Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In the Spring, an old man's fancy lightly turns... compost.

If Tennyson asks for an apology, I'll give him one.
Like the fly, fallen leaves are among the creator's more dubious achievements. They are mobile dirt. They annoy us with perpetual work of the sort advertisers assure us we are too busy and too noble to do. But all such built in annoyances should be weighed on a scale of wholeness where decay answers growth as two dancers answer each other's every move. It was on that scale that creation worked itself out. Here is a little photo essay the Insufferable Carbon Snob put together to help you get over any silly preference you may have for using garbage disposals. The carbon can circle from garden to table to compost and back for ever. Your little job is just to keep "for ever" on the tracks and moving.

If you live in an apartment, and don't grow any house plants you may be excused. That should not discourage you from gardening at one of the shared gardening sites that many towns offer. At such community gardens, composting is encouraged. I have seen them in Boston and in many of its woodsier suburbs so don't be surprised if you have been missing the opportunity to do something with your leftovers and scraps beside burden the sewage treatment facilities.

If you have a back yard of any size at all and you are not growing things, consider moving in with the folks in the paragraph above. Let someone sequester a little carbon since you are wasting the opportunity.

If you don't discharge your waste water to the town sewage but rather your own septic system, all the more financial incentive to compost. We have the sceptic pumped every 6 years instead of every two and it is in perfect working order.

If you are still with me, the rest is simple. Get a bucket that seals, opens with one finger and holds about a gallon of slop. That provides for a weeks worth of cooking, is easy enough to use that it will get used and it won't stink you out of the kitchen. That is stage one. About once a week you will be going to your compost bin or to an intermediary stage. The picture here is my stage one and a stage two, anaerobic, bucket to which I am dumping the weeks slops. I always stir the bucket when a new batch comes from the kitchen and I don't drain off liquids like coffee or turkey all adds to the sewagey consistency and keeps out the air.

Anaerobic decomposition is a vile smelling process, more or less like a sceptic system. I use about eight or ten 5-gallon buckets with air tight lids. This lets me put an entire winters worth of slops to work fermenting while my stage three compost bins are frozen solid. These are just reused buckets from when I seal coated my driveway but you can buy such buckets if none are laying around loose behind the local restaurants or paint shops.

Once in the spring and once in the fall, I lug the whole collection of buckets to the real composting operation in the far back corner of the lot. There are two composters here, one that lets rain in.

And one that runs kinda dry.Then there is a sequence of operations
  1. Unload most of the compost from the dry bin and screen it into mortar tubs or a wheel barrow: this is the end product and as good as you'd buy from a gardening store. It does tend to grow volunteer tomatoes at a furious pace but that may not be a bad thing.
  2. transfer last seasons material from the wet bin to the dry bin leaving a little material as a "starter culture". This is similar to some sourdough baking techniques.
  3. add about three quarters of the rotten slops to the dry bin and mix thoroughly
  4. In the wetter bin, a mix of leaves, the rest of the putrid buckets of kitchen waste and some ashes from the wood stove [we will get to heating in a later post]. The ashes balance the low pH of the oak leaves.
It works. I enrich the rocky sandy glacial til we call dirt with that finished compost and grow enough tomatoes, basil and other herbs to keep us in salads from late July until first frost. The flower beds do well also but I hate having to pluck out all the cantaloupe sprouts.

I didn't start out with this composting religion. I learned it from my daughter. It is odd how satisfying this "chore" is to me.

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