Composting is the ultimate garden version of the “trash to treasure” concept. We can literally turn our trash (potato and carrot peels, unused fruit and veggie ends, coffee grounds, etc.) into organic, nutrient-rich treasure (compost) that makes our soil strong and our foliage flourish. Compost “treasure” is created when micro-organisms and bacteria break down organic waste into a material that is beneficial to the earth.
What is the difference between fertilizer and compost? Fertilizer focuses on feeding plants. If not used properly, it can be detrimental to soil. Compost enriches soil and has long-term benefits for healthy soil. It encourages microbe growth, increases nutrients, helps manage moisture and conditions the soil. Benefits of compost include reducing the need for commercial fertilizers, improving water retention, increasing plant production and growth, and protecting against disease.
You may have a picture in your mind of a big, ugly pile of decomposing leaves, or a cordoned corner of a yard that requires a lot of work and space. And this type of backyard composting is an effective way to do it if you have the room and the time. The good news you can get creative about composting. There are actually three types of composting that offer different options—one that requires air to decompose (aerobic), one that doesn’t need air (anaerobic) and one that simply requires a little help (from a certain kind of worm).
Here are some outside-the-box ways (well, actually they are technically inside-a-bin, but super creative nevertheless) to compost within those three categories:
Compost “Worm Factory”
(a.k.a. “vermiculture composting”)
One of the most highly regarded and expensive soil amendments you can buy is worm castings (or worm poop). In this creative option for composting, special types of worms do all the work to break down vegetation. It can be done inside, and doesn’t take much space, so it’s ideal for apartments or homes without a good location for large backyard compost. The process is odorless because the worms work fast. This is not a job for just any worm, though: red wigglers have a special calling for compost creation.
You can either make your own worm bin, or buy a manufactured one. WormFactory.com has some cool choices for around $80. To build your own, use 6” deep plastic storage bins with tops, drill holes in the top and in each bottom corner, place shredded newspaper in the bottom and moisten with water but don’t saturate (worms like moisture), mix in some topsoil, then add red wiggler worms. Add broken up garden or vegetable scraps.
To maintain, keep bin in a dark, ventilated area that remains between 50-75 degrees F. Stir about once a month, add moisture or shredded paper as needed. Don’t let water accumulate.
To harvest, in about two months the matter should become dark brown. You can place a large piece of vegetation and let the worms congregate around it then gather up the goods. Worm castings are actually toxic to the worms so harvesting is important.
Your “worm factory” can convert 5–6 pounds of food scraps per week into 10–15 gallons of compost each year.
(a.k.a. aerobic / aerated composting)
Compost tea is a liquid created by “steeping” mature compost in water with a sugar solution to create a nutrient supplement that can be applied directly to plant leaves or added into the soil. It can replace chemically-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.
You can purchase a compost tea brewing system online at places like Simplici-Tea.com or create your own using 5 gallon buckets, mature compost, an aquarium pump (for aeration), a gang value (to divide air stream), non-chlorinated water, aquarium hose and unsulfured molasses.
Attach 3 pieces of 12” long hose to the gang valve, place valve on the side of the bucket and make sure ends touch the bottom inside. Place a gallon of compost in the bottom of the bucket. Add 4 gallons of chlorine-free water and 1 ounce of molasses as a food source for the microorganisms. Turn on the aquarium pump and let the mixture brew for 2-3 days. Stir the brew occasionally to help mix the compost and separate the microorganisms from the solid compost particles. After brewing, strain the tea using cheesecloth into another bucket. If it smells bad, do not use it on your plants, but you can dump it back into a compost pile. Once you’ve strained it, apply immediately to your plants (the beneficial microbes die after the air stops circulating).
(It goes without saying, you don’t want to serve this tea to humans–with or without crumpets…)
Japanese Bokashi Compost
(a.k.a. “anaerobic composting”)
Bokashi is a Japanese term for “fermented organic matter.” This method uses micro-organisms to ferment organic waste without the need for air. The effective micro-organisms (called EM) are inoculated into a carrier like rice, wheat bran or saw dust. These are natural lactic acid bacteria, yeast and phototrophic bacteria serving as a microbe community. The process is done in a closed, air-tight system so as long as it stays contained it doesn’t make a stink and is great for inside use. Under the sink is ideal. The unique thing about this type of composting is that you can compost ALL your food scraps—meat and dairy included, not just vegetation. It only takes two weeks with very little effort. Just add your scraps, a “bokashi bran” (carrier for the microorganisms) and leave it alone for 14 days. The end product is called pre-compost and can be added to a compost bin or put into the soil (it takes 2-4 weeks to break down completely into the soil.).
BokashiComposting.com offers a neat, tidy bokashi composting kit, as well as the “bran” you need to get started.