Kids dig dirt. And they are very interested in food science even though they don’t always eat their food. A match is made in heaven when food science meets dirt, otherwise known as composting. Depending upon the age of your child, there are many ways to involve them in composting plant-based kitchen waste along with debris from your yard. To help kids understand the basics of composting, a good place to start is with a see-through composter, so that they can study the work in progress. Keep in mind that most of these products are pretty small, so don’t expect to make enough compost to really make a dent in your yard (unless your yard consists of a couple of potted plants). This pint-sized version has many benefits; kids are more engaged because they really get to see what is happening with the materials they are composting and the small quantity aspect of it shrinks up the timeline a bit. Your older children may patiently await the months of turning a traditional compost pile until it turns to black gold, but the wee organic gardeners out there will lose interest rather quickly. It might be better to stick with a smaller scale project.
To get started, you simply need to decide on your vessel. Whether you use the view-able mini composter, a commercial compost bin, or a trash can with holes punched in it, your ingredients list should be pretty consistent: brown, green, water, repeat. Brown is simple and includes things like dry leaves and branches. Green includes the obvious green yard waste like lawn clippings but also includes coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable waste. It is generally frowned upon to put any other food waste into your home compost (other than uncooked egg shells) to avoid a stink that could rival garbage day in New York City, not to mention the rats that come with it. We have an extraordinary yard waste/compost service in the city of Seattle that allows you to literally put a rack of lamb in your yard waste for future composting. So check to see what ordinances are in your municipality and you may be able to teach your child how to compost almost anything through a few different channels. When your family is ready to tackle a larger compost bin, here are some steps to get you started:
- Select your container; whether a ventilated garbage can, a commercially made compost bin, or homemade vessel, make sure that you’ll be able to turn the compost over and it can “breathe”.
- Add grass clippings and green yard waste, but be sure to mix with the “brown” materials like leaves and shredded paper. You will need both.
- Turn your pile as often as you can. Each time you turn it, it speeds up the process.
- Keep your compost damp, but not wet. As you add material to your pile make sure that each layer is moist.
- Composting works best at a temperature between 120 and 150 degrees. To make it easier, start in the summer.
- When your compost is ready, add it to your garden a few weeks before you plant. Mix it in and let the compost have a chance to work into the soil.
Now what could be better than watching food and leaves rot into dirt? Worms! Red Wigglers (Eisenia fetida for those who want to get into scientific classifications), to be exact. These are the worms that are most suited to creating a worm composting bin, otherwise known as vermicomposting. This is a bit more complex than just stacking up materials and turning until they break down; it involves life and death. This is a perfect introduction to lifecycles and totally fascinating to any kid (unless worms make them squeamish). It is also a primer for kids who don’t have pets yet. Once everything is set up, feed the worms food and water, collect their poop which forms the compost, make sure their home does not get too hot, and generally care for them and their offspring. Worm composting requires a fair amount of patience, as the average bin takes about three months to produce enough compost to “harvest.” To keep things a little more lively and timely, you can start out creating a mini worm bin, see how it goes, and then graduate to a full scale operation later. The mini bin takes about a week to complete, so no time to get bored. Here’s how to get stared:
- Get two containers. One container needs to fit inside the other, both measuring roughly 6” in diameter and 6-1/2” tall. Worms like it dark so either get a dark outer container or paint the outside.
- The inner container needs to have holes in the bottom for drainage, preferably smaller than worms so they can’t wiggle through.
- Make a cardboard lid that fits snugly on top of the inner container. This will keep it dark and allow air to flow in. Leave a tab on the cardboard for easy removal.
- Place a small rock inside the bottom of the outer container for air space between the inner and outer containers.
- Place a circle of a paper towels inside the bottom of the inner container to allow excess moisture to drain.
- Fill the bottom of the inner container with moistened shredded newspaper. Fluff for worm movement through the newspaper.
- Add a small amount of food scraps, about half the weight of the worms. Small shreds of banana peel, carrot shreds, or the like will work great. You’ll need to add this amount every day. Note: keep citrus to a minimum, if you add at all; too much makes worms sick.
- Add 3-5 worms, red wigglers, of course. As willing as they may seem, do not use worms from your garden; they will not survive a worm composter.
- Top it off with a small amount of moistened soil, enough to keep the newspaper covered.
- Spritz the soil to keep it moist, but not wet.
- After a week, transfer to a larger compost bin, or just put them in your garden.
However you choose to compost, making it a regular part of life will help your kids learn a little bit of science and have a respect for the earth’s resources. And, what kid wouldn’t want to learn how to make gold? Black gold.