So You Want to Start Composting
Composting does a lot of things: It reduces food waste, it’s good for the environment, and it teaches patience and humility. But there’s a lot of information out there that can be hard to synthesize, says certified NYC master composter and author Rebecca Louie. Knowing how to get started seems overwhelming, especially if you’re not quite sure what to expect and how much you can handle.
“There are so many interesting systems to learn and so many ways to process food waste,” says Louie. After training at the Queens Botanical Garden in New York City, Louie launched the Compostess, and today she does home composting consultations, group events, and private parties all in the name of vermiculture education. “I figured there were a lot of people who, like me, may not necessarily belong to a community garden or have a lot of time to volunteer their afternoons to go through 15,000 pounds of municipal food waste collected at a park but probably wanted to do what they could at home to make things a little bit better for the planet.” Her book, Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living, is full of at-home strategies and DIY guides to turn any space into a soil-enriching, climate-saving, waste-reducing composting system. And as Louie explains, it can be as low-stakes as you want yet still highly rewarding.
BEFORE YOU START
The first question you should consider when you begin, says Louie, is how much you want to deal with this. “So ask yourself: How much do I really want to do? Then take that goal and diminish it by 20 percent,” she says. “The idea is to succeed and do more, not go too big and fail.” Once you determine how much you want to do, the next questions are: How much food waste do we make in this house and how much space do we have? There are innovative ways to think about space and what is available to you. Many apartments have window boxes, terraces, or fire escapes where you can keep some sort of container. You don’t have to have a backyard with a huge bin or a pallet outdoors.”
CHOOSING YOUR METHOD
If you have outdoor space, dig a trench outside.
One of the easiest ways to start composting is to dig a deep hole or trench in the ground, drop in your fruit and vegetable peels, cover it with six to eight inches of soil, and let nature do its thing. “That’s the basic amount of effort,” says Louie. “If you want to be a little more hands-on, you can also look at different factors, which are the scrap materials, the soil ecosystem, and the temperature.” If it’s warm out or the trench is in full sun all day, you might pour a glass of water over it to add moisture and speed things along, but it can be a set-it-and-forget-it operation.
“For a trench, there’s no real need to harvest it because it’s already in situ,” says Louie. “You’ve put the nutrients where you want them to be, and the insects and microbes have already consumed them and pooped them out and dispersed them.”
If you want to do it inside, try a worm bin.
Vermicomposting is a popular method if you don’t have access to outdoor space. A pound of composting worms, called red wigglers, will eat about half their weight in food scraps in an ideal situation. “So you put them in a five-gallon storage bin, like a Sterilite, you drill some holes for air, and then you give them your food scraps,” says Louie.
This method requires a formula of both dry items (newspapers, egg cartons, and yard waste) and wet food scraps (coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable peels) to create an environment that allows the worms to thrive. To set up the bin, combine paper, soil, and a little water to make everything damp—not sopping wet—and create a base layer in the bin. “Your dry materials should feel like a wrung-out sponge,” says Louie. Add your worms and let them hang out for a day before feeding them.
When feeding, you don’t want to give your worms everything at once. Give them some shredded dry materials, add in the food scraps, and cover with dirt and damp paper. It’s a process, and sometimes it requires troubleshooting. “You’re creating little ecosystems, so there’s going to be a very specific ratio that works for you and how you like it,” says Louie. “You have to watch the system at first and set realistic expectations.” Composting, especially with worms, is a slow process unless you have a robust commercial operation or tons of worms, so patience is key.
You might run into some problems. Your environment might be too wet or too acidic and then attract mites. “So you, as the overlord of the system, have to recognize that and think, Oh no, it’s too wet; I need to dry it out and add some paper to absorb some of this stuff,” says Louie. For a pound of worms, Louie recommends starting with a cup or two of food scraps: “This requires restraint and letting the system tell you when it’s ready. Don’t go crazy and put more food waste in there. Wait until you see most of the previous feeding disappear, then feed it again,” she says.
To harvest the compost, you can use a garden fork to push all the contents of your worm bin to one side. Add new bedding and start feeding the worms on the other side of the bin. New worms will also hatch in the vermicompost and migrate to the other side, leaving behind their fluffy worm poop so you can scoop out the compost. Use it in your garden, blend it with your potting soil for indoor plants, spread it on your lawn or for landscaping, or donate it to a community garden.
SAVING AND STORING YOUR SCRAPS
As a rule of thumb, it’s safe to stick to uncooked fruit and vegetable peels and yard waste. “If your plant dies or someone gives you roses—how romantic, but now it’s over—you can compost it,” says Louie. Stay away from meat and cooked food because left untreated, they could putrefy, and the strong scent of rotting meat could attract the wrong kind of pests.
You want to save wet food scraps because they’re rich in nitrogen and also dry, shredded, nonwaxy paper and cardboard for carbon to create the bedding for your worm bin.
Freezing your food scraps will prevent odors, but make sure to thaw them out before using them in your compost systems so you don’t have a soggy mess and make your bins too wet.
IF ALL ELSE FAILS
At-home composting isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. “Especially if you live in a city, you don’t have to do it all,” says Louie. “There are so many community composting options, like gardens, volunteer programs, and park drop-offs, that you can easily find solutions or other streams to supplement what you can’t do at home.”
If you’re mostly concerned about food waste (or aren’t a gardener), there are local businesses and private services that’ll pick up your food scraps for a fee. Many community gardens also accept drop-off donations of food scraps and compost. Or check with a local school, your municipal system, or other community-run organizations, like LA Compost or GrowNYC, and see if there are gardening or composting programs in your neighborhood. (Be aware of your city’s current coronavirus restrictions, as some programs have had to temporarily suspend their services—which is all the more reason to get started at home.)
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