I love the idea of local production, and I love it even better when it's combined with recycling discards. I adore making new things from trash. It's amazing how many opportunities exist, when you start looking for them. It's one of those win/win situations where, like magic, the sum is greater than the parts.
One of the most basic, and most amazing things you can make is from your kitchen discards -- nourishment for your garden. You can, incredibly, turn your old produce scraps into fresh new fruits and vegetables. Yep, I'm talking compost.
Compost is really quite a miraculous material that can be easily be made at home. Studies have shown that households annually discard an average of 700 pounds of plant, vegetable, and fungal matter suitable for composting. The composting process transforms the garbage into soil-like material that, added to your garden, improves the structure, texture, aeration, water retention, fertility, and pH balance. Composting also saves that 700 pounds of organic matter from being locked inside plastic garbage bags in a landfill, or from being incinerated and adding carbon to the air.
It's ridiculously easy! If you're a newbie, here are the basic rules:
1. Sort and save the good compost ingredients:
food scraps from plants,
newsprint (not glossy paper),
manure from chickens and hoofed animals, not carnivorous housepets
2. Do not put in your compost:
meats or oils (draw vermin),
plants with herbicides or pesticides,
any part of a black walnut tree (contains plant toxin),
weeds (the seeds survive unless you “cook” your compost, see below).
3. Keep a bucket with a lid in your kitchen for your scraps. Empty when necessary on the pile. No worries if the contents have gotten moldy. Give your bucket a rinse between uses.
4. Find a spot that is convenient to your kitchen. The simplest compost is just a pile on the ground, but you can also make or buy a bin or a composter (see below). Dump your scraps and if you feel like it, every now and then, stir the pile with a fork or shovel.
That's all you need to know to practice “passive composting”. Your pile will not smell. It will not grow very fast. In a couple of years your garbage will be decomposed enough to mix with your garden soil. If you practice continuous piling, you should excavate compost from the bottom.
There's a nice surprise benefit of a compost pile from time to time. Discarded seeds from things like winter squash or rotten tomatoes sometimes survive, wake up and find themselves in the extremely cushy environment of the pile. They do what comes naturally, sprouting and thriving in the nutrient-rich matter and frequently outshine their neighbors that we've been patiently growing and tending in our garden beds nearby. It's very humbling and yet such a great freebie. My mother always called these plants “volunteers”, and usually let them grow. It's fun to see what variety they turn out to be.
Along with plant volunteers, there are animal, microbial and fungal inhabitants of the compost pile. Worms are very happy in compost and help degrade it quickly. Many mushrooms also like compost piles. There are also lots of other insects that are snacking, but usually nothing actually bothersome.
Deep Dive Composting
If you really get into composting there are things you can do to amp it up, a process called “active" composting”. Active composting involves:
aeration (mixing and turning),
chopping up the scraps to increase surface area,
balancing carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials (browns and greens) to increase the temperature and accelerate breakdown and monitoring the moisture of the pile.
This is a bit more labor intensive, but you can also get various tumblers to help accomplish some of these tasks. Permaculture designer Ethan Roland says, “I've traveled widely and seen many composting methods—they all work, but my favorite is the Berkeley compost or Permaculture compost method. It can turn a pile of waste into beautiful compost in 18 days.” The Berkeley method involves all the active practices mentioned above. The compost gets so hot it actually steams, with a temperature of 150º to 160º F.
Several years ago I got a semi-gimicky gizmo called a composting ball. It's a very large sphere (about 30 inches in diameter), dark green to collect solar heat, air holes for ventilation, interior mixing spikes, and portholes to add scraps and clippings. The giant ball was designed to be kept on a stand, and spun regularly to keep the materials aerated and mixed. We used ours in a more free-range style—we wanted it near the back door in snowy weather, but we rolled around the yard in the warm weather. It looked like a giant transformer toy and visitors thought it was a garden sculpture! I emptied our kitchen composting bucket into it almost daily, plus added massive amounts of corn husks and cobs and yard clippings from time to time. We fed and fed and fed the sphere for a whole year until it got too heavy to roll and still it was only about half full. The mass inside looked very dark and lumpy—many scraps still recognizable but it all seemed pretty happy and warm in there and not smelly. So we decided to let it sit and decompose, and we started another ball. A year later, we emptied out the first one. The pile of compost is indeed an amazing, moist, dark, almost yummy-looking mass. But the amount is only about the size of a baby mattress—concentrated muck that makes gardens thrive!
Read more about the details of composting on the Rodale Institute site.