Composting kitchen scraps

(Directly in soil and in terra-cotta pots)

home made compost bin, terracotta compost bin
Composting in Terracotta containers, both functional and attractive

Composting can be done in many different ways and there is an enormous amount of literature available on techniques, science and history of composting. Reading and learning about composting is never enough. After experimenting with different techniques eventually you find the best ways that work for your home and garden microclimate.
One may find variety of compost bins online, in home improvement stores and garden centers. There are other systems where compost bins are constructed on ground either with wood or with galvanized wire and sometimes even brick or stone walls. Composting may also be done in a ditch in the ground or as a compost pile. Worm composting may work for many. No one technique is better than other and the choice depends on the yard size, level of motivation and experience, type and amount of material that needs to be composted, home design etc.

Composting in an El Paso home garden.

The composting techniques shared in this article have worked well for a few years in an El Paso backyard. The ideas are not original but have been modified to suit the garden and the household.

Collecting the kitchen scraps - container choice
Since the theme of composting is closely linked to recycle and reuse then why not reuse a container, pot, bowl etc that may not be getting much use in the home otherwise. The best size for a container is one that is only big enough for kitchen scraps produced in a day. This leaves no other option than to empty it every day thereby avoiding any smells or fruit-flies.
Another option is to buy a small compost buckets available in the home stores and online with beautiful designs and different materials (steel and ceramic are common). In El Paso, one of the places they are available at is the World Market store.
The scrap container gets its most use if location is convenient whether on the counter top or hidden in a cabinet.

The kitchen scraps composted in this household are:

  • All vegetable and fruit material - raw or cooked, including tough stalks and fruit pits
  • Any other plant based food - raw or cooked
  • Coffee grounds and coffee filter
  • Sink strainers are also emptied into the compost container
  • Onions and garlic - only if the scraps are buried in the ground. When composting in terracotta pots onion and garlic are not used to avoid any off smell as the pots sit close to patio.
  • Shells of nuts such as pistachio shells
  • Egg shells.

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compost bucket, compost kitchen scraps
A mixing bowel is being used as the scrap container. The steel lid came with an old frying pan no longer in kitchen use.
Ways to compost

Composting in the soil
An extremely easy way of composting kitchen scraps is composting right in the soil. Dig the soil and empty the kitchen scraps. The dug hole does not necessarily have to be deep. It can be as shallow as 2 inches, just make it wider. The important thing is to cover the scraps completely with the soil. Scraps can be buried in a existing plant bed as long as it is at-least 12-18 inches from the plant base.
El Paso summer months are quite hot and most of the kitchen scraps get composted very quickly in summer. Depending on the time of the year the scraps are fully composted within 2-6 weeks leaving only hard shells and large fruit pits which are slower to compost.
Although it takes longer to compost in winter months but more ground is available to bury the scraps if all areas are not being used for winter gardening.
This is an extremely efficient way to recycle the kitchen scraps and probably the easiest of all methods. After a week if you gently uncover the buried kitchen scraps earthworms can be found actively working on these scraps. These earthworms seem to appear from nowhere in a previously barren soil (or as in this particular backyard, builder’s sand).

Video - composting in the soil
Composting in Teracotta pots
This system does not need to be hidden away from sight. In fact it can even be a focal point in a garden if the pots have a pleasing design.
In this particular system at-least 2 terracotta planters are used. Kitchen scraps are added to the terracotta pot every day. After 2-3 days of kitchen scraps, a thin layer of soil or compost is sprinkled to cover the scraps. Kitchen scraps are not stirred if you are layering it with soil/compost.
A second way is to add some brown material (dried small branches, dried leaves, shredded paper etc) after 2-3 days of kitchen scraps and stir them lightly.
Both ways work equally well. It all depends on availability of soil vs brown material to mix with kitchen scraps.
Once the container gets filled it is moved to the bottom and the empty pot moved to the top of the filled one.

The containers with the opening smaller than the rest of the body will work best as they can be stacked on each other without using a lid/tray in between.
The top container is kept covered with a terracotta lid. This prevents flies or any other insects. If flies are still a problem a fine screen can be placed below the lid ( a piece of window screen or any other mesh, even a tulle fabric works)
If placed at a convenient location from the kitchen it is quite easy to compost the kitchen scraps using this system.
It is best to use at-least two pots and more can be added depending on household need. The container should be at-least 15 inches deep and 12-18 inches wide. Although bigger the better but should not be too large to lift and move every 2-4 weeks.

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Container in the picture rests on a cinder block which sits in a terra-cotta tray filled with water. Ants are quite a problem in El Paso's climate and keeping the water filled tray at the bottom prevents the ants from climbing in. To prevent mosquitoes in this water the tray is overflown with fresh water to wash out the old water. The other option is to add few drops of rosemary of lavender oil which prevents mosquitoes from laying eggs in water. Oil needs to be added every time water is added (depending on season the water evaporates in 2-3 days in the dry El Paso climate)
Pot's drainage hole is covered with coffee filter which allows liquid to drain out but keeps the compost from falling in the tray below.
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When the container gets full remove the lid and put the second empty container on top of the full container. The lid is now used to cover the top container.
The kitchen scraps in the bottom container continue to compost while the top one is being used to fill fresh scraps.

In summer the compost should be ready in about 4-5 weeks. If there is larger amount of kitchen scraps and the container fills sooner than 4 weeks then these two containers could be set aside and a fresh set of containers could replace them. Usually 2 containers are adequate for 1 lb. of kitchen scraps a day.
If the kitchen scraps are too dry, sprinkle some water in the container about once a week. Adding too much water will cause it to undergo primarily anaerobic decomposition which is not desirable. If scraps contain material with higher water content such as watermelon peel, fruit cores etc usually adequate moisture is provided to the compost and no additional water is needed.

Even if one is not a gardener composting the kitchen scraps directly in soil or in any compost bin/pot still helps the earth by enriching the soil and lowering the burden on landfills. Every little bit counts.