In 1970, a US Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, proposed an international “teach-in” day to promote environmental concerns. The very first Earth day was born on April 22. Today, the citizens and governments of over 175 countries recognize and participate in Earth Day. In a somewhat ironic historical twist, Nelson was inspired to promote environmental awareness after a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA. Forty years later, we’re still seeing oil spills and we’re still celebrating Earth Day in spite of them.

Most of us celebrate Earth Day via our kids, when they come home with the little seed in the cup, or the little sapling in a bag. My kids are learning about Earth Day this year by composting in kitty litter bins.

Composting doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be, and you can use compost for any number of gardening uses–even as a plant hospital of sorts. But if you want to teach your kids about sustainability, reusing, and recycling organic materials, small-scale composting in kitty litter tubs is a cheap and easy way to do it.

The Tidy-Cat Compost Bin

For this project, you’ll need 1 empty cat litter tub (the 28-lb kind) with lid. Any plastic tub with a lid will do, but kitty litter tubs are a good size to not get too heavy when full, and they come with convenient carrying handles.

Drill about 5 or 6  half-inch holes in the bottom and around the sides about an inch or two up from the bottom.

Next, pick a spot in the yard where you can place the bin where it will be out of the way, but still marginally easy to get to. Our outside bin is on the edge of the woods, but I have a good friend who puts her bins on the side of her house not too far from the trash bins and the garden hose. Once you find a good spot, take a garden spade and dig out a little of the ground to make sure that your kitty litter bin will stay level and not blow over in a good wind.

Fill Your Bin

Composting has two basic ingredients: Greens and Browns. “Greens” are fresh organic materials that release nitrogen. “Browns” are inert organic materials that provide carbon to the mixture. The release of nitrogen feeds the microbial critters that break down the carbons into a nutrient-rich matter that plants go crazy for.

In an anaerobic decomposition (aka “Black Hat” composting, called so because the microorganisms in Black Hat release stinky gases), the chemical reaction and decomposition happen without oxygen. But in aerobic decomposition (aka “White Hat” composting), there’s plenty of oxygen for the White Hat microorganisms to consume (and not leave stinky smells).

Water is the other component–moisture helps the bacteria and microorganisms enjoy a fertile environment. However, in our kitty litter bin composters, we rarely have to water it because the moisture from the vegetable scraps and coffee grounds is plenty.

Fill your compost bin with any combination of the following:

  • Grass clippings, dead leaves, and dug-up weeds
  • Old newspapers, paper towels, paper napkins, thin cardboard, paperboard egg containers, and old homework
  • Vegetable and fruit peelings, cores, ends, seeds, stems, skins, and tops
  • Coffee grounds, paper coffee filters, tea leaves, and tea bags that are made of paper
  • Bread crusts and heels
  • Any kitchen scraps that aren’t greasy or contain meat (egg shells, cooked starches–but not too much)
  • Used bedding from small animals like guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, or rabbits – any animal that doesn’t eat meat (if you’re lucky enough to live near horses, you can also collect a little horse manure)

For the next month or so, keep adding kitchen scraps and newspapers to your bin. Keep the lid closed enough to keep critters, toddlers, or wind from getting into the bin. Every few days, take a garden spade and stir it  gently. Have your young observers feel inside the bin to see if the temperature is slightly different from the outside air. Count the days from when you put out the bin to when you find the first earthworms have found their way into the compost, and treat them like little squirmy royalty, because they will stir your compost and speed the breakdown of your scraps into tasty organic soil additive.

You’ll know when the composting is done because the stuff in your kitty bin will start to look like compost and give off a loamy smell (rather than the various odors of the food scraps in there). Once it’s turned a nice dark color, you can turn it into the soil in your flower beds, your houseplant pots, or your garden. You can sift it through a screen to refine it, or you can just plant seeds directly in it.

Get The Dirt On Dirt From These Links

Beginner’s page at the Compost Info Guide

Find-A-Composter: Local municipal composting facilities for North America


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