Back in our salad days, we tried to compost our kitchen scraps and garden weeds the traditional “hot compost” way — turning the compost pile frequently to heat it up. That method is recommended in order to kill weed seeds and speed up the composting process. But even then, with younger bodies, it was stressful on our backs, considering all the other physical needs of the garden. Maybe if it was a small pile I could still do it. But we generate a lot of compostable material, both from the kitchen and the garden and turning a big pile by hand is a formidable undertaking.
I would periodically guilt-trip myself that I should manage my compost pile better, especially while perusing inspiring garden books extolling composting. One day while reading such a book, the composting chapter had a photo of a strong, able-bodied young man vigorously turning the pile. At that time, I was in my early 40’s. I thought, “Wish I took care of my compost pile like that.” But then said to myself, “You know what? I’m not that person.”
Not only was turning the compost pile hard on our backs, but our composting did draw rodents and raccoons, as is common. So, next we tried one of those heavy round black plastic containers that you put your food waste and compostables into, and then spin the round bin to stir it. It was slightly easier, and I had high hopes for it, but alas, I guess the rodents in this area have especially strong teeth because they chewed a large hole through that thick plastic.
At that time, we lived in town with a yard-sized garden, and if we were still there, I would probably give the plastic bin another try, probably upgrading to the kind that are up off the ground, to discourage rodent entry. Since then, we moved to a somewhat rural property, and now generate much more than would fit in one of those containers. To turn our pile now would require a tractor and we don’t have one. So our current protocol is a combo of a “cold” compost pile (no turning) for garden weeds and small twigs, and a large worm bin for fruit and vegetable refuse.
We’re still experimenting with the new protocol, but we currently use the finished compost from the cold pile to top dress fruit and other trees in the fields, where there are already ample weeds, so the introduction of any from the cold compost pile is irrelevant. The finished compost from the worm bin is used in the vegetable beds and potted plants.
We got our outdoor container prepared then ordered the species of worms used in composting from Sonoma Valley Worm Farm. We had first tried to source the worms from nurseries and a hardware store. But the first didn’t sell them and the second was very expensive because they are packaged in small batches for fishing bait. So we were happy to learn of the worm farm.
We had loosely followed the guidelines for setting up a worm composting bin, setting up ours in an old large stock tank drilled with drainage holes. Our initial bedding was straw and a lot of leaves, and I think the materials were too acidic, or they didn’t have enough grit, because the worms didn’t seem to multiply quickly as they are said to do. So we started adding small amounts of oyster shell flour on occasion (which is alkaline and also provides grit for them to digest their food), and that seemed to be the ticket. Now we have a lot of worms who seem to be very busy eating and multiplying.
The container is partially under a shade tree, to protect from summer heat waves and to pocket a bit of warm air in winter. We cover the stock tank with some old shade cloth we had laying around, to give them needed darkness and discourage critters. Our cat keeps a regular look out for rodents there, although I bet some are feasting at night while she slumbers indoors. A young fox seemed to be patrolling the site for awhile, but the cover is never pulled off so I guess it and the raccoons are too busy eating the fruit from the trees rather than the rotting fruit in the pile.
One of the great things about worm composting is that you don’t need an outdoor space to do it, as you probably know. This is terrific for apartment dwellers.
Besides the fruit and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen, worm composting is also a great way to use up the cardboard we’re all inundated with at the moment, from all the online shopping we’ve had to do during the pandemic. We put scraps on top of our pile to help block the sun, and — someone correct me if I’m wrong — I believe it is a surface they like to lay eggs on to reproduce.
The worms will also munch old clothing or fabric scraps and sewing trimmings — as long as they are 100% natural fibers like wool or cotton. And enjoy your espresso even more, knowing the worms are going to love those used coffee grounds.
While we’re discussing what to do with household waste, here are some other ideas for repurposing:
Shredded paper– if print is nontoxic, you can give it to the worms, or use for mulch like on potatoes, or in a compost pile in place of straw. Handfuls are helpful as fire starter for wood fires or added to kitty litter. Our kitty likes it. What about some art projects with shredded paper like paper mâché or make your own handmade paper! I adore this paper mâché camper trailer on Pinterest. I’ll have to wait to try that until after dormant pruning season is over….
Cardboard — a precious commodity here. Used for sheet mulching in the garden, covering worm bins, pieces torn for kindling in wood stove, and the odd box saved for putting out surplus produce for neighbors, or for carrying lavender bunches.
Wool — scraps from sheared sheep can be used as a fertilizing mulch or in planting holes. My hypothesis is that might deter gophers because they don’t like hair. We’ve used old worn out wool blankets or wool carpeting underneath garden beds and oak planters to deter gophers. If you are making a large pond, you can use wool blankets or carpeting underneath the liner to help cushion and prevent punctures to the liner.
Old pillows — use stuffing from an old pillow to make an outdoor bench or chair cushion. Cover with outdoor fabric. Or, put the stuffing in the compost pile or worm bin if they are natural fillers like cotton or feathers. If the filling is synthetic, besides outdoor furniture cushions, you could alternately sew a pet bed since synthetic will be easier to wash and dry.
Plastic yogurt containers — the large 32oz white containers can be cut in strips, labeled with a marker, and used as garden tags for seed trays or veggie beds. Wipe with rubbing alcohol to clear and re-use. If you want a permanent marker for a plant, you will probably need a permanent paint pen specifically for outdoor use. Regular Sharpie ink fades outdoors. I prefer the metal tags nurseries sell for permanent plant ID tags. Yogurt containers of various sizes also make useful scoops for fertilizers, soil amendments and potting soil or sharing extra seedlings with gardener friends.
Plastic bags — a challenge to repurpose, and proliferating even more during COVID when we can’t use our cloth produce bags in the store and we are having to order so much online. One idea is to fuse them together and make bags and other creative items from them. Do this only in well-ventilated area. More on this in another post.
“I Think This Is The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship” –Casablanca