By Claire Prenevost

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

One great thing about working in a children’s garden is knowing that your efforts will help shape the lives of children and with that, the future. Simple tasks like weeding and tidying the sand pit may seem lackluster to some, but completing them ensures that children will get to yank up a carrot out of the dirt or construct an architecturally novel sand castle. I have learned from working as an intern at the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei that these little experiences can structure the relationship between a child and nature for the rest of their lives.


The entrance to the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Photo by Michigan Photography.

Sand pit children's garden Matthaei

The sand pit in the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Simple tasks like weeding as well as tidying the sand pit ensure that children will get to yank up a carrot out of the dirt or construct an architecturally novel sand castle. Photo by Michigan Photography.

Considering the impact that access to nature can have on a child, our children’s garden has been used as a platform to teach families about how they can implement nature-play activities at home. When I began work as a Matthaei-Nichols intern, the Gaffield Children’s Garden lacked a well-functioning compost system. Of course, the plants in the garden would love more compost, but a composting system also had the potential to teach families about the importance of responsible organic waste disposal. My hope is that through seeing composting practices in the children’s garden, families will be inspired to try it themselves. If they do, it’s a real-life lesson that will help them understand the delicate cycles that drive ecosystems and how humans can take part as either a helpful or harmful force.

Food Waste and Its Connection to Composting
To understand one important aspect of composting, take a look at a bigger issue: food waste. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service estimates that between 30-40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted. Approximately 31% of this is wasted at retail and consumer levels. The illustration shows a proposed hierarchy of the most to least-preferred ways to prevent and divert wasted food.

So how does this apply to composting? Of course, you can still waste food even if you compost it. But notice in the diagram that in order of preference, composting is placed above the landfill. This is because decomposing food behaves differently in the compost than it does in landfills.

Food recovery hierarchy

Due to the lack of oxygen in a landfill, the food scraps undergo “anaerobic decomposition.” This just means that they decompose without access to free oxygen. As a byproduct of this process, methane is released. We hear a lot about carbon dioxide’s capacity to capture and release heat. Methane is even worse, given that it can hold 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide. It’s a scary gas, and its release can be decreased simply by dumping your unwanted food in a separate container.

On a less sciency note, compost can be a really great way to give your garden a lil’ extra love. Of course, compost need not, and hopefully does not consist only of whole wasted food. You can add your unusable kitchen scraps, as well as garden and lawn clippings that will go on to produce nutrient rich compost to add back into your garden. Compared to landfills, composting at your home is much more of a closed loop, which makes it more environmentally sustainable. Using your own compost in your garden can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides while also decreasing your carbon footprint.

Compost tumberl
Three-bin compost method

Composting Options
So, the concept of composting is great, but how does one actually do it? It turns out that there are plenty of options. I touch on the three that are showcased in the children’s garden: vermicomposting, compost tumblers, and a three-bin composting system. Given the variety of families that visit the garden, the more examples of different compost systems offered, the likelier the chance that a family would find one that would work for them.

For instance, vermicomposting, or worm composting, takes up very little space and hardly requires any physical exertion. In this form, you use worms to speed up the process. They chomp on your unwanted scraps, and discard “castings” (aka poop) that your plants absolutely love. Their castings are rich in humus, which is loaded with nutrients and contributes to the soil’s ability to retain moisture. A downside is that you do have the responsibility of caring for another living creature. This means that you must ensure that the worms get the correct amount of food and bedding, have the correct level of moisture and that they don’t get too hot or cold. All things considered though, taking care of worms is a piece of cake. Check out this video from Down Under on vermiculture.

To use a compost tumbler, you may need a bit more space since they’re usually bigger. The idea with tumblers is that they make aerating the compost really easy. Instead of shoveling your compost to introduce air into it, simply give your tumbler a few turns and call it a day. Another perk is that your compost will be in an enclosed area, thus it will be protected from pests that may like the smell of your decomposing banana peels and such. Unless you’re really handy, it might be challenging to make your own tumbler. Thus, you’d need to buy one online or at a local hardware store.

Last but not least, there’s the three-bin composting system. This does require a bit more infrastructure than the previous two, but you can also produce more compost with this method. New organic material goes into bin #1, which is transferred to bin #2 when it gets full. Then, the partially composted material in bin #2 is transferred to bin #3 to make room for the new stuff in bin #1 when it gets full again. The cycle continues, and hopefully by the time bin #1 gets full for the third time, you have lovely, finished compost in bin #3 to sprinkle about your garden. A downside is that critters can often be attracted to this type of open air compost, but a plus is that you can design your bins to be pest-proof! Add a lid or caging to ensure it doesn’t get too much unwanted attention.

Of course, there are other methods of composting not mentioned here. For example, EMO composting, where you create a bacteria-friendly environment to speed the process of composting, or mechanical composting, where systems employ one or more closed tanks or digesters equipped with rotating vanes that mix and aerate the shredded waste, can also do the trick.

The point is, composting can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. Anyone can find a system that works for them. All we humans are doing is isolating a natural process, perhaps tweaking it a bit to speed it along, and then collecting the result to use for ourselves. Nature has been doing this since day one. Knowing this, it’s important to integrate our own actions into the natural processes going on around us all the time. Dumping our waste into a landfill cuts off the cycle of decomposition, whereas composting helps better close the loop. Hopefully, the families that visit the Gaffield Children’s Garden realize the simplicity of this lesson and go on to implement what they’ve learned in their own homes.

Claire Prenevost is a rising senior, double majoring in economics and environmental studies at the University of Michigan. She is from Chelsea Michigan, a small town just west of Ann Arbor. Claire is interested in how we can motivate people, companies, governments and everything in between to act environmentally responsible from an economic perspective. She’s considered working on environmental policy to help change the mindset and occasional real-life condition that one must sacrifice economic prosperity in order to be environmentally friendly. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, Claire says, and no one should be under the impression that they are. In her free time she enjoys hiking, baking, and playing with her dogs.

Claire Prenevost