Did you know that Murch Elementary is an earthworm-friendly school?
Murch’s garden program has been composting for years, but every year the Compost Program gets bigger and better-integrated into the science and enrichment curriculum. The program has three main facets: Garden waste composting, classroom vermicomposting (that’s where the worms come in), and school-wide organic waste composting through the DC Department of General Services. Composting is just one of the daily habits supporting Murch’s hands-on academic program and its mission of creating responsible global citizens.
Composting is not only creates great teachable moments, it saves the Murch HSA quite a bit of money too. The soil in the organic garden beds is depleted of nutrients as plants grow, especially “heavy-feeders” like the corn in the Three Sisters garden. Compost has to be added regularly to keep the garden soil healthy.
Compost is created when organic waste is decomposed in the presence of oxygen (aerobic decomposition). Done correctly, the composting process does not smell or attract unwanted pests, but slowly produces an earthy-smelling humus, which is added to soil to create a nutrient rich growing medium for plants. When this same organic waste is sent to a landfill instead, it decomposes anaerobically under a huge pile of inorganic waste, which creates toxic leachate that pollutes the water table, and produces ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane gas, which pollute the air. Nutrient-rich hummus is clearly better for the health of the planet.
Students at Murch learn about composting in many ways: By visiting the outdoor bin casually during recess or more formally during School Garden Week, when experts are on hand to discuss the science of composting; through annual school-wide compost lessons; in regular science class and in special science or garden enrichment modules; and through educational signs and information provided by DGS.
The students are not confined to “book learning.” They get their hands dirty too!
In the garden: When the growing season is done and the leaves fall on “The Hill,” Murch students and volunteers pull the plant remains and rake the leaves for the outdoor garden compost bin. Parents Sam Hoben and Elijah Marentette designed and built the classic three-compartment compost bin. The bin is filled primarily with garden waste, but also with small amounts of vegetative, organic food waste supplied by the trained members of the after-care program.
No animal products are permitted in the outdoor bin. The outdoor bin is monitored, turned and maintained by parent volunteers. During clean-up days like School Beautification Day and MLK Day of Service, more volunteers help to distribute the mature compost to the various gardens around the school grounds.
In the classroom: Science Coordinator Tashima Hawkins manages the in-class composting activities. During Earth Science Week, she invited volunteers to talk to classes about composting. Some even brought their pet worms from home for students to study. Since then, several classrooms have adopted the school’s worm bins to practice vermicomposting. Vermicomposting is a closed-bin system in which earthworms are fed organic waste and produce castings, which are a great, mud-like fertilizer for gardens.
Other class enrichment groups are studying the scientific process involved in composting, and have taken on the project of gathering organic waste and properly adding it to the outdoor bins. Parent volunteers have noted that since this group began its compost studies, the turn-over rate of the bins has increased — which means Murch is producing more compost for its gardens than ever.
In the cafeteria: Well, Murch doesn’t have a cafeteria. But last year, the DC Department of General Services designated Murch as one of its eleven pilot sites for the now city-wide school composting program. Under this Healthy Schools Act program, schools and their custodial staff are trained to sort daily waste into separate bins according to trash type. The off-site compostable waste – all food waste including meat, dairy, bread, vegetable, and fruit products; paper towels and napkins; compostable trays; and greasy or soiled cardboard and other paper products – is placed in yellow super cans that are picked up daily by an outside composting service.
At Murch, this pilot project proved to be more difficult than DGS expected. In most schools, the compost super cans are in the cafeteria, where a few staff members or parent volunteers supervise the waste disposal during lunch to ensure it is properly sorted. Without a kitchen or cafeteria, Murch students eat in the classrooms. This creates a host of on-going challenges. So last year, the school garden teacher worked with DGS to find a workaround for Murch. This still proved unwieldy, so this worthy, but ambitious, school-wide composting project is going to have to wait until DCPS builds a cafeteria at Murch. In the meantime, individual classes are able to develop routines to work on recycling and composting on a smaller scale.
Murch staff and students are used to turning lemons into lemonade with the challenging logistics of a crowded old building, and now they are turning organic waste into “black gold” for the garden with their composting program. The students are proud to be reducing waste, producing usable, cost-saving compost, and learning hands-on science and good habits of environmental stewardship.