Last week, I was delighted to attend the first event organized as a joint effort between the Dade County Public Library and "the Dade Treehugger," Jennifer Blair (right in photo), on the subject of composting. I am proud of Jennifer for stepping up to raise eco-consciousness in Dade and I'm proud of the Dade and Trenton gummints for taking her seriously. I am always proud of our valiant little library and the myriad feats it has accomplished under the wizardly management of Marshana Sharp (left in photo). And I was positively spewing pride at how many interested Dade denizens--I estimated some 80--showed up to hug trees with us.
But when my name was called at the end of this charming evening as having won a door prize--one of the impressive lineup of commercial composters the event organizers had bought for the occasion--I was struck dumb with embarrassment and dismay, what the English called gobsmacked. What could I say?
It's not just that I have a low opinion of commercial composters but that I had broadcast that message loud, clear and more than once over the years in my newspaper column, Bob's Little Acre. Now, on top of the embarrassment of being called to choose a prize I had insulted repeatedly in the local rag, I also had to admit to myself that no one reads me.
The day was saved by my plus-one at the event. Stepping up to choose a prize in my place, he snagged us a big plastic box with holes in it. I didn't see how that purported to be a composter, but he said it was anyway "a useful container for putting things in." It was only later that he figured out the box wouldn't be waterproof, so that really it was only "a useful container for putting things in when it's not raining."
Plus-one and I live deep in the country and we routinely do compost all our kitchen garbage, not just to improve our garden soil but as a matter of getting rid of it. We don't have garbage service out here! If we left food scraps lying around until our quarterly dump runs this place would be teeming with the white and wigglies from March to December.
A useful container for putting on the porch (and leaving there)
But we compost casually and without the intervention of "composters." We just put peelings and coffee grounds in a container with a lid on it and when it's full take it outside. There, if we have plenty of spoiled hay, we'll compost it in a pile--a layer of food goop, an armful of hay, repeat. More commonly (because we almost never have enough hay; got any?) we'll just take the shovel down to the garden with us and bury the scraps in a shallow grave. In the late fall and winter, when nothing is planted there, I'll bury compostables not just in the vegetable garden but in flowerbeds where I want to improve the soil.
I've always read you're not supposed to put meat in compost piles but you bury bodies, right? So when I've got chicken bones to dispose of (after boiling them down for broth, of course; Laura Ingalls Wilder's got nothin' on me) I just bury them deeper, and when the dogs and cats aren't looking.
All of this is so simple and so commonsense that (a) I forget I ever did anything else and (b) I can't imagine that all other rural dwellers don't do it, too. But I recently read a Facebook post from somebody advising readers to pour Clorox in their kitchen garbage when it commences to wiggle so--maybe not!
One way or t'other, this seemed an opportune time to republish what I've got on composting so I went back and gathered up not one, not two, but three items I'd written on the subject. I'm placing them here in reverse chronological order, starting with a 2011 blog entry I wrote the last time it became evident I'd made no impression with my garden writing! I wrote it as a preface to reprinting the compost columns then.
Mary, my friend I mentioned in the preface, died three years ago this month. The spouse I complained about is, I am happy to report, still my plus-one (and still cluttering up the premises with obstreperous detritus, such as the above-depicted Useful Container for Putting Discarded Shoes On).
Anyhoo! Here is everything I know about composting, with my sincerest gratitude to our treasured Dade Treehugger and beloved library staff for a wonderful evening, and assurances that I'm not making fun of anyone but myself. (And the merchandisers.) (And the manufacturers.) (And maybe Plus-One, a little. Oh, never mind.)
Sept. 27, 2011
It’s now official: No one listens to a word I say!
My adored friend Mary, who swears she loves Bob’s Little Acre and never misses a single one, told me on Saturday she had bought a composter. It was fairly pricey but she felt confident it would do the job because it came highly recommended by another friend of ours.
Who – get this – also swears she reads Bob’s Little Acre.
I know that not even the most devoted Bob reader will agree with every little opinion espoused by its narrator, not even BLA’s abiding message, which is that gardening is something you do, not something you buy.
But strictly from the perspective of thrift, shouldn’t people at least remember that I’ve written not one but two columns testifying to the utter uselessness of commercial composters?
The first column I wrote was about my early experiments with composting, when I had a secret lust for one of those barrel composters advertised in the back of gardening magazines. The second was years later, when someone had actually given me one, having become disgusted with it himself.
That composter never composted anything – or at least, nothing I put in it ever composted until I gritted my teeth and emptied it, maggoty and rancid, onto the ground, where hay on top and worms on bottom eventually did what they have been doing for millions of years.
We still have the damn thing, sitting out in “Jerry’s Little Acre,” the Tobacco-Road motif section of our yard given over to my husband’s detritus, about which I nag him bitterly and without effect and over which we may eventually divorce. He says he’s found a new sucker – I mean, given the composter to another gardener – and is just waiting for an opportune occasion to deliver it.
Meanwhile, it sits there useless and unattractive and going nowhere, so durable and eternal you wonder how in hell anybody ever got the idea that heavy-duty industrial-grade plastic was a suitable medium for organic decomposition.
Well. I begin to sound a bit shrill, even to myself. It shouldn’t surprise me not to be listened to. I am married. In any case, I have given myself the satisfaction of reposting my first compost article below, as well as the second column which I don’t believe I have ever put on this blog site.
I don’t suppose anyone will pay any more attention than they did the first time. I expect everyone thinks I am just talking a lot of rot.
ANYBODY WANT TO BUY A FABULOUS PATENTED COMPOSTUMBLER®?
By Robin Ford Wallace
“Cadillac DeVille, ’05, White. Loaded.”
That, in 8-point type, on a tiny scrap of newspaper, is what I read one sunny morning in August. I cussed.
Not that I’ve got anything against Cadillacs, and not that I’m ungrateful, at my age, to be able to read 8-point with the naked big browns, if only in bright sunlight.
But the scrap of paper shouldn’t have said anything at all. It shouldn’t have even been a scrap of paper. I had just pulled it from my fabulous patented ComposTumbler®, where, according to the user’s manual, it should have turned into “nutrient-rich, sweet-smelling compost in as little as 14 days.”
It had been two months.
In the past, all my compost had been made using the stodgy old-fashioned method – step 1, empty kitchen garbage onto dirt, step 2, walk away – and it had never been perfect. It had little white flecks in it that were still visibly eggshells, and sometimes tiny colored ovals where I’d forgotten to take the tags off fruit. So heaven knows, I had no unrealistic expectations about compost.
But it shouldn’t try to sell you a Caddy.
(Photo: The fabulous patented ComposTumbler® from a Mantis ad.)
The ComposTumbler® is a vented barrel suspended on a raised framework, with a crank that you turn to make it go round and round. The idea is, the motion mixes and aerates the organic matter inside, magically transforming kitchen garbage into “black gold.” If you have ever flipped through a gardening magazine, you’ll have seen glossy ads depicting the ComposTumbler® being smilingly cranked by an impossibly clean gardener looking smug and scientific.
In 2005, I wrote in this very space about the fabulous patented ComposTumbler®. Composting is the province of dirt and worms, I wrote, not of revolving plastic barrels. With withering sarcasm, relentless logic and a bewildering array of Shakespearean references, I concluded that if you were dumb enough to buy a fabulous patented ComposTumbler®, you were too stupid to garden and should probably take up cross-stitch.
But of course I always kind of wanted one.
What can I say? I’m no more immune to advertising than other mortals, and it looked so scientific.
So I was thrilled when I was given a fabulous patented ComposTumbler® by someone who had been dumb enough to buy one. It might not work, but what was the harm in trying?
Avidly, I read the compost recipes in the user’s manual. I tried to measure out just the right amount of a useful but unlovely substance produced by my neighbor’s horses. I soaked newspapers. I added kitchen garbage, then I turned the crank 40 revolutions per day, looking smug and scientific.
Result: A perfectly legible car ad, slightly smeared with horse poop, and a sore shoulder.
What was to be done? My philosophy is: if at first you don’t succeed, stalk away and drink a beer sullenly.
Problem is, when I stalked away, I left the top off the fabulous patented ComposTumbler® for a day and a night. If nature abhors a vacuum, it purely loves a barrel full of garbage with the top off, so next time I checked on my nutrient-rich, sweet-smelling compost, something long and evil was in there wiggling.
I consulted the user’s manual.
What I needed, I decided, was bulk. The more decaying matter in the barrel, the greater the heat. The heat generated by a full barrel, said the manual, was enough to kill weed seeds; if so, I reasoned, it would also kill long, evil wiggling things.
So I mowed my nation-like lawn with the bag attached to the mower, stopping every 37 seconds as the bag filled to dump the grass clippings into the fabulous patented ComposTumbler®. Then I added water and turned the crank, looking scientific but possibly a little less smug.
Result: Two sore shoulders. The barrel was now so heavy, cranking took both hands.
And the odor! Despite the advertising, I had never really expected my nutrient-rich compost to smell like Chanel, but now turning the barrel took even longer because every time the ventilation hole came slowly around to nose level you had to stop and vomit.
What to do? My problem-solving methodology can be found above.
When I could finally bring myself to approach the barrel again some weeks later, the mass inside had compacted. Cranking it, one felt that a fat person had gone in there and died. It was crank, crank, crank, THUNK, crank, crank, crank, THUNK, as my “black gold” shifted like a body in a car trunk.
I knew what had to be done and I did it. Two weeks later.
Anyway, finally I gathered my courage. Teeth gritted, eyes narrowed, knuckles white on shovel, I opened the lid to break up the mass.
And shrieked girlishly as tendrils of black slime slid from the lid into my hair. Then dropped the shovel and ran like a hare as I saw what was inside.
The long evil things were not dead. They were now longer and more evil. They were in there coiling like pythons.
And that’s where matters now stand with my fabulous patented ComposTumbler®. I may have to hire somebody to deal with it for me, possibly an exorcist. Or I could just move.
Compost is a matter of allowing organic matter to decompose. The function of technology is not to help things decompose but to stop them from doing it. That’s why they invented freezers. Compost has nothing to do with technology. It has to do, like everything else in gardening, with dirt.
That was my advice in 2005, and this time I will take it myself. So don’t be surprised if you open the classified section of this newspaper and see, in 8-point:
“Fabulous patented ComposTumbler®, ’06, Gray. Free to a good home.”
Oh, I almost forgot:
Robin Ford Wallace lives in Deerhead Cove, where she plays quietly in the dirt, disturbing no one.
Finally, this is the original compost piece I wrote in 2005. It was one of the earliest Bob's Little Acre column.
A RICHER DUST
BY ROBIN FORD WALLACE
Shakespeare wrote: “Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”
This is a gardening column and will, thus, not unduly burden itself in arguing whether men do, in fact, die for love, or women, for that matter – though we are remembering a movie called Lady Caroline Lamb in which the last line was the lady’s maid lamenting, “She died of a broken ‘eart!” We were not unwilling, at that point, to bid Caroline adieu, having never taken to her in the first place and in any case having finished our popcorn.
No, what interests us is the worms. When we place our kitchen waste outdoors, cover it tastefully with mulch, and submit it to the digestive processes of worms (who are, presumably, ravening impatiently about the garden in hope of amorous fatalities), it becomes compost, the crumbly black stuff that is to the organic gardener what gold was to the alchemist.
Composting has existed in nature for a couple of million years, anyway. Trees shed their leaves, which decay, making the forest soil into beautiful, black, friable stuff that you would hook for your garden except for problems of transport and the fact that the rangers would nail you.
Little creatures die and add their tiny carcasses to the organic mix. Bigger creatures, too. The poet Rupert Brooke wrote patriotically, and rather too prophetically, of his possible death in World War I: “There shall be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed” – meaning Rupert, I’m afraid – “that is forever England.”
Dear me. Here one has set out to discuss compost and one finds oneself not only frothing on about Shakespeare and Rupert Brooke but remembering that Lady Caroline was one of Lord Byron’s mistresses. Well, if darling Rupert could write so romantically about being compost, surely we can permit ourselves to wax poetic about its virtues in the garden.
Most gardeners will agree that compost is superior to chemical fertilizers. Not only does it add nutrients, it improves the texture of the soil. Furthermore, compost costs nothing to make and it’s a convenient way to get rid of the salad from two weeks ago currently evolving into new life forms in the crisper.
Nor is there much disagreement about what to put into your compost pile: All foodstuffs except meat, which is said to bring rodents. So: Coffee grounds, turnips you bought last January, the bread that is growing festive blue spots, the lentil loaf for which your family’s palate was insufficiently sophisticated.
Some materials take longer to compost than others. Eggshells are so hardy one wonders at times how chickens get born. And though some gardeners believe in composting paper coffee filters, we have found them dauntingly durable. And peanut shells? To expand upon our poetical theme: Intimations of Immortality.
There is also consensus that layering your kitchen waste with mulch aids the composting process and that it keeps the compost area easier on the eye. So: Grass clippings, hay, leaves. Throw a pile of autumn foliage on that yam casserole with the miniature marshmallows and forget that it ever happened.
Where there seems to be disagreement is how, precisely, to make compost. Order one seed catalog and you will for the rest of your life find your mailbox crammed with ads for ingenious devices to manufacture “black gold.” Wooden crates, wire mesh, bins made of square hay bales. One composter on the market consists of a barrel with air holes punched in it suspended between two poles, with a crank. The idea is, you put your biodegradables in the barrel and every day you spin it around with the crank, looking smug and scientific.
We will, in the interest of honesty, admit that in our credulous youth we wanted one of these so bad we could taste it. Not being able to afford it, we attempted to home-make a facsimile, consisting of a huge metal trashcan that we punctured with our Swiss Army knife, filled with rotting food, and then rolled around the yard, looking half-witted and vaguely inbred. Result: Well, we don’t imagine the expensive kind worked, either.
There are pundits who advise you to water your compost, turn your compost, buy additives for your compost. Reading such stuff, we cannot imagine how these people find time to garden or hold down jobs.
In reality, we find that all one needs for composting is nature and Mr. Shakespeare’s worms. Dump kitchen waste in a spot close to the garden, cover it with hay, repeat the process until the pile is a few feet high, then leave it for the worms to deal with. You’ll have crumbly, wormy compost sooner or later, depending on the season.
If you find yourself agitating it and watering it and buying it toys, it may be time to take up another hobby – cross-stitch, say, or writing poetry.
Robin Ford Wallace lives in Deerhead Cove, where she plays quietly in the dirt, disturbing no one.