Mother Earth Living

Compost at Home: Tips for Composting and Vermicomposting

Recycle kitchen scraps to help the planet—and your garden.
By Barbara Pleasant
January/February 2011
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Worms rapidly decompose food and yard waste into potent, nutrient-rich vermicast, or worm castings.
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Americans recycled just 3 percent of the 32 million tons of food scrap waste we produced in 2008. Put your kitchen scraps to work to help the planet—and your garden.  

An easy way to make a big difference. Yard trimmings and food residuals constitute 26 percent of municipal solid waste, according to the EPA. In the landfill, these easily recycled materials rot from lack of air, creating methane, a nasty greenhouse gas. By breaking down those materials on-site, home gardeners eliminate both those greenhouse gases and the energy expended to haul and process organic waste. Plus, they get a super-duper soil amendment guaranteed to improve plant health and production.

Join in the fun. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can use compost for potted plants or give it to a neighborhood gardener or community garden. For a list of likely takers, visit www.localharvest.org or www.communitygarden.org.

Ultra-Easy Compost 

Compost helps plants grow by improving soil’s structure, water-holding capacity and nutrient content.

1. Set a commercial or homemade composter on the ground in an easily accessible place. For a simple, inexpensive open bin, make a circle about 3 or 4 feet in diameter out of 3-to-4-foot-high wire garden fencing.

2. Place a 4-inch layer of stemmy plants, sticks or other coarse material in the bottom of the bin. As they become available, add kitchen wastes, dead plants, grass clippings and chopped leaves. Add water as often as needed to keep the material moist but not soggy (like a wrung-out sponge).

3. Turning the pile is helpful but optional. If you choose to turn, lift off the composter or bin and set it next to the pile. Use a shovel or pitchfork to move the pile back into the composter.

4. The compost is ready to use when you can no longer recognize the original ingredients. Until you use it in your garden, keep finished compost covered to prevent rain from leaching out nutrients.

Compost Troubleshooting 

• Bad odors signify that the heap is too wet or contains excessive green material. Turn to mix in air, and add more dry material such as hay or cardboard.

• Maggots are the larvae of various flies; many are beneficial insects. If you prefer to
minimize flies’ egg-laying, keep fresh kitchen trimmings buried.

• Ants are a sign that the material is too dry. Add water and cover the heap with straw, grass clippings or a piece of cloth to help it retain moisture.

Add 

Hay, plant material
Fruit, vegetable scraps
Grass clippings
Herbivore manure
Paper or cardboard

Do Not Add 

Meat scraps
Fatty, sugary, salty foods
Treated wood scrap
Herbicide-treated grass
Omnivorous manure

Vermicomposting 

Worm your way in. You can build an outdoor compost pile composed of yard waste and vegetable trimmings or an indoor vermicompost bin—that’s composting with worms. Several products help reduce compost maintenance. Compost tumblers make pile-turning easy. Indoor compost crocks are a convenient way to hold kitchen waste until you can add it to your pile.

You can name him fluffy. Worms in a vermicompost bin are the quietest, least demanding pets you will ever keep. Aspiring vermicomposters can purchase a starter herd of red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), a species well suited to the mission and conditions in contained bins.

Ultra-Easy Vermicompost 

Worms rapidly decompose food and yard waste into potent, nutrient-rich vermicast, or worm castings.

1. You can buy a specially designed bin for worm composting or make your own by drilling about 30 holes around all sides of a 10- to 15-gallon plastic storage bin (to let in oxygen for the worms).

2. Fill the bin half full with damp newspaper and/or unwaxed cardboard, torn into small pieces. Add 1 pint gritty soil, 1 pint compost and 1 cup plain cornmeal. Mix and dampen well.

3. Add worms and secure lid. Keep in a cool spot such as a basement with temperatures from 55 to 75 degrees.

4. When adding food scraps, bury them in different parts of the bin. Cover them with 1 inch of bedding.

5. To harvest vermicast, scoop out several handfuls of material from the bottom of the bin and place it in a cone-shape pile in a bucket under bright lights. After two hours, the worms will have moved to the bottom, and you can pick up the top two-thirds of the material. Return the worms to the bin or release them.

Vermicompost Troubleshooting 

• Fungus Gnats and Fruit Flies: Bury new materials to prevent fungus gnats and fruit flies from feeding on rotting vegetation. If gnats are present when you open the lid, collect them with a vacuum cleaner. You can collect and remove larvae by putting raw potato cubes near the surface for 48 hours. Throw the used potato baits into your outdoor heap.

• Potworms are tiny white worms that sometimes proliferate after new bedding is added. They will not hurt your vermicompost.

• Runaway worms indicate overpopulation or overly wet conditions. Add dry bedding or release some worms into your garden.

Add  

Fruit, vegetable scraps
Breads, cereals, rice
Green grass clippings
Coffee grounds
Whole tea bags
Waste paper, moistened

Do Not Add 

Citrus peels
Spicy peppers
Pungent onions
Meat scraps
Oily or greasy foods
Sugary or salty foods

Resources 

Clean Air Gardening 
compost bins, tumblers, crocks

Earth Machine 
compost bins

Mantis 
compost tumbler

Natural Home 
compost crock, vermicompost system

NatureMill 
automatic indoor composter

Reprinted with permission from Mother Earth News. 


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