Fruit and vegetable scraps, grains, etc., will compost in a home pile and some people strongly recommend this, even for beginners. I do not.
I strongly recommend that beginners not compost food in a bin without a locked lid or an open pile without a bin because food can so easily create problems such as odors and pests. Once those problems have occurred, a new composter becomes discouraged about composting and usually gives up. Start with the easy stuff, yard wastes, instead.
I’m less worried when compost tumblers are used as I have heard of fewer pest problems with their enclosed design and frequent turning. I’m still not willing to recommend food scraps for beginners as a general statement, but you may decide to compost food scraps in a tumbler if you deem it safe given the animals present in your area.
Even if animals can’t get to the food, they can still smell it.
Advanced Composters Should Assess Risks and Make Responsible Decisions for Themselves
To be honest, I don’t recommend that anyone compost food in open piles. I will, however, discuss it with experienced composters who have decided they want to compost food. They should bury the food deep in the pile so that there is at least a 10-inch layer of yard wastes between the food and the bin walls, the top of the pile, and the bottom of the pile.
When the pile is turned, anything that started out as food must be identified and put back in the center of the pile with the 10-inch rule still applicable. As an experienced composter, they should know how to deal with odor problems that arise.
Most importantly, they must know what to do to ensure their safety and the safety of others against the pest problem they have created. A pest is an animal in a place where humans don’t want it to be. When discussing food in piles, the term pests can refer to mice, rats, possum, raccoon, skunk, stray dogs and cats, snakes, bear, coyote, mountain lion, jaguar, or any other stray or wild animal that inhabits your geographic area.
You may think that some of these animals are not herbivores and wouldn’t want the vegetables you have put in your piles. That’s not the issue. The smaller herbivores come to your pile for the vegetables, then the carnivores come to eat the herbivores.
The experienced composter should understand the food chain that is present in his or her geographic area, identify the worst case scenario for attracting wild animals, then have a plan to address this possibility before composting food. It’s too late to come up with a plan when a hungry bear is in your child’s play area.
I’m less worried when compost tumblers are used as I have heard of fewer pest problems with their enclosed design and frequent turning.
Leave it to Common Sense?
Earlier this year, an elderly gentleman in one of my classes said, “Anybody can compost food, you just have to use common sense.” I explained to him that it has been my experience that “common sense” isn’t very common.
Common sense for composting is the knowledge of natural processes among animals and plants including life and decay, finding food, securing protected shelter, and the struggle for survival, combined with the ability to judge how those factors will play out so problems can be avoided.
People raised on farms, ranches, or just out in the country may have been exposed to enough of these concepts that composting is just common sense. But a lot of people who are learning to compost have spent little time in Nature, and no time trying to figure out how it works.
I can’t assume everyone possesses the required knowledge to compost food safely when the result of putting food scraps in a pile could potentially be a child bitten by a rabid raccoon or poisonous snake.
Please use a safe, alternate method to compost your food scraps such as soil ingestion, in-soil digestion, or vermiculture or a grub composter secured from wildlife. If you decide to compost your scraps in a pile despite my warnings, be responsible. Use an enclosed, locked bin. Take time to bury food wastes properly, deep in the pile, and monitor your pile carefully.
Mary Tynes, Master Composter, www.mastercomposter.com