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Composting, Permaculture, Sustainable Home Gardening Methods

We heard from a number of listeners on our facebook page and on twitter who wanted to know more about composting and permaculture, so we've put together an entire episode devoted to just that!

And for folks interested in growing food indoors, we also talk with some experts about hydroponics and aquaponics as well.

Composting and Vermiculture

Composting is the practice of taking organic matter - like food scraps and leaves - putting it in a big pile so that it breaks down over time. The result is a rich soil amendment.

No more buying fertilizers, and no more throwing banana peels into the landfill.

Earth Eats' Annie Corrigan visited Worm's Way Garden Center (a locally owned and operated company based just outside of Bloomington, Indiana)Â to learn more.

We spoke with Sharlene Fish, who told us that it's possible to compost in an apartment without having your kitchen smell like a garbage truck.

There are really two different types of composting:

  • Outdoor composting – what you normally think of – a regular compost bin outside of your home.
  • Worm composting (or vermicomposting) – composting with red worms that is typically done inside, even right in your kitchen.

"In fact," Fish said, "you're supposed to do that type of composting inside." And she says that it doesn't have a smell if you're doing it right – most of the time it won't.

If you're mixing in a good amount of non-food materials, like straw – you can even put in a little bit of sawdust if you wanted to. You can put in green leaves as well, those types of things will help cut down on any type of smell that might be generated from the food scraps.

Setting up an indoor worm compost bin also means adopting some pets.

Fish is showing us one of her worm bins. "This is a really neat system. In here, you can see there's all those little red worms, and all of that dark organic matter that you see is worm castings – worm poo basically."

Worm compost is different than regular compost because the castings coming from the worms are a really good fertilizer. You can use worm castings to top-dress your plants, or you can mix it into outdoor soil.

There's also a spigot at the bottom of a worm bin to drain off the liquid part of the compost. You can mix this liquid with water and make a worm casting tea and water your plants with it.

Feeding Your Soil

Fish says that some plants respond better than others to compost because they prefer to have really rich soil.

"Some plants are really heavy feeders," Fish says, "tomatoes, peppers, anything in the cabbage family – those things really benefit from a heavy feeding, so compost is good for plants like that."

Some plants can benefit more from it than others, though. Some plants – Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, lavender –prefer poorer soils and don't need to have as much compost.

You can still put compost on even these plants and it's going to give your plants nutrients, which is always a good thing, and it's also going to make your soil better. You're feeding your soil, and a plant that's in a healthy soil is going to be a healthy plant.

Hydroponics and Aquaponics

Worm composting works great in small places, but you can also grow food in small spaces and you don't even need soil if you grow with hydroponics.

Hydroponics is essentially gardening in water "It is a little bit of a science, Fish says, Â "but it's really neat to see your plants grow."

And one of the benefits of hydroponics is that plants grow faster hydroponically than they would in soil.

We're looking at a silver-lined hydroponics tent with about 8 tomato plants inside.

Fish says the main thing you want to do is mimic the growing conditions that the plants would have outside.

"We give them 8-12 hours of light everyday, we make sure the humidity stays around 50% – that's what most plants like. We change out the water every few weeks to make sure the nutrients are fresh, and to make sure they're getting good, fresh water."

Aquaponics at Growing Power

Another alternative growing method relies on the relationship between plants and fish, a method called aquaponics that uses fish water to fertilize plants.

Will Allen is the Founder and CEO of Growing Power. His urban farm includes some 20,000 plants, goat, bees, fish. With a set-up like Growing Power's, he says you can feed 10,000 people on 2 acres.

"It's a demonstration of how you develop an integrated food system. You can do amazing things on small spaces," Allen says.

Growing Power's farm in inner-city Milwaukee uses vertical space to be able to produce more food – and they do it year-round.

"For example, if you have a base foot print of 3,000 sq. feet, to turn it into 5,000 sq. feet of growing space by growing 7 different layers inside the greenhouses," Allen explains.

[Growing Power] captures rain water outside in a 20,000 gallon fish system, and we pump that water into another fish system on the inside of the greenhouse. We're able to pull water off that rain catchment system [and] we pressurized it so we're able to water all the plants in all the different greenhouses. Then we're able to raise the fish.

Backyard Composting

If you do have the luxury of a large backyard, you can explore even more growing and composting options.

Compost is the green waste that comes from the preparation of your food. You pay just as much for the pineapple peel as you do for the meat inside, so why not get just as much out of it!

A lot of energy put into raising these products, so throwing them into a landfill is a waste of human energy and fossil fuels.

To feed his elaborate garden, Chef Daniel Orr has installed an equally elaborate composting system. It's made up of three bins, one on the far end that's virtually empty...

"That's where I'm going to deposit all my new compost. And then we've got the three piles aging at different times, so the second one is the second oldest and this would be the newest. And what you want to do is keep them moving and aerating them," Orr explains.

He uses vegetable scraps – pineapple, onion skins, lemons, potato peels – and also things like coffee grounds (which are great for the soil ) and even mussel shells. "Mussel shells are about the only ones I like to use," he says, "because clam shells are a little too thick."

Every time you add some new compost to the pile, put some of the older compost on top of it. Â "That's aerating the older compost, allowing it to break down more, it's also covering up the new compost so different critters don't get into it," Orr says. "Also, you don't want your neighbors to get mad at you for having a stinky compost pile."

It usually takes about 18 months to completely turn from waste to soil. But what that gives you is some great soil, and you're not just going and buying soil that's been imported from Canada or shipped across the country.

When the compost is ready, the main time to use it is in the spring. When you dig a hole to put a tomato plant in, drop some compost in, or if you're filling up a pot to grow some parsley, fill it up with compost.


And finally, in our tour through alternative growing methods, Chef Orr's mother, Mary Lu Orr agreed to show us her garden where she's using permaculture to rejuvenate the land.

Permaculture is short for "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture." It's the idea of fostering relationships among humans, plants, animals, and the soil so that they we can all work together in the most productive way possible.

To make that happen, first you have to rebuild damaged soil layer by layer by injecting it with stuff you might usually put in your compost pile – food scraps, newspapers, garden waste.

In this way, permaculture also cuts down on what you're contributing to landfills.

We're standing in Mary Lu's garden and she's feeding the soil with compostable material to get it happy and healthy once again.

"This idea of getting the world that's underneath our feet into better shape. So, I'm trying now here to get that going."

She's digging a trench where she throws her kitchen and garden scraps along with some other bits of waste from the house.

"What I'm doing is really re-making the soil and giving it a chance to have its own growth. And then the plants have enough nitrogen, and enough various minerals, and stuff to make the good enzymes that do the stuff that the plants need to keep them healthy."

Thanks Everyone!

Thanks to Sharlene Fish, Will Allen, Chef Daniel Orr and Mary Lu Orr for showing us all of their projects today.

Let us know if you're trying any of these methods at home or in your garden. Or, if you have a suggestion for a future program. Leave a comment or send us an e-mail: eartheats at

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