Thursday, January 20, 2011


           Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
           Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
           Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
           Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
                     T.S. Eliot, from “Burnt Coker I,” Four Quartets

So what do I have to do to get you into composting today? 

Gardeners Supply's
compost bins Models 1 & 2...

There’s a lot of composting info-opportunities accessible to the curious. I conducted a casual cyber-survey by typing “composting” into the Google search box. In seconds, I had 12,500,000 results. That’s twelve-and-a-half million listings.

Narrowing the field a bit, I typed “composting” into Amazon’s books search bar. Five hundred ninety-six titles are available. I’ve already read two of them—only 594 to go.

Feeling myself on a roll, I upped the ante and typed in “composting supplies” while still at Amazon. Almost 200 sites vie to sell you something to turn your garbage into soil food. (And skillions more want to suck you into a black hole of disengagement from real life.)

A sad fact of modern life, too damn many pseudo-choices effectively paralyze those who get sucked into the maelstrom. My life-long quest for simplicity has yielded a few pertinent insights on the subject: 

1)      If an activity seems complicated, riddled with rules, and/or oozing with experts’ advice, most of us won’t advance past the cursory investigation stage. I mean, how many of those 12,500,000 sites would you click on before your brain reverted to dial-tone? (I only got to three.)

2)      If an activity, once started, appears to cost too much—either in money, time, or psychic resources—most of us will find a way to weasel out of it… regardless of how much money, time or psychic energy the extraction requires. For example, think of all those exercise bikes, treadmills and bow-flex systems languishing at garage sales everywhere.

...and bins 3 through 7,
a worm composter
(not for composting worms)
and accessories
3)      If, however, an activity becomes enjoyable for its own sake, the putative rewards dangled to hook us in the first place begin not to matter. That’s when an activity becomes a part of who you are.

A depressing corollary to the above list is that most of us expend far more energy on 1) and 2) than on 3).

Should you decide to take a figurative plunge into compost, I can testify the literature is full of rules. First and foremost, compostable candidates must fall into one of two color-coded categories. Kitchen scraps, grass clippings and non-woody garden debris—you know, the moist, green stuff—are called greens. Material with higher carbon content, like dead leaves, twigs, shredded newspaper and used paper towels, are browns. Mavens expound upon involved formulae for proper layering techniques to maximize a pile’s performance. There are also very specific heat, air and moisture requirements to be maintained. In fact, the many rules and criteria for constructing an ideal composting environment almost convinced me to forget the whole thing. (I do not play well with authority.)

Oh, yeah? I bristled to myself. We’ll just see about that.

Through trial and error, I proved the rules are all pretty much unnecessary. Nature never takes the advice of experts. Nor do experts read Eliot, apparently.

Gardens Alive!
compost tumbler system
and thermometer
In my own practice, I do everything “wrong.” My greens and browns go on the heap in the same order they come out of the kitchen and yard without regard for proportions or layering. I cavalierly toss in bits of cheese, cat-brush leavings, ashes from barbecued income-tax records, baked goods, threads and scraps of material (yes, I mend clothes!), the contents of our paper-shredder bin, past-its-prime yogurt, used-but-un-disease-ridden potting soil, and, on rare occasions, unfit-for-human-consumption cold cuts: this despite dire warnings, threatening vermin and stink, against dairy, sugar, meat and non-soy inks and dyes. My bin is not optimally located either for sun exposure (it’s shaded most of the day) or protection from overhead watering (the south-side spray-heads douse it twice a day in summer), so prescribed levels of oxygen are, pardon the pun, dampened. I’m lacksidaisical about ensuring the cooler edges of the pile get folded into the hotter middle to equalize the “cooking” process: all I do is stand at one end of the bin, stab and flip four or five pitchfork-fuls, move to the other end and repeat.

My stuff—all of it—still composts. It resembles dirt. I have earthworms. There’s no noticeable unpleasant odor (believe me, Tim the Nose would notice and remark).

Kitchen scrap buckets galore
from Gardeners Supply...
For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re not as, er, flexible about rule-following as I am. You can participate in the composting process as much or as little as you like, depending on how compulsive, impatient and/or controlling you are. Type A personalities with money and time to burn might purchase a pair of those big, multi-chambered tumbling barrels for the quickest alleged turnaround time between garbage and good stuff. A moderately obsessive approach consists of some arrangement of multiple bins for shifting piles back and forth, ostensibly to maximize aeration and temperature, allowing you to think you’re speeding up the process. (I’ve provided pictures of available ready-mades from Gardens Alive! and Gardeners Supply catalogs.) The laissez-faire-minded—such as myself—can just dump their biodegradable detritus somewhere inconspicuous and let it decompose. Left to their own devices, microbes and earthworms magically appear and set to work breaking down garbage into crumbly, rich, non-stinky soil.

Truly, the smell is not bad; exceptions can be dealt with quickly by turning them under. (The most malodorous product I know of is Milorganite, which is not composted anything, but treated industrial sludge. Beware those heavy metals!) Once composted, even manures don’t reek.

...and still more
scrap buckets and accessories

Speaking of which, herbivore manure is always a welcome addition to the heap. (Of course, not everyone agrees. Soil gurus Lowenfels and Lewis caution against it in compost destined for edible crops. That’s just a tad too “perfectly safe” for me. But they live in Alaska, which probably explains something.)  My friend Christine has access to unlimited quantities of llama dung, of which I am darkly envious. Short of keeping small herds of bovines, ovines or equines and/or flocks of chickens, turkeys or bats—or having friends who do—most of us totter on without. It’s why the gods invented Black Kow and Daddy Pete’s.

An environmentally responsible and productive activity, composting reduces burdens on overflowing landfills while allowing us to benefit from direct recycling of some of the immense quantities of waste we generate. Despite all the print and cyber hype, composting doesn’t have to end up on the dust-heap of abandoned ambitions along with bread machines, cross-country skis and all those bizarre paper-punches scrapbookers covet. Why not? Because, if you let it, compost just happens.

Did you notice Tim updated the site’s template? And I posted a new profile picture, of me and Tim at four, 1958 and 1954, respectively. We were awfully cute in those days. Please leave a comment if the spirit moves you. Or perhaps the comment-shy (and so far, that’s damn near all of you) can visit “Gardening Gone Wild” ( for inspiration. It’s a WordPress blog I stumbled upon where garden writers write for other garden writers and we all tell each other how wonderful we are. I’d sign up to follow it, but I don’t understand RSS.

I shall move on to other pastures next time. Thanks for dropping by.