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Understanding sustainability at our home and school

From ground to plate to compost to garden. How we can recognize and build a sustainable pattern for living while giving back to the Earth?

I don't know about you but the amount of junk mail, newspaper coupons, and unnecessary paper items I have around my house is a bit overwhelming. I try to purchase local goods with as little packaging as possible, or at least, as little wasteful packaging as possible. Jars, cloth bags, baskets, and coconut fiber loose item sacks are a big hit on market days. Today, we talk about what we can do to start a small-scale waste management system for a household or micro-school that will end up having big results.

"The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life. " ~Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

Junk Mail? Compost? Gardening? How are these things even related?

Whether you are in a house or a school, composting is a great way to cut down on waste, garbage, and to give back to the Earth. When food scraps and organic matter get thrown into garbage bags and go to the landfill there is no airflow around the rotting material. There is not as much mold or good bacteria that you may think would be present because everything is just stagnantly piled on top of each other. Our life cycles are broken and we create a set of linear food chains, segmented life cycles, and we don't return the nutrients to the ground from which they were taken.

Making small changes daily in your own habits and the habits of the children in your building can help to alleviate our over populated landfill situations. So what can we do? First, we can't save the world in one day, but we can take today to make a difference even if we just take small steps.

Let's start small...

Food waste and indoor collection

Starting in your home or educational setting, why not collect food scraps in a countertop compost? You can find these anywhere and if you want to start very simply, you can use a brown paper bag if you are going to remove the compost daily to a larger, outdoor set up. I used to collect Fast Food paper bags from friends at work after lunch and use it for my compost at home. This was easy because A) I worked for a newspaper and media company with about 30 guys who watched sports all night and filled in the stats for newspapers all over the country B) There was a Wendy's on the same lot as our work C) Composting was highly recommended/slightly mandatory in Hamilton, Ontario.

If you live in the Lehigh Valley or shop online, countertop compost bins and filters can be found at this independently-owned, female business specializes in sustainable household items and reusable solutions. Depending on what kind of compost receptacle you will have outside does change what food can be collected. If you are unsure, it is safest to collect fruits (limited citrus), vegetables (limited onion or garlic if you will be vermi-composting which means adding worms), bread and cracker crumbs, paper napkins, uncoated paper plates, and try to avoid oils, fats, processed sugary snacks, waxed items, and dairy.

What else can I collect inside? Things that came from nature can be put back in nature as long as they haven't been treated with chemicals. The most basic would include popsicle sticks, uncoated newspaper or newsprint, dryer lint (remove any rogue plastic or miscellaneous items), hair, animal fur, paper tubes, all paper parts / uncoated junk mail with plastic removed, paper egg cartons, that 100% wool sweater with holes in it, that cotton t-shirt scrap that is no longer used as a rag, food crumbs at the bottom of the bag that have been there too long, the ashes from your wood burning fire place. If you have clothes that are made from animal or plant bi-products and they are in no condition to repurpose or donate, cut them up in to pieces or thin strips and get ready to compost them. If you have textiles made of hemp, linen, wool, cotton, plant fibers, mohair, cashmere, or silk they are all fair game. Remember, all paper items, cloth, and paper tubes should be cut / or shredded into small pieces.

I collected food scraps and dry material now what?

Once you are ready to take your materials outside which may be daily or every other day, you want to make sure that you are mixing the proper proportions of green (wet, Nitrogen-based goods) with brown (dry, carbon-based goods). Sometimes it helps to choose a time of day when the countertop compost is taken outside and emptied. It helps to have a small box, or bag of shredded paper and dry material that you keep in a closet or by the door so you can put it in with your food. You want roughly 2 parts dry/brown to 1 part wet/green. We use our composter a lot. I would ultimately love to keep veggie scraps and boil down to make broth or save up all those apple and pear cores in the freezer, boil and reduce with some pectin and make my own jams but let's get real, I seriously don't have enough time to do that right now. I want to and it is on my radar but for now if I have small veggie tops, bad spots, bruised bits, you name it—I chop it off, pile it, and toss it in the compost. Even I have work to do in this area in order to improve my compost game but small steps on a path still lead to the same destination.

Composting Outside

There are so many different kinds of outdoor compost "bins" or collection piles. I would suggest researching what kind would suit your facility or home the best, choose your favorite three that you find in books or online and then contact your local borough or municipal officer to check into permits, ordinances, or other legal issues you may encounter.

We had originally planned to build a three-section composting operation with chicken wire and wooden frame but it didn't happen how we wanted. You can find the plans on the Rodale blog from several years ago, my friend Beth had originally written about it while she was freelancing for them. Instead, we have an expandable mesh cylinder that we use to collect and dry leaf and outdoor plant material. We do currently take most larger branches and yard waste to our borough's composting site but it is a bigger operation that only takes leaves, branches, and tree pieces and does not handle food compost. The borough shreds and chops up all wood material that is brought to the site as mulch but we do not normally take it for our own garden as we work with children and there could be weeds, diseased plants, invasive plants, poison ivy, or other microbial life that we do not want in our own garden. I am not saying that it does have those things I am just mentioning that it could have things that we do not necessarily want in our garden as we treat all of our areas and plant life with regenerative organic practices and methods. We do not use any chemicals, we utilize integrated pest management techniques, host a diverse plant community with a biodiverse perennial and annual plant, insect, and animal ecosystem, and we have recently been certified as a "watershed-friendly property." We do keep a wood pile near our leaf compost pile because we have been integrating hügelkulture techniques into our gardens. Hügelkulture is a method that builds a small hill or mound under ground by digging a deeper hole under your garden stacking and piling hard wood logs, soft wood logs, straw, twigs, chipped wood, leaves, compost/manure, and soil and then planting your garden on top. The varied organic materials break down slowly but create heat and add nutrients as they decompose underneath the plant roots. This type of gardening also helps to capture more water and give space and air to the roots for plants that like heavily filtered soils. Since all the materials break down at different paces there is always a new layer of rich nutrient-dense material being produced under the roots of the garden and this helps to cut down on how much material you take away from your property because everything that grows holds nutrients that were once in the soil and the plan is to return as much of the nutrients as possible.

Other composting bins that we have experience with are chicken wire cylinder with a wooden lid, UV protected plastic bins that add to the top layer with a bottom drawer or door to open, vermi-compost receptacles, rolling bins that are lifted off the ground, trench composting, and basic pile operations. We also have been using our Garden Tower Project which is entirely enclosed and inside of the Garden Tower Project system. We love this all-inclusive gardening/composting system. #gardentowerproject

children building Garden Tower Project. Gardens. nature school. raise a wild child
Assembling the Garden Tower Project system

The compost is located in a central tube with a lid, it feeds down into a screened drawer that will first collect compost tea, and can be removed in order to collect the prepared compost. We do also use worms in that compost and garden system so we do not put onions or citrus and all egg shells that are used are completely washed and dried in order to cut down on any possible bacteria transfer. This composting tube is mostly used for small garden scraps and clippings that aren't replanted/rooted. As the food breaks down, the garden plants and root systems that cover the circumference of the tower are able to get nutrients from the compost.

This fully integrated garden system is extremely user-friendly and a great option for people with limited space but would still like to compost, garden, and practice regenerative techniques without having a piece of land to tend.

As far as composting systems, I am extremely excited because while we have several different composting "piles" or vessels we recently received our much anticipated Joracomposter and I have heard, read, and seen nothing but great things about this item. I follow a composting club out of Bristol, UK on Instagram and they have amazing insight, techniques, and methods for composting as a larger, cooperative community. I have recently read on a social media post for another composting and gardening facility that its techniques were learned from the Rodale Book of Composting, which I also own but they had found some beautiful First-Edition, leather-bound copy and have been referencing this composting Bible for some time. Because the Joracomposter system is insulated and rotates, it is capable of reaching much higher temperatures which, in turn, creates compost much more evenly and quickly. Now we can have several different processes going at the same time, we can use our Garden Tower Project composting tube for garden greens and browns. We can collect extra browns and yard clippings, leaves, and organic material outside in our pile and allow it to dry out or grow leaf mold—which is good for compost and hügelkulture gardening. We can use the Jora for our main composting and grab leaves from our other pile when we need more brown material. I think this will be even easier for our students to work on the composting project because they will be able to reach the bin and there will not be flies or pests. The Jora is self-contained and has a stainless steel exterior, I have read that if the side vent holes are covered with mesh or screening material, no flies can get in or out. It also has a secure latch so no animals or pests will be enticed into sneaking into our garden. It seems like the best fit for a high-occupancy residential or urban educational setting.

**So, I originally wrote this post a few weeks ago but it didn't post as scheduled. This gave me time really see how the Joracomposter is working out. The golden ratio seems to be 2 parts brown to 1 part green. When we assembled the Jora we made a few tweaks, including using 2 pieces of heavy, sturdy mesh screen overlapping diagonally and inserted them over the vent holes in between the stainless steel case and the insulation. This allows air to still come in and out of the composting system but pesky flying guys cannot get in or out of the bin because of the screen that was used. We will have a bin underneath the elevated composting bin in order to catch some of the broken down materials or sometimes there is some dripping that occurs. We knew this before setting up the raised Jora. It does have great handles which make turning and rolling easy. It is easy to assemble as a two person job. It is nearly impossible to assemble the alone. It is more expensive than conventional compost tumblers but it will last longer, it reaches higher temperatures, and it can handle a wider array of materials. It also has heavy duty latches which can be adjusted and allow for a padlock, if needed.

This is a medium-sized Joracomposter system. We added screens between the steel frame and the insulation in order to minimize bugs and insects from coming in and laying eggs in our compost. If you peer through the rose bush you can also see a glimpse of the far compost pile and another composting system is housed inside the Garden Tower Project all-inclusive garden/compost system.

The Joracomposter: What have we added so far?

Almost Everything.

Newspaper, shredded or cut up • all black and white/uncoated junk mail and paper products • fish bones • compostable paper plates and bowls • shredded old cotton t-shirts • ham hock scraps • chicken bones • mushroom bits • veggie and fruit scraps • brown packing- and butcher papers • dried dead leaves • small organic yard scraps • flower petals • bio-char • ashes from friends' fireplaces • hair • dryer lint • some prepared compost with worm castings • bamboo tooth brush handles • coffee grinds • egg shells • biodegradable parchment paper • dead plants from inside and outside • chipped wood • parts of a decomposed log • cotton swabs • burnt pinecones and pine pieces • untreated saw dust • paper cups • nut shells • old grains at the bottom of the jar • stale cereal • tea bags • herbs after tea

Basically, after meals we scrape any small bits into our compost, then I add a handful of shredded or cut up paper scraps. Using a shredder is awesome but also giving children hole punchers and scissors and just letting them go to town into a bin for shredded paper offers so many hours of shapes, conversation, and honestly, it just lets off steam. It is very therapeutic. I personally like to tear up paper and say, "Thank you for no longer taking up space in my house or place of work."

I am going to look for anyone with a hamster that is cleaning out cages or pick up some tiny wooden chips or pellets as they are supposed to really help with the composting process on a level like this. Most animal bedding is actually good for a composter like this. I am planning on approaching the local barber and asking if we can pick up cut hair weekly or bi-weekly so that we can add this nutrient rich material into our compost as well. I will also be on the look out for small amounts of weed-free straw for our garden and the compost. I had some echinacea that had some disease last year that made it all sprout green and I feel conflicted about how to dispose of it. Can I burn it and add it to the compost as char? Do I have to throw it away so it can't spread? I am always learning new things because there is always more to learn. It is okay to make mistakes, it is okay to start small, learn something new with each new task. It is also okay to start over or just start a pile and let it do its own thing.

If you are going to make a compost system outside remember to consider smells, how it looks, how much sun it gets, how much oxygen it gets, how much attention it will get—will you remember to turn it, and if it has items that would attract unwanted pests. Research methods to keep your items secure, don't add strong smelling items that will attract flies, raccoons, rats, mice, or other unwanted guests especially if you are housing a compost system near children. There are hundreds of sites, books, and resources on composting. The ones I have found to be most helpful so far include:

  1. Rodale Institute — online resources, webinar or in-person composting workshop, and The Rodale Book of Composting: Simple Methods to Improve your Soil, Recycle Waste, Grow Healthier Plants, and Create an Earth-Friendly Garden Ed. by Grace Gershuny and Deborah L. Martin

  2. The Compost Club, Bristol, UK (on instagram)

  3. The Permaculture Promise by Jono Neiger. Storey Publishing, 2016.

  4. The Backyard Homestead Edited by Carleen Madigan. Storey Publishing, 2009.

  5. Edible Spots and Pots by Stacey Hirvela. Rodale Press, 2014.

  6. The City Homesteader: Self-sufficiency on any square footage by Scott Meyer. Running Press Book Publishers, 2011.

  7. Compost Gardening. Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L Martin. Storey Publishing, 2008.

  8. Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth by Mary McKenna Siddals, Dragonfly Books, 2010.

Once you have assisted nature in creating some nutrient-dense compost you can add it to your garden. Remember to read up on the plants in your garden while some need more acidic soil, some need less acidity, and some do not like compost directly around stems. Learn to observe and then respond in the garden. Keep track of what you are adding to your compost in case you need to make changes or modifications. Remember: Oxygen is your friend while composting. Try keeping a journal or sketchbook for just gardening tips, plant-types, conditions, and observations. Incorporating composting techniques into your daily life can significantly cut down on the waste you are sending away from your home/office. When we return organic material to the earth we also help to fix the life cycles and ecosystems that have been broken into linear fragments. When we turn unwanted food scraps and paper products back into usable garden material, we cut down on the amount of waste sent from our homes, we complete ecological cycles. We make less garbage. We can become more self-sufficient and sustainable. We can grow our own food, even if it is just our favorite herbs or one or two fruits and vegetables. We grow stronger and less reliant on others.

Start small, friends. Reduce, reuse, recycle, refurbish, recreate. Making less waste takes a little bit of time to adjust to but saves money, space, time, and soil in the long run.


Thank you for tuning in this week. Please be sure to check back next Thursday, when we will be revisiting our "Thirsty for Good Vibes Thursday" edition of the blog.


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