Is Compost Safe on Veggie Gardens?

Is It Safe To Use Compost On Vegetables?

Here at the NC Composting Council one of the questions that we are often asked is whether compost is safe to use on a vegetable garden.  It seems that a lot of incorrect information is out there, giving people the impression that all compost is loaded with germs that could make them sick. It’s true, the issue is complicated, and a pathogen on a leaf of lettuce could make you sick, that is why so much research has been done and so many safety protocols are in place for industrial compost makers.  In this article we will discuss some of the basic issues of healthy compost production and the measures that have been taken to ensure that the compost you buy and use is safe.

Let’s start with a general look at industrial composting, a well regulated industry with processes that kill the germs that cause illness while preserving the natural biology that helps plants grow and keeps the soil “alive”.   All compost, whether it’s made at home or in an industrial setting, needs to have the right ratio of carbon, nitrogen and water in order for the microbes, fungi, and other microbes to be at their peak performance in breaking down the materials in the pile.  Industrial compost manufacturers call these components “feedstocks”.  Feedstocks can come from farms (manure, crop residue, animal carcasses), restaurants or school cafeterias (food waste, cardboard, cooking oil & grease, paper goods), municipal yard waste facilities (grass clippings, leaves, wood chips), construction and demolition debris (drywall, lumber, soil), and even treated sewage sludge referred to as “biosolids”.  All of these materials can be safely turned into clean healthy compost that can be used on any vegetable garden if composted in the right way.

Hot Composting or Thermal Composting is the most commonly used practice that kills pathogens and makes compost that is safe to use anywhere.  The basic process goes like this; a recipe of nitrogen-rich material is mixed with carbon-rich material and moistened with water.  Microbes begin eating the feedstocks which creates heat and the temperature rises.  In the first phase of hot composting, called mesophilic, temperatures are between 68° – 104°.  Bacteria that can do best at lower temperatures are active in this phase; as they increase in numbers and dissolve particles of the feedstocks into their essential nutrients the temperature continues to rise and the pile goes over 104°, entering the Thermophilic phase.  Here, temps reach 150° and can go even higher if the pile is not managed correctly.

As you can see from the chart above, most pathogens or disease causing bacteria are killed at about 140°.  Beneficial bacteria that flourish at lower temperatures can go into a dormant phase and wait out the excessive heat.  

A key to keeping the bacteria happily heating up the pile is oxygen.  The introduction of oxygen can be achieved in two ways, one is turning or mixing the pile regularly.  To see how this is done on an industrial scale, take a look at this video from Komptec, a maker of industrial composting equipment:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lArcaCWg4U8

Another method of oxygen introduction is known as Aerated Static Pile (ASP).  A network of perforated pipes is laid down and the feedstocks are piled over them.  Air is forced through the pipes and flows up through the materials keeping them well oxygenated.  This photo shows an ASP demonstration system that was constructed at the Compost Learning Lab and NC State University.
Time is the final factor in ensuring that compost is safe to use.  Once the optimal temperature is achieved in any pile it must be maintained for a specific amount of time; in an aerated static pile the temperature must remain at or above 131° Fahrenheit for at least three days.  A windrow pile must achieve the same temperature and stay there for at least 15 days with five turnings of the pile.

How do you know the compost you buy has undergone these practices and is safe to use in your gardens?  The composting industry is governed by various state and county regulations that are adapted from the EPA and FDA stated regulations.  These regulations are not only for the safety of the person buying and using the compost, they also help protect the environment both down wind, and down stream of the composting site.  Strict safety guidelines exist for every aspect of the industrial composting process from what materials can be processed to how water runoff must be handled.  In North Carolina, the Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for setting rules and regulations for the large scale production of compost.  Different types of permits are required to establish a composting facility based on what feedstocks will be used.  Once the facility is built and operating, exacting records must be kept and the site must be inspected periodically for a multitude of health and safety standards.

Even with all of these regulations, a level of assurance about the safety of compost use on vegetables gardens was still in question until the year 2000, when the US Composting Council launched its Seal of Testing Assurance Program (STA).  Aimed at standardization of quality and transparency the program requires participants to keep stringent records on a multitude of health issues and make those records, along with guidance on how to properly use compost, available to consumers when requested.  Commercial composters around the country have enrolled in the program and the STA Certified Compost logo can now be found on bags of compost sold in garden centers.  Farmers can also purchase STA certified compost in bulk for their farms. 

 

 

 

Look for this seal when purchasing compost, and for further information about the program as well as a list of STA certified compost manufacturers, visit the US Composting Council websites https://www.compostingcouncil.org/page/CertifiedCompostSTA.  

Resources:

1. Seal of Testing Assurance

https://www.compostingcouncil.org/page/SealofTestingAssuranceSTA?&hhsearchterms=%22certified+and+compost%22

2. TTMEC – Test Methods for the Examination of Composting and Compost

http://www.extsoilcrop.colostate.edu/Soils/powerpoint/compost/T.M.E.C.C.pdf

3. Komptech Americas, https://komptechamericas.com

4. Ohio EPA, Compost quality standards for class I composting facilities

https://www.epa.ohio.gov/Portals/34/document/currentrule/3745-560-130_current.pdf

5. Metropolitan St Louis Sewer District, Specifications for compost application.

https://www.stlmsd.com/what-we-do/stormwater-management/bmp-toolbox/technology-matrix/amended-soils-disconnection-2

6. Grow It Organically, How Hot Composting Works

https://www.grow-it-organically.com/hot-composting.html

7. NC Regulations, Compost Operators Training Course 2018, NC Composting Council, Wilson, Donna; NC Dept of Environmental Quality

8. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regulations for Compost Production and Use; Walker, John M.; US EPA, Washington DC, 1996

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Make a Worm Bin – a Stuck At Home Project

Now that we’re all staying home for a while it’s a great time to do some of the projects that we’ve been dreaming of.  I have wanted to start a worm bin for composting food scraps so I can have the castings (worm poo) to put on my potted plants.  Here’s the story of how I went about my project.

Vermicomposting or worm composting is easy and fun.  We all know that food scraps in the landfill are a big problem because they create the mega-greenhouse gas, methane.  Composting those scraps is the best thing to do, but if you don’t have room for a regular bin you can use worms as your garbage disposal.  You just feed your food scraps to the worms and they turn it into castings that are a wonderful odor-free fertilizer for houseplants and gardens.

Here’s what I did:

First, I got on the internet and read a bit about making and maintaining a worm bin on the NC State University’s website (https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/ ).  As I was reading I wrote up a list of questions and called Rhonda Sherman, the “Worm Lady” at NC State.  Rhonda is known worldwide for her work in vermiculture and I knew she’d have all the answers. 

Me:  Does it matter what color the bin is?  I know worms can’t see, so they don’t “care” what color the bin is, but do they tend to thrive better in one color over another?
Rhonda:  One color is not any better than another, but dark is better than clear because they’re sensitive to light.  Also, a shallow bin is better than a deep one, 14-18 gallon size is recommended

Me:  Is sawdust an ok matrix to start with?
Rhonda:  Not sure that’s a good idea since sawdust could heat up as it composts and that would not be good for the worms.  It would be better to use shredded cardboard mixed with shredded newspaper.

Me:  Do the worms do better if I run the food scraps in the blender or mash them up before I put them in the bin?
Rhonda:  Yes, smaller pieces are easier for the worms to eat, but it’s not absolutely necessary.  Be sure to drain off the liquid before putting blended food into the bin, too much water is a problem.   

Me:  What local resource do you recommend for purchasing worms?
Rhonda:  Here in the Triangle area New Soil Vermiculture and Red Hen Enterprises are great places to buy worms.

Me: I have chickens, is their soiled bedding good for the worms?
Rhonda:  No, chicken manure is too high in ammonia.

Me:  I have a wood burning fireplace, do the worms like ashes?
Rhonda:  NO wood ashes are too acidic.

Me:  What else should I know about vermiculture before I start?
Rhonda:  Overfeeding is the #1 problem of home bins, wait until the food is gone before adding more.

Armed with the information from Rhonda’s website and answers to my questions, I set about finding a suitable container.  I had several plastic bins that I’ve used for other purposes over the years, so I didn’t need to buy one.  Against Rhonda’s recommendation I chose a clear container because I will be using my worm bin to show vermicomposting at festivals and lectures that I do for the NC Composting Council.  I thought it would be best if people could look at the worms and castings through the side of the bin rather than always opening the top.  Since I don’t have a drill, I used a hammer and big nails to punch holes in the bottom of the bin so that the excess fluid can seep out.  The sides of this particular style of bin already had air holes, so I didn’t need to make more.  Time to add the bedding.

I have a regular compost bin in my backyard, and I keep a stack of newspapers to add in whenever I need more carbon material.  I leave the stack outside so it will always be soaked with rain – torn into strips, this made a perfect bedding for my worms.  Now all I needed was the worms themselves.  

There are several good sources online where you can order Red Wiggler worms for composting, but I like to support local businesses whenever possible so I called New Soil Vermiculture in Durham and Garry Lipscomb was happy to help me.  I drove to Durham and picked up a pound of worms for just under $40.

Back at home I rummaged through my kitchen scrap bin and selected the bits that worms would like, egg shells, banana peals, old bread and coffee grounds.  I put them all into an old Chinese food container and used my hand held blender to chop them into worm-bite size pieces.  I added this to the newspaper bedding and dumped the worms in, then topped it off with more moist newspaper to cover the worms, and put on the lid.  Rhonda Sherman tells me that you really don’t need to feed the worms for a day or two after moving them into a new home, they get along just fine in the wet newspaper and it gives them some time to adjust.  

Under the bin I put a stray lid from a larger bin to catch anything that would drain out.  My worm bin now resides under my deck where it’s nice and dark most of the time and the temperature is consistent.  In the winter I may move the bin into my laundry room if the winter nights are very cold.

When I checked on my worms this morning – less than 24 hours after putting the bin together – the worms had distributed themselves throughout the bedding and there are castings everywhere which means that everyone is happy and healthy and going about their composting business.  I’ll be able to harvest castings to use on my container vegetable garden in a month or so.

The NC Composting Council’s website has a page on Vermicomposting  (https://carolinacompost.com/vermicomposting/) where you can see several designs of worm bins to buy, so if you don’t want to make your own you can just order one on the web.

Happily, there are many good resources for how and why to compost with worms, here are some of our favorites for exploring the science more thoroughly and seeing various ways to make worm bins for indoors and outdoors.

Vermicomposting, NC State University – https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/raising-earthworms-successfully
https://composting.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-2/, https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/vermicomposting-a-school-enrichment-curriculum

Vermicomposting For Beginners, Rodale Institute – https://rodaleinstitute.org/science/articles/vermicomposting-for-beginners/

Vermicomposting – Making Good Use Of Garbage, National Institute of Health – https://kids.niehs.nih.gov/topics/reduce/vermicomposting/index.htm

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