1. The pit compost method- Dig a pit several feet deep and across, and toss your compost into it. Keep a pile of soil excavated from the pit and a shovel handy nearby. Anytime you add compost, shovel several inches of soil on top of the food scraps you just added. One of big benefits of this method is that earthworms will naturally find their way into the pit, helping speed the rate of decomposition. The drawbacks include the fact that lack of air circulation will slow the rate of decomposition. Also, turning the pile and collecting and using the compost both become bigger chores. 

2. The exclusion/indoor worm bin method- During bear season (from about mid-March to mid-November in our area), nothing remotely sweet smelling goes in the outdoor compost bin. For most intents and purposes, this means everything but trimmings from raw herbs and leafy greens, onion skins, and corn husks. Everything else goes in the worm box, which is kept indoors. Red worms are superior composters and are easy to care for.  One of the biggest drawbacks of this method is that worm bins and their contents can attract fruit flies, especially in the late summer and early fall, so have some fruit fly traps handy and consider carefully where you locate the bin (mine stays in the crawl space). It is fine to turn your outdoor compost during this period, but again it doesn't hurt to shovel some soil onto the pile afterwards. 

3. The electric fence method- Put anything you want to in your compost, and turn and collect from the bin anytime without worrying about dumping soil on top- as long as you have the juice flowing. You can use an electric fence to keep bears away from your compost. You will need fiberglass fence posts, insulators, wiring and an energizer capable of delivering a minimum charge of 7 kJoules of charge to deter bears. Consult the Colorado Department of Wildlife website for information on constructing an electric fence to protect beehives.  

4. The unwelcome mat method- Get some plywood boards at least 4 feet in diameter and drive nails or screws vertically through the wood, at least 4 inches apart, so that a minimum of 1/2 inch comes out on the other side. Lay the boards down on the ground in so that they ring the compost bin on all sides and such that all parts of the compost bin's perimeter are surrounded by at least 4 horizontal feet of unwelcome mat. This method may mean more trips to the vet and the ER- be sure to get a tetanus shot if you go for this one.  

5. The anaerobic container method- A friend of mine who lives in the middle of Golden Gate State Park swears by her anaerobic compost container, and says she can even put meat scraps in (as a disclaimer, I would have to add that contagious disease pathologists would probably not recommend using her compost to grow anything edible). Anaerobic bacteria do their stuff in the absence of oxygen; therefore you will need a sealable container.