Sunday, January 16, 2011


          Compost is the soil-enriching end result of the decomposition of vegetative products. For gardeners, managing a compost pile is a way to reconnect to the cycle of decay and rebirth that humans work so hard to deny we’re a part of. How does compost differ from rot? It doesn’t. It’s just carbon-based shape-shifting, like ice into water into steam. Over time, today’s potato peels and paper towels and that last scoop of macaroni-and-cheese morph into beneficial bacteria- and fungi-loaded humus. It’s quite miraculous, really.

The basic Fitzgerald compost bin
flanked by their basic pitchfork

I am definitely not advocating flinging today’s kitchen scraps or freshly produced manure around your yard: that would just stink, attract vermin, appall the neighbors and burn your plants with too much nitrogen. You need to keep the stuff corralled and let it age for a while. Like so many other aspects of gardening, it doesn’t pay to be in an almighty hurry.

You’d think it would be easy to convert your non-synthetic kitchen and yard leftovers into soil-building material. That’s what I thought, anyway, many years ago when I never missed an issue of The Mother Earth News. The world was young then, the possibilities seemed endless.

Why not build a couple of bins and start composting? I asked my then-husband, R. He shrugged. He didn’t care what I did as long as I stayed home. We cobbled together a sort of M-shaped pair of square-ish spaces with removable fronts, for easy access. To collect kitchen detritus, I got a green plastic bucket from some upscale mail-order company, complete with tight-fitting lid topped by a replaceable charcoal filter. We already had a garden fork. So, for about 40 dollars and a few hours with a hammer, I was in business.

The Fitzgerald compost bin
with front top boards removed
for easy access
            I lived in the foothills of the Adirondacks in those days, in a lovely 1930s Cape Cod with a cedar-shake roof and a rear-facing garage. This is not gratuitous description: it’s an important brick in the wall of my composting education. We’d positioned the bins at the back of the 25-by-35-foot rectangle of asphalt that made using the garage possible. This arrangement worked great June through October (what the locals called spring, summer and fall). Once snow started falling, however, whatever collected on the driveway and the turnaround had to be rearranged so R could get the Honda out. By Christmas, I was clambering over drifts higher than my head to make deposits to the by-then-frozen-solid compost pile. (On the plus side, the mountainous snow heaps made it much easier to reach the roof, which, because it was wood, needing raking to prevent the living-room ceiling from becoming the living-room floor. Like I said, I was young at the time.)

            Pregnancy brought an end to death-defying trips over the drifts during the third exhilarating season. I traded in my The Mother Earth News subscription for Parenting.

Eternally odorless
stainless steel
kitchen scrap bucket

            Earth orbited the sun nine or ten times; I moved to a more hospitable clime. I decided to try composting again. After Tim and I installed Incarnation #1 of our garden here in NC, I bought one of those black-plastic, tapered, barrel-like composting “systems.” (Why? Because it was small, and space is limited chez Fitz.) We anchored it down on the sunniest part of the back yard and began filling it enthusiastically. Soon it reached capacity. That’s when the trouble started. The barrel’s narrowness made getting a pitchfork in to turn the stuff annoying, but I persevered. However, when I opened the little door at the bottom to extract the first load of home-grown “black gold,” I discovered about a jillion fire ants had made the snuggy-warm compost pile their home. Oh, dear.

            We eventually persuaded the ants to change their address. By the time the barrel could be approached without threat of grievous bodily harm, I was already whining about lack of space to plant. I gave the “system” to an unsuspecting friend, and installed a vegetable garden. 
            A few years after the final fire-ant bite had drifted into scabby memory, I resolved to try again, again. Maybe three’s the charm, I thought. Worked with husbands. I listed everything that hadn’t worked before, the better to avoid repeating mistakes.           

Unturned compost

            Composting Lesson #1: Location, location, location. Year-round accessibility to the pile is very important. If you live in a harsh-winter area, siting your bins in a sunny area protected from wind is also a good idea. Arranging for your children to be born in August or September is something else you may want to give serious thought to. Here in the Southeast, that part’s not so important.
            Composting Lesson #2: Plastic scrap buckets—no matter how upscale, no matter how often you change the filter—eventually start to smell. Over time, the faint but pervasive odor of rotting food wafting about the kitchen is enough to disenchant the earthiest of earth-mothers. Stainless steel is the only sensible way to go for the long term.

            Composting Lesson #3: Keep the drill as simple and convenient as possible. Know thyself and thy limitations. And avoid any commercial product that bills itself as a “system.” “System” is ad-speak for “More Trouble Than It’s Worth.”
Recently turned compostables

            Now I have a 2-by-6-foot louvered box, made with 1-by-6-inch planks screwed into mail-ordered metal corner-posts. This receptacle takes select garden debris (nothing too big, diseased or potentially invasive, like Ruellia caroliniana seeds or wild garlic bulbs) and loads of kitchen scraps from my lidded stainless-steel bucket. After emptying it, I fill the bucket with water from the rain barrel, swish it around and douse the pile. Once a week, usually on Sunday walkabout, I give the pile a turn. All in all, it’s a pretty laissez-faire operation, perfectly suited to my personality. Two years of kitchen and yard waste have shrunk to an eight-inch-high pile of odorless dirt, teeming with microbes.

Home-made "black gold"

The only fly in the ointment is that, as yet, none of this good stuff has made it into the garden, which is why I’m still moaning about hauling around 50-pound bags of Black Kow.

What’s the problem? you ask.

Turns out I need a second bin. The stuff in the original bin can’t fully cook down because I keep adding to it. I keep telling myself, Next paycheck I’m ordering more corner-posts. Maybe next paycheck I will.

I find I have more I want to say about composting, so I will, next time. Thanks for dropping by.