Our School Composting Operation at The Verdi EcoSchool: Failure to Success
The Truth About Composting at School and What Methods Work for Us
By Mikael Maynard
Integrating a composting operation into our school culture has been a wonderful addition to the daily rhythm of our school family, especially the students! As a school, we are able to reduce the amount of waste we submit to the landfill, lower the amount of stinky wet “trash” we personally have to handle, and provide a consistent enriching learning experience for our students which everyone participates in thus gaining a sense of connection and gratitude for the biological processes behind decomposition. Now, this success did not happen overnight. As the agricultural science teacher for almost 6 years I have entertained many iterations of composting at the school all of which failed for many reasons. In this blog I will share with you what I know to consistently work for us in our place-based, project-based school setting in the Eau Gallie Arts District of Melbourne, Florida in hopes that you too will become inspired to compost at your school, classroom, or home as well.
Before I get into what I know to work, I want to share with you the toughest thing about composting in a school setting. Consistency. We have weekends, holidays, vacations, wellness days, field trips, you name it, and depending on what method you are using to compost, that food waste can get icky very fast, then no one will want to deal with it - ultimately leading to failure. This is the reason why very wonderful and highly regarded composting methods like the three stage compost system, compost tumblers, The Berkeley Hot Composting Method, and lastly the Elaine Ingham Hot Compost Method did not work for us as a viable consistent source of compost creation. This is the actual order of composting methods we have used in the past that, while they were great learning experiences, in the long run were not a solution to minimizing food waste at our ecologically-minded school.
Briefly I would like to sum up why these methods did not work - simply it's because they are all ‘Hot Composting’ systems meaning, you are creating an aerobic environment in which microbial activity is invited to feast and thrive on intimately organized layers of nitrogen (food scraps) and carbon (brown plant-based) material. You create this environment by “consistently” flipping the pile with a pitchfork on a strict schedule. This aerates the pile - oxygenating it for the health of those thermophilic compost making bacteria. When the pile is not flipped it becomes stagnant and eventually anaerobic (without oxygen). This invites a whole other type of bacteria into the system that creates smelly and even toxic environments which is definitely not something you want students or anyone really to have to deal with. Lastly, as much as I love good ol’ fashion hard manual labor for its physicality and character building, in the Central Florida heat during the midst of Summer, no child or adult WANTS to pick up a pitchfork and flip a whole pile of compost during school hours in the middle of the day when many days the heat index is so high we have to take regular breaks inside to cool off and drink water just to keep our bodies safe.
Now let's get to the good stuff! What IS working for us after all these years of trying various methods? (Drumroll please) Vermicomposting and Banana Circle Composting! These two methods work in conjunction to provide us with a lot of flexibility and low stress maintenance when it comes to handling our food waste and turning it into nutritious fertilizer for our edible gardening operations.
Vermicomposting is when you utilize specific species of composting worms, of which there are a few but we chose Red Wigglers. These worms devour your food scraps and process them through their bodies and eliminate them as castings which are full of highly bioavailable nutrients for plants! We then take those castings and spread them around our garden plants as fertilizer which according to the LSU Ag Center can have an NPK of around 1-0-0 to 5-3-3 and are full of micronutrients such as iron, sulfur, magnesium, zinc, copper, and calcium.
The reasons Vermicomposting works for us:
The worms do all the work so we don't have to. No flipping big piles of compost in the heat with a pitchfork on a daily basis.
The worm tower sits nicely next to the garbage and recycling can so the students have a nice visual reminder of where to place their food waste during snack and lunch times.
Worms are wriggly, fun, and turn our food waste into poop! This is comical for the students because in agriculture worm poop otherwise known as castings is something we hold in high esteem as “garden gold”.
In my Agricultural Science class, students are assigned monthly jobs of which “vermicomposter” is one. Every day for 10 minutes, someone is checking on the system, adding bedding, or water and arranging the “feed me” or “I am full sign” to make sure the system is healthy.
If provided with enough food prior, worms can be left alone for three to four weeks undisturbed which makes the system more flexible and requires much less consistency than the previous mentioned methods.
We have a consistent supply of bedding for the worms - shredded paper from our office!
Banana Circle Composting is when you deposit your food scraps into a circular or oblong shaped swale that is dug into the ground with the excavate being mounded up around the perimeter to create a horseshoe type shape and then a guild of nitrogen-loving, water-loving, quick-growing plant species like in our case - bananas, papaya, pineapple, plectranthus, and cranberry hibiscus are planted around the perimeter to subsequently harness any nutrient leachate from deposited food scraps and absorb it to create either more carbon-centric biomass to cover the high nitrogen food scrap inputs OR grow delicious food like papaya, banana, or pineapple. This method of composting is best implemented in the tropics and subtropics.
The reasons Banana Circle Composting works for us:
It is used as a back-up to our worm bin or for when we have a high volume of food scrap input from our Harvest to Table culinary courses or any gatherings and potlucks the school may be hosting.
It is centrally located in our edible food garden space so it is easily accessible.
It does not need to be flipped though I do have students flip every once in a while just to see how things are breaking down.
There is a constant source of carbon material growing around it which students can harvest with pruners and drop right into the pile.
It is not an enclosed system therefore will never become anaerobic and can be left untouched for long periods of time.
At the very least vermicomposting is something accessible to every household and every school or classroom and it can be implemented on a small or even larger scale with an old bathtub or multiple worm towers or bins. Our single 4 tiered tower gets food scraps from about 20- 30 people Monday through Friday and fills up at a rate of about every 4 to 5 months. We sieve out the worms, leave some of the substrate and put them back into the tower to create the next batch of worm casting goodness. To me it's a no-brainer if you are trying to integrate sustainability into your school or classroom environment.