Composting 101: Green Your Garden and Minimize Food Waste All At Once

October 22, 2015
by Michelle Pellizzon for Thrive Market
Composting 101: Green Your Garden and Minimize Food Waste All At Once

"The worms go crazy," Cassie Martinez laughs. "And kids are obsessed." 

Martinez knows a lot about kids and worms. She's the Director of the Garden School Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization that teaches underserved kids in outdoor classrooms. And composting? It's kind of their jam.

"We do a bunch of different types of composting at our schools, but our most popular is worm composting. Basically, you dump the worms on top of the pile of organic material and let them do all the work!" If you're new to composting, the idea of unleashing hundreds of worms on your trash might sound weird, and a little gross.

But that's what composting is—recycling organic material to help deliver more nutrients to topsoil, which makes it easier to grow and fertilize a garden. The best part? You already have pretty much everything you need in order to create a healthy and fertile compost pile.

First, the ingredients in a compost. Piles are made of brown ingredients—think dead leaves, wood chips, and shredded paper—and green ingredients. Green matter is the stuff that's alive, like green leaves, grass clippings, fruit and veggies, and kitchen scraps. Most compost piles have a ratio of two parts brown matter to one part green matter.

One word of caution: Don't throw meat, oils, cheese, or high amounts of citrus peels into a compost. It can cause rot and mold, which is the opposite of what you want in your garden. According to Martinez, "Too much citrus can create an acidic soil, which is unhealthy for any worms or bugs that help break down the organic matter. Plus, acidic soil can be difficult to grow in."

Depending on how patient you are, there are a few different types of composting.

For those who prefer to sit back and let the magic happen, cold composting is the way to go. It takes one to two years to yield usable compost that will help nurture plants, but it's too easy of a process to hate on how long it takes. All there is to do? Add materials in a 2:1 ratio to the pile, adding more and more over time, and eventually it'll evolve into nutrient-dense soil.

Don't want to twiddle your green thumbs for two years? Try hot composting.

Yes, hot. Temps inside a good pile will get up to 130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit as the organic matter breaks down over the course of six to eight weeks (about how long this process takes). The high internal temperature also ensures that weed seeds and disease pathogens will die, which means that they won't jeopardize the health of the rest of your garden.

How does it work? First, you'll need a lot more matter to begin a hot compost; try to start with a three-foot pile of composting materials. To begin your project, dig a deep hole in the ground, or make or buy a special trough made out of wood to hold your compost. Other materials like plastic fall apart pretty quickly.

Mix in two parts brown material to one part green material, and use a rake to bring them together. The compost pile should be wet to the touch, so use a hose to get the desired moisture—some compare the feeling to that of a damp sponge. You'll need to wet it down periodically with a hose and turn the compost to allow oxygen in to the pile to help it breakdown.

When the pile is really working, it will feel warm to the touch and the interior will get up to those 130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. That heat occurs naturally as a result of organic materials breaking down. As the soil comes to a finish and everything is broken down, it will stop "cooking" and will drop to a normal temp—you'll know your compost is done because it looks, smells, and feels like very dark soil.

Want an even quicker turnaround time for fresh, beautiful soil? Take a cue from the Garden School Foundation and enlist the help of worms. As Martinez says, they do all the work for you. All you have to do is give them a healthy place to live, full of organic compounds, and they'll naturally break down your scraps into nutrient-dense soil!

Composting is an easy way to reuse and recycle old food scraps, and an inexpensive way to treat your garden. For more information about gardening and composting, head to the Garden School Foundation's website. 

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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This article is related to: DIY, Gardening, Eco-Friendly, Tips, Composting

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