Composting is Awesome!

Easy lessons in making compost from urban food waste

By Nancy Matsumoto


On a balmy June evening, about 25 middle-schoolers from Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering (CSS), a public specialized school in the South Harlem neighborhood of New York City, are gathered in a 1⁄10-acre garden on Amsterdam Avenue at 119th Street, enthusiastic participants in a workshop on urban composting. Instead of playing the role of passive listeners, though, they are the teachers, energetic and knowledgeable proselytizers on everything from the finer points of brown matter versus green to the care of compost-facilitating red worms.

Among the many visual aids they’ve created for the workshop is a large poster board titled “School Compost: Our Story.” It includes the key talking points, “Why do we compost?” “How do we compost?” and “Why is composting at school awesome?” As they proceed to answer these questions, the person who has taught them just how awesome composting is, 6th-grade English and philosophy teacher Meredith Hill—“Professor Hill” to her students—beams proudly as she wanders among four teaching teams earnestly showing and telling before a rapt audience of parents, gardeners, and educators.

Team leaders Maya, 7th grade, and Chloe, 8th grade, describe the group’s basic compost recipe of “greens, browns, oxygen, and water”—worms optional. “Greens” are fresh leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps that are high in nitrogen, while “browns” are composed of dried leaves, twigs, and even paper bags. Each participant is given a small cutout of a food or trash item and asked to place it in the proper category: compost, trash, or recycling. “Can you compost magazines?” asks a parent. “You can compost newspaper,” authoritatively answers eighth-grader Kelly, “but not magazines,” because of the type of ink used and the glossy paper.

The garden got its start in 2011, when school community members noticed a neglected parks-department site not far from the school. Hill and her charges have transformed it into an urban oasis brimming with several dozen types of vegetables and herbs, including kale, mint, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, and Swiss chard, as well as a number of pollinator-attracting perennials such as roses, echinacea, daisies, and bee balm. The CSS garden is one of almost 900 school and community gardens in the city that are part of the NYC Parks GreenThumb community gardening program—the largest in the nation. Hill also registered the garden with Grow to Learn, a citywide public-private partnership that supports public and charter school gardens in New York City.

CSS’s organic garden became the perfect starting point “to engage students in all parts of the growing and cooking and eating process,” explains Hill. A compost enthusiast who, when she has free time, helps hand-sort food scraps and build windrows for community compost projects, Hill wanted to see the school’s waste processed on site instead of being trucked to a composting site in Delaware, as the city did until 2012. So she introduced her students to hands-on urban composting, or what she calls “the missing link in terms of building a sustainable system.” More than 200 public schools in the city are engaged in composting projects now, and that number continues to grow, according to David Hurd, director of the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education for the nonprofit environmental organization GrowNYC.

Hill’s students started their adventure in composting in the classroom with eight worm-filled bins procured from the city sanitation department’s NYC Compost Project and the community-based Lower East Side Ecology Center. They began outdoor composting along with the outdoor garden, and are working toward the goal of eventually collecting and composting all the school’s waste.


Gardening provides many teachable moments, and teachers today need the support and encouragement of us all to create outdoor classrooms where students can learn that they are part of nature’s fabric. Recognizing this, Meredith Hill and Sarah Ohana have teamed up with Organic Gardening to produce Dig, Plant, Grow: An Organic Gardening Guide to Planning Your Own Garden Curriculum. We can’t wait to hear about the school gardens that will grow from this endeavor—the latest in our 70-plus-year tradition as the trusted guide to organic gardening and living! —Ethne Clarke, Editor in Chief