Getting Down and Dirty: Composting with Third Graders
By Amos Pomp I have ridden my bike over to Orrington Elementary School four times this quarter. I pull up to the school on the side closest to Elder and park by the garden, where I know a class of eager schoolchildren will soon appear.
Before the kids arrive, I must learn the day’s lesson from Jannet Chang, professor of economics at Northwestern. Chang is in charge of the garden curriculum at Orrington, where her son is a student. She has two outdoor lessons planned for each grade, one for the fall and one for the spring.
“The idea is to get the kids out[side],” Chang said. “This is an idea we feel passionate about. Unfortunately it’s not part of the regular curriculum.”
One time I helped second graders plant cover crops to keep unused garden beds healthy and protected until the spring. We scattered seeds for cold-resilient plants like winter rye. Most recently, I helped first graders dig little holes and plant garlic cloves. They will get to take home a fully grown garlic plant in May!
My first lesson, however, was composting with third graders.
What is composting? I was surprised by how many third graders actually knew the answer. Many of them cited composting at home or at relatives’ houses. Basically, it’s putting leftover food aside instead of throwing it away. But why? Well, compost is really good for plants. Just like we have to eat food for energy, plants need nutrients so they can grow too.
There are a few reasons a third grader, or anyone for that matter, might want to compost. It saves money, for one. Using stuff you already have as fertilizer instead of going out and buying some is much cheaper. Also, artificial fertilizer, especially if overused, can pollute the environment. When you use compost in your garden, it acts as less harmful, more natural fertilizer. Finally, composting means you send less waste to the landfill.
Now, composting isn’t as simple as tossing some food scraps into a bowl and hoping they feed the plants on their own. Composting requires a balance of green, brown, water and air. The brown represents things that contribute carbon; the green, nitrogen. Brown things are things like dead leaves, toilet paper rolls and cat fur. Green things are most of the things we eat, like broccoli or a tomato. However, you can’t compost meat or plastic. They won’t break down into the nutrients the plants want.
Once you’ve got your brown and green, it’s great to have a compost bin outside where water, air and WORMS can get to it! Yeah that’s right, worms are super good for compost! In fact, a worm’s poop is really good soil for plants!
Alright, I got pretty excited there. Once all of the composting ingredients are together, you wait for a while, and then you can feed it to your plants by spreading it around with the soil. Now that is how you compost!
Thank you all for coming to the garden today. I hope you are now as ready as the third graders at Orrington Elementary to be compost ambassadors. I expect you will all go around to the dining halls, collecting people’s food scraps and bringing them to your new compost bin. Remember, the pungent smell of rot and the excessive flies are a good sign!
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