Composting With Kids


Everything you throw in the trash will still be in that landfill in 1,000 years. Much of what we throw away can be recycled, reused, or composted.

Why Compost

One medium-size family puts out a lot of garbage each week; composting can significantly reduce your garbage footprint. Composting is nature’s perfect recycling method. All those potato peels, bread crusts, and raked leaves can be made into brand new soil/mulch to use on your yard or garden.

Kids get excited about composting because it’s kind of like magic. You take this stuff from your kitchen, dump it in a bin, and next thing you know, it’s rich “soil.” Kids also learn about chemistry, biology, and life cycles.

What to Compost

Basically, you can and should compost all foodstuffs or other organic materials, except meat and dairy products. (Some people eschew rules and throw in the meat too, which will eventually compost. This is fine if you don’t have problems with raccoons, foxes, or other animals invading your pile.) Peelings, leftovers, even paper napkins and coffee filters are easy to compost. Leaves, other yard waste, wood chips, and other plant materials are good for the compost pile. When your garden is done for the season, dump it all in the compost. Even eggshells will eventually break down.

How to Compost

The most basic way to start is to pick a spot in your yard and start dumping. Some people do fine with a pile that is exposed to the elements. If you have pets or wild animals, you might want to have a container to keep them out of your compost. The kids can build a simple wooden box out of scrap lumber. If you are looking in stores, you’ll see all kinds of systems. Spend conservatively. You can always upgrade if you need to.

Compost needs a few key ingredients in order to break down most efficiently: heat and moisture. Not too much moisture, but enough. The compost will produce its own heat as it breaks down; an enclosure will keep the heat contained. Air flow is also important. If the materials have no exposure to air, they kind of stagnate and can smell bad. So you want to “turn” your compost every so often (just how often depends on how fast you want your new soil), either with a container that turns itself or with something as simple as a pitchfork or pole.

Patricia Lanza, author of Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens, advocates simply digging a hole in your yard and dumping your compost in it until it’s full, then covering it up and moving on to another hole. The stuff will break down in place, so there’s no additional step of spreading it on the garden. She also encourages a layering method of newspapers, then leaves, then compost, then other kinds of layers over an area to be planted. It all breaks down into perfect soil. Both methods work perfectly well.

Ways to Use Compost

Use compost as a top cover or mulch around plants. It will leach down into the soil, adding nutrients as it does so. You can also use compost for potting soil in containers and in yards.

We don’t have a large yard or garden, so about once a year, we dig out the finished compost at the bottom of our container and spread it around the yard. It’s especially great in areas where the dogs have dug holes, where heavy clay soil needs to be aerated, and in large pots where the soil is easily depleted of necessary nutrients.

If you grow a vegetable garden, compost makes a great mulch to keep weeds contained. And, if there’s a spot in your lawn that you’d like to renovate—say into xeriscaping, vegetable gardening, or something else—you can pile your raked leaves in that area and top them off with compost. The grass underneath will die, and the soil will become richer.

Tips Learned From Experience

•  You’ll probably want a space in your kitchen to collect “compost ingredients” until you are ready to take them outside. Some people keep a trash can just for compost. Others use a counter-top container with a lid. You can even purchase filters to keep the potential smell to a minimum. I usually use whatever’s at hand: empty milk cartons, a large mixing bowl, a plastic bag. If you take out compost every day, choose a container that will make it easier for you—maybe a bucket with a handle. If you’re emptying your kitchen container less frequently, you’ll probably want it out of sight and out of smell-range.

•  Put your compost pile where it won’t be bothered, but close enough to the house to be convenient.

•  Assigning compost disposal as a child’s chore is a great idea.

•  You can buy all kinds of special compost starter supplies, like liquids that claim to help breakdown occur faster, earthworms that “eat” your stuff, etc. Stuff will eventually break down no matter what you add, but feel free to experiment.