Compost is a necessary and wonderful contribution to any school garden. Not only is it the magic ingredient to make your garden grow beautiful and fruitful, it is a place for your garden waste and a lesson in the circle of life for your students. Don’t underestimate the power of decomposition!  

When you are building your garden, you will need to bring in compost to enrich the soil. A lot of cities have composting programs and give away compost at free or very reasonable price. Garden centers or nurseries often have bulk compost that they will give you a deal on if you tell them you are building a school garden. Hauling compost is another opportunity to include parents and community members who have trucks. You never know, one of your parents might own a garden center or have a dump truck for hauling.

Checking your source on your compost is important. Many times compost is made from yard waste, which can have herbicide or pesticide residue that can be harmful to your veggie plants. You can get your source tested by your local Extension office or sent away to a lab for more extensive results.

Discarded tomato plant parts used in a compost pile should not be then applied to the next year's tomato plants as there is a potentail virus that can be passed through the old tomato compost to the new tomato plants. Compost containing tomato parts may be safely applied to crops other than tomatoes.

A lot of home gardeners use composted animal manure in their vegetable gardens. This can be a safe practice, but should probably be avoided in a school garden.  Administrators may perceive animal manure as a potential safety hazard. When thinking of incorporating food into the school cafeteria, it is much easier to say “we have never and will never use animal manure in our garden,” than to document and record the time of application, rate of application, etc.

Once your garden is up and growing, you will need to set up a composting system for your garden waste. Gardening produces a lot of wonderful organic matter which can be turned into rich, homemade compost. Weeds, plant debris, food waste will all compost beautifully. Composting can be an intricate science and reading about the maintenance of a composting system is helpful. A great resource is your local Extension office.

There are several different types of composting systems, from expensive and quick to cheap and slow. Open composting can be made very inexpensively and with few supplies. A cylinder of chicken wire or three wooden pallets can create a very basic composting container. But open composters are just that – open. They are open to critters, bugs, sights and smells. It is probably better to start composting with a closed system and then build up to a larger, well-maintained open composting system that might include waste from the cafeteria, or even a vermiculture system!

Closed composting is definitely more expensive since it requires the purchase of a containment system, but a tidy plastic on the ground barrel or off-the-ground rotating barrel composter eliminates the concerns a lot of people have with composting. A big barrel composter that sits off the ground and can be easily turned creates beautiful compost quickly. It also happens to be more expensive. Look for funding for composting through grants or ask local hardware stores or garden centers for a donation. On the ground, covered containers are also effective, closed composters and a lot more affordable. Some cities make these available to residents at a reduced rate.  

Once you establish any composting system, you will probably end up with overflow. It can be a dilemma, trying to figure out what to do with 50 dead tomato plants in November.  A local farmer might love to haul away extra debris or you might be able to compost at your house.

Creating a tidy, effective composting system is a really important step in your school garden that might be overlooked. Don’t forget to maintain is regularly by turning and aerating the ingredients and watering in the heat of the summer. Compost is pretty magical and students (and adults) find it fascinating.


Compost Resources

For questions about composting in Kansas, please contact Ken Powell at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment at 785-296-1121.

Scroll down to dowload the compost registration form and register your compost with KDHE's Bureau of Waste Management.


Additional Information on Garden Planning and Soil Improvements can be downloaded below. These excerpts from the Kansas Gardening Guide are provided, with permission, from K-State Research & Extension.   Charles W. Marr, Ted Carey, Raymond Cloyd, and Megan Kennelly, Kansas Garden Guide, Kansas State University, March 2010. 

Composting284.73 KB
Compost Registration Form.pdf94.97 KB