The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

A Home For Your Kitchen Scraps

September 27th, 2009 · 5 Comments · Posted in garden, Sustainability, urban agriculture

Kitchen scraps make great compost

Kitchen scraps make great compost

Making compost is a second occupaton for The Slow Cook. Since we garden organically, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, our source of fertility consists of what’s in the ground already and what we add to it in the form of compost. Being in the city, about a mile from Michelle Obama’s White House garden here in the District of Columbia, making enough compost to satisfy our nine rather large vegetable beds can be a challenge.

We are, in effect, compost foragers. I am always looking for sources of nitrogen–what we composters refer to as the “green” side of the compost equation–as well as carbon, or what we often call “browns.” Greens can be anything from grass clippings to coffee grounds. (You don’t normally think of coffee grounds as “green,” I know. But they are a good source of nitrogen.) Browns are more abundant. They are everywhere around us in different forms, from newspaper to cardboard, straw to fall leaves.

The trouble is, equal amounts of greens and browns are not always available at the same time of year. We collect barrels of leaves in the fall. But they are quickly used up when we make our initial compost pile in the spring. That’s why I’ve taken to shredding bales of straw as a continuous source of carbon. I used to collect plenty of grass clippings from our own lawn–or what’s left of it between the garden beds. But that ended when I switched from an electric mower to a manual push mower. Sometimes I get clippings from local landscaping crews. But for a more reliable source, I’ve taken to scavaging coffee grounds from the local Starbucks (I bring home huge 40-pound bags at a time) and filling buckets with horse manure from riding stables.

And of course we are always composting our kitchen scraps. We produce a steady supply of vegetable peels and apple cores and egg shells in our kitchen and these get buried deep inside the compost pile. In the presence of coffee grounds and horse manure, they quickly break down into a luscious black soil amendment that makes our plants very happy.

We also accept donations of kitchen scraps from neighbors. More and more people are becoming aware of the benefits of compost and of the need to reduce the amount of organic material we send to the landfill. Last time I looked, about a third of the material sent to the landfill consisted of food waste. In an anaerobic garbage environment, that organic material is likely to turn into methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas. We’d much rather turn it back into garden soil.

But not everyone has the interest or the ability to compost.  Over the years, I’ve had many people from all over the city ask me where they can take their kitchen waste to be composted. Unfortunately, unlike places such as San Francisco, we don’t have a municipal composting program here in the District of Columbia. At one point, a group proposed building a small-scale, neigborhood  facility near a community garden so that people in the area could start composting. But they were unable to obtain the grant funds they needed to get started. That’s a shame. Short of implimenting compost collection citywide, the D.C. government could start community composting operations at recreation centers. Think how that might turn thousands of urbanites into composters.

Meanwhile, I recently learned that Common Good City Farm (formerly the 7th Street Garden) will begin next year accepting your kitchen scraps for composting at their site in the Ledroit Park neighborhood. Liz Falk, the garden’s founder and director, told me she had been getting the same questions from people about where they could take their food wastes. Since Common Good City Farm also relies on compost to grow its fruits and vegetables, and because it is a fairly large operation, a logical step was to start accepting donations of organic material.

“People don’t want to throw their food scraps away and realize it’s a valuable resource.  But they either cannot or do not want to compost it themsevles,” Liz said. “Some live in apartments, some don’t want to “deal with it” and others have other reasons of course.  For us, we realized soil is our most limited resource and to buy it seems crazy–which is what we have had to do to set up the farm to the point it is at now.  But if we have bins large enough to accept people’s food and break it down then we can save ourselves money, provide a service the community wants, provide educational opportunities to everybody who comes to the farm, and maybe even set an example for other city neighborhoods, community gardens and the city.”

Liz said that precise details of the program have yet to be finalized. “I don’t know how it will work quite yet,” she said. “Of course, we have to maintain that great green/brown balance in the bins so when people bring food to compost they have to bring paper or some other brown with it, so we always have inputs of both.  I’ll need to train my staff on composting a bit more than they are. Some know it well and some less well.  We’ll have nice educational signage at the bins so it’s easy to follow.”

So if you are one of those people who’s been looking for a place to take your kitchen scraps, watch this space. Better yet, watch the space at Common Good City Farm. You can learn more about the farm and find contact information from their website. They also have tons of great volunteer and garden educational opportunities.

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  • Pattie

    Ed; Any experience with using spent grains from beermaking for compost? We have just established a relationship with a nearby brewpub for our community garden. We are trying it out at a rate of two tons of spent grains a week until our compost bin is full. We have it a bit away from the garden because it supposedly smells really bad for about a week. We are planning on mixing in carbon in the form of wood chips and then leaves (once they fall–it’s early yet in Atlanta for that). Thoughts?

  • Ed Bruske

    Pattie, I don’t have experience with beer waste. But I did a Google search and found a piece about Shlafly Beer in St. Louis acquiring grants to explore turning their spent grains into compost and apparently it was quite successful. You might try contacting them. Look here:

  • foodperson

    Although I do compost, I tend to have an overabundance of fall leaves,. Although I’m happy to share, the people who want to use my excess never show up to help rake. They just swipe them from the alley where I put them out for the city composting program.

  • Pattie

    Thanks for the links, Ed. I’ll let you know how things go here. FYI, this same brewpub gives its spent grain to an urban farm and I’ve been told the resulting compost has boosted yields up to 30%.

  • Ed Bruske

    Janet, I would be the guy swiping your bags of leaves. I don’t have any of my own to speak of, so I simply go around the neighborhood collecting others’. Or sometimes I bag what people have raked into piles by the curb for a city pickup. What happens to your city compost? Do they give it away, or do they make you pay for it?

    Pattie, I don’t know the chemical profile of beer waste. Any protein in it would break down into nitrogen. I think a 30 percent increase in yields is a bit of a stretch. But it should make fine compost.