Compost, grow, eat…repeat!

composting, nutrient cycle, food waste

Do you remember the wonder and excitement of harvesting your first compost, seeing your first seedling emerge (victoriously) from the earth, or preparing your first meal for loved ones? It is best described by the opening scene of The Lion King: enter Mufasa sitting on top of Pride Rock, looking majestic while a voice sings “the circle of life" and the music swells.

Opening scene of The Lion King

Perhaps that is a little too dramatic for your humble suburban patch, but there is something special about recycling nutrients in your home and garden. It might have to do with the fact that this process allows us to interact and consciously play a role in nutrient cycling using a process that you may be familiar with…have you heard of composting?

Using compost to recycle (and retain) nutrients

Composting replicates and accelerates the nutrient cycle through controlled, aerobic decomposition. This is the same process as natural decomposition, but sped up by mixing nitrogen-rich (such as food scraps and fresh grass) and carbon-rich (such as dry leaves, dry grass, twigs, paper, and cardboard) organic matter in a ratio that maximises growth of aerobic microorganisms. These microorganisms enjoy conditions similar to a summer evening in Sydney - breezy, warm and humid. So, to maintain an optimum environment, we regularly aerate, balance moisture levels (e.g. as wet as a wrung out sponge) and try to keep the temperature balmy. It’s important to keep in mind that while compost has been shown to have several beneficial properties in our gardens - replenishing organic matter, providing a source of nutrients, and even increasing water-holding capacity (Duong, 2013) - there are varying results on the basis of factors such as ingredients and method. To produce a quality finished product (and get the best out of your scraps), we therefore have a few simple suggestions to keep in mind:

  1. Keep things breezy: Increased nitrogen loss is associated with an anaerobic environment (lack of air) (Duong, 2013). To prevent this, make sure to aerate regularly (at the very least, after every addition of organic matter). If you have trouble keeping up with regular aeration, consider a system such as the Green Cone or Aerobin.
  2. Give your microbes a balanced and nutrient-rich diet: Try to ensure that you add a variety of carbon and nitrogen sources, ideally in an initial ratio of 30:1 (Duong, 2013).
  3. Keep your compost moist, but not too moist: Compost should be about as wet as a wrung out sponge.
  4. Patience: Applying immature compost to your garden can result in a smelly situation, as well as potentially inhibiting plant growth and reducing nitrogen availability. Make sure to wait until your compost is ready before harvesting - it should be about ⅓ to ½  of the original size, dark brown in colour, smell earthy, and crumble in your hands.
Pile of mature compost

If you want some tailored advice to keep your compost cracking, reach out to our Support Squad.

Compost, grow, eat…repeat!

When your compost is ready, spread it back across your garden; returning the nutrients to your soil and supporting your next crop. Once ripe and ready, you can then harvest your bounty and what formerly nourished your garden will go on to nourish your family. To help you make the most of your homegrown fruit and veggies, and reduce waste:

  • Get to know your food waste: Conduct a household experiment and record your food waste over a day to a week.
  • Plan your meals ahead of time
  • Lift the lid on leftovers: Don’t leave your leftovers in the back of the fridge - get creative and use them to create a tasty new dish!
  • Keep it fresh: Learn to store your food in ways that keep it fresh. Check out some handy hints here.
  • Get picklin’: Grab some jars and ferment your extra veggies to create tasty, nutritious additions to your meals.
Image: The Life Cycle of Compost (Source: Washington College, 2022)

Once you have finished picklin’, the remaining scraps can then go right back to where they started. You guessed it - compost, grow, eat…repeat! It’s a circle of life. Something very special right in your own backyard.

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About Ishka Bless

A food scientist with a passion for human-centered approaches to sustainable food systems.