Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Virtues of Composting

In 1977 I bought my first house in Durham, North Carolina. Its primary asset was a well-established compost pile. It was about 6 x 4 feet with fencing attached securely to metal poles at each corner. I covered it with black plastic and marveled at the proliferation of banana slugs, pumpkin vines and, ultimately, compost. You can see the compost pile on the left of the quilted piece that I made in 1980. Since that initial pile, I am pleased to say that I have created compost piles in two more houses in North Carolina and two in northern California.

Compost is all about transformation. The mix of ingredients you put into the bin are ready at hand and by no means exotic: leaves you’ve raked up from the front yard or the street, grass clippings and garden trimmings, vegetable and fruit peelings (like cilantro, parsley, and celery that have gone yellow in the fridge), dead or dying houseplants, tea leaves and coffee grounds. I stay away from pasta, bread, bones and other kinds of protein; these can go into your yard waste container if your garbage people allow it. Avoid large tree branches or super-leathery leaves because they take too long to disintegrate. Sprinkle with water to keep the pile damp but not swampy. Cover it up. Stir it every so often. Wait for a while and, like magic, this assortment of ingredients turns into a dark, rich crumbly stuff called compost. Add it to your garden as mulch, fertilizer, and soil amendment all in one.

The first thing you need to do is to buy a plastic compost bin or create your own using wooden palettes or fencing and stakes mentioned above. Plastic bins are often available at a cut-rate price from your county’s waste management authority. Check out the resource list below. I put my bin in a side or back yard where it can’t be seen from the street.

The second thing you need to do is find a good way to collect the peelings in your kitchen. While I’m cooking, I keep a metal bowl next to the chopping area and put all the peels into that.

The bowl gets dumped into a blue plastic container with a lid (mine is from IKEA) which fits underneath the sink. I can easily empty it into the compost bin whenever it’s full or getting a little stinky and cover the contents with dried leaves already in the bin.

I am truly dazzled by what happens to this mixture of disparate ingredients. While making supper requires some effort from me, compost mostly cooks itself. I win in every way: my garden soil is greatly enriched, much less of my waste goes into the city landfill, and I get to feel so virtuous.

I Googled ‘building a compost bin’ and got many responses. Among them were
Bay area:
Alameda County 510-444-SOIL (the Rotline)
Central Contra Costa County Solid Waste Authority 925-906-1806
West Contra Costa County Integrated Waste Management Authority
San Mateo County RecycleWorks 888-442-2666
Santa Clara County Recycling & Waste Reduction Commission 408-918-4640
New York City area: (if bins are available in NYC, maybe they are everywhere)
For Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens Compost Projects
I Googled ‘Compost Bins’ and got a huge number of sites offering to sell me one. Some are inexplicably expensive. I think the least expensive was about $90. You might also check with your local nursery for availability in your area.

1 comment:

Tinky said...

I tend to be really good at not throwing the stuff out; I go dump it outside. But I'm really bad at making it into compost. Maybe you'll inspire me.......