Saturday, November 26, 2011

Recycle those leftovers – Composting

My daughter displaying our finished
compost bin.
For a long time, my husband has been lamenting our inability to have a compost heap due to our frequent military moves.  Having been raised by gardeners it is hard for him to throw our leftovers in the garbage (of which we have tons due to picky kids).  When I found this great idea for a stink free and small scale compost bin, I knew we had to give it a try.  Our bin became a fun family project, and it is all set up in our back yard waiting for tonight’s leftovers.  I can’t wait to show the kids how the things that we throw away become nutritious soil for us to use in our garden next year. 

Parent Background
Why Compost?   Did you know that 27% of the solid waste that goes in landfills is compostable items that could be used to make wonderful rich soils that have wonderful benefits for your landscaping and garden.  At the same time that we are throwing away all of these items that we could easily recycle on our own, we are spending money to purchase chemical fertilizers that we just don’t know are truly safe.  Now this backyard composting activity is most certainly not going to remove all 27% of those food scraps and yard waste from the waste stream, but it can give our children a small start to learn how composting works, and to produce some great organic (and free) fertilizer to use around our own homes.  Composting is easy, unpleasant odor-free when done correctly, and it’s even fun to see what can happen to the scraps we do not eat.  This activity can produce a tiny amount of compost for a potted plant in an apartment, or a larger amount for a whole garden depending how big of a container you use.
The Activity – Make your own mini-composting bin. 
Any plastic bin with a tight fitting lid with a greater than 16 in length.  (We chose a larger-size tote box to allow us to make more soil and because we already had a cracked one ready to be upcycled)

Drill or knife
Brown or Dry materials such as fall leaves, dried grass clippings, shredded newspaper, cut up cardboard, used paper towels, dried flowers.

Wet stuff – weeds that do not have seeds yet(adding weeds that have seeded will just spread weeds to whatever you use the compost on), fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps from food preparation or left overs, coffee grounds, tea bags (remove staple), egg shells, plants.

Items to avoid:  Meat, bones, fats, oils, breads, pasta, nuts, glossy paper, and animal or human wastes.  Though some of these items can be composted, it is best to avoid them in small scale composting.
1.        Prepare your composting bin by drilling holes for ventilation and drainage. 
a.       Drill at least 4  ¼”-1/2” holes in the bottom of the plastic bin.  We made holes in each corner and then a couple of smaller ones in the middle for drainage.
b.      Poke holes along the top of the bin at least every 3 inches.  Our holes were about ¼” .  Make a series of 10-12 holes through the lid of the plastic bin also to provide further aeration.  It is recommended to make the holes ¼”-1/2” also.
c.       If you find later that your compost is developing a smell you can add more holes, as a bad odor is usually the result of not enough air getting into the compost.
2.       Place a bottom layer of dry materials filling up about ¼ -1/2 of the bin.
The kids tearing up old newspaper for
the bottom layer of the compost bin.
3.       Layer dry and “wet” items trying to keep the mix from at least 50% dry materials.

4.       Stir or thoroughly shake the compost bin every couple of days for the first month and then every week to two weeks as the compost develops.
5.        After the first two weeks the compost should be warmer than the outside temperature as a result of the process of bacteria breaking down the plant materials in the compost.  If the compost is no longer warm to the touch on the inside, you should add more wet materials and stir it in. 

The kids shaking up the
box of dried materials.
6.       This compost bin can be kept inside depending on the size, but should be exposed to some sunlight and moisture to help the decomposition process.

7.       Within 4- 6 months depending on the temperature where you live, you will have rich soil to put on your spring plantings as well as a number of opportunities for your child to explore and observe nature’s ability to recycle.
Tying it all Together
Dry materials in the compost bin - grasses,
leaves, old newspaper.
Make sure to let your child help you to set up the compost bin.  Stirring the compost together is a wonderful job to allow a toddler or a preschooler to assist with and it will give them a change to see the soil as it changes throughout the winter and to know that they helped to make this wonderful food for their plants next year.  Involving kids in gardening is a wonderful way to help picky eaters learn to eat their vegetables, and making their own soil helps them to start at the “ground” floor and see the whole cycle of how our earth provides the things we eat.   

I look forward to reporting on the progress of our compost bin throughout the year, I hope that you will start your own with your family and swap stories with me.

1/5/2012  Update.  After about 3 weeks our compost bin was getting pretty full from all the veggies and fruits in our diet.  The kids LOVED taking the compost out every day (we kept a coffee can in the kitchen) and stirring up the compost.  After we finished adding to it, I kind of fell down on the job of stirring it up regularly.  Today, I went out to check and found some good and bad results.  First there is no smell whatsoever, so we are going well at keeping good bacteria going.  We did have quite the flock of fruit flies but luckily no large bug colony.  After reading, it seems like it is a bit wet in there and that I may have added to many greens and need more of the dry stuff.  Obviously some of the compost has already broken down because there was more space than before.  I added some additional dry leaves from our forested backyard and will be putting some newspaper shreds in as well.  Lastly there was quite a bit of fuzzy mold, it didn't look like it would eat me, but it was there.  I wasn't sure, but I am told that mold isn't neccessarily a bad thing, just part of the breaking down process.  I'll update again soon.