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Garbage Gardening

Down below this jungle of tomato and snap pea plants lies layers of organic waste and lots of composting worms busily converting the materials into rich vermicompost.

As I mentioned a while back (and written about recently on Red Worm Composting), I’m involved in a pretty sizable restaurant food waste composting project this year. In a nutshell, I am receiving hundreds of pounds (per week) of fruit and vegetable waste from a very popular local restaurant and have been composting these materials on my property.

Given the quantity of wastes, I’ve had to get a little creative with my methods, and I’ve certainly discovered some methods that really work well, and others that…well…don’t work quite so well!

Most of my efforts have focused on various forms of vermicomposting. I have been adding lots of food scraps to my traditional worm bin systems, but I’ve also been creating a variety of large-scale outdoor systems to help me to deal with all the waste.

One simple technique that seems to be working quite well for me is what I refer to as ‘Garbage Gardening’ (although this name could actually be applied to much of what I’m doing in my backyard this year). Basically, you dump a bunch of waste directly on the soil, you then add a decent amount of good (composting) worm habitat, lots of worms, and some sort of carbon-rich mulch over top. The worms convert the waste materials into worm castings which in turn fertilizes the plants in a slow-release manner.

In some ways I kinda stumbled upon this technique accidentally. After doing a fair bit of ‘pit composting’ (aka – digging holes and burying the waste – haha) I was desperately looking for more places to get rid of food scraps. Initially I decided to take over two flower beds and convert them to worm beds, but after seeing how quickly watermelon seeds sprouted up out of the composting mass, it suddenly dawned on me that these beds could be used for more than just worm composting!

People often ask if composting worms can be added directly to garden soil to help boost fertility (the idea being that they will produce castings and fertilize the plants). Although I am continually trying to instill the idea that ‘composting worms are not the same as soil worms’, and I recommend that Red Worms be added to a worm bin not a garden, in actuality they CAN be added to your garden (or landscape in general), provided you create a nice habitat for them.

The humble beginnings of a ‘garbage garden’ – I’ve simply dumped a bunch of compostable waste materials on the soil surface

If you simply dump some waste on or in your soil and add a few composting worms, there is a decent chance some of them will want to stick around and feed on the organic matter. A better approach however would be to add a lot of prime worm ‘habitat’.

Over top of the wastes I added a substantial amount of well-aged manure, absolutely chock full of Red Worms.

This ‘habitat’ can either be a large quantity of materials (and worms) from an established vermicomposting system, and/or a nice mix of bedding/food that has been aged for a period of time (as I recommend when setting up a normal worm bin).

This way the worms have a nice place to call home – they don’t need to live directly in the waste materials or in the soil, neither of which is an ideal habitat for them (at least not in the case of food waste).

For this particular garbage garden I decided to add a layer of coconut coir to give it a more decorative mulched appearance. I ended up adding straw over top of this layer.

Some people may obviously be worried about the aesthetics of this approach – after all, who wants to have rotting banana peels and apple cores lying around on their flower beds? This is where your ‘carbon-rich bedding’ material of choice will come in handy. I initially decided to add coconut coir as a mulch over top of my first two garbage gardens. I was actually quite impressed with the look – from a distance it just looked like I had applied a layer of decorative mulch. The problem I had with this material however was that it was difficult to add new waste materials without it ending up looking a little rough. I ended up opting for straw once I got a hold of a supply of it. While it doesn’t look quite as nice, it is much easier to work with (easy to cover up the wastes).

Young watermelon plants that grew up out of the composting waste materials.

Aside from planting seeds and seedlings directly in the composting mass, you can also use this technique in garden beds where plants are already established. Although I haven’t tried it yet, I think this would be a great technique for mulching/fertizing shrubs and trees – the added advantage of these larger plants is that they would help to shelter the worm bed below from both heat and cold.

Adding new food waste simply involves pulling back the layer of straw and creating a shallow depression, dumping in the wastes, then covering it back up.

As far as how much material to add – that’s really up to you. Obviously, you don’t want to dump a cubic yard of food waste on top of your garden and hope for the best. This will work best when you add small pockets of food materials on an ongoing basis. Once it looks likes materials are rapidly breaking down you can add more. Given the amount of air flow, and the larger size (compared to a small indoor worm bin for example), you definitely don’t need to worry too much about overfeeding – but if you live in an area where there are a lot of backyard nuisance animals like racoons/bears etc you should definitely test this out on a small scale first, and be sure to bury your wastes fairly well.

Another method that I’ve been testing out quite a bit is what I refer to as a ‘vermicomposting trench’. I’ve been blown away by how well this technique has been working for me, and I’ll be sure to write more about it fairly soon.

[tags]garbage, organic waste, food waste, vermicomposting, worm composting, worm bed, composting, gardening, red worms, red wigglers, composting worms[/tags]

Written by Compost Guy on July 16th, 2008 with comments disabled.
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Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com VicinSea
#1. August 18th, 2008, at 5:16 PM.

I have tried this in the past and had huge trouble with rats digging up the compost (& the plants) Do you have problems like that and what has worked for you to stop them?

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com Sandy in Asheville
#2. August 20th, 2008, at 1:11 AM.

I’d really like to hear about what doesn’t work. I’ve done trench composting before, but making a mistake with “garbage” can be yucky, so I’d love to avoid mistakes if you’ve been kind enough to make them already.

Get your own gravatar by visiting gravatar.com steve mclean
#3. December 21st, 2012, at 5:57 PM.

VicinSea wrote “I have tried this in the past and had huge trouble with rats digging up the compost (& the plants) Do you have problems like that and what has worked for you to stop them?”

What’s worked for me – both for rats and raccoons – is a layer of coffee grounds. It needn’t be completely covering the composting material, I’ve found but enough to put off the scent of the compost.