Kinder Garden: Compost, from garbage to gold

compost, life cyle of garbage, teach kids to compost Let’s compost! (Photo: Getty Images)

Put all your organic waste together and let nature break it down. Here are some pointers to follow.

By Sachin Gupta

If you want to see nature’s finest magic, then start composting. Put simply, compost is the rich, nutritious stuff in soil that helps plant grow, retain moisture in the ground and build soil.

We are facing a huge garbage crisis, our landfills are challenging mountains and our arable lands are rapidly becoming deserts, water is getting scarce and food more expensive by the day. An average Indian household produces more than 250 kilograms of wet waste every year, multiply that by the urban population of Delhi and you get a mind boggling 4.5 million tons of compostable waste from just one city! That’s a lot of waste to be handled, transported and managed, all at the expense of the taxpayer. But it needn’t be like this; simply by starting composting at home you’ll not only be helping  your plants or community garden by eliminating the need for store bought fertilisers and khaad, but also helping the environment and setting a great example for your kids.

If something was alive once, it will live again. This is the very nature of nature: reorganisation and metamorphosis. Every fly you see that sits on every laddoo of every halwai, who whacks it lifeless came from another tree, dinosaur, beetle and banana. This metamorphosis takes place with the help of tiny microorganisms that exist in our environment. Bacteria are the masters of composting, aided by fungi, worms, insects and a bunch of other critters they eat and digest organic waste converting it into simpler organic material which we call compost. This is then used up by plants and trees to make leaves, bark, fruits, flowers and roots, which are eaten by animals and humans, and every time these living things die and return to the ground, the entire process starts again.

There are dozens of ways to compost that you can find on the internet and books but the primary steps remain the same: Put all your organic waste together and let nature break it down.

Here are some tips to help you compost more efficiently and successfully:

* Start with collecting all your ingredients which can be easily done by having two different bins, one for organic waste and the other for inorganic waste. Segregation at source is essential because it frees you from the unnecessary task of having to separate it once it’s mixed, also the dry and unsoiled waste can be collected and sold. A great way for kids to learn segregation and earn some extra pocket money!

* If you’re in Delhi, the city is luckily still blessed with trees in parks, roadsides and around neighbourhoods and you may have observed as soon as the weather starts to warm, many of them start shedding their leaves preparing for the dry hot Delhi summer. Parks and roads are littered with silk cotton leaves, Amaltas leaves and Ashok leaves. This, my friends, is treasure! Collect as much as you can, preferably enough to last you an entire year of composting. Street sweepers will gladly give you all you want. Dry leaves are important because they are the fastest ready source of carbon essential for composting.

* Everything organic has a different proportion of carbon and nitrogen. How do you tell if something has more carbon or more nitrogen? Simple, if it’s dry, hard and doesn’t smell then its carbon or ‘browns’ (because most carbon heavy waste is shades of brown) such as dry leaves, cardboard, woodchips, sawdust and newspaper. And if it’s wet, soft, slimy and has an odour, it’s nitrogen or ‘greens’ (as much of it is green) like grass clippings, kitchen waste, wilted flowers, weeds, etc.

(Photo: Getty Images)

* Once you’ve collected all your ingredients, decide how you would like to compost. You could use a stack composter or khamba (Terracotta pots or buckets that one rotates when they fill up. You can find one at organic or gardening stores or make one yourself), many homes use these owing to its compact design and visual appeal. You can even use an empty drum or box, even just piling everything up in a heap works fine. Just remember to punch a few holes on the sides for aeration if you are using closed containers. This decision is yours to make, considering available space, amount of waste generated, what looks nice and affordability.

* Next, put these ingredients together. Start with a 1:3 greens to browns ratio. I’ve always felt it’s a good place to begin composting, just like baking a cake. Once you become proficient you can alter the ratio depending on what ingredients you have at hand and like in a lasagne, alternate the browns and the greens, start with a layer of browns at the bottom followed by a layer of greens and so on. Remember to keep a thick layer of browns at the top (this controls the smell, thereby keeping rodents and crows away).

* Really fine compost can take over six months to be ready if left to its own devices. But you can really speed up the process by turning it every few days, that is, mixing up all the material in the heap like a salad. There will be some smell in the initial days of decomposition and you will know the compost is ready when it starts to smell very pleasant like first rain.

* Good compost heats up. Bacteria generate heat in the compost so mixing helps new material come in contact with the bacteria at the same time aerating the pile.

* You don’t want the compost heap to dry out or get drenched. The first dehydrates and kills the hardworking aerobic bacteria and the other kills them by drowning them. Cover your compost with a lid if it’s a drum or a box, or a sheet of tarpaulin/plastic. This also reduces the need of watering it in summers.

* You should get usable compost in three weeks, many large or hardy pieces might still remain. These can be sieved and put back into the heap to decompose; the rest can be used in your garden and plants.

Some common household waste you can add to your compost:

Hair and nail clippings, dust from sweeping, pet hair, weeds, grass clippings, food waste, egg shells newspaper, tea leaves, ground coffee, cardboard, cotton fabric.

Some things to avoid:

Dog and cat poop, fish, meat and bones. The reason to avoid these is the risk of disease since children will also be handling the compost heap. Plus there is a higher chance of these wastes attracting rodents. Only after you are absolutely confident with composting should you attempt to compost the above items and even then only use it for trees and not vegetable gardens.

Composting is by far one of the easiest things to do because you have to do so little. It’s an extremely rewarding activity for children as they learn to see nature work up close; this generates love and respect for all creatures big and small. It empowers them to take responsibility for their own waste thereby making informed decisions about what they eat and what they buy. They begin to see waste not as garbage but something valuable and useful. Let’s not waste away this great opportunity, let’s compost!

(Sachin Gupta is a natural farmer and food forester. He is passionate about sustainable living and ecological practices. He works as a consultant at Edible Routes. Follow on social media @EdibleRoutes)