Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Believe it or not, composting is fun, easy to do, saves you money, protects the environment and helps you grow amazing plants. It doesn’t matter whether you live in an apartment with a balcony (even if you only have a cupboard under your kitchen sink) or have a family or a garden that generates lots of organic waste, nearly anything that has recently lived can be composted.
Now to start with, a few health warnings. Yes, there are techniques that can compost food waste, including cooked food, dairy and meats, but to begin I’m just going to concentrate on garden waste and the easier-to-compost kitchen waste. The rats are fed well enough around East London as it is.
In the next few blogs, I’ll speak about different composting systems – including ‘dalek’ composting bins, open-pile composting, wormeries and bokashi. But why do we make compost? Well it’s an essential ingredient to healthy soil and reduces the amount of material you put in your trash can. Soil is generally made up of organic and inorganic compounds, gases and liquids and acts as:
- As a medium for plant growth;
- As a means of water storage, supply and purification;
- As a modifier of Earth's atmosphere;
- As a habitat for organisms.
The inorganic compounds act as a ‘fixer’ for the organic compounds, which are what feed all plant life (and ultimately all life on earth). The clay in the soil binds with the organics, which then stick to the plant roots, and with creepy-crawlies, bacteria and fungi (breaking the nutrients down into a soluble form) and water (dissolving and transporting the nutrients) feeds the plants through their roots. Sand and silt help break up the structure of the soil and allows water and gas to operate in the system. When soils get compacted, by over-use or being neglected completely, water and gas can’t get into the system, which stifles nutrient uptake by plants and the plants die.
Compost does a number of things in this soil-osphere. Firstly, it adds life to the soil (both in a visible and microscopic way), boosting microbial activity which feeds the fungi and bacteria, which in turn feed your plants. This whole system is the ultimate in recycling, reusing material that took nutrients out of the ground to grow in the first place and returning it to the soil for more things to grow. The most important mechanism in this system is the worm – both the composting worm (more on these little critters later) and the earthworm, as your common or garden worm brings all this together.
As an aside, Charles Darwin – author of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man and architect of the Theory of Evolution – dedicated more time to studying the worm than any other creature on earth. His last book was dedicated to the role of the worm in the ecosphere, and he declared of the humble earthworm: “"It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures."
Anyway, back to composting. Compost also changes the structure of the soil, ‘crumbing’ it to allow the exchange of liquids and gases and retains moisture, holding it for the plants to take up in their growth. It also helps ‘buffer’ the soil, reducing excessive acidity or alkalinity and allows the soil to breathe, preventing the soil going anaerobic and fermenting, which creates lots of nasty compounds that will kill your plants.
It also means you need less fertilizers – as compost improves cation exchange capacity, i.e. holding moisture and allowing plants to take up nutrients, and reintroducing organically-derived nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous back into the ground. The over-use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides eventually poisons the soil, as it kills off natural flora and fauna, and is high in salts, which ultimately kill plants. The use of compost, on the other hand, means you have less need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, as the beneficial microbes you reintroduce to the earth build a protective layer around the plant roots, which prevent bad bacteria and fungi getting in.
In the global context, compost helps your garden become a ‘carbon sink’, locking carbon into the soil, and not letting it escape into the atmosphere and mix with oxygen to create carbon dioxide, the primary cause of global warming.
It also reduces your waste footprint. At the end of a meal, most leftovers go straight in your black bin along with any peelings. There they’ll mix with your other rubbish, rot, create methane and add to global warming. In fact, in the UK we throw away about 30% of the food we buy.
Even if you are in a residency where there is kerbside collection of food waste, cutting out the middle-man and doing some home composting can save the Council trucking that waste away to be industrially composted – or worse still – sent to landfill in your black bags.
We’re fairly well-conditioned to put our plastics, glass, metals and paper into the recycling sack. We can become conditioned too to put our peelings, tops and tails, old teabags, eggshells, spoiled fruit and veg, coffee grounds, and even till receipts in a separate container for composting.
Finally, composting can help with biodiversity. By making a compost heap, you are creating a living, breathing biosphere, that feeds the entire food chain right up to the top predators. Plenty of worms keeps the invertebrate population of a garden well-fed and birds will visit to pick off the worms and insects. You might even get a visit from frogs and toads, who love the warmth of a pile and the fact that’s it’s a veritable in-garden supermarket in terms of tasty snacks. Moreover, the wildlife benefits continue through the soil, and you’re doing your bit to save the bee by eschewing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Just for wildlife value alone it’s worth building a pile.
Sorry it was a bit sciencey- I’ve been experimenting with video over the last week, and although I was never destined for a career on the silver screen, I did put something together on how to build a basic compost heap. Just bear with me whilst my tech-savvy daughter teaches me how to edit videos.