Our garbage disposal broke earlier this year, and I was astonished at the amount of food scraps we were throwing away during the few days we waited to replace it. That means that we are putting a ton of pulverized food scrap material into our sewer lines every day. More and more communities are banning new garbage disposal installations because of some serious issues with plumbing. Also, we were losing all of the benefits, even though we needed compost for the garden– we were throwing our scraps down the garbage disposal, then purchasing compost from Home Depot. How does that make sense?
We wanted to start kitchen composting, but we are really lazy. I knew that we would have scraps sitting around for days before we ran them out to the compost bin, and well – ew! My friend Ryan showed me how to make a kitchen scrap compost box that is convenient, effective, and cool as hell. My little one is really into worms, so this has been especially neat for her to watch and learn about the processes. So, with all intellectual credit going to Ryan (the brains behind a lot of my hippie activities), here is what we did:
- We started with a plastic bin that came with a locking lid. For this one, we used a Rubbermaid container from Target (I know, I know – Big Box store. I’m working on getting that monkey off my back). The dimensions were 15.5” x 12.5” x 5.5”. I chose a clear box so that the kids could see the inner workings, though an opaque box is usually a better choice.
- We drilled holes in the lid to provide air circulation. I used a 3/32 drill bit and spaced the holes about 2-3 inches apart.
- Ours stays in the garage, so we didn’t put a screen under the lid. If yours is going outside (and maybe in your house), you might want to attach a screen under those holes to keep out roaches and ants.
- Next, we put a layer of dry leaves in the bottom (brown material, for those of you who are familiar with the compost heap lingo).
- A layer of dirt came next. On a trial run, Ryan used organic soil, and he found that this slowed down the process because the worms were content with the organic materials in the soil. So, they didn’t get to work on the food scraps for awhile. For our compost box, we used some really poor soil from a planting bed near our mailbox. Neighborhood dogs had killed the plants growing there, and it had sat empty for about a year. The soil was awful, so we thought it could benefit from the nutrients and loosening the worms could provide.
- Next, we added the scraps. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds should be fine, as well as coffee grounds and similar materials. DO NOT use meat scraps or fats – these cause the compost pile to smell terribly, and they attract lots of critters that most of us would prefer not to have near our homes.
- I purchased a container of red worms from a local bait shop and added them to the mix.
- Mix the components a bit, then replace and latch the box top.
- Whenever we add items, we give the compost a little turn to help speed up the process. About once a week, we will pull out finished compost and add it to the planting bed where we got the soil, then bring in some more crappy soil to replace it in the compost box.
See the apple core up there? It was gone two weeks later. After about a week, I left the bin alone for 4 days while we were on a trip, and when I came back, we couldn’t find the core anymore. More importantly – look at that compost compared to the original huge lumps of hard dirt!
The official term for this process is vermicomposting, and I recently got a flyer from Autumn Tree Care Experts telling me that vermicomposting yields more benefits than compost created by conventional means. The nutrient ratio is higher, and it contains microbes that help the plants absorb nutrients. There is also something about worm mucus, but I find that discussions of mucus very rarely persuade people.
A few tips and words of caution:
- Do not add worms to wooded areas – they mess with the ecosystem there. These boxes are intended for urban and suburban areas.
- Worms like it dark. In our case, the darkness was addressed by keeping it in the garage. If you are keeping yours outdoors in a sunny area, opt for an opaque box/lid to help keep the lights out.
- Worms also like things a little damp. The moisture is usually taken care of by fresh vegetable scraps, especially if you throw coffee grounds into the mix every once in awhile. If it seems too wet, leave the lid off for a little longer when you turn the compost.
- The smaller the food bits, the more quickly they will disappear.
A few concerns addressed:
- Smell: It smells like compost, not poop or rotting food. If you put in strongly scented foods (like raw onions), it will smell like those foods. Otherwise, it smells like the woods. If your compost box smells foul, something is wrong. It’s probably air flow – make more holes or make your existing holes bigger. And, as a reminder, no meat or dairy scraps – besides the wildlife they will attract, they smell like death when they decay.
- Bugs: We have found a few new tiny bugs in the compost as we’ve turned it, but we are not seeing them anywhere else in our garage. See above notes about avoiding meat and dairy scraps.
- Convenience: Ours is about 6 steps from our door, so it is easy to add material. We just keep scraps in a bowl on the counter, then take them out once a day.
- Sweating: There will be condensation on the lid, especially when the weather is warm. So far, it hasn’t signaled a problem – as long as the worms are alive and there is no foul odor coming from the compost box, some sweat on the lid doesn’t seem to be a problem.
- Ew factor: Worms don’t have to be icky. That’s just what we’ve been bred to believe. Worms do good things for us, and red worms are pretty benign (in urban and suburban settings, anyway). This is a fascinating process to watch, so make a decision not to be a shrieky little girl and enjoy it. If you have kids, this is a terrific learning experience. I’m slowly conditioning the neighbor children to take care of adding my scraps and turning the pile – you know, because it’s so fun and cool!