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Environment        Next >


Mini Compost Pile


Today's Snack: fruit or vegetable; see the list below for ideas of what to eat so that you'll have a "supply" of compostable material right after snack!

You could have a vegetable peeler on hand and peel whole carrots, reserving the peels for your compost pile; or have a paring knife and cutting board ready to chop up other uneaten food items

Another idea: hard-boiled eggs for snack, and crush the eggshells later for the compost pile

Adults could collect their coffee grounds for a while in advance, or ask a coffee shop for some






Old plastic pitcher or metal container with a lid

Large, beat-up old plastic or metal garbage can or storage tub

OR wood, chicken wire and staples or small nails

Sharp utility knife or electric drill or ice pick or hammer and nail

Chopped banana peels

Coffee grounds or used teabags

Crushed eggshell

Strawberry tops

Potato peels

Cut-up orange rinds

Chopped apple cores

Chopped celery tops or bottoms

Uneaten slices or rotten, overripe fruits and vegetables, chopped

Houseplant trimmings

Spent flowers

A little (not a lot) of shredded newspaper



The things we eat are amazingly useful, and not just for nourishing our bodies. They nourish the ground we stand on - and grow tomorrow's food in! That's right: a large segment of what goes in to making dirt is actually dead leftovers and rotting parts of the plants that are growing today. It doesn't
SOUND beautiful - but there's nothing that smells as good as a handful of fresh, black soil, and feels as good in your hand. That's because, if you think about it, dirt means life! Where would we be without it?


Gradually, out in nature, scraps and leftovers from plants break down into nutrients in the soil. What does it? Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi.


It takes a long time, lots of sunshine, wind and rain, but good, black soil comes from the process that happens over and over again, of plants breaking down into soil. When they transform from the plant they were into the soil they'll be, they release their storehouse of nutrients. And that's good! Nutrient-rich soil is perfect for helping to grow new plants. It's the circle of life - earth to food and back to earth again.


And you can be a part of it, even if you live in the middle of a city. You can make your own compost pile! You can make something beautiful and useful out of what you USED to think was just old, smelly garbage, making a liveable habitat on purpose for "gross" microorganisms.


To "compost" food scraps by concentrating them in one place and keeping them warm and moist is to hurry along the decomposition process. You'll come up with soil improvements to help your garden, or someone else's, in less time and have fun doing it, as you add to your compost pile.


Grown-up gardeners with enough space will build a box or have a structure in a sunny spot outside in which the composting can take place. But you'll be able to do it in a simple household container.


How will you know you're successfully composting? When you see steam rising from the pile on a cold winter day, or have a wheelbarrow full of rich, fertile compost to get your spring seeds and transplants off to a great start! Here's how:


        Ask your mom or other grownup for an old pitcher or other plastic or metal container with a lid that you can have. It should hold a half-gallon or more. Ideally, you should be able to keep this under your sink with the lid on until it's full.


        Also ask for a beat-up old plastic or metal garbage can that you can have, with a lid. You could also use a plastic storage tub. Get one as big as you can. With adult supervision, cut the bottom off a plastic one, or poke or drill lots of holes in the bottom of a metal bin. Also punch or drill holes around the sides of the can so that moisture can drain out. Use the ice pick or drill, or hammer a nail through to make the holes. Or you can build a compost bin out of scrap wood and chicken wire so that it's open to the top but has chicken wire sides and a bottom. You can put a board on top or cover it with a tarp.


        Dig a hole about a foot deep and set the bin in it. Put a few scoops of soil or store-bought compost in the bottom. Keep the lid tightly closed.


        Keep this behind your garage, in your back yard, or some other out-of-the-way place out of doors. Don't put it on nice grass because it will kill it, but on plain dirt or gravel or pavement. A sunny spot is best.


        Now start collecting your compost! Whenever you eat a banana or an orange, cut up the peel into pieces about an inch square. Put them in the old pitcher that you keep under the sink. You can put bits of other cut-up and uneaten fruit or vegetables such as strawberry tops, potato peels and apple cores, used coffee grounds, and crushed-up eggshells in there regularly, too.


        Do NOT put any meat or dairy products into your compost. It makes things smell bad! No fish or fish parts . . . nothing that had milk or cheese in it . . . no candy . . . just stick with the things on the list above.


        We WANT you to eat your broccoli . . . so don't let your compost pile be an excuse to evade eating your fruits and vegetables!
Remember, shoot for five servings a day. But the peels and leftovers can sure go into your compost pile!


        As your kitchen container fills up, the materials inside will start to change, as the warmth inside your house and the moisture from inside the food itself begin to make chemical changes that are the first step in converting the food items into dirt.


        Every so often, when your container gets full, take it out to the big compost can and dump it in. During the warm months, you should try to "layer" a thin layer of kitchen scraps followed by a thin layer of grass clippings and thin layer of shredded leaves, and then mix. But in the winter, if you disturb your compost pile, it'll slow down the process.


        Make sure your compost pile starts off full enough, because it will shrink fast and you don't want to go through all the steps and wind up with just a small quantity of pompost. Put in enough grass clippings or shredded dry leaves with your kitchen scraps to fill your container to the top, even after you've run water from the garden hose for a while. If it sinks down, add more materials and more water, until it's pretty darn full. Then "stir" the garbage so that it thoroughly is mixed with the grass clippings or leaves. Make sure to use grass clippings that do not have any weedkiller or other chemicals on it.


        You need a little "green" for nitrogen and a little "brown" for carbon. If you're short on grass clippings or shredded leaves, there are alternatives: if you happen to have chicken or rabbit manure, it can go in and it's full of nitrogen, since those animals eat nitrogen-rich foods - but no other kind of manure, such as dog doo or horse manure, for example, will work. You can sprinkle in nitrogen-rich alfalfa pellets that is sold as rabbit feed in pet stores, or blood meal, which you can purchase from a garden store. If you don't have shredded leaves, you can use other carbon-containing ingredients, such as straw, sawdust or ashes from your fireplace or woodstove. Make sure that you've chopped any of the compost ingredients pretty small - that speeds up the process.


        If you're composting in the winter, leave the pile alone, and don't stir it again 'til spring, because cold winter winds and low humidity will suck the moisture away and the microbes can't break down. You could put a tarp over your compost bin, but do add water regularly. You could also put straw bales around your bin to provide insulation, or dig a hole and put your bin in it as a buffer from cold winds.


        You might want to have a separate outdoor container to hold on to the kitchen scraps that you collect after you've started a batch composting.


        After you've started a batch composting, and your bin is full in spring, summer and fall, stir your compost around once a week or so with a spade or other long garden tool, and toss in a little water with the garden hose so that it's damp but not soaking. Keep filling your outside container even in cold weather, but it won't "compost" very quickly until the warm temperatures and sunshine create the chemical conditions necessary to turn it into dirt.


        If there's steam coming off your compost pile, congratulations! You're doing well! If the inside does NOT get hot, though, you're either turning it too much or adding too much water. A well-managed compost pile should not smell bad; if it does, make sure the ingredients you're using are those listed above, and throw in everyday garden soil, which has no odor, to help cancel out any bad smells that might be bothering you or your neighbors.


        When the warm weather arrives, you should have a nice batch of compost ready to use in the garden or patio flowerpots!


        Depending on how hot it is and how often you add water to your outside compost pile, the process will probably take a month or two from the time you added the grass clippings. The moisture and released gases from inside the discarded food, combined with the chemicals breaking down, especially nitrogen from the grass clippings, will create what looks like rich, black dirt. That's what it is! Through the changes brought by heat and moisture, what started off as an old banana peel and other old garbage has become enriched soil, full of nutrients. Though you started out with a full container, by the time the compost is "done," it'll only be about one-fourth full . . . but it'll be quality stuff!


        The compost will stay in this condition indefinitely. You do not have to use it right away; you can wait 'til fall or even the following spring's gardening chores. Keep a heavy-duty sack from some other product, such as fertilizer or a leaf bag, and store your compost in it 'til it's needed.


        Once you've added grass clippings to your first compost pile, you can start collecting fruit and vegetable scraps for a second one.
But don't add anything to your pile as it's composting, because it will extend the process any time new material is added.


        Use compost as a "soil amendment" next time you plant any kind of flower, vegetable or shrub in your yard. Just throw a handful around the roots of any transplant, or work compost into the existing soil when you're planting seeds. Compare how much better plants grow when they have the added boost of compost!


        If your mom's an avid gardener, a sack of your special banana compost makes a memorable and special Mother's Day gift.


        It'll also please Mom to think of you eating all those fruits and vegetables in the first place, because Moms know just how good they are for you, inside and out.


By Susan Darst Williams Environment 01 2008


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