Did you know in Australia at home we throw out 2.5 million tonnes of compost potential at home into the bin each year? When it comes to composting, there’s so much jargon, do’s, don’ts, mystery and magic, that it can easily get overwhelming and confusing. We are here to dispel some myths, provide clarity and show you the many paths you can take to turn your house into a composting machine. It is time to say “Hasta La Vista Baby” to food waste and hello to the gardening gold that is compost. Compost with us if you want to live.
Globally a third of all food is wasted. This contributes to 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s roughly the same as all the emissions from the plastic we produce (3.8%), the aviation section (1.9%) and from extracting oil (3.8%). Food waste is often overlooked in the climate change debate, but it is in fact a major contributor to global greenhouse gases. Addressing food waste at home is the single most powerful thing an individual can do to take climate action.
Composting is the ultimate form of recycling, but let’s take a look at the problem of food waste a little further up the river. We can all recall the three famous R’s, No! Not the Ramones, Radiohead and R.E.M. We are talking about Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Did you know the order of the three R’s is of great importance when it comes to dealing with waste. Before we think about recycling our food waste, we must reuse it. That means, eating those leftovers, turning those bones and limp veggies into stock, using yesterday’s rice and broccoli stems you weren’t keen on for today’s fried rice. Before we reuse we must reduce! This means checking our gardens, fridge and pantry before we leave the house, having an honest inner monologue with ourselves at the market about how much rocket we actually need, and promising to never shop for food when we’re hungry.
However, some food waste is inevitable and for this we turn to the powers that be, the almighty compost! Let’s take a look at the different ways we can compost.
Vermicomposting/vermiculture, or worm composting, is a fast, easy and efficient way to deal with organic waste. Worms will provide unlimited free labour if you treat them well and give them a place to congregate. In fact, well-maintained worm farms can double in population every few months. Furthermore, most systems are freestanding, so it is possible to process organic waste in the absence of garden beds. The end results are nutrient-rich worm castings and worm wee that are packed with good bacteria and microbial life.
Worm castings, also known as worm poo or vermicast, are the fully digested product of vermicomposting, which contains conditioned nutrients and unhatched worm eggs. Castings are light and spongy to the touch, with a subtle forest odour. Like a piece of steamed broccoli or cooked kale for humans, worm castings provide an easier way for plants to access nutrients than in their raw form. Castings are pH neutral, so can be spread in mass quantities throughout the garden bed.
Worm wee is a concentrated liquid by-product of vermicompost that can be diluted with water and spread through the garden as fertiliser. The key to maintaining a productive worm farm is providing a comfortable environment. Worms do best between 15°C - 25°C, so it’s preferable to keep your worm farm out of the sun and in an insulated container. Worms may be blind, hermaphroditic eating machines, but they still have their preferences.
When it comes to feeding, we generally follow the same principles as composting, providing a mixture of green and brown waste. Nevertheless, worms have a special love for coffee grounds, tea bags, fruit and veggie scraps, paper and cardboard. They have a distaste for meat, dairy, garlic, citrus and onion. With citrus you can put these scraps in the freezer to help break down the cell walls before putting it into your compost. Onions bring a tear to our eyes when we cut through them, and when we can’t use them in compost, but if you leave them out in the sun it will help de-gas the onions, which are then safe to use in your compost. The key to everything in life including compost is balance.
The Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio
When you start to look through the world with a compost lens, the possibilities open up and you no longer see objects for their intended purpose, but rather their end-of-life composting potential. We often hear about the secret sauce to success in making compost is the Carbon to Nitrogen ratio. These are the two main types of organic household wastes, also referred to as brown and green waste. The ideal ratio is 2-3 parts brown waste (carbon) to 1 part green waste (nitrogen). But in truth it is all about finding balance in the systems that you are using. When out of balance, compost turns into a stinking den of sin (too much green) or a dusty old saloon that the ants have come to party in (too much brown). To strike the perfect balance takes observation and adjusting each time you visit your composting systems.
Carbon waste comes in so many forms. Go open up your recycling bin and pull out the possibilities found in toilet rolls, newspapers, paper takeaway containers and cardboard boxes. Take a walk outside look around at the dead branches in your yard and autumn leaves that have fallen on the ground. If you happen to know an arborist you might have a steady supply of woodchips. Contact local furniture makers and builders for their sawdust. Here at Little Veggie Patch Co. we have revolutionised our office and compost with the help of a paper shredder. By using safe vegetable-based inks we shred all our office paper to help aid with our compost
This is the ‘wet’ waste comprised of nitrogen-rich plant material. Just mowed the lawn? You’ve got a catcher full of green waste. All those fruit and veggie scraps destined for the bin will be better off feeding the microbes in your compost bin. *NEEDLE SCRATCH* Microbes! Hang on, but I thought worms did all the work in my compost bin? Worms help in one form of composting, or vermi-composting, whereas our invisible heroes - microbes - help break down waste in the systems below.
When it comes to cold composting vs hot compost, size does matter. Hot compost requires a larger pile for the compost to heat up sufficiently 50-60°C and it produces compost in a much shorter time. Get yourself a compost thermometer to take out the guesswork and measure internal temperatures. This method effectively destroys disease pathogens like powdery mildew, weed seeds and roots, and any weeds which reproduce through bulbs. The end result is a very fine compost
Known as the Berkeley Method of hot composting the secrets to success are as follows:
In-Ground / Trench Composting
Psssst… yeah you, come closer, we want to let you in on a little secret. Consider this the Berlin underground clubs of the compost world. It’s ok, we know the bouncer, so you can skip the line and head straight to the bar of in-ground composting. This in-situ form of composting, means your compost is already at ground zero and doesn’t need to be lugged from the compost bin to your garden beds. Soil is being improved as decomposition takes place and you have just bought a room service buffet to the worms and microbes, so they aren’t checking out of this garden bed anytime soon.
Often considered a cold or passive composting approach, in-ground composting makes use of the soil life (microbes and worms) of the garden bed to help break down your waste. Don’t forget that everything that goes into your in-ground compost eventually goes out into your garden. So unless you like playing the tomato lottery or appreciate an unpredictable pumpkin popping up, be careful with what you throw in. As tempting as it is to throw in the weeds you’ve just plucked, be careful as their seeds may infiltrate and take over your garden. The beauty of this system is that the finished product is right there already in the garden to use, keeping your soil and in turn your plants healthy.
Fermentation is a weird and wonderful version of composting that deserves a closer look. Commonly known as bokashi, fermentation composting is a technique with origins in east Asia and has a lot more in common with home-brewing than it does traditional compost methods. We like to call it pickled compost. Like pickling, brewing and winemaking, this method relies on a lack of oxygen and an army of anaerobic bacteria fed on yeast and sugar to break down waste. This creates an acidic environment that kills harmful pathogens and is capable of composting meat, fish and dairy. This is often considered a ‘pre-compost’ method, because the end product is too acidic to spread directly onto plants. In fact, we recommend transferring your pickled compost waste into a traditional system so that it can fully mature. While it may seem like you are double- composting the waste, the fermentation process not only accelerates how long it takes for waste to break down (saving months), but it is also a safe way to treat meat and dairy scraps.
During fermentation, a liquid by- product will develop and can be drained from the tap at the bottom. This nutrient- rich liquid can be diluted with water and spread through the garden as a fertiliser.
Can I Compost Pet Waste?
Fur parents we have good news for you. Your pet’s waste doesn’t have to end up on the bottom of a shoe, or crowding that bin at the park nobody wants to be within 10 metres of. Pet poo can be turned into compost gold, but there is a catch. Be careful with cat poo and composting near edible plants, although the microbes may break down some parasites, cat poo contains diseases and parasites that are harmful during pregnancy and can cause toxoplasmosis. It is best to compost pet waste in garden areas that don’t contain edible plants and where it can’t leach into storm water.
Some clever in-ground composting systems help keep pet waste out of landfill and off the bottom of your shoes. The EnsoPet pet poo composter is a compact in-ground composting system that utilises worms and micro-organisms in your garden bed as well as their micro-organism inoculated grain to recycle pet waste and reduce your carbon pawprint. The micro-organisms in the grains ensure a rapid continuous breakdown of the waste. If using a vermi-composting system it is important to remember when you are de-worming your pets and not to throw any of this poo into the system, as you guessed it, you may end up killing more worms than you intended.
Since you need to use a bag to pick up your pet’s poo, because you’re not going to leave it there for others to step on are you? Be a responsible pet owner and citizen of planet earth by making sure it’s a compostable bag. Compostable bags are made from natural plant starch, some are made from corn starch others potato starch. The bags break down readily in a composting system through microbial activity to form compost. Similarly many businesses are switching to compostable mail bags. The important thing to remember is to cut the address sticker off before adding to your compost.
This is a simple yet forgotten task of composting systems. Around your neighbourhood I can guarantee there a full bins of compost waiting to be used to their fullest veggie patch potential. This is as simple for some bins as emptying the bin and starting the pile again. When it comes to vermi-composting you can slowly dig away the layers as the worms burrow away from the light and use all that worm poo goodness in your garden, while keeping your hungry helpers in your worm farm system.
We hope this has provided some compost clarity and encourages you to take the not so scary dive into turning your house into a composting machine. The choice is yours, you take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe about what happens to your food waste. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole of composting potential goes. Remember: all we’re offering is the truth… on composting.