Waste Not, Want Not

By Chandra Orr

July 3, 2008 4 min read

WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

Compost bin turns garbage into organic fertilizer

By Chandra Orr

Copley News Service

Container composting is an easy, economical, Earth-friendly project that your plants will thank you for next spring.

Made from decomposed organic matter, compost is Mother Nature's own fertilizer. The composting process transforms organic matter - like kitchen scraps - into a nutrient-rich material that improves soil by making food and water more accessible to plants.

Plant-based food waste breaks down into nutrients with the help of beneficial bacterial and organisms like worms. Those nutrients fuel future plants and make for healthier gardens, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Plus, it saves your scraps from ending up in a landfill.

"There may be plenty of room in your local landfill for your household trash, but it seems illogical to throw away perfectly good food scraps when you can use them to improve your soil," said naturalist Jennifer Papillo, environmental educator for Delaware State Parks. "Why spend money on fertilizers and bags of soil when you can use what you already have?"

It's easy and inexpensive to get a system started, according to Papillo. You'll need a large plastic storage bin, shredded newspaper, soil from your yard and some table scraps.

Include a balanced mix of brown and green matter. Fruits, vegetables, eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds and unbleached coffee filters all work well, as do leaves, weeds and grass clippings. Leave out meat, fish and animal waste as the rot will encourage unwanted bacteria to grow.

You'll also need worms to help break down the organic matter - but not any worm will do. Look for red wrigglers, which are smaller than the average earthworm. They will thrive in the small, close space of a container and reproduce quickly.

"The worm, whether it's the worm in your yard or a red wriggler, aerates the soil as it crawls around," Papillo explained. "It munches whatever is in front of it and its waste, or castings, are nutrient rich and crumbly - a great environment for a healthy plant."

Purchase worms from your local bait shop or buy in bulk online. Suppliers like Uncle Jim's Worm Farm (www.unclejimswormfarm.com) offer a range of options for buying worms in bulk. Expect to spend about $25 including shipping for 500 red wrigglers, which is plenty to get you started.

Drill quarter-inch drainage holes in the bottom of the container and air holes in the lid. If you plan to store the compost container indoors, you might also want a tray to catch the runoff, which makes a great fertilizer when diluted. Line the bottom of the bin with shredded newspaper - straw also works - then add alternating layers of soil, paper, kitchen scraps and worms.

Stir the mixture every few days and be sure to add more food regularly. If the compost looks too wet, add more newspaper and straw. If it develops fruit flies, take the lid off and let it air out for a day.

Then sit back and wait for the magic to happen. It will take about six months for the system to produce compost regularly. Start now and by spring you'll be ready to go.

"Once the compost is sufficiently decomposed and you don't recognize the original material, it's ready to be mixed into your plant beds," Papillo said. "You do not want to make a bed of just compost; it will kill your plants."

Not a do-it-yourselfer? You can still reap the benefits of at-home composting with a compact kitchen model like the NatureMill Automatic Composter ($300, www.naturemill.com), which automatically mixes, heats and aerates for virtually hands-free composting with no odor. About the size of a garbage pail, the unit accepts up to four pounds of organic waste per day, delivering a batch of high-nitrogen compost every two weeks. A red light tells you when it's ready.

? Copley News Service

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