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Let Worms Work Magic With Your Kitchen Waste!

Q. My husband and I are vegan and produce TONS of kitchen waste; much more than the average household. I know that in order to compost all this stuff, I'd need lots of carbon-based brown material. I think the ratio is 3/4 brown to 1/4 green stuff, right? Anyway, I don't have that many leaves; and we're toting a gallon of veggie scraps out of the kitchen every day! What can I do with it all?! So far I've just been digging a hole in the yard and burying the stuff every day. I know that's better than sending it to the landfill, but I'm not really getting the benefit of the composted material. I don't want to dig holes in my veggie beds and bury it in there; it would disturb my plant roots. And I'm not sure my beds should contain any uncomposted material. Can you help???
    ---Joann, from Crawfordville, Florida
A. Good for you, Joann; wanting to make use of all that material really complements your vegan philosophy. And you are correct that you're pretty much wasting it now. And it sounds like you've been listening to my warnings about trying to compost green waste without a lot of brown material in the mix. (And yes, your ratio of ¾ brown to ¼ green would work well, as long as it's all mixed and well shredded.)

Now, there is an old technique somewhat like the idea you've rejected. Known as 'sheet composting', it consists of spreading vegetative waste directly on empty gardening beds and covering it with soil. I've never liked the idea, but some folks swear by it. (Garden writer Patricia Lanza adapted the concept for her wildly popular "Lasagna Gardening" books, in which she advocated layering different materials on top of weed-blocking newspaper to create fertile soil.)

But I believe in good old fashioned composting. I spent November shredding what may be a record number of fall leaves on my landscape—so many leaves that for the first time in years I didn't trashpick a single bag from strangers, which makes me feel oddly sad right now. But I didn't need them; I have more than enough of my own to compost a year's worth of our kitchen garbage and green garden waste. And I have five large sealed composting units to accept the kitchen waste component safely: Three recycled black plastic units, a big spinner on a spindle and a massive tumbler you turn with a handle.

Sure, I also have a dozen or so open bins made of old fencing, but the only kitchen waste they'll receive is spent coffee grounds. I don't want to attract rats, raccoons and other vermin to my compost corral, and so all the other kitchen waste goes only into sealed composing units. (And your location—right by Tallahassee—strongly suggests that you host a menagerie of much more exotic outdoor creatures, making garbage discretion even more of a necessity.)

Plus, as I often point out, coffee grounds are pretty much the only kitchen waste that contributes much nutrition to a compost pile. Even when properly done, mixing everyday garbage into a traditional pile is more feel-good recycling than fertilizer making.

But that waste won't go to waste if you move on up to worms! Those helpful digesters of all things organic CAN make black gold out of your old apple cores and lettuce leaves. With the right kind of worms and a good set up, our listener can turn her enormity of leftovers into all the fertilizer her Southern garden needs; which is double what I need for my Northern plots, thanks to her longer growing season and climate that uses up organic matter at twice my pace.

But don't listen to wormless me; take your advice from this fine testimonial about the virtues of vermiculture we recently received from a listener named Marilyn in Houston:

"Worm composting can be done in bins little or large. You can buy bins from plain to super-fancy, including ones that allow the worms to move from lower to upper trays. Handy folks can even make their own bins. All you need is some carbonaceous bedding—shredded black and white newspaper or coir fiber—to mix with your garbage.

"Here in Texas, my red wiggler (Eisinia foetida) worms have made it safely through a couple nights of 20 degree weather outdoors. (In colder areas, outdoor bins have to be moved into a garage or basement for the winter, or simply be kept indoors all the time.) My worms have also survived summertime temperatures as high as 105 degrees outside; you just need to make sure their homes are in full shade.

"When you compost this way, you harvest extra worms as well as their wonderful castings. Give those extra wigglers away to recruit friends to start their own bins. I harvest my castings and extra worms about every two months; I just clean out half the bin and add fresh material to replace it.

"I filled my first bin with ¾ tore up newspaper wet to the moistness of a wrung-out sponge, added a little bucket of garbage and tossed in my pound of 'starter worms'. Once they got going, I found I could add a bucket of garbage every few days. After less than a month that garbage and paper were starting to look like rich, black soil.

"Worm composting is fascinating for kids. They love to visit the worms, bury the garbage, and harvest the results. Worm bins can be the stuff of scientific investigations and science projects. For ease of use, getting compost really fast, and having fun being green, this is my favorite way of composting."

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