5 Simple Kitchen Composting Tips

Two parts science, one part worm love: Create rich, healthy soil.
Forget the garbage man -- let worms do the work! (Photo: Joe Fox/Getty Images)
Apr 12, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Composting is like recyling, but harder. One slip (no pork chops!) and your whole batch could be ruined. But fear not, do-gooder. We can show you the path to earthy euphoria. With these 5 tips, you'll be on your way to reducing your waste, one banana peel at a time.

Note: There are many types of composting: vermicomposting, leaf mould, grub composting, humanure composting, and municipal composting. In this particular tip list, we're referring to vermicomposting, aka worm composting. (Don't worry -- it all happens outside the kitchen!)

Tip #1: Get some wrigglers.

When it comes to composting, worms are your pals. The best type to get are called red worms, or red wrigglers. The reason they're preferable to the average worm you see after rainstorms is that they reproduce quickly and do well in small spaces. Plus, their appetites are tremendous—they can eat their weight in grub in a single day.

As for their home, you can always buy a commerically produced worm bin. But other receptacles work just as well, so long as you cut holes in the bottom (a quarter inch or smaller) so the bin can air and drain. Worms will hang out just below the surface of the bin, so it doesn't need to be very deep—about eight to sixteen inches. As for the surface area of the bucket, alott two square feet of surface area for each person in your household, though keep in mind that the bigger the bucket, the harder it will be to keep heat in (which helps the decomposing process) and to rotate the soil. A 3x3 foot bin is ideal. To keep things manageable, store a small bin in your kitchen, and carry it out to the larger bin as it fills up.

Though they're big eaters, start slow. Feed them a little at first, then increase their intake as time passes. If other creepy crawlers show up in the meantime, resist the urge to pluck them out of the bin—they help the decomposition process, too! Worried your worms will inch their way out of the bin? Put a light source nearby; they'll burrow to avoid it.

Tip #2: Make it veggie.

Approximately 30 percent of what gets wasted could be composted. But that doesn't mean your compost bin is your catchall. Think of your little guys as vegetarians. They don't like dairy, meats, bones, fish or fatty oils (or sauces made with any of those things). Dropping meat and dairy into your bins will only result in unpleasant odors and could attract critters.

A few things worms like are fruits and veggies, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells (provided they're rinsed and crushed), rice and pasta, grass clippings, and flowers. 

If you have trouble remembering what to toss in the bin, consider posting a quick list on your fridge or the inside of a cupboard you open often. Make your own handy guide, or borrow this composting guide from Squiddo.com: What to Compost

A number of factors play into a successful compost bin, and not everyone agrees on what "works." Bread, for example, is heralded by some, and on the "never" list for others. If you notice your bin is attracting critters or certain items aren't breaking down, rethink what you're tossing.

Tip #3: Keep a balanced diet.

Worms and dirt: pretty simple, right? Not so fast. The system at work to churn your scraps into nutrient-rich soil is no simple matter. In fact, doing it right requires a delicate tango of the elements.

The microbes that make the magic happen require a balance of nitrogen and carbon. Add straw, dead leaves, wood chips, or shredded newspaper for carbon, and food scraps and grass clippings for nitrogen. Foods and plants that have been treated with pesticides are a no-go.

Citrus fruit peels are the stuff of folklore: some folks swear by them, others swear them off. If you're going to use them, remember that until they've spent some time in the pile and have become microbially active, worms won't touch them, so it'll take a little longer for them to turn to dirt. If you want to help the process along, you can chop up peels before tossing them in.

For a handy list of which items offer nitrogen and which offer carbon, check out Earth Easy's What to Compost guide. 

Tip #4: Heat things up.

We're not saying you should make your worms sweat, but a little heat can really get your compost going. High temps will put your bin at optimal production, while lower temps will work, but will take longer.

To attain a toasty compost, put your bin in direct sunlight, or place a heat lamp near it. Not only will it keep the soil heated, it'll give the worms a reason to languish, instead of squirming to warm up, then making a dash for certain death (that is, anywhere outside the bin). 

A note of caution: there's heat, and then there's heat. You don't want the bin so hot that it fosters mold or starts to stink. Don't get out your camping stove, just stick to sunlight.

Tip #5: Add in the H20.

Your compost heap/bin/bucket should be damp—not saturated, but defintely moist. You can let rain do the job, or you can water it yourself. If you're leaving things up to Mother Nature, you'll have to monitor the soil so it doesn't get drenched. You can also toss on a cover—a slab of wood or plastic sheeting will do—to hold in the moisture and keep the bin from absorbing too much rain. 

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