Some food combos are easy to love, like chocolate and peanut butter. But others, take for example a rotten tomato, some squash guts and an old teabag, what's to love about that? Plenty, it turns out, if you're a plant.
Food scraps provide the makings for a super-rich compost that plants thrive on, as organic growers know. They rely on various forms of compost to perform many of the same tasks of chemical fertilizers only without the chemicals. By amending their soil with compost, these farmers and gardeners can produce robust plants while keeping their land healthy.
"We have some of the richest soils here in Illinois but we've degraded them through conventional agriculture," said Mike Sands, Ph.D., an ecologist. "Native soil for the Illinois prairie should be 6 to 8 percent organic matter, but our soil is actually 2 to 4 percent because of the constant tillage and the use of chemical fertilizers."
Using compost as a natural fertilizer helps complete the food cycle by replenishing the soil with organic matter lost through the farming process. Why is it called organic matter? In part because it's literally alive -- filled with fungi, bacteria and earthworms which in turn release more live matter (in the form of enzymes and acids) as they multiply.
All these living organisms work to feed and nourish the plants. They improve the soil structure and drainage so you have to water less often. And they protect the plants, breaking down pesticides, nitrates and other chemicals that can pollute the soil and waterways. For the grower, it's like an entire labor force working for free underground.
Compost also stays working long after synthetic fertilizers have quit.
"Compost is one of the most stable forms of nutrients for plants because it's released over a longer period of time," said Mike Rahe, manager of the Office of Natural Resource Management, Illinois Department of Agriculture. "You can get two growing seasons instead of one, and there's less risk of losing those nutrients due to environmental factors."
By recycling food scraps back into the land, we not only improve our soil quality, we can improve our air quality too. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that food scraps and yard waste make up 20 to 30 percent of the waste stream. Composting this waste keeps it out of the landfills, where it will rot and release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Anyone can compost, but there are several different methods. The easiest is to just start a pile somewhere in the yard. Other methods include pit composting, open and closed bins, and tumblers. Some villages even offer rebate or other incentive programs to residents who buy bins.
What can you compost? Vegetable and fruit scraps, grains like stale bread, pasta and rice, coffee grounds and filters, eggshells, flowers, grass and yard clippings, even dog hair and lint. Just be sure to avoid any meat or dairy products.
In Prairie Crossing, a community surrounding a small farm, residents collect kitchen scraps then place them out for weekly curbside pickup, just like garbage and recycling. The farm composts the scraps, which then go to feed the crops. Those crops then go to feed any residents participating in the farm's Community Supported Agriculture program, creating a perfect food circle.
Like other green changes, composting takes some getting used to, but soon becomes second nature. You'd no longer think of tossing an apple core in the garbage than you would a stack of newspapers, or a dollar bill. That apple core has value. It has the capacity to turn into black gold, as the gardeners call it.
Around that time, all those unappealing food combos, the kitchen flotsam, pits and cores, peels and grounds, will to you start to seem quite appealing after all.