Have you ever thought about decay? When food spoils from being left in the refrigerator too long, we usually think that decay is bad. What if things didn’t decay? Imagine how hard it would be to walk around outdoors if all the leaves that fell in years past were still lying around. We would be over our heads in dead leaves, sticks, and branches. Even if we raked the leaves every year, where could we put them if the old ones were still around, unrotted?

Fungusbacteria and other living things feed on almost anything organic (meaning something that was part of a living thing). Leaves, sticks, branches, dead animals, shed feathers, and animal wastes are all changed into soil chemicals useful for growing plants. It might be interesting to experiment with this.

Experiment Get some objects that were once alive that you could try rotting, things like a tree leaf, an apple core, potato peelings, maybe some hair from someone’s dog or cat. It’s good to avoid things like meat or dairy products since these can smell bad as they decay and might grow bacteria that could make you sick. You could include a piece of paper since that is made from wood. Find a spot outside where you could put these items either on the ground or bury them just a centimeter or 2 deep in the soil. Be sure to figure out a way to know right where they are in the weeks and months ahead. 

Make a drawing or take a photograph of what they look like when you start the experiment. Decide how often you are going to check them to see if they are decaying, maybe once a week. Cold weather in the fall can slow decay. It might be interesting to put a second one of each of these objects in a bucket of soil inside where it will stay warm, maybe in the basement. Always get permission from an adult before starting any decay experiments indoors. 

You could put one of each item in a jar with some soil and close the top. Be sure to moisten the objects with a little water before closing the top on each jar. Most living things that cause decay need water to live and grow. What other things might affect how fast things rot? Can you think of your own ways to test if they do?

Observing What happens to the things you are testing? Do the objects change? Do they all change at the same speed? Draw or photograph them as time goes by. Find a way to keep your hands clean when you check the objects, maybe you could wear gloves for example, or make sure to wash your hands each time after you check on the objects.

Preserving Food Decay may be good when it recycles things into soil, but not usually when it comes to our food. What do we do to make sure our food doesn’t rot or go bad too fast? We refrigerate or freeze some foods so bacteria won’t grow as quickly. We add chemicals called preservatives to some foods to keep them from going bad. Look at food package labels to see which ones have preservatives added. Smoking ham and other meats is another way to keep food from spoiling. Some foods are packaged in special ways to keep bacteria out. Canning is one of these special packaging methods. 

Find out more about preserving food by visiting some of the websites listed below.

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