From Waste to Wow: How and Why to Compost

Get garden "gold" in 3 easy steps

By + More

You know those vegetable skins, apple cores, and banana peels you've been throwing in the garbage, or the "yard waste" you've been leaving by your curb for your city to pick up and take away? You are about to have a 180-degree shift in how you think about your trash. All that "garbage" is really gold to a home garden. In fact, it turns into black gold (compost) when given the opportunity and the right conditions. And the best part about it is that it's free. I'm a huge fan of compost (in fact, I've created my own custom compost from the food scraps from Whole Foods locations throughout the southeastern United States), because it provides home gardens with essential nutrients, organic matter, and lots of other healthy, natural goodness.

Here are three easy ways to put your waste to work for you:

1. Set up a backyard compost area. Pick a spot in your yard for yard waste to decompose. This can be a simple pile in the corner, or a three-bin system made from plans you find on the internet. All those branches, leaves, grass clippings, and plant remains you've been disposing (however your municipality encourages or requires you to do so) can now live nine lives or more right there on your property; they decompose, you add them to your garden, new plants grow and die, you add them to your pile, they decompose, and so on. Aim to have more browns (leaves, twigs, wood chips) than greens (grass clippings, plant remains, and veggie and fruit waste, if you choose to include that), and you will get a relatively balanced pile that doesn't smell.

There are many ways to manipulate the heat of the pile and the speed with which the materials dec ompose, but that's getting into some serious composting. The basics? On a monthly basis, use a pitchfork to toss this pile into a new pile right next to it. By tossing the pile back and forth, you'll aerate the compost and access the crumbly, sweet-smelling finished product from the bottom of the pile for your garden.

You can add kitchen scraps to your compost pile, but be sure to bury them in the pile. Also, stay away from fats and meats, unless you want your pile to be the meeting place for every critter in the neighborhood. You might prefer keeping those scraps separate in their own critter-proof spinning composter—just be sure to get your balance right between the browns and greens. Here is some simple advice: If the smell makes you frown, add more browns.

2. Make or get a worm bin. Worms rock in a home garden, and not just under rocks. They also do a bang-up job eating their weight in food waste each day, and turning it into one of the best amendments you can add to your soil—vermicompost. Vermicompost (also known as worm castings) works to add micronutrients to soil and improve its structure. Trust me—it's a good thing. A worm bin gives you a controlled environment for this magical transformation from waste to wow. The trick? Be sure to get red wrigglers (not earthworms) for this purpose, and don't feed your worms too much or too often. Take the time to get to know how much is just right, based on how quickly they consume what you give them. Want them to take more waste off your hands? Try chopping up the scraps you give them (some people actually do this in their blender or food processor), so they can consume them more quickly. Be sure to add some eggshells to aid in the worms' digestion of food scraps. Keep in mind that if your worm bin smells, something's not well. Slow down, add shredded newspaper, or even consider starting over.

3. Pile on the leaves (and save a pile of them). It won't be long before the leaves start turning colors and falling in many parts of the United States, and that's when home gardeners hit the jackpot. Leaves are packed with carbon and minerals, and they work wonders in a garden. Gather, shred, and spread them on any garden beds you won't have in production after the summer harvests, and let nature take its course while you're busy watching sports. They decompose quickly, add much-needed nutrients, improve soil structure, regulate temperature, and encourage earthworms and microorganisms. Don't forget to save a big pile of leaves for adding to your compost pile and spinning composter throughout the winter and especially in the spring, when all that green growth can tip your pile out of balance, and "browns" are not as easy to find.

If you already compost, what tried-and-true tips can you offer newcomers to the fold? Or should I say, pile? Let us know in the comments section. Tap in next week, and I'll share some tips about building community through gardening—none of us wants to be "out standing in our field" all alone, now do we?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Daron Joffe is a 30-something eco-entrepreneur who lives to make a difference in the world one homegrown organic fruit and vegetable at a time. Known as "Farmer D," Joffe has grown food for celebrities, private communities, and elementary schools in his "town-by-town mission to re-energize the food culture." His products are sold at select Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma stores. Born in South Africa and based in Atlanta, Farmer D is online at www.farmerD.com.