Yesterday, we talked about closing some loops in our homes and I mentioned that today I’d be talking about sheet-mulching in a covered raised-bed. I should probably stop saying what I’m going to talk about tomorrow as I keep changing my mind. Today, I’m going to talk about composting in general, leaving sheet mulching for another day.
Composting is nothing more than taking advantage of a natural process to reduce waste that leaves our home system and to obtain a yield (two of my favorite permaculture principles) from our plant-based kitchen scraps and yard waste. That natural process is decomposition. While decomposition gets called many bad names like rotting and spoiling, without it, life would quickly bind up all readily available nutrients in large organic molecules (e.g., carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and the great cycle of life would come to a grinding halt.
I like to demonstrate this phenomenon to kids with the following game I’ve played with kids 4 years-old and up (but it might work with younger children). I give the kids a collection of Legos (anywhere from 30 to hundreds of pieces depending on how long you want them to play) and tell them to free build anything they want. There is only one rule. Once you put two pieces together, you can’t take them apart. Kids are generally untroubled by this one rule at the beginning or their play, being “now” focused as they tend to be. They may get annoyed before the end of the game when they accidently put two pieces together and you remind them that they can’t take them apart. But they always seem mighty surprised once all of their pieces are attached. The general sentiment I’ve heard at that time is, hey we can’t play anymore without taking something apart.
That’s when I talk with them about the importance of decomposition! Synthesis is the process of putting things together. Decomposition is the processes of taking things apart. Without decomposition, nothing that is synthesized (put together) would ever get taken apart and the by-products of life (including dead bodies and excrement) would remain whole and would never release the nutrients they contain back into the soil.
The easiest way to compost at home is to keep a 5-gallon bucket with a lid under your sink. Put all of your plant-based kitchen scrapes in the bucket: coffee grinds, banana peels, and vegetable left overs that went bad in the back of your fridge all make great additions to your compost collection. This can include egg-shells but no other animal-based scraps. I’ll talk about more sophisticated ways of process those scraps including building a backyard compost bin, vermiculture (worm composting) and sheet-mulching in future tips. But, one of the the easiest thing to do with your compost is to dig a hole in your yard and just burry it and let nature take its course. If you have plans to do a garden, burry your compost under where you plan to garden.
This is not the fastest way to get useable soil from your compost but it does reduce waste, obtain a yield and close a loop! Make sure to engage your kids in the process including checking on the status of your last buried waste whenever you bury new scraps. Ask them to predict what they’ll see before you start digging and to describe what they see and smell and to explain what they think is happening after you’ve uncovered your buried treasure.
If your compost bucket gets stinky, you’ll have the perfect opportunity to talk about aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. While macroinvertebrates (visible creatures with no spines) like arthropods (a large phylum that includes insects, spiders, centipedes and millipedes) and worms help break compost into smaller pieces, bacteria do most of the decomposition. Aerobic bacteria do their work with the help of oxygen. Oxygen is a poison to anaerobic bacteria. The byproducts of aerobic decomposition smell like good soil. Anerobic decomposition stinks. For a variety of reasons, our goal is aerobic decomposition though a little anaerobic decomposition in the bucket won’t hurt.