As I mentioned in Waste-Free Kitchen, compost is a great way to use up food scraps and reduce your household waste. As an added bonus, it enriches your garden! Getting started with composting is pretty easy. The easiest type of composting for a beginner is vermicomposting, or composting with worms—the worms do all the hard work for you. All they need is a happy home and some food and they’ll gladly turn all your unwanted organic materials into rich garden soil.
So, let’s start by building that happy home for your worms.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
- Large plastic storage bin
- Drill and small drill bit
- Starter soil
- Compostable food scraps
- Hay (optional)
Choose your bin: The most important element of the bin is surface area, more than depth. The worms don’t need a ton of soil to burrow down into, but the more surface area you have, the more worms you can have in your bin. I used a fairly deep bin because I had it on hand, but it certainly doesn’t have to be so deep.
Drill drainage holes: Again using your drill, drill holes in rows on the bottom of the bin, about every 2 inches or so. These holes allow excess moisture to drain so you don’t end up with compost soup.
Add Soil: it doesn’t have to be good soil; worms can live in poor soil.
Add Food: Now that the bin is ready, you’ll want to add some food. You should probably collect materials for about a week prior to building your bin, so you have something ready to feed your worms right away.
According to the first “worm guy” I ever bought worms from, anything that’s organic can technically be digested by worms. However, I personally recommend steering clear of any animal products, including fats, meats, bones, cheese, and dairy. Better safe than sorry, in my opinion. One exception is eggshells, which are fine if you crunch them up so the sharp edges don’t cut the worms.
GOOD COMPOSTABLE ITEMS
Good compostable items fall into two categories: brown and green.
Brown items are items that tend to be dry, lightweight and yes, often brown. These are items like dried leaves, brown paper bags, wood chips, twigs, and so on. Brown items provide a balance with green items to keep the bin from becoming too wet and also provide carbon to balance the nitrogen-rich green items.
Green items are not necessarily green (though they might be) and are wetter and tend to be things you might possibly eat. These items have lots of nitrogen, which your garden will love once it’s broken down into compost. Green items include things like coffee grounds, vegetables, apple cores, banana peels, and so on.
You want about a 50/50 balance between the green and brown items, but it definitely doesn’t need to be exact. The best guideline I ever heard was tactile: your compost bin, when mixed, should feel as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too wet, add some dry brown materials, and if it’s too dry, add in some greens. You’ll know your compost bin is functioning properly if it smells earthy but not bad.
Think outside the kitchen. Other household wastes to consider:
- Empty toilet paper rolls
- Cottonballs (assuming they are not processed with chemicals and are cotton)
- Chemical-free, organic clothing too worn out to donate or reuse
- Yard waste
- Paper, including non-glossy junk mail and cardboard boxes
- Pet hair and human hair
- Cut flowers that are past their prime
Lastly, you’ll need some worms. The type of worms that are most effective for composting are called red wigglers, and there are a couple of ways to get your hands on them:
1. Get a friend to “seed” your bin: Simply have a friend who vermicomposts dig out a handful of worms for you and put them in your bin.
2. Buy local: it may be possible to buy worms from a local source, such as a farmers’ market vendor or local organic non-profit.
3. Buy online: If you can’t find a local source for your worms, there’s always the internet. Red wigglers are available online from a variety of retailers including Amazon.com
Put your worms in their brand new bin and let them get to work. In a matter of weeks you’ll have rich compost to add to your garden!
MAINTAINING YOUR WORM COMPOST
When you add items to your compost bin, chop up very large or dense materials and mix everything in below the surface, don’t just throw it on top.
A sour or rotten smell is a sign that your bin is out of balance. A WORM COMPOST BIN SHOULD NOT STINK. If you have a smelly bin, you may need to add dryer materials, stop adding for a while, or aerate the compost by (carefully) mixing it thoroughly.
If you find flies, pill bugs or other insects in your bin, it’s not a big deal, it’s all part of the mini ecosystem you’ve built and most bugs are actually good for your compost process. There are a couple of organisms that are problematic, however, the good news is that a properly maintained worm bin usually does not attract these creatures.
If you live in a cold climate and want to keep your bin outside, place several balls of hay around the bin on all sides to insulate it from the cold. This method is surprisingly effective, inexpensive and easy.
Santa Fe native Melyssa Holik earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and photography from New Mexico State University. She currently writes and photographs for peggyomara.com, localflavormagazine.com as well as for her own site, holikdesign.com. She loves food (growing, cooking and eating!), art, travel and adventure.