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One Cup of Compost Please!

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By James Geneau

I was in line at my local Starbucks this morning waiting for my grande-decaf-skinny-extra hot-latte when I noticed a roll of labels along the divider between myself and the barista. She and I have a long relationship (albeit nameless) going back somewhere between one or two years, so she did not seem to mind when I picked up the roll and started reading it.

What had caught my eyes were the words "Used Coffee Grinds" and I just had to know why Starbucks would create such lovely looking labels for their trash. Upon further observation however, it was clear it was for the customers. Now before you die-hard-coffee-drinking-hipster-radicalists start emailing me about how their trash actually is the coffee they serve, please note that I am a Generation X'er who was practically bottle-fed on this stuff my whole life - so don't bother. Anyway...

The labels I discovered are for a special program developed by a team of Starbucks store employees over 9 years ago called "Grounds for your Garden". The program is an initiative to reuse coffee grounds, the largest portion of the waste generated by each and every Starbucks store. It's a year-round program offering complimentary bags of spent coffee grounds for composting and is available to customers, parks, schools and nurseries. While the program was news to me, it has become a popular way for North American gardeners to enrich their soil, reduce waste, and save the environment. And an even better perk is that it is free!

As I left the store, I wondered if all those past invites to enjoy coffee in the garden at my friend's place had a double meaning. Did they want to catch up on gossip or supply me with gloves and a shovel and help them fertilize? Should I start attending tea parties to avoid the potential social faux-pas of misunderstanding the invite? If I limited myself to gatherings only serving tea, would I need to start eating scones and become an expert on preserves? I took a puff from my inhaler, calmed down, and then thought to myself, "how does dumping coffee in your garden work"?

I asked around and it soon became clear to me that I was no gardening expert as everyone knew the benefits of coffee in the garden, or at least claimed they did. Secretly, I think they all went on-line to learn more after our conversation. Wait till they come across this article! You know who you are! Anyhow, it turns out that coffee grounds are an ideal way to slowly boost nitrogen levels in the garden due to its carbon-nitrogen (C-N) ratio of 20-1.

There are several ways to incorporate coffee grounds into your garden. You can sprinkle the grounds around the base of plants before a period of rain or add them to compost piles to increase nitrogen balance. If you use about a half-pound bag of wet grounds in a five-gallon bucket of water; and let it sit, you can then use it as a great liquid fertilizer for houseplants or even new vegetable beds. The acidity of the coffee can be a bit of a problem, however, this can be fixed by letting it compost with other organic matter with a bit of lemon or lime juice. If you have issues with animals getting into your vegetable garden, you can also combine coffee grinds with eggs shells and use the mixture to line the edges. Apparently they don't like coffee and eggs for breakfast!

Starbucks grounds are packaged in recycled bags and made available on a first-come, first-served basis to customers. Complimentary coffee grounds can be picked up at any neighbousrhood Starbucks, or you can ask your local store manager for more information. If you ask me, this is a great offering and an excellent resource for urban gardeners. With so many of us focused on renewable chemical-free ways to enrich the soils of our private backyard farms, why not grab a bag of used coffee grinds with your next latte? Its free and green!

Tips for Composting Coffee Grounds:

You should mix coffee grounds with the soil around acid-loving plants.

Add brown leaves and grass clippings with coffee into a mulch to help balance the pH levels of the soil. The grounds help to accelerate the composting process of the mulch.

When composting, coffee grounds should not be more than 25% of any organic material. You can add one teaspoon of lime or wood for every five pounds of coffee grounds to balance the acidity in your compost.


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