Ask any composter about “food waste”, and you’ll see the gears turning in their head immediately. They might even have a glimmer in their eye, or bated breath, as you begin the discussion.
The term “food waste” encompasses a lot of different kinds interactions between humans and the food that we grow, farm, sell, purchase, eat, share, preserve, and then compost. As a residential composting service, our exposure to food waste starts with what our customers don’t like, or don’t want, to eat, and then leave in their buckets for composting. Most often this comes in the form of food scraps– pieces of produce, or even stuff like fermented grains from brewers, that was never really meant for consumption, or takes too much time to “upcycle” into another dish. It also comes in the form of unwanted food– leftovers, moldy foods, or excess. Both of these elements of food waste at the residential level can be controlled somewhat by the consumer. The reasons why might vary, and the how can become a bit of a burden when people have large families, or busy schedules and a composting stream is in place. Ultimately the nutrients are going to the right place, so why bother worrying about the last apple of the bunch getting composted, or stressing about the day old casserole that’s not going to get eaten.
In March 2020, a very simple concept in food waste was brought to everyone’s attention as the regular task of grocery shopping was flipped on its head during the initial outbreak of Covid-19. The concept was this: With the stay-at-home policy in place, grocery shopping, as well as what we cook and eat, was fundamentally changing, along with the food waste that comes from all of it. Shopping trips needed to be planned out. People shopping from home didn’t have a say in what the produce looked like that was being picked up for them at the store. The community at large began baking sourdough bread, and with the timing of the outbreak, more people started gardening too. The potential catalyst for real change was present.
The pictures you see here were taken sometime in the spring of 2020. They represent my occasional observations as a composter. It seemed that even as people tried to adjust to new shopping habits, fresh foods were still being discarded. Again, reasons why can vary. As we enter 2022, two years after this shock to the system, it’s hard to say for certain how food waste has changed at the residential level overall, but from a collector’s perspective food waste still exists in this same capacity. Food often enters the composting stream as edible, undesired food. It’s hard not to see this and wonder how this could be avoided. To try and tackle this one small part of the food waste, let’s ask ourselves, “Why should I worry about food waste coming from my home if I am composting it?”
Pittsburgh has some great recourses for gleaning food and distributing it to places in need. For the sake of simplicity, this blog post is focusing on just the compost collection stream.
If you have a bell pepper sitting in your food waste-bin, and it looks crispy and juicy enough to cut and dip into some baba ghanoush, I’m going to assume you didn’t grow it. If you had, you wouldn’t be so quick to pitch it. If it has a produce sticker on it, then there’s a better chance it got trucked in from another state, or maybe even brought in from a different country. It’s just one pepper, but attached to that pepper is potentially hours of travel, energy, and commerce. As well, seeing as how a bell pepper is something that can be grown locally, depending on the time of year, this pepper bound for compost may even be associated with a local farm. Even if it’s just a dusty looking russet potato, our food waste leads right back to our purchasing, cooking, and eating habits.
As a composter, it’s easy to see this wasted food as extra weight. Why is it even entering the composting stream? Some foods look slightly bruised, but certainly nothing my mother wouldn’t have told me to “cut around”. Looking at an apple that has a produce sticker from another country on it, as it’s about to get composted, I think about how it would make a great addition to my lunch, and provide a good afternoon boost of energy, instead of travelling across the globe just to be mixed back into the earth, thousands of miles away from the earth beneath the tree where it grew. Sure, the bell pepper is going to make for great nutrients in the soil, but only after it is processed for a few months with machinery and time. Why not process it the way it’s meant to be processed, through our metabolism?
Ultimately, the question of food waste leads to more questions, but they’re good ones in my mind. There’s something to be said for cutting around that bruise on your vegetables, or knowing that peppers do tend to get mushy if you freeze them, but since you didn’t end up making that salsa, maybe freezing them for a soup later on would be better than composting it. If we continue to think about how we plan our grocery shopping, and what we are buying and preparing, can we save a few thousand miles of transport by avoiding simple kitchen waste? Does learning how to preserve food better at home lead to a better appreciation for what we eat and where it comes from? Maybe it’s not about having the sweetest and juiciest apple, but instead just being grateful for the slightly softer one that still gives us just what we need.
To keep things simple as a composter, I have to keep in my mind, the soil that will be ultimately made from all this food. Come springtime it’s easy to forget about the food wasted from households, as the compost we’ve created goes out to backyard gardens and local community gardens. Ultimately the food won’t go to waste if we can continue to do our job as composters.
There’s always going to be some food that gets thrown away, even if it was homegrown, or could have been rescued to a local fresh-food desert instead. In this day and age it’s probably better not to lay guilt or personal dogma onto others- certainly not about something as universal as food. Whenever we pick up food scraps, there is always going to be some food that looks like it shouldn’t have gotten discarded. At the heart of this “food waste”, it could be said, is simply a preference for something fresher. Churning this food into dirt is still a magical process, and we’ll have the opportunity to replenish the earth in new ways when the days get longer and warmer, and start over in our collective gardening quests to grow, preserve, share, and enjoy, to stay healthy, happy, and strong.
There are a lot of great uses for compost in the fall! We have been chugging along with our residential composting program, returning compost to customers and donating to non-profits, but we are taking some time today to give you some recommendations on how to use that fresh compost in your yard or garden this off season.
There are a couple really helpful cover crops that we can use in our gardens here in the city and suburbs. All you have to do is spread the seeds, and apply a small layer of your compost on top, and you’re all set. These cover crops are used in no-till farming, and the help:
- Retain soil in barren garden beds during the off season
- Prevent early spring weeds from germinating
- Create organic material to feed microbes or your compost, pulling in a little CO2 along the way.
- Keep your garden spaces looking active
My favorite cover crop to use in the garden is WINTER RYE(annual). The truly amazing thing about winter rye is that the seeds will germinate in below 50°F temperatures. This means that while your garden is getting cleaned up and your summer plants are dying off, you can spread some rye seed. The grass will grow slowly throughout the winter, holding your compost and topsoil in place. WINTER WHEAT is also a great option, although the germination for these seeds should be done as soon as possible- 60°F-75°F is the ideal temperature. Winter wheat will grow in colder temperatures once it is established.
Winter rye(annual) is a cereal grain, which means it dies off naturally after you mow it or terminate it manually. No herbicides or special techniques are needed. You don’t want to get perennial rye grass seed, otherwise you will be pulling clumps of lawn grass from your garden next spring. When spring comes around, the winter rye grass will continue to grow, and help prevent unwanted weeds from sprouting if their seeds were dormant in your garden from the previous year. This is a HUGE help for me, because I can’t always get out to gardening first thing every year.
Next spring you will have the option to either mow down the grass, or let some of it grow for a nice looking decorative grass. You can even harvest the rye seeds if you want to! Once you cut the grass, you plant your seeds or plants directly into the soil where the roots were! You will add organic material to your soil, and feel like a real urban farmer. I like to plant rye grass all around my garden, and in the spring I let the grass around the edges grow until the summer. It keeps weeds out and looks really cool. Once the rye goes to seed in the summer, I cut the grass and I have material for mulching.
Cover crops like Winter Rye or Winter Wheat can be really helpful, and once you figure out how to utilize them in your garden, it can be really rewarding. You can start to look into using oats and peas during the season, or even crimson clover, and you’ll begin to save yourself a lot of time weeding and spreading straw.
For more information on winter cover crops, check out the links below. CRIMSON CLOVER is another great cover crop in fall, although it may winter kill, it does not require herbicides to terminate in the spring, and it will help fix nitrogen into your soil.
I always talk about garlic this time of year, and I’m pretty sure I’m repeating this post from a couple years ago, but HEY, garlic is SO easy to plant. I know it’s getting cold, and it doesn’t seem like much fun gardening in October, but planting garlic cloves in some healthy compost will get you delicious, fresh, and free garlic, next spring. Each clove you plant will grow an entire bulb!
This is all you do! Find a spot in your garden, grab a bucket of compost, maybe a trowel to clear away old plants, and you’re all set. Don’t forget to mark the area where you planted! Despite what people will tell you, you CAN use garlic from the grocery store, but just make sure it is organic, and has some color to it. I recommend checking out the farmers markets, and finding a variety you really like. Some garlic is spicy, some is nutty, you can look for different varieties. Just don’t plant that white stuff that comes in bulk bags. You’ll get garlic next year, but it won’t have a great flavor, and a lot of the bulbs won’t even grow that big.
Last but not least, use your compost as top dressing around your perennials. Just because you may have trimmed back the foliage, it doesn’t mean the roots aren’t still active. When perennial plants die back, they are actually draining a lot of the nutrients from the foliage down into the roots to get ready to hibernate. Adding some compost on top of your perennials will help the root zone, and even insulate the plant from harsh winters.
ENJOY THE FALL!
We will try to update more soon!
We get a lot of requests for WORMS, but not every worm is the same! Before you order worms with us, please take a moment to learn a little about the WHATS WHYS and HOWS of worms. And listen, I know how it goes, your Grandfather, your Aunt, or a good family friend, knows a lot about worms, and since we all learn our gardening skills and secrets from those that came before us, we want to apply those tricks to our garden. But before you waste your time and money throwing red wigglers in your garden, take a moment and figure out the best plan for your season.
WORMS WORMS What kind??
RED WIGGLER Eisenia Fetida
Red Wigglers are a composting worm. They prefer a place where there is a high rate of decomposition. We sell these worms for people interested in starting their own composting or vermiculture bin.
“I just want to throw them in my garden to loosen up the soil. I’ve heard worms are good for the garden.”
YIKES! No! Red Wigglers are an epigeal worm. That means they live their life within the surface of the soil, usually under material that is usually nutrient rich and decomposing. This could be manure pile, or wet soggy logs, and of course compost heaps. They are usually no longer than a crayon when they aren’t stretched out, and they can be as thin as pencil graphite. Red Wigglers like to huddle together and eat rotting food and other organic material, but they do not spread out in the soil and till the way you may think. Red Wigglers are also a favorite dish of robins and blue jays, so that bag of worms you just tossed in your garden will probably get eaten in a couple weeks.
European Nightcrawler Eisenia Hortensis
European Nightcrawlers are not to be confused with the common earthworm, sometimes called the “Canadian Nightcrawler”(lumbricus terrestris). European Nightcrawlers are another red worm that lives in rotting material, and will help your composting efforts. They typically grow to be about twice the size of Red Wigglers, but not as large as the Canadian Nightcrawler that is in the lumbricus genus. An easy way to distinguish them from a red wiggler is by looking at the saddle(scientific term-clitellum), the reproductive band on their body. If you see this red worm, and it is already 2-3 inches long but does not have a developed saddle, this will tell you it is a younger nightcrawler, as opposed to the red wiggler which would have already developed a lump for its saddle band at this size. These worms can adapt a little better than Red Wigglers, digging a little deeper in the soil, but they are still considered top dwellers. Robins love them, and while they may break down some organic material, they are much better suited for your compost heap or bin.
“Okay I get it, but worms are supposed to till the garden! I know they are good for the soil and my grandfather used to always put them in his garden”
Canadian Nightcrawler Lumbricus Terrestris
Although all the worms we’re discussing are technically earthworms, when most people say “earthworm” they are thinking of a Canadian Earthworm or something similar, most often in the lumbricus genus, and not eisenia. This worm is in the anecic classification, and digs large burrows down into the ground, coming up to feed on litter and bring it down into their burrow. These worms are often used for bait, and are likely what people like to throw in their garden in attempts to keep the soil turned and tilled. But wait, don’t…
“YES, I want to put these in the garden…”
STOP! All of these earthworms are present in the environment. Before you go throwing worms in your soil, take note of a few important things.
- If you don’t have worms in your soil, there is a good chance you do not have enough organic material in your garden beds. Even the hardiest earthworm isn’t going to till clay, or bring nutrients into poor compacted soil. You need to add organic material to your garden. Do this by adding fresh compost, and mulching with things like chipped leaves from your spring clean up, or straw. The combination of all these things will draw up worms and other beneficial critters into your soil to help create a living biome in your soil which is what you want.
- Earthworms like the Canadian Nightcawler ARE considered invasive in certain ecological environments. While you might think they are going to help in your garden, they are damaging to forest ecosystems, and even heavy perennial environments. These worms will eat through organic material so quickly that 1. The nutrients from their castings(poop) will wash away quickly, leaving the site where they are needed, and in many cases this leads to eutrophication 2. The organic material that is typically used by trees and large perennials as a slow release fertilizer is eaten too quickly by these worms. Again, this pertains to forest ecosystems primarily, but we go back to the first point- there is no need to add them when you can introduce them naturally and avoid adding more to the environment that probably already exists.
- Farmers in this country often see worms as a good sign in their soil, but that’s because they are growing on acres and acres of land, and need all the help they can get sometimes. This is probably where that farmer’s wisdom gets handed down to you, the backyard gardener. If you are gardening in your yard, you should be able to manage your soil with compost applications on other no-till techniques and have a lot of success even without worms.
If you are still interested in purchasing worms from us, we will be selling worm start kits for your home composting- a mix of Red Wigglers and European Nightcrawlers, starting in April. We don’t have a retail location this season, so we can deliver them to you on Fridays and Saturdays when our drivers are on routes. We should have that page up and ready here in the next couple days.
Go carve Jack-o-Lanterns with your friends for Halloween! On November 3rd you can bring them, along with a charitable item, to Shadyside Nursery and watch us smash them for you* and compost the guts! The compost we make will be donated to the Women’s Center and Shelter for their gardening programs, but more importantly, you charitable gift will support families in need of your generosity.
*This event is designed to gather charitable items and donations for the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. As much as we want pumpkins to be composted, we ask that you bring a gift for the WC&S if you want to see it smooshed. Thank you!
Expanded Service Area 2018
We would like to announce some big news for our Compost Exchange Program! We have expanded our service area for the program to a few North Side neighborhoods; West Allegheny, East Allegheny, Central Allegheny, Troy Hill, Spring Hill, Spring Garden.
Increased Returns For Customers!
We have doubled the returns for our customers in the exchange program so now each customer will be getting back 30lbs of worm castings every quarter! We also have other product options for your returns other than the worm castings (which are an incredible organic fertilizer). You can mix and match a combination of indoor potting soil, seed starting mix, or leaf compost to fit your needs.
All of our customers get a quarterly newsletter that goes into more detail about these options, as well as other information about what we do. If you aren’t yet a customer but would like to receive the newsletter we would be happy to add you to the list, just send an email to email@example.com
Attention All Non-Profits That Love to Garden!
Are you planning on using compost this spring? You can get free compost from our customers that are a part of our Compost Exchange Program. Let us know before you start your seed swaps, gardening workshops, and other springtime activities so we can arrange for compost drop offs. The best way to get in touch is to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for checking out my business! 2017 season has begun, and I thought I’d take a moment to talk about how this all started.
In 2012, before Shadyside Worms, I found myself able to practice my gardening and composting hobbies again, after years of renting in different apartments that had little to no balcony space to work with, I was finally moving into a house with a backyard. It provided me with the opportunity to dig in to the earth again, echoing my grandfather’s aged hands that showed me what a trusty pocket knife and rugged fingernails can accomplish.
When I moved into that house, my roommate and I plowed the sod and weeds to build a garden. I put a simple compost pit together for a household of three. Four walls of plywood- about 2′ x 3′ each, and a couple pieces of scrap wood to lay on top of the mix inside. The compost pit was set back under a mulberry tree canopy that rarely let light into one corner of the yard. A handful of composting worms added to the mix set everything into motion, and I finally got the most beautifully rich worm castings I had ever produced. The following spring, Shadyside Nursery gave me the space and opportunity to start my own vermiculture business.
Vermiculture techniques can vary a lot depending on the set up. I first learned about “composting worms” from my friend Adam Fisher when I was living in Baltimore. In the back alley of his duplex home in the city, and he opened up a $5.00 rubbermaid trash can lid to show me some food scraps that he was feeding to composting worms. We were well into July, and the food had began to putrefy, but he grabbed a half of a watermelon he had recently added to show me a few stragglers, “I think most of them are escaping out of the bottom”, he said, “I had to drill a few holes in the can to let the liquid out”. He turned to show me a trail of leachate dribbling down his driveway leaving an odd trail of acidic sediment.
My first experience learning about vermiculture was in truth, not incredibly unique. These moments happen all the time with gardeners, horticulturalists, permaculture students, entomologists, sustainability designers, etc. We all collectively show-and-tell, share tactics and solutions, or at least sympathize about the frustration often involved. One of the driving factors in this constant exchange of information is the fact that we share our past mistakes to help others learn, and at the same time strive to take on a new projects. The root of wisdom and understanding in any of these fields comes from the direct observation of nature and the curious but resilient decision making skills it shows throughout each season or life cycle.
This is Shadyside Worms’ 5th season. Until recently I was thinking it was the 4th actually, but I’m just happy to be moving forward. I have found persistence through the support and passion of urban agriculturists in Pittsburgh that help businesses like this one survive. I appreciate being able to witness this culture first hand, to listen to, and hopefully share at least the wisdom of other people’s stories and experiences.
And one last word about “gardening”. I have nothing against the word, but let’s face it, even in Pittsburgh, one of the greenest cities I’ve witnessed, we are urban agriculturists. I would hope that the work you put into gardening soon turns into a sustainable lifestyle, and a mind for the importance of our natural environment. If I’ve had one mission with this business over the years, it’s to prove that we all have green thumbs, and we all have the ability to create product from the work we put into our efforts. Composting is only one aspect of the many projects ahead of us as we create a healthy, thriving, living city.
Owner & Chief Worm Officer (CWO)
Join us for a workshop that will teach you how to compost large amounts of waste in a community setting. Start a composting group in your neighborhood, build a compost heap at your community garden, or empower your organization to compost after events. This hands-on workshop will give you the tips and tricks to compost on a larger scale.
Garlic is most often planted in the fall in the Zone 5/6 temperate zones, but it is easy to plant, and often times it is worth planting in the spring if you forgot to plant last year.
Now that March is just around the corner, it is important to find yourself some quality garlic- preferably “seed” garlic if you can find it. Local farmers like Enon Valley Garlic Company are typically sold out of their seed garlic varieties this time of year, but grocery stores like East End food cooperative and Giant Eagle Market District often sell quality garlic that will make do as seed garlic. Sometimes you can find special varieties like elephant garlic, but you can also look for any kind of organic garlic, and check to see if some of what they are selling is starting to sprout:
The earliest time to plant garlic in the spring is in March, when you can start to work the soil. It helps to have 3+ days above 40 degrees. Make sure you have some quality compost to put in your garden bed before planting, or get some worm castings to mix in to your soil. When we get a good 2-3 days of guaranteed warm weather, and you can work the soil to add your compost, go ahead and get ready to plant. Planting in March will give you whole cloves of your own homegrown garlic by July/August.
Planting your garlic is easy, but I will leave it to Enon Valley garlic Company to give you concise directions. Get out there and play in the dirt!