Simple Composting Methods

Help green the planet with these tidy and effective ways to turn your kitchen scraps into soil builder.
By Pat Stone
July/August 1990
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Food scraps make up 25 billion pounds of trash per year in this country—captured energy that could go back into greening the planet.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/COCO


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A wilted broccoli stalk, a grapefruit peel, a carrot top. That's energy—solidified sunlight—you're throwing out with the rest of the trash and entombing in another too-full landfill. Energy that could be turned into compost for houseplants, ornamentals or the home garden. By placing composted vegetable scraps from your garden back into your garden, you have created the smallest and simplest recycling loop—without making a single trip to the local recycling center.

Are you hesitant? Does it sound like a messy job, only for those dedicated gardeners with monstrous compost piles? Then let us offer for your consideration four effective, tidy composting methods to convert your food waste to soil builder.

The Trench Compost Method

If you have a garden, you can bury your scraps right there and let them compost underground. Just keep your kitchen scraps in a plastic bucket with a lid.

Potato peels, citrus rinds, greens, leftover vegetables, eggshells and bread—just about any nonmeat food residues can be easily composted. Whenever the bucket starts to get full, take it out to the garden, dig a ditch between the rows of one of your crops or in a currently unused bed, dump the garbage in and cover it up. The scraps will decompose in situ and add their nutrients to the soil.

You wouldn't want to plant directly above a trench-composted area for six weeks or so, until the leftovers have had a chance to compost, but growing crops don't mind a few scraps between their rows.

This is the simplest and most direct way for home gardeners to recycle their food wastes. It only has one hitch: winter. It's pretty hard to trench compost in December if you live in an area where the ground freezes.

Disposal Composting

This composter consists of two cylinders made from drainage tiles, buried to three-quarter depth. You simply take your food scraps outside and dump them in one of the tile disposals. When it's full, start on the other. By the time the second one loads up, the contents of the original tile should have decomposed to usable humus.

First round up a pair of 18"-diameter clay drain tiles (available at many building-supply stores. Then, for each tile, dig a wide hole in well-drained ground. Line the bottom of the opening with brick, cement or scrap metal—you'll need to leave a few gaps for drainage, but make them small enough to exclude vermin. Slide the tile in and backfill.

Each disposal will need a lid. These are easily made from two nailed-together circles of wood—one that fits in, to plug the tile, and one that fits over it.

Indoor Compost

This one is a boon for the apartment dweller, because it doesn't require a yard or garden. It does, however, call for a modicum of daily chopping and stirring.

We learned about it from Ellie Pruess, a wonderful Virginia gardener who taught a holistic gardening seminar for MOTHER back in 1980. Here's how Ellie described her method:

Vegetables and houseplants will thrive on the balcony of a city apartment if they're given homemade compost. And preparing the plant food (which is much easier than making bread) requires only a few minutes a day.

You'll need two waterproof containers (each large enough to hold about a three-week supply of kitchen waste), a stirring stick and a small bucket of unsterilized soil from a friend's garden.

The kitchen wastes should be chopped fine or ground in a blender or food processor. This mash must then be drained (if wet) and, once a day, put in the bucket and sprinkled with a layer of garden soil. Next, the mixture is thoroughly stirred to aerate it. (This last step is important because it introduces oxygen, which will keep the odor-causing anaerobic bacteria from multiplying.)

After about two weeks, stop adding fresh garbage and start a new pail in the same way. Give the first batch a stir every day, all the way to the bottom of the pail. After another two weeks, it will be transformed into a rich, crumbly compost…smelling good and ready to put on your potted plants.

If fruit flies become a problem, diatomaceous earth may be sprinkled over the surface immediately after stirring, or a rotenone spray may be applied.

A rank smell emanating from your compost pail means you are probably culturing the wrong kind of bacteria. This could be caused by waterlogging (which shuts out air). Drain any moisture from the pail and stir the compost thoroughly to fluff it up.

On the other hand, if your compost gets too dry, the whole process of decomposition will stop. So keep it damp, but not soggy.

Once your first batch is finished, you'll no longer need topsoil in order to make new compost: Just add a sprinkling, each day, of the previous batch to get the right bacteria started.

With two containers going, you'll have a continuous supply of compost year-round. And, if you make more than you can use, just wrap it up in pretty paper and give it as a gift to a gardening friend.

Vermicompost: Worm Power

Now for the one option that requires real courage: Letting worms eat your garbage. Keep an indoor worm bin (in the pantry, under a counter, in the basement, and feed the inhabitants your daily refuse.

Consider the advantages: Silent. Odorless. Low maintenance. And what do you get? Premium vermicompost, the plant booster par excellence. Throw your vegetable waste in the bin once or twice a week. Then, every few months, harvest the compost and add some new bedding to replace it.

Though running an indoor worm farm is a snap, setting it up does take some effort. To get started, keep your kitchen waste in a bucket for a couple of weeks, then weigh it to figure out how many pounds of garbage you produce each week. Your worm bin should provide approximately one square foot of surface per pound of garbage you'll bury each week. An 8" × 2' × 2' box (a four-pounder) will do for most one- or two-person households.

Build your box out of exterior-grade plywood (make it wide, not tall: The worms you'll use are surface feeders. Drill nine 1/2" drainage holes in the bottom, and prop the bin up slightly on blocks. Shred enough paper newsprint, computer printout or corrugated cardboard to fill the bin. (Leaf mold also works. You might add some peat moss to the paper to aid moisture retention. Weigh the bedding and add three pounds of water per pound of paper to give the material a 75% moisture content. For instance, an 8" × 2' × 4" box requires 5 1/3 pounds of dry bedding, hence 16 pounds of water (about two gallons). Then mix in a couple of handfuls of soil to give the crawlers some grit.

You're ready for worms, which you can order by mail. Go for red wrigglers (Eisenia foetida or Lumbricus rubellus). You'll want two pounds of worms for every pound of garbage you produce a day. Once you've added the worms, cover the surface of the box loosely with black plastic.

That's it. Now all you do is dump your garbage into the bin regularly: You can dig a hole and bury it or spread it on top. Add a little water if the bedding is dry. After a couple of months, when the bed's become mostly dark castings (worm manure), it's time to harvest some vermicompost. Take most of it out, worms and all, replacing it with fresh bedding, and use the compost in your garden. Or shove all the castings to one side and put clean, moist bedding on the other. Most of the worms will migrate to the new territory in a week or two. Then you can harvest and use the relatively uninhabited plant booster.

Food scraps are just fifth on the list of our country's greatest trash sources (behind paper products, yard waste, metals and glass). And they add up—over 100 pounds per person a year for a national total of 25 billion pounds a year. That's 25 billion pounds of solidified sunlight, captured in carbon, ready and waiting to clutter a landfill—or go back into the greening of the planet.


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