In, Garden Out
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
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.