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Does Kitchen Waste Belong in a Compost Pile?


Q. I recently heard you advise a listener to not bother putting kitchen scraps in her compost pile because they add little to the finished compost and slow the process down. But our earth and our gardens need us to compost more of our waste—as much as possible. How about multiple compost piles—one for a quicker, more finished compost, and another just for compostable kitchen scraps? Landfills aren't good for our gardens, and the earth itself is a gigantic garden.
    ---Cynthia in Smyrna, TN (a suburb of Nashville)
I built a compost pile for my shredded fall leaves and kitchen waste last autumn, and have continued to add our kitchen waste to the compost bin since then. Is that OK? If not, what would you recommend I do with all the veggie scraps and coffee grounds I continue to accumulate throughout the year?
    ---Linda in Auburn, AL
I've been using one of those big black recycled plastic composters for three years now, and am generally happy with it. I 'slow compost', adding kitchen greens, shredded leaves and coffee grounds through the year. When the composter is full, I remove the material, allow it to continue composting in a pile and start another batch in the composter. But this summer there are hundreds of grey-white segmented larvae happily wiggling around in the composter. Any idea what they are? Should I worry? And should I follow my regular plan of moving this batch into a pile and starting a new batch in the composter?
    ---Claudia in Mount Holly, NJ
A. I told Claudia that her new pets could be the larvae of almost any fly—most likely the predatory robber fly or pestiferous house fly—and that, yes, she should dump it all into an open pile and let Nature take it from there.

Now, I tend to associate such creepy crawly visitors with a compost pile that's way too heavy on the kitchen scraps, and asked about her mix of materials. "I am overwhelming the composter with green waste," she replied after reading a few of our previous articles on the subject. But what can I do? I don't want to put our kitchen waste into a landfill!"

Of course, I agree 100% with Claudia and Cynthia; we should not be sending kitchen waste (with the exception of meat, fat, bones and other non-vegetative material) to the landfill. But as I have explained (more like 'pleaded') many times in the past, we shouldn't be filling composters with lots of garbage either. Two big reasons: With the exception of coffee grounds—which are very nutrient-rich and help make super-excellent compost—our kitchen waste adds almost no actual nutrition to the finished compost. And, more importantly, composters that are overwhelmed with kitchen waste don't compost—they just sit there, stinking up the joint and attracting flies, rats and other vermin.

When Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale first began to popularize composting in the early 1940's, they stressed that the act was an "imitation of Nature". In Nature, deciduous trees and shrubs drop their leaves to the ground, where wind, weather, animals and insects shred them up. Small amounts of animal and bird manure are naturally added to the mix, along with the spent remains of green plants and other forest litter. Nature does NOT pile up big stinking heaps of apple cores, lettuce leaves, broccoli stalks, pizza crusts and tea bags.

Now, this doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't divert your kitchen waste. You can and you should. But you need to be thoughtful about how you do it.

One way—perhaps the best way—is with specialized worms; redworms to be precise. In the right kind of bin, redworms + bedding (shredded black and white newspaper, shredded fall leaves or other 'brown', carbon-rich material) can turn ordinary kitchen waste into nutrient rich worm castings, which look like compost but are even better for your plants. If you can't, won't or aren't able to collect and shred large amounts of leaves to mix your kitchen waste into outdoors, worms are the way to go. They're really the only rational option for apartment dwellers or others without land; and a well-kept bin is a delight.

But worm bins should not be free handed. You are welcome to make your own bin, but learn the needs of the worms—things like aeration and drainage—first. (The emails I've received from people who didn't research bin-making in advance are too lurid to read on the air.) In addition, worm bins are generally for indoor use only; they can't be left outside in areas with freezing winters or placed in direct sun.

Now I really like our listeners to succeed on the first try. So if this sounds like your kind of solution, buy your first bin, buy a batch of starter worms (or get some from a friend who's already doing it; they'll have plenty to spare), and begin your adventures in vermiculture on sure footing. (Heck, try a bin even if you DO have lots of outside room and shredded leaves! I'm going to set up my first bin this month, so that I don't have to trudge through snow to recycle our kitchen waste in the dead of winter anymore.)

Otherwise (or in addition), get ready for Nature's greatest gift to gardeners and shred all the fall leaves that are beginning to come our way. Shredded leaves become compost much faster than whole leaves, and shredding reduces their volume dramatically—by at least a factor of 10, allowing you to bag up a big enough supply to process the next year's kitchen waste by composting via the batch method outdoors.

It's easy—just fill a bin with mostly shredded leaves, mixing some kitchen waste in as you go. (Don't 'layer' the different ingredients—mix them all up. Whoever starting telling people to layer their compost ingredients failed Physics 101.) When that container or pile is full, start a new batch with your saved leaves and most recent kitchen waste.

Repeat this wonderful process all fall, winter and Spring; because nobody ever got to September wishing they had made less compost!

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