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Composting Kitchen Waste Can Be Tricky!

Q. We recently received a nice letter from our neighbor concerning our compost heap. Their lovely backyard arbor is nearby, they're complaining about the smell and flies and would like us to move it to another location. We have been applying lime (obviously not enough) and I would like to keep the heap as organic as possible since it will go into our organic garden next summer. What can we use to help the food scraps decompose more quickly? We could put the scraps into the garden now but I'm concerned about the lime.

    ---Beth-Ann in Holland, Pa.

A. Sounds like you guys made rookie mistake #1: Trying to compost ONLY food scraps. As I explain in my now almost-best-selling "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost", (soon-to-be ten thousand copies sold; yay!) you can make black gold with shredded leaves alone, but not with just garbage. The tiny brochures that come with compost bins typically only contain lists of 'put this in' and 'don't put this in'. But they fail to explain that shredded brown materials (ideally fall leaves) should make up the vast majority of the raw ingredients, as they are pretty much the only part that actually becomes finished compost. Kitchen scraps and other 'wet greens' mostly just feed the microorganisms that fuel the process.

And most kitchen waste is so low in nitrogen it doesn't contribute much to that process. Coffee grounds and spoiled string beans, peas, and soybeans are the only kitchen waste I can think of that's nitrogen rich enough to matter; and again, they're only good at their job if the vast majority of the pile—90% or better—is shredded leaves. It sounds like you have wonderful neighbors if their letter about your accidental landfill was pleasant.

Oh, and lime should never be added. If compost-in-progress smells bad or attracts flies, you're doing it wrong. Raw garbage shouldn't be added to the garden either; it attracts vermin, smells bad, and has little-to-no nutritional value. I suggest you apologize to your nice neighbors, assure them that any future endeavors will consist of only (or mostly) shredded leaves, and clean up what's currently there. And don't feel bad; a lot of people make this mistake, and you clearly had good intentions.

Q. Mike: I've almost finished your "Book of Compost", which has answered a lot of questions. But one thing I'm not sure of: How do I store my wet green kitchen stuff until I have enough to start a new pile? I asked some people who compost around here, and they say they don't use their kitchen waste. That seems like, well, a waste!

    ---Kelly in Royal Oak, MI

A. As far as garden nutrition goes, it's less of a waste than people think, Kel. The desire to do something useful with their kitchen garbage brings many people to composting, but such recycling mostly just improves our carbon and waste-disposal footprints; it doesn't bring much to the garden.

Now, I personally DO recycle every scrap of our kitchen waste, but it takes some room and prep work—beginning in the fall, when I shred lots of leaves for compost making and mulch; and bags and piles of extra leaves for the year to come.

Then comes The System: We keep a little quart-sized bucket on the kitchen counter for people to deposit their tea bags, coffee grounds, fruit and veggie waste and such. When that gets full, I take it to a galvanized 'slop can' outside (a miniature metal trash can with a locking lid that makes the raccoons have to work for their dinner). When THAT gets full I haul it over to a pile in my compost area that's still mostly shredded leaves, mix the waste in well and cover it with lots of 'fresh' shredded leaves. It looks like it holds five gallons or so, and that's about as big as I'd recommend; this stuff gets heavy fast!

Anything fruit-rich or otherwise wildlife tempting goes into either my big metal tumbler, plastic spinner or one of my four black plastic units with locking lids. These black units, made of heavy recycled plastic, come in two shapes: The fat, round Earth Machine types (sometimes offered to residents by local Extension offices after composting workshops), and rectangular versions, like Gardens Alive's "Digester." Both work great; but the rectangular ones are a better choice in tight quarters as their shape allows them to slide neatly into a smaller space. And they look really cool lined up next to each other—so people with a little bit more space could acquire several and then be able to add kitchen waste to their own 'Fantastic Four' in sequence over the winter (as long as they have the requisite leaf horde handy).

But Michigan winters are truly frigid. And even my Pennsylvania slop can freeze solid outside, often requiring me to bring the can indoors to warm up for a day before I can empty it in the winter (yes, you can send a sympathy card to my wife on this one). And the composting process itself stops cold when its that, well...cold...out. So here's perhaps a better answer for those who are only/mostly composting kitchen waste and/or those in cold climes:

Q. My husband and I are considering using worms to turn our kitchen waste into garden fertilizer. Is 'vermicompost' better than regular compost? And is it as easy as sounds?

    ---Carol; outside of Philly, but inside PA

A. I think indoor worm bins are The Bees's Knees, Carol! You don't ever have to take your garbage outside; you don't need to horde bags of leaves; and the castings produced by the specialized redworms in these bins are superior to even the best yard waste compost.

You buy the worms (just once; they'll 'breed' for you after that), build or buy the bin, fill it with bedding (typically shredded newsprint, although I think that shredded leaves would make for platinum-level castings!) and then add your garbage to a certain section. When that area is done, you push it to the side, harvest the finished castings, put in fresh bedding and keep on keeping on. There are many styles and sizes of bins out there—and no; they don't smell!

Do a little research, maybe get a copy of Mary Applehoff's classic book, "Worms eat My Garbage", and give it a try!

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