Nature’s Way of Managing Organic Waste
Spring has arrived and our thoughts turn to outdoor maintenance and what to do with all that organic material that’s accumulated during the winter months. Think composting; it’s nature’s way of turning waste into a treasure.
Composting, by definition, is a process that allows for the controlled biological decomposition of organic material. In 2009, organic waste accounted for almost 23% of Oregon’s trash! Yard debris made up approximately 5% of our garbage, and food waste another 18%. As we work to decrease the amount of material put into our landfill, these organics are an obvious place to start. Why should this concern us? When organic materials biodegrade in a modern landfill they produce methane gas, a potent contributor to global climate change.
Here are some tips you can use to decrease your impact on the environment:
Want a simple, natural approach to lawn care? Consider grasscycling – leaving the grass clippings on the lawn. Because grass clippings are 75 to 85 percent water, they quickly decompose and release nutrients back into the lawn – it’s free fertilizer. Want to learn more? Visit www.oregonmetro.gov/index.cfm/go/by.web/id=578.
Mulches are organic materials spread over the surface of the soil to suppress weeds, keep plant roots cool and moist, and prevent soil from eroding or compacting. Many common yard clippings make excellent mulches. Grass clippings, leaves, and pine needles are all suitable for mulching landscapes. Wood chips from pruning and removing trees are a natural-looking substitute for beauty bark.
Turning in Crop Wastes
Don’t trash the healthy annual vegetable matter and flower plants at harvest time. Chop or till them back into the soil. They’ll break down and provide nutrients for next year. Spring crops will decompose quickly if cut when they are still green. Adding nitrogen fertilizer will also speed up decomposition. Fall crop wastes can be tilled into the soil or be cut roughly and left on the surface to protect the soil from erosion and compaction. Till these in with fertilizers a few weeks before spring planting.
Food Waste Reduction Strategies
Most home- and work-based food waste comes from two sources: buying too much and not using leftovers effectively. Menu planning can help reduce sources of waste and save money. There are many online resources to help you get started. Check out “menu planning tips” in a search engine.
Make Your Own Compost
A compost pile is a teeming community of microorganisms that help break down yard debris into usable nutrients and materials. The basic ingredients are high-carbon material, high-nitrogen material, air, water, and time. The goal is to create an environment that encourages microorganism communities and growth. Happy microorganisms multiply quickly and work hard. Combining these elements will make compost, but using the following recipe will help you get high-quality compost in a hurry. Check out this website to learn how to create a balanced, successful compost system: www.oregonmetro.gov/index.cfm/go/by.web/id=553
Soil incorporation is the simplest method for composting food waste. Choose an out-of-the-way place and dig a hole at least 8 inches deeper than the space the food waste will require. Chop the food waste, mix it with some of the soil, and then bury the waste under at least 8 inches of additional soil. Depending on the soil temperature, the number of microorganisms in the soil, and the carbon content of the wastes, decomposition will take one month to a year.
Worm bins are a fun and interesting way to compost kitchen wastes. Wood or plastic containers with lids provide red wiggler worms (not earthworms) with the dark and moist environment they prefer. Worms are “bedded” within these boxes in shredded, moist paper, newsprint, corrugated cardboard, leaves, or other high-cellulose materials. Food wastes (no meat or dairy) are then buried in this bedding. The burial spots are rotated in an organized progression. Worms eat the food waste and bedding and their excrement, called worm castings, is a high-quality soil amendment suitable for use on houseplants, vegetable seedlings, and flowers. Pam Meredith can give testimony to the effects worm castings have on her houseplants. She also has worms to spare! Studies have shown that worm castings contain plant growth hormones and other elements that dramatically improve soil and plant health.
Worm castings are highly concentrated, so use them sparingly as a top dressing or combine them with additional soil.
Composting can be done using a variety of methods and is a great way to deal with organic waste. We can reduce our yard debris and food waste by taking a few simple steps. Find a system that fits your needs and lifestyle and give it a try.
Written by Pat Sandquist,
Earth Care Team Member and Long-time Composter