By Sally Mccabe, PHS Associate Director of Community Education
My household of four generates about 2 gallons of garbage a week, more if it's a big cooking weekend. Recent studies report that at least 20% of what goes to landfills is food waste, and I steadfastly refuse to contribute to that. I also have a yard and garden that contribute a whole lot of brush, leaves, etc. To deal with that much organic matter, we have set up two different systems.
This system consists of dumping compost material into our outdoor compost bin, and simply throwing dead leaves on top of it. This technique is totally passive on my part, and the squirrels, raccoons, and other animals do whatever turning needs to get done. The compost material breaks down slowly through the action of bacteria and fungus. The resulting product adds texture and water-holding capacity to garden soil, continuing to break down and release nutrients over an extended period of time, like a gentle, slow-release fertilizer.
That is where all the big stuff goes—tree branches, dead plants, garden scraps, whole rotted veggies, fetid leftovers, citrus peels, and onion leavings.
A more select version of the smorgasbord of compost materials goes into System Two, a smaller bin to feed my hungry worms. The finished product here is a lot different; the process and cycle of worms eating, digesting, and pooping gives a much stronger form of compost (generally referred to as castings) where nutrients are much more concentrated—like nature’s form of Miracle Grow.
Red wrigglers or wigglers (Eisenia fetida), not earthworms, are most efficient at eating our garbage. Mail ordering wigglers from a reputable source gives you clean worms, though this option often does not come cheap. Getting a handful from someone else with a working bin gives you worms you know are happy and viable in your climate, already have a thriving culture of beneficial microcritters in their guts, and are FREE. Also free, however, come all the outriders a worm bin usually acquires over time, like mites, soldier flies, and pill bugs. If I’m starting a new bin, I usually start clean with a bag of 1000 worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm and then share with all my friends.
In the worm bin, start with equal portions of “greens” and “browns.” Greens include things like vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds and filters, teabags, and dead plant matter from houseplants. Browns include matter such as shredded paper and junk mail, paper egg cartons, cardboard, and dry leaves. Equally important, is what not to feed: Meats, bones, fat, and anything oily or greasy, dairy products, processed food, large quantities of citrus or garlic/onions, yard trimmings that have been treated with pesticides, glossy or coated paper.
All other types of compost material can be put into a regular compost bin, and you can make your own decisions about whether your bin is enclosed or open, totally rodent-proof, elevated, moveable, or aesthetically pleasing.
Clean out your compost bin/pile at least once a year. This allows you to recover any tools you have inadvertently dropped in before they are totally ruined. Sift out the big pieces and add the rest directly to garden beds as mulch, in planting holes, or as side dressing; put the big pieces back in the bottom of the reset pile.
Harvest worm castings as needed by separating out the worms. There are lots of entertaining ways to accomplish this, and a quick web search asking “how to separate worms from castings” will reveal all this information and more. You can grab a couple cups from a working worm bin or do a total reset and store in buckets for later use, putting the worms into new bedding. I use mine by making compost tea, adding a scoop to my watering can, and pouring on both the plants and soil.
Both of my compost bins live outside most of the year, but the smaller bin with worms moves into my cellar when the temperature threatens to go below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, the worms will survive these cold temperatures, but why torture them? When temperatures begin to rise again, I do a total reset before returning the bin outdoors and use the castings as I plant my spring garden.
Composting with worms is a great, cost-effective way to produce nutrient-dense, organic matter for your garden that can serve a multitude of purposes. Following the best practices outlined here will get your compost bin off to a great start – and come spring, will help you kickstart your garden.
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