You hear time and time again that you should be saving your food scraps and feeding your garden with recycled organic material (compost). Why would you want to do this? Because it adds valuable nutrients back into your soil, increases moisture retention, and reduces waste.
Composting does not have to be difficult or take up a lot of space. Simply add everyday food waste, plant materials, or other compostable materials to a container. With the help of soil microorganisms, organic matter (once living material) is decomposed into a form usable by plants and soils. Earthworms play an important role in this process, but they can also be used for quick benefits in the garden for those who want to forgo the compost bins. Follow along for details on how to use worms and compost in gardens of all sizes.
To build a compost bin, start with a layer of twigs, straw, cardboard, etc., to provide drainage. Then, add layers of dry and moist materials. Be sure to include nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings, clover, and wheatgrass to activate the compost pile. Keep your container covered to retain moisture and heat. Trapping heat can help your compost to process more quickly, though be careful not to kill your beneficial microbes. Turn your pile every few weeks to aerate, allowing oxygen to feed your active micro-organisms and prevent overheating. Additional materials can be added and mixed in over time. This method is recommended for large in-ground or raised bed gardens.
Appropriate materials include disease-free yard waste, such as grass clippings, leaves, twigs, natural wood ash, and vegetarian animal manure. Composting these materials allows their nutrients to benefit your garden. If placed on your soil without composting first, they may rob your current crops of nutrients during the decomposition process. From the kitchen, you can add food scraps and discards from preparing meals, coffee grounds, bag-less tea leaves, and houseplants. Include other organic materials such as black and white newspaper, cardboard, or printing paper.
Avoid adding non-vegetarian manure, such as from dogs or cats. Manure from these sources can contain harmful bacteria and contaminants. Also, avoid any noxious weeds, pesticide-treated plant material, diseased yard waste, food scraps with animal products, and large amounts of citrus peels and onion discards. Noxious weeds and plant diseases may continue to spread with even a small amount of plant material. Animal products, such as meat cuttings, should be avoided as they can attract pests or animals that will disrupt your garden or compost bins.
Many people believe they need to have a large garden to start composting. Really anyone from patio, container, or in-ground home gardeners can start their own compost piles and reap the benefits it has to offer. For those working with limited space, try using the bucket method, worm castings or worm tea. Each of these methods will allow you to add nutrients back into your soil, increase organic matter and promote healthy soils.
For the bucket method, all you need is a 5-gallon bucket and your organic products. Fill it as you would any other container by layering your dry and moist materials until the bucket is full. After only a couple of days, you should notice the level of materials decrease as water leaves the plant material or food waste. Be sure to keep your compost bin moist but not too wet. Because the plastic bucket can trap any released water, you may need to drain some excess. Add more materials as decomposition takes place in the bucket. Either mix by rolling the bucket or using a small tool. One of the best things about using a 5-gallon bucket for composting is being able to keep a lid on it, preventing pests from getting into your bin. Keep it right on your patio or balcony for easy use.
Try worm castings if you want the benefits of compost without managing a bin or bucket. Worm castings are the product of materials being broken down (composted) by earthworms. The castings store and slowly release nutrients into the soil. In addition to their valuable nutrients, worm castings host a plethora of beneficial microorganisms that enable plants to access the nutrients stored in soils. You may want to consider adding worm castings to your soil as they can also suppress damping-off in seedlings and new transplants.
Adding worm castings is as easy as spreading potting soil. Add a bag or two to your garden bed, a handful to potted plants or apply a worm tea. To do this, soak a sack of worm castings in water. Ideally, I like to use a bucket for this, as it is easy to pour throughout the garden. Start by adding about 4 cups of worm castings to a cheesecloth. Then, allow it to steep overnight in about 2 gallons of water. If you are working in a large garden, you may want to double these measurements or consider preparing several buckets. For patio and balcony gardens, one batch should be sufficient.
Unlike traditional composting methods, worm tea is odorless and quickly increases the quality of your harvest. While the composting process can take weeks and months to achieve a usable product, worm tea can be used after only one day. Protect your gardens from pests like aphids, white flies, and mites with the natural benefits worm castings have to offer.
Don’t wait to get started, you can start your compost pile right now with the cooling weather. While heat helps the composting process happen more quickly, you can still reap the benefits of a beautiful bucket full of compost that will be ready in time for spring planting. Recycle organic waste all winter long, spread worm castings, or brew some worm tea. Start the coming spring off right with good drainage, rich nutrients and less waste going to the landfills.
About the Author: Ashleigh Smith is the managing editor at True Leaf Market, with a bachelor's degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University - Idaho. True Leaf Market is a national certified organic, non-GMO seed and horticultural company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The True Leaf Market staff specializes in supplying a large selection of conventional, heirloom, and organic seeds to home gardeners everywhere. Learn more about fermentation, supplies, seeds, and other seed-growing ideas: www.trueleafmarket.com.