CYL How To: Turning food scraps into gold: Household Food Scrap Composting

So we learned from this quarter’s Life’s Little Secrets segment that completing the ‘Circle of Life’ is essential for a perpetually healthy and fertile system. We often forget what the actual purpose of a fruit or vegetable is. It should fall to the ground and begin to biodegrade, leaving the seeds in a fertile pocket left by the microorganisms that devoured it. We break the ‘Circle’ when we take all of the fruit that would more than replenish the soil. So what can we do?

Compost our scraps and give it back to the soil. The beautiful thing is by composting the produce, paper, cardboard and other recyclables we purchase, we can put far more into our soil than we take from it. So here are some vital tips for anyone ready to help their land feed itself. There are many ways to compost and for different purposes. This is how to turn you household food scraps into next year’s bountiful harvest. We will be covering other forms of composting in later CYL How To blogs.

First, understand that there are foods for the various fauna that exist in healthy soil. Having the right quantity of browns, greens, high nitrogen, oxygen and moisture will dictate how healthy your compost will be for the garden of your choice. Brown materials are primarily fungal foods. Green and high nitrogen materials, are primarily bacterial foods, and the water and oxygen are to keep the organisms we want to thrive in our pile alive.

Here is a list of things that are considered brown materials for your compost heap:
Fallen leaves, branches or wood chips ¼ inch to 3 inches in diameter, straw or other plant stalk materials from the garden, pine needles, bark, paper, cardboard cut into strips, and saw dust.

Green materials for your compost heap are clover, vegetable scraps, egg shells, fruit waste, general garden waste (clippings), green leaves, and two that are brown in color... coffee grounds and peanut shells.

High nitrogen materials include aged chicken manure, alfalfa, fresh grass clippings, seaweed, cow and horse manure, and meat*.

First you will need to source enough scraps to make an entire heap or pile so that as you add your scraps over time it will be warm/cool enough in the center for microbes and other decomposers to eat away at your freshest scraps. The pile should be 3.5 feet tall and the base of the pile should have a diameter at least 4 feet. The pile should consist of 50% browns and 50% greens… no more than 2% high nitrogen if you have some that you don’t want to waste. Layer one on top of the other. Remember that oxygen must flow through the pile. Air-pockets are the most important attribute of a healthy compost pile. That means mixing wood chips into greens that will collapse as they decompose.

Things to avoid:
  1. Compacting your pile and not allowing oxygen to penetrate all the way into the heap.
  2. *Meat and dairy until you get more experience in composting, so your first try is not marred by animals spreading your pile throughout the yard.
  3. Weeds. It is not optimal, in this kind of pile, to compost weeds especially if they have gone to seed. Using this method, they will not become sterilized and will likely sprout up when you use your finished compost.
  4. Over-saturating or allowing too much water into your compost heap.
  5. If you want to use any freshly-cut grass, avoid grass from artificially manicured properties. You don’t want the residues from lawn chemicals in your heap.

Once your pile is established, you can water it gently. Put a tarp over it (to have control of water saturation) and let it sit for a week. Now you can begin to put your new food scraps in. Dig a hole 2 feet into the pile, put your scraps in, and fill the hole back in. Leave a flag or some object in the place where you put your last scrap in so you will know where to put your next batch of scraps in. I typically move clockwise so I don’t disturb my recent additions.

  • If you have any beautiful healthy soil and worms do not hesitate to add it to this pile.
  • Using a tarp helps keep moisture in or out as needed. To determine if you should add water, grab a handful of the compost (from at least 8 inches into the pile) and squeeze it in your hand. You should see a single drop of water between your clenched fingers. This represents the perfect 50% saturation levels that optimum compost requires. More than that, you should leave the tarp off on non-rainy days and use a pitch fork to help oxygen get deeper and help dry the pile. If your pile contains less than that you should spray gently with a hose or watering can. Again do not put too much water so you can let it sit longer before watering again. Too much water is worse than too little.
  • Your compost should smell faintly sweet. If your pile smells bad that means you do not have enough oxygen in the pile. That smell is the nutrients you want to be left in the pile being released as a gas by microbes that thrive in only low-oxygen (anaerobic) conditions.
  • This pile takes 6 months to a year to mature.
  • If you reach the limit of space for your pile you can add some small quantities of high nitrogen and turn it regularly to accelerate the pile to maturity.

    Benjamin Friton
    Co-Founder and Chief of Research & Development