Learning About, Making and Using Compost

What is Compost?

Compost is a dark, crumbly material similar to topsoil. Compost is made up of organic materials that break down into the soil, adding much-needed nutrients and improving drainage. For instance, in the forest, nature’s leftovers, such as fallen trees, leaf litter, and other organic plant material will slowly decompose over time with the help of micro-organisms and other decomposers, such as earthworms and beetles. Once this decomposition is complete, the organic material turns into humus, which is important for rich, fertile soil. Fertile soil spawns healthier plant life, repeating the process again and again.

This natural process is very similar to composting at home or in the garden. After decomposition is completed in the compost pile, you should have a dark, crumbly soil-like material, which can be added to the garden soil. Helping kids learn about compost is a great way to get them involved with gardening. They can learn the importance of healthy soil, plant growth, and the environment. They can even make their own compost and use it in their own gardens.

Making and Using Compost

In spite of what some people believe, a heap of compost is not the same as a pile of garbage. Composting materials include a variety of organic matter, such as leaves and grass clippings; garden waste, such as spent plants (healthy ones) and straw mulch; organic materials, such as newspaper and paper towels; and kitchen scraps, such as vegetable peelings and eggshells. You should never put grease, bones, meat, or fish in the compost pile. This will cause noxious odours and slow down decomposition.

Encourage kids to make their own compost, which they can use later in the garden. They can create one outdoors or inside the classroom for easy studying. Kids typically enjoy collecting materials for this too. Explain what is suitable and what is not. It may help to break it down in easy-to-learn terms like ‘greens’ and ‘browns.’ Green items that are added to the compost bin produce nitrogen (grass clippings or vegetable scraps). Brown items are sources of carbon (leaves or newspaper). Both are essential elements for healthy soil and plant growth. Green and brown items should be alternated in layers within the compost bin.

Have them keep the compost moist, but not wet. Moisture is important for proper decomposition to occur; however, too much can lead to odours. The compost should also be turned occasionally to keep it aerated. If outdoors, a sunny area near the garden is best and no larger than 3 feet by 3 feet.

For easier observation, however, you can allow the kids to create a mini compost bin using a clean milk carton. Tape or staple the top of the carton closed. Lay it on its side and cut a small flap for filling and stirring. Have the kids collect small items such as leaves, bark, newspaper, and kitchen scraps. They should layer their compost with small amounts of organic matter and soil (remember, greens and browns) until it reaches about ¾ full. The kids should add moisture when necessary and stir their compost over a four-week period. During this period, have the kids observe the compost, taking notes and answering questions like: “What has happened to the organic material after week 1, week 2 and so on?”

Once the compost has finished, it should consist of dark, crumbly soil, which can be used for potting plants or adding to the garden. By adding this organic matter to the garden, the soil will become more manageable and nourishing to plant life. This organic matter will also encourage helpful creatures to the garden, such as earthworms, which will further improve aeration and drainage. By learning, making, and using compost, kids get to learn and observe the importance of compost and giving back to the environment.

True/False Quiz

  • Composting is difficult and takes too much effort. (False) Creating compost can be as easy as raking up a pile of leaves and letting it sit. Most people prefer to use compost bins, adding organic materials and kitchen scraps, nothing too difficult here.
  • You cannot compost if you live in city areas, such as apartments, since it requires a lot of room. (False) There are ways to make compost that take up little space and are well suited for urban settings. For instance, the use of small bins is a great space-saving method for composting nearly anywhere.
  • Moisture is necessary for composting and important for proper decomposition. (True) Compost piles require moist, but not wet, conditions in order for the process of decomposition to occur. Too much moisture, however, will cause odours.
  • You should not put any grease, bones, meat, or fish in the compost pile. (True) This is unsuitable for composting and attracts foul odours. You should only use kitchen scraps that include fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed eggshells, and coffee grounds. Other organic items include yard or garden waste and newspaper.
  • Leaves and grass clippings are not considered useful additions to the compost heap. (False) Roughly, 30% of yard waste goes into the compost bin and is an important element in the decomposition process. In fact, grass clippings are great sources of nitrogen, which nearly all plants require for optimal health and growth.

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