by John McCabe, author of Sunfood Living: Resource Guide for Global Health
In past centuries people grew or wildharvested most or all of their food.
Then they put their food scraps back into the soil. This returned nutrients
to Earth and built up their soil base so that their culinary gardens grew
These days most people are disconnected from growing food. They purchase
their food from stores, then go about the toxemian practice of throwing
their food scraps into the trash, which gets taken to a landfill – where it
is mixed with all sorts of toxic substances. Then, if people want to grow a
garden they often use synthetic chemical fertilizers to feed the plants.
This practice is a double-edged sword. Not only are they depleting the soil
by not returning the plant and food scraps to the soil, which feeds the
beneficial bacteria and fungi, they also are poisoning the land and their
bodies with chemical fertilizers made from fossil fuel substances that are
known to cause cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, and other
health problems. Large amounts of fertilizers end up in underground
aquifers, and in rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they cause damage to the
environment and waterlife.
Plants that are grown in weak soil are not as hardy as they would be if
they had been grown in nutrient-rich soil containing healthful amounts of
bacteria and fungi. Plants grown in weak soil also are more susceptible to
infestation. To deal with that issue people use pesticides and insecticides
that are designed to kill living things. Pesticides, fungicides, and
insecticides are toxic to humans, pets, and wildlife, and damage beneficial
Ideally, in addition to households, all restaurants and food stores would
return vegetable food scraps to the land, and not send them to trash dumps.
In 1007, the city of New York estimated that compostable food scraps made up
16% of the city’s trash. On a national level, about 13% of U.S. trash
consists of compostable food scraps.
There are many ways of composting food scraps. These include under-the-sink
worm composting containers, outdoor compost bins, and compost pits dug into
Lately, there have been many people in cities getting into composting their
food scraps by using ventilated worm bins, or “worm condos.” These are
containers containing hundreds of worms and that are kept under the kitchen
sink, in a cabinet, or in an out-of-the way area of the home. This is known
as “vermicomposting,” and the worms that are used eat about half their body
weight every day. As the worms consume the food scraps, which are often
mixed with shredded newspaper lightly misted with water, the “worm casting”
are what make up the compost, which can then be used in potted plants, in
gardens, or spread among landscaping.
One family I know that uses an indoor worm composting system uses the worm
castings to grow their wheatgrass for juicing, and their sunflower and bean
sprouts that they use in salads. After they have harvested the wheatgrass
and sprouts, they put the soil back into the worm bin along with more
When composting indoors, it is especially important to keep bread, dairy
(milk products), oil (including lard and vegetable oils), and meat
(including fish and fowl) out of the compost bin. Strictly include veggie
waste scraps consisting of vegetables, fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts, and
shredded, uncoated paper, such as newspaper (no wax- or plastic-coated
Some cities have community gardens that accept food scraps for their
compost bins. Check with your city to find out if they offer this option.
Where I live, we burry our kitchen scraps about once a week by simply
digging a hole, tossing in the scraps, and covering them with dirt. Once the
container we use for the scraps is emptied, it is rinsed out, and we start
all over again.
I have found that I need to burry the scraps beneath at least a foot of
soil to keep the raccoons and possums from digging them up. Over the years,
as the soil has improved from the composting, it has become easy to dig
holes two or three feet deep.
Composting our kitchen scraps has greatly improved the condition of the
soil. The ground was once hard, sandy, and difficult to dig. It is now moist
and rich and holds onto moisture. When I first began composting here, there
were no worms to be found. Worms are now everywhere in the soil. Composting
the kitchen scraps this way also has fed the good bacteria and fungi in the
soil, which is excellent for growing edible plants.
The soil has also improved in areas where we haven’t buried compost, this
is because the beneficial bacteria and fungi feeding on the compost has
spread into nearby soil.
This soil rich in worms has also attracted more birds to nest in
surrounding trees as they feed the worms to their young.
Sometimes random plants sprout from the composting pits, such as melon,
tomato, and bean vines, which I’ve transplanted to places where they can
grow – which results in more homegrown organic food.
When soil rich in bacteria and fungi is added to potted plants, the plants
grow better as it is the microorganisms in the soil that help the plant
roots to absorb nutrients.
Although I already had an understanding of the importance of fungi in
garden soil, I didn’t really understand how composting was improving the
soil until I heard what Paul Stamets had to say about composting.
According to Stamets, the guy who knows a lot about the fungus among us
(check him out on YouTube.com), “Fungi are the mycomagicians of nature, in
that they create soil (out of rock). And so engaging these fungi – if
everyone individually began to compost, began to grow their own food, began
to localize their use of resources and reinvest literally in their backyards
as standard practice throughout the world, then I think that would create a
big difference. People may not realize we are more closely related to fungi
than we are to any other kingdom. We separated from fungi about 650 million
years ago. We exhale carbon dioxide; so do fungi. We inhale oxygen, so do
Knowing that plants absorb carbon dioxide that we exhale, it only seems
reasonable to assume that the carbon dioxide that the fungi in the soil
exhales is helping to feed the roots of the plants. So... adding the
nutrient-rich kitchen scraps to our garden soil will help spur the growth of
fungi, which, as Stamets points out, “digest nutrients through fine,
web-like cells called mycelium.”
It is known that fungi help to decontaminate soil. So, nurturing the soil
with kitchen scraps improves the fungi growth, which benefits your soil in a
variety of ways.
According to Stamets, fungi can help detoxify soil that has been treated
with farming chemicals: “We can use these fungi for breaking down
hydrocarbon-based contaminates like oil, which most pesticides are based
upon. We can break down PCBs, PCPs, dioxin, and lots of other recalcitrant
toxins that kill life. These fungi can not only neutralize them, but also
make them into fertilizer that breeds life. Fungi are the gateway species
that leads to ecosystems re-flourishing.”
Those who live in regions where it snows, and/or where the ground freezes
during the winter months, will need their outside winter composting system
to consist of a bin, or to have a compost pile that is covered by a weighted
tarp. Throughout the winter, the compostable kitchen scraps can be tossed
into the bin, or under the tarp. As the cold temperature months pass, the
warmer temperatures of the spring months will speed up the microbial
activity, causing the scraps to decompose. This is especially true with a
compost pile covered by a tarp, which will trap the solar heat. As the
compost pile warms, the worms will also become active in consuming the
Many coffee cafes will give you their used coffee grounds, which make an
excellent coverage for compost piles. This also provides a way to prevent
coffee grinds from going to landfills and garbage dumps.
In addition to improved soil conditions, another benefit of composting has
been that we produce very little trash. We recycle nearly everything
possible (glass, plastic metal, and paper) and have greatly reduced
purchasing items that contain packaging. We produce about three bags of
trash per year, and much of that consists of biodegradable materials that we
can’t put in our compost. Some of the trash also consists of junk mail that
is on coated paper that can’t be composted or recycled (and, yes, we have
tried everything we know of to try to stop junk mail from arriving… but
nothing seems to stop it).
Things that are good to include in your outdoor compost:
• Leftover and/or expired and/or rotting and/or scraps and peels of fruits,
vegetables, berries, nuts (no produce labels or stickers)
• Egg and nut shells
• Coffee grounds
• Tea bags
• Weeds, leaves, and bark
• Grass and plant trimmings
• Wood chips, sawdust
• Wood ashes (no plastics)
• Old bread, rolls, muffins, cookies, and crackers (no icing)
• Tissues and paper towels
• Shredded paper and uncoated paper (no plastic or wax coated paper)
• 100% natural fibers (cotton, hemp, bamboo) cut into pieces
• Nut butters are okay, but no dumping of vegetable oils (no: olive oil,
corn oil, canola oil, flax oil, etc., but foods containing them are okay.)
Things to keep out of your compost:
• Pet waste
• Meat, poultry, and fish
• Bones, animal fat, and oil (lard, expired oils: corn, canola, olive,
• Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, keifer, and creamer)
A separate burying pit of at least three feet deep can be maintained to
burry these items. A weighted, secure lid should be kept over the pit to
avoid attracting wildlife, such as raccoon, bear, and possum. It is good to
cover these items in the pit with ash, landscape clippings, soil, and/or
coffee grinds to keep them from becoming an insect breeding ground.
These should be taken to a recycle center
These should be kept out of the compost:
• Branches (over 1/2" diameter)
• Crab or Bermuda grass
• Diseased plants
• Weeds that have gone to seed
Things to be disposed of by taking them to a toxic waste disposal station:
• Chemical pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers (don’t even purchase
• Paints, varnishes, finishes
• Engine oils
• Chemical cleaners (use biodegradable cleaners)
• Light bulbs, especially compact fluorescent bulbs
How To Compost, http://www.HowToCompost.org
US Composting Council, http://www.CompostingCouncil.
Books of interest on this topic:
Food Not Lawns, by Heather Coburn: http://www.foodnotlawns.org
Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, by Elizabeth Royte
I would like to thank John for allowing me to post this article on my blog and I look forward to future posts on his work...he has a valuable contribution to make in regards to sustainable living.