This past weekend I taught a composting class at a local Waldorf school to a group of adults. When I asked the students to describe their living situations, I realized I needed to take a detour from the main activity of the day, building a large biodynamic compost pile, into a discussion of worm composting.
Why? A few of the attendees lived in apartments or had very small yards. The type of composting your household does will be determined in part from how you manage your waste stream and what you intend to do with the compost. If you live in an apartment and just have a few house plants, a worm bin is going to be your best option.
Even if you have a yard and a vegetable garden you may still need to maintain a few different types of compost methods. We have three kinds of composting methods at our house, determined by the types of waste streams our household generates:
Our worm bin is for the trickle of food waste that comes out of the kitchen on a daily basis. This consists of vegetable trimmings, tea bags and coffee grounds.
Advantages: Can be done indoors in an apartment. Produces a compost that is higher in nutrients than a conventional compost pile.
Disadvantages: Certain foods can’t be added like citrus and onions.
Conventional compost pile
If you have a vegetable garden and want to grow organically, you’ll need to generate a large amount of compost. This is a great way to deal with yard trimmings, grass, manure, and food waste.
Advantages: makes the kind of high quality compost needed in large quantities for a vegetable garden.
Disadvantages: a lot of work, can’t be added too once the pile is built, may require car trips to gather materials.
“Disposal” compost pile
There’s also stuff that can’t go in the worm bin. And once you build a big pile it’s best not to keep adding to it. For this reason we have a kind of “disposal” pile. It’s a compost bin that gets the materials that can’t go into the other two.
Advantages: reduces the biomass of all the stuff that can’t go either in the worm bin or the big compost pile.
Disadvantages: produces a low quality compost.
The labor involved in building a big compost pile for a conventional vegetable garden speaks to the advantages of what I think of as alternative permaculture food crops. In our climate that’s things like prickly pear cactus, pomegranates, certain types of grapes, olives and California natives (many of which are edible or medicinal). These useful plants don’t need compost. They pull up nutrients from the ground and, if you let the leaves fall in place, do their own composting.