10/02/02 Tip of the Week - "How to Compost Food
Most composting resources
recommend caution when composting food scraps and with good reason. Unlike
most yard materials, which are generally, dry, thin, dead or dying, and
high in carbon, that is not always the case with kitchen scraps. However,
I compost nearly all of my kitchen scraps, including, yes, meat scraps.
Food scraps, like some yard materials, just need to be properly prepared,
and then added in a reasonable proportion to a properly maintained pile.
To the right is a photo
of some banana and grapefruit peels. Note that there is only peel, no
banana or grapefruit (well, not much grapefruit anyway!). Note that the
peels are skinside down, and that the peels are evenly distributed. This
promotes rapid drying, which is the first step in decomposition. Also note
that the pile has been made with a recessed center section. If you do not
want people to see what is in your pile, is is easy to cover the food
scraps with aged compost. Composting food scraps in this way is very low
risk, meaning that there will be minimal if any odor, and it will quickly
diminish, especially if the peels are exposed to sunshine.
The next photo shows a
slightly more extreme example of food composting - there is actually food
and not just peels. On the perimeter are sliced apples and in the center
are sliced tomatoes. In this case, mockingbirds showed up quickly and ate
away the apple and left only the peel. The tomato, being so juicy, quickly
dried up and was consumed by earwigs and pill bugs. At times I have taken
material like this, put it in the blender, made puree, dilluted it with
water, and poured it over the pile. That would be the fastest and lowest
risk way to deal with food like this, in case birds are not readily
available, but you may or may not want to go to that length. I no longer
do. If birds are not around, then it would be a good idea to cover food
like this with a layer of finished or at least partially finished compost.
You could also chop the slices into bits and distribute them evenly on the
pile, but this takes more of your time. It is up to you.
Next is a slightly more
extreme example, a Halloween pumpkin that needed to be composted. Compared
to the previous food items, the pumpkin is much fleshier and tougher. It
will most likely be consumed by insects rather than microorganisms, though
if the pile happens to heat up, it will quickly turn into warm mush.
Still, there should be no offensive odors regardless of the composting
mechanism. I do not have the patience or time to chop the pumpkin into
small pieces, so large chunks have to be dealt with. Note that they are
place skin-side down in the pile. This will encourage moisture to collect
in the concave surfaces. Next, it is important that the chunks are placed
well towards the interior of the pile, and covered with a layer of aged
material. You would not expect something like this to be processed
quickly, so be ready to let something like this sit for a couple months
before turning the pile.
Finally, we are ready to discuss the most
extreme form of composting - meat scraps. My first experimentation with
this was to throw a raw turkey neck into the middle of a dry leaf pile,
just to see what happened. After a day, that pile stunk to high heaven!
Big mistake! But I did learn the hard way why most compost resources advise against
Since then, I have learned to cook the turkey neck and make
soup from it, and then, when most of the meat has been stripped, it can be
buried deep within a pile in a pocket of aged material. Now I compost
chicken bones, T-bones, pork chop bones, etc. with absolutely no problems
at all. As long as the meat has been cooked and the bones are free of most
meat and fat, when turning time comes I find bones that have been
absolutely picked clean. I think this is better than sealing that stuff in
plastic and storing it until trash day. My exception is slabs of fat and
sometimes poultry skins, though like a thin slice of beef, if a piece of
skin is carefully spread out in the center of a pile and covered with aged
material then it will be consumed quickly.
I have composted a
squirrel carcass successfully. A deceased animal was on the road in front
of a neighbor's house and he had to dispose of it somehow. So what the
heck, why not try. The squirrel produced an awful odor from ten feet away,
yet when buried within a dense pile of aging material, there was no
noticeable odor. None of my visitors or guests ever noticed any odor coming from that pile. Six weeks later I harvested the pile and after sifting, did not find a single trace of the squirrel.
In conclusion, it is
quite possible to compost fruit, vegetables, and even meat if you know
what you are doing. Of course, local environments differ, so you have to
use discretion as to what goes into your compost pile. One PilePro owner
has told me she enjoys watching deer eat the apple cores from her compost
pile; other wildlife may not be so welcome.