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Garbage In, Garden Out

George Washington and George Washington Carver both experimented with it. The first U.S. president preferred dark-aged sheep shit in his, while Dr. Carver advocated a potpourri of barnyard dung supplemented with dressings of decaying leaves and swamp muck. In an agricultural bulletin entitled “How to Build Up and Maintain the Virgin Fertility of Our Soil,” Carver noted that “A year-round compost pile is essential and can be had with little labor and practically no cash outlay.” Praise for the powers of the compost heap rose long before the times of either George Washington. Today, there are additional benefits from composting that may be as important as its boost to soil fertility. The lowly compost heap also proffers the important benefits of reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and petrochemical dependence, two problems another George W. has refused to address.

In its simplest form, a compost heap is a pile of organic garbage and the community of critters that dwells there. Composting takes the natural process of decomposition and concentrates its activity to bring about a more rapid breakdown of organic matter. It decomposes and returns nutritional elements bound up in its garbage to the soil where it can feed new plant growth. Through these soil enhancements, compost provides an alternative to petrochemical-based fertilizers. The hardworking recyclers in this process include a vast menagerie of bacteria, fungi, insects and worms whose decomposing talents have evolved over millions of years. The compost pile may be seen as representing the natural process of organic recycling that perpetuates life on this planet.

The oldest written records of composting go back to clay tablet inscriptions from Mesopotamia that date back more than 4,000 years, though its origins must stretch back much further. The first compost enthusiast probably was a cultivator of plants who noticed that seeds sprouted better in some places than others. She may have noted that healthier plants rose from the earth near piles of aged animal dung (including human). That first compost experimenter may have piled up dung, dirt and leaves to copy the natural process she observed.

It has been estimated that as much as 75 percent of the garbage generated in U.S. homes is compostable. While municipal composting of yard waste has made great strides over the years, much less attention has been directed at reducing the amount of kitchen waste entombed in plastic bags and tossed out at curbside. Wrapped in bags produced from petrochemicals, compostable garbage is loaded on petrochemical fueled trucks for transport to distant dumps with shrinking capacities. Vast quantities of potential compost are piled up into mountains of trash at local landfills.

Tending compost piles is a regular spring task for me. I’m currently gathering up the fall leaves I used to mulch plants through the winter. These leaves, which have dried out considerably during their ground time, weigh a lot less than they would have in the fall and they also are more crumbly. They formed a rough blanket on the earth, keeping the soil temperature below them more constant and moist. Crocuses have popped through some of the leaf blanket, green pointed leaves stretching skyward, yellow and purple blossoms opening with the sun. As I remove the blankets of leaves, green perennials emerge. I toss the leaves into a wheelbarrow and cart them to a pair of wire composters I’ve set up specifically for leaves. I also bury them in trenches dug in the garden, another form of composting I apply. I shovel out the decomposed leaves of last spring from the wire bins and dump the rich mulch back on the areas I’d just raked clean of this spring’s leaves. These recycled leaves help to enrich the soil fertility and structure as well as enhance moisture retention. Composted plant material also enhances the carbon storage capacity of the soil, reducing the release of greenhouse gasses that help heat up global warming.

I compost my kitchen waste with the use of two commercial composters made out of recycled plastic, supplemented with some trench composting. I empty these composters into my backyard garden in the spring and fall. By setting up a pair of composters, one is always available for deposits. Using a pair also allows for a full bin to sit longer without disturbance, so it can maximize its decomposition efforts before being dumped.

Setting up a household composting system takes some planning. You need to look at the waste that you are generating and figure out how much of it you want to compost. Yard wastes are a little easier to handle because they tend to be seasonal, with fair amounts of composting time available. Kitchen wastes are a little different, in that they are generated on an ongoing basis, there is no curbside pickup available, and active composting space is required. Once you figure out how much you expect to recycle, look into composter options. There are a variety of commercial composters available to choose from and a number of easy-to-build designs can be found in composting books.

You also need to set up a system to get the waste from your kitchen to your compost pile. I use a recycled 5-gallon bucket with a top that I got from the Honest Weight Food Coop for a buck. I usually fill one bucket a week. I dump it into a composter, cover it with some dirt with occasional layers of other plant materials added to diversify the pile. The more biologically active piles are made up of alternating layers of “green” material (like garden weeds and kitchen fruit and vegetable waste) and “brown” material (like dried leaves) which together provide rich sustenance for resident micro-recyclers. Moisture is also needed to keep piles cooking.

For more info about composting, check out The Rodale Book of Composting at your local library. For a gateway to Internet composting sites, check out the Compost Resource Page at www.oldgrowth.org/compost/. And now, I must leave to haul a full bucket to feed a hungry heap.

—Tom Nattell


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