Growing Green, A Family Gardening Series: Week 9

In this week's blog: Food Waste

You know the things that your family does when you are a kid that seems totally normal to you until you encounter kids from other families who have no idea what you are doing or why? I grew up learning from my parents to wash out any plastic food bags and stick them wet to the cupboard doors to air-dry and be re-used. Apparently, this was weird – and still is, according to my kids. I don’t know if it was a legacy of Depression-era farm household frugality or hippie tendencies, but I grew up abhorring waste. I can scrape a bowl clean of ice cream like no one else and strip an apple of edible bits down to the core. (I never quite convinced myself to eat the core.) I’ve always felt a weird mix of pride and shame regarding these practices, growing up through the consumerist profligacy of the 1980s and recently, in the era of beeswax food wraps, reusable metal straws, and bulk bin buying, feeling more virtuous.

Truly, waste is a big problem. A team of researchers associated with the University of Guelph have dug deep into the issue of food waste. They claim that “In Canada alone, each year, 11.2 million metric tonnes of avoidable food loss and waste occurs. Much of this is edible.” This food is worth almost $50 billion, represents 51.8% of Canadians’ food bills, and could feed every Canadian for five months. It accounts for 60% of the food industry’s environmental footprint from production to disposal, and also sends tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually.

This is a big problem, but you can take an easy step at home to really help reduce food waste! If you live in a city without municipal composting, as I do, whether you live in an apartment, condo, or house, shared or alone, there is a composting solution that fits you. The Saskatchewan Waste Reduction Council has a nifty quiz that you can take to find out what composting method works best for you.

My partner built this deluxe set of bins for me this spring

Beyond waste reduction, there are other benefits to composting and you may want to compost at home even if you have a municipal pickup. Composting is a great way to ‘close the loop’. When you harvest from your garden, you are removing the plant’s nutrients from the soil. Turning food scraps, weeds, and other waste into compost puts back a lot of that fertility, rather than having it lost to a landfill or sent away for use elsewhere.

I’ve experimented a lot with composting over the years. When I was in an apartment, I tried vermicompost (composting with worms), I have built my own tumbling composters, I improvised a bin with chicken wire, last year I just gave up and effort and threw all my winter food scraps on a garden bed layered with leaves, and currently, I am using the tried-and-true slatted wooden bins.

I built this tumbling compost barrel almost entirely out of re-used materials.

Basically, composting is a process where the environment (weather, insects, microbes, and time) breaks down organic materials into soil. In order to facilitate the process, you layer your green waste (food scraps, weeds, grass clippings) in roughly a 1:2 ratio with your ‘brown’ waste (paper, dry leaves, straw). Keep it moist (a bit more work on the prairies!) and aerated and it will break down. These 60-second videos tell you pretty much anything you need to know:

Two cautions: Do not compost your weeds if they have gone to seed. Those seeds will survive and grow in your garden when you use the compost unless your compost reaches a high temperature to kill the seeds, which is unlikely in most backyard composts. Also, diseased plants should be sent to the landfill so the spores/bacteria/fungus don’t reinfect plants in your garden the following year.

Increasingly, kids are being made aware of waste issues at school. A kindergarten class at my daughter’s school had a vermicompost and she got to sort the worms (get the kids into it early, before they learn to be grossed out!). A friend’s kids had a week-long contest at school to try to reduce litter in their lunch boxes – along with the school’s composting program. She sent me this story:

We have a home compost bin near where we park our cars...and it has its own active ecosystem.  Once, I surprised a mouse when I opened it up to dump scraps in.  After that, I got used to knocking on the side of the bin before I opened it so as not to surprise any inhabitants!  I then discovered our whole family now has a funny custom...when it was my kid's turn to take out the compost?  He knocked first. 

On a planet with many finite resources – and many resources that could be renewable if used sparingly and/or stewarded wisely – I think waste reduction is an important skill, and value, to teach your kids. A garden is a perfect place to do so.

Naomi Beingessner has lived and gardened in the Prairies for most of her life. She has two children, an enthusiastic gardener, and an enthusiastic eater. She was a high school teacher and is now back in university studying food sovereignty. Her favourite vegetable is green beans but she finds that the most significant taste difference between store-bought and home-grown is in tomatoes.