Advice from a self-proclaimed 'compost whacko'

Pam Adams

Mary Beth Mahoney, a self-proclaimed "compost whacko," likes to say her family composts everything but the decals on fresh fruit.

Her son Elliot takes a more practical viewpoint: "I don't have to take out the garbage as often."

There's the "big batch pile" of yard, garden and some food waste composting in the backyard. The worm bins - six 10-gallon covered bins full of worms winter in the basement - are mostly for fruit and vegetable scraps. A small, air-tight bucket with a drain is in a bottom cabinet in the kitchen.

The latter contraption is a bokashi bucket, and it's strictly for three things: 1) indoor composting, 2) food that can't or shouldn't be composted outdoors, such as meat, cheese, bones, fish, pasta and bread; and 3) other foods the worms can't or shouldn't eat.

"Worms don't like onions and citrus, wreaks havoc with their digestive systems," Mahoney says. "They do better with broccoli, lettuce and other veggies."

Mahoney is more than a self-described whacko for decomposing organic matter. She is Peoria, Ill.'s first master composter, meaning, like master gardeners, she's certified by the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.

Between recycling and composting, she aspires to create a zero-waste family. From her son's point of view, that would be a family where he never has to take out the garbage. Because there is no garbage.

For now, there is very little. By composting, the Mahoney family's curbside garbage can contains zero food waste, one of the most common types of garbage.

The backyard pile, the worm colonies (which can go outdoors in warm weather), and the bokashi bucket represent the three broad compost categories. Mahoney likes all three for different reasons. But the fascinating part, for her, is watching the intricate, biological processes as living organisms - micro- and macroorganisms, worms included - transform what would be garbage in most households into rich, dark, earthy feed for the soil.

"Our lives are one big science experiment," she says.

Major steps along Mahoney's composting journey have come through accidental encounters with new knowledge. Two or three years ago, while shopping at Menard's, she came across a book called "Book of Compost," by Mike McGrath. She bought it on a whim, ended up reading it cover to cover in a weekend, then told her husband, "This book is going to change our lives."

The book led to a backyard compost pile, and Mahoney found herself online searching for a compost thermometer, which would allow her to make scientifically-based judgments about monitoring her pile. She came across a comment about a "master composter." Intrigued, she asked more questions. The next thing she knew she was on her way to Chicago for master composting classes. The rest is the story of how an avid gardener and long-time organic gardener became a compost queen - or a "whacko."

Now, Mahoney regularly teaches school students and adults about composting. She's taking classes on soil fertility, soil chemistry and advanced turf management at Illinois Central College. After taking an early buyout package from her job at Caterpillar Inc. last year, she started a business, Verdant Living, to introduce green household services, such as carpeting and upholstery cleaning and, eventually, organic lawn care.

She also became enamored of the worms of her worm colonies.

Asked about the worst aspect of composting, Mahoney is quick to say, "There's nothing bad about composting."

Once again, her son, a high school senior, takes a different viewpoint.

"I don't get as much attention as the worms."

Pam Adams can be reached at