COMPOSTING: Cut Down on Food Waste and Help Your Garden Grow
By Sharon Reily, Reference Department
Most of us don’t realize how much food we waste each year. It’s awfully easy to toss leftovers and less-than-perfect produce into the trash. Wasted food numbers are staggering. It’s estimated that in the U.S., 72 billion pounds of still-usable food (worth $218 billion) goes to waste each year and that approximately 25 to 40 percent of food grown, processed, and transported in the U.S. will never be consumed. Much of this food that is still safe and edible could be used to feed hungry families or be composted. But according to the EPA, approximately 94 percent of it ends up in landfills, where it takes up a lot of space and generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Let’s take a look at a few simple things we can all do to help reduce food waste, and then focus on one of the best methods of utilizing uneaten food – composting.
Several local organizations are on a mission to “rescue” unused food to feed hungry families and divert it from landfills by methods such as composting. Second Harvest Food Bank and the Nashville Food Waste Initiative work with businesses, food service companies, farmers, and individuals to gather food before it goes to waste, distribute it to groups serving the hungry, and keep it out of landfills. Sustainable America suggests ways to become involved in food rescue. Their websites (listed at the end of this article) offer a wealth of information about how we can help in these efforts.
On a smaller scale, there are lots of ways we can reduce food waste in our own homes, and most of them rely on plain old common sense:
- Plan weekly shopping lists carefully to avoid buying too much food. Think of all the money we can save if we buy only as much food as we can use.
- Consider how many meals we’ll eat at home in a week versus the times we’ll eat out.
- Think about how many meals can be made with each food item and shop accordingly. Don’t buy in bulk unless all the food can be used before it spoils.
- Learn how to store different fruits and vegetables properly to keep them fresh longer and preserve or freeze what can’t be used immediately.
- Shop in the fridge first! Use what’s already there before buying more.
- Learn the difference between “sell by,” “use by” and “best by” dates.
- Get creative using safe edible food parts not usually eaten, such as vegetable scraps, in casseroles, stir-fries, and soups.
Some inedible food will remain even with careful planning, but much of it can still be diverted from landfills. One great way is to compost. Most of us can create a compost pile in our own backyards or at least collect waste material to be taken to a composting facility, such as Compost Nashville.
Benefits of Composting
Compost is simply decomposed organic material and composting is the natural process of recycling organic material such as leaves and vegetable scraps into a rich soil amendment called humus. The EPA lists several key benefits to composting:
- Enriches soil, helps retain moisture, and suppresses plant diseases and pests.
- Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
- Encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material.
- Reduces methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.
There are many different ways to make a compost pile. WCPL and its branches have several books on composting and there are many detailed composting instructions available online. Watch the WCPL website (wcpltn.org) for information about a program on composting coming in August 2019.
Here are a few composting basics.
- Select a location with good drainage that is easily accessible from your kitchen.
- Choose a partially sunny or shady spot. Too much sun will dry out the pile and total shade may keep it too wet.
- Your compost unit can be as simple as an actual “pile” of materials in your yard, or you can build or purchase more complex composting devices such as various bins and tumblers. You can also compost indoors with worms, using special stacked worm bins. Eww!
Compost is made up of three main ingredients:
- Brown materials, which provide carbon: dead leaves, branches, twigs, bits of cardboard, shredded newspaper, torn-up paper towel and toilet paper rolls, and small bits of cardboard
- Green materials, which provide nitrogen: grass clippings and other yard debris, fresh uncooked vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds
- Water, which provides the moisture required to help break down the materials
Some materials should NOT be added to a compost pile. Avoid:
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Dairy products
- Diseased plants
- Fats, grease, or oils
- Fish or other animal bones
- Pet fecal waste or used cat litter
- Invasive weeds or plants that could root or germinate in the compost
- Any yard debris that has been treated with chemical pesticides
Establishing a Compost Pile
- Begin your pile with equal amounts of browns and greens added in 4-inch layers. You could also just toss them in haphazardly, but the decomposition process will take much longer.
- Water the pile. Keep it moist but do not let it get soggy.
- After the initial setup, add greens and browns as they become available. Cover fruit and vegetable waste with several inches of compost materials.
- Yard debris will decompose more quickly if it is broken into small pieces.
- Stir the pile occasionally with a shovel or pitchfork.
The compost process can take anywhere from three months to two years. Compost is ready when it looks like very dark soil and has a sweet, earthy smell. To test it, put a small amount in a plastic bag. Sniff before sealing. Reopen the bag after a few days. The sample should smell the same as it did before. If it smells worse, your compost needs more time in the pile.
Compost is an amazing amendment to your garden soil and can be applied in several ways. Think of it as food for dirt. Spread it over your lawn to nourish the grass, or mix it into garden soil.
- Give your vegetable garden plenty of compost in the fall. Spread several inches of compost on top of the existing bed, then till it into the soil in the springtime.
- Put a handful of compost in each hole when you’re planting.
- Once plants begin to grow quickly, you can add a half-inch layer of compost around the base of the plants. Provide “heavy feeder” plants such as tomatoes, corn, and squash with 1/2 inch of compost monthly.
- In the spring, loosen the top few inches of annual and perennial beds and mix in a 1-inch layer of compost.
- In the fall, apply a 1-inch layer of compost as a mulch to protect plant roots from freezing and conserve moisture.
- Potted plants and window boxes:
- Nutrients in potting soil may be depleted as plants grow. To replenish them, add an inch of compost to potted plants and window boxes twice a year.
- You can make your own potting soil using two parts screened compost to one part sand or perlite.
- Brew a compost “tea” by steeping compost in water and use it as a foliar spray or a soil drench.
Clearly, composting can be a win-win endeavor. It allows you to cut down on the amount of unused food that otherwise would end up in a landfill. It creates a great, nutritious supplement for your garden. Why not plan to begin a compost pile as your next garden project?
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
- Scott, Nicky. Composting: an Easy Household Guide. Chelsea Green Pub., 2007. (631.875 SCO)
- Thompson, Ken. Compost: the Natural Way to Make Food for Your Garden. DK Pub., 2007. (641.875 THO)
- Ebeling, Eric. Composting Basics: All the Skills and Tools You Need to Get Started. Stackpole Books, 2017. (631.875 BAS (College Grove))
- Metro Nashville has an excellent online publication for backyard composters called Dirt on Composting.