"Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources."
- William James, The Energies of Men, Science (1907)
I’m not cooking at all lately. One handedness has rendered me rather clumsy in the kitchen. Sure there are the berries on granola in the morning, the occasional piece of toast. Simple stuff. But, year over year, my cooking is down exponentially.
Instead, I’m dealing with the other side of the food process: compost. The extra corporal digestion of food into dark brown nutrients. The continuation of matter: nothing created, nothing destroyed. It’s a remix.
How I’ve never managed to compost before is a true wonder. There was a municipal green bin pick up in Toronto when I lived there as a young adult, over a decade ago. In my Cambridge apartment I trekked food waste downstairs to a communal bin. But now that I’m in charge of the full cycle, I’m a bit embarrassed by my historical habits. It turns out you can’t just dump a full, nitrogen-rich bin on top of the pile and expect it to break down without being smelly. Composts must be managed. Browns and greens must find an uneasy balance.
When we moved in, just a little more than a year ago, there was a classic, black compost bin in one corner of the yard. The bin was barely a quarter full, so we decided to move it. Digging up the poorly decayed matter felt akin to rifling through someone’s garbage, looking for traces of how they lived. It was a voyeuristic act. The old owners loved avocados and often forgot to remove their stickers. There were bits of plastic food containers littered throughout the pile. I judged them harshly at the time.
Now I find my own nearly finished compost reveals its own secrets. There are sometimes rocks, large chunks of wood, and yes the occasional fruit and vegetable sticker. How these items got in there I don’t know. But by the time the usable parts are chewed up by ants and earthworms and microscopic bacteria, these alien parts become apparent and can be easily picked out. My judgement of others has now waned. I’m far from the perfect composter.
But you don’t need to be perfect. The earth will make magic with your half mixed matter. The aim is one-quarter kitchen waste, so-called greens. These are nitrogen rich remnants from the bottom of the refrigerator, or the heads of chopped up carrots, piles of used coffee grinds. The usual rule is to avoid putting meat into the bin. But otherwise, most kitchen waste can make its way into the backyard rather than the garbage. When your garbage bin shrinks, it is a marvelous feeling. The compost pile is the literal midas touch, turning garbage into gold.
Then there are the browns, the carbon sources, which compose the other three-quarters of the bin. The browns are found outside, not in the kitchen. In truth, we struggle a bit to have enough of these since our drought-tolerant southern california landscaping means more succulents than fallen leaves. Still, the ficus hedge along our back wall, towering over 12 feet tall, supplies ample brown material. We trim the hedge, then let the leaves brown in a pile before they are added to the bin.
So begins the three pile system I've established, as seen from left to right in the image above. When I first appointed myself Chief Composter last year, I felt ill equipped for the job. New library card in hand, I waited impatiently for a guidebook, Composting for Dummies to become available. I devoured the short tome, emerging with a clear system.
First, the leaves would wait patiently in a pile, turning to brown overtime and beginning the composting process. When I added a full container of kitchen greens to the second, center pile, I would scoop up three containers worth of these leaves, and add them on top. Once the big black bin was nearly full, I began turning the pile to introduce oxygen, raise the pile's temperature and speed up the process. You don't really need to do this--but if you do, things will move faster from food to dirt.
Once the middle bin was full, I would begin shoveling out half composted matter from the bottom of the pile, where an opening is often located on most upright compost bins. These shovelfuls go into the third spot, an upright turning bin. In this final resting place, the materials shrink and are easily turned regularly by simply spinning the bin. I leave the compost to mature here a while, and by the time I've filled the big center bin again, it's done.
To be honest, I struggle to get my bins up to a high temperature, probably because I don't turn them enough, or add my browns and greens in a golden ratio. But it doesn't matter. With this system, I have finished compost in about 4 months. I also have a lot less garbage. Good enough for me.
You don't need anything but a place to put a pile in a corner of your yard to get started, and in truth a big pile leads to faster, hotter decomposition. But here's what I use and recommend.
- A compost crank / aerator is very helpful for easily turning over a pile and adding oxygen on a regular basis. After contemplating their high price for a month, I splurged and bought this one. This crank is excellent as the reviews suggests, and makes turning a pile far more enjoyable. The same company also offers this cheaper version, which is similarly well reviewed.
- A small compost bin for your kitchen counter, to store scraps before you take them out to the yard. I have used this one for years and like it. I don't use compost bags inside because they don't break down well and are unnecessary. Instead , I rinse out the bin after emptying it with the gardening hose on a high pressure setting, let the bin soak, and dump the water on the pile (since your pile needs some moisture anyway).
- A big compost bin for outside, if you don't want to simply make a pile. I use this one and an older model similar to this one, but there are lots of other models available. You can also try building one, in a three step system like the one I described.
- You can add paper towel and it's a great source of carbon (browns), since it's made from trees. Just don't add too much because it's very very high in carbon.
- Add some messy pot water from the sink to your pile rather than using fresh water from the hose. Also, if you have an coffee machine that captures drips below, add these nitrogen rich waters as well. You can also add tea bags.
- If you live somewhere cold, you can still compost. Just know the pile will only be decomposing in the warmer months.
- Just try it! It's fun and rewarding and -- despite my complex exposition -- pretty darn easy.
What are your thoughts on composting? Leave me a comment! Would be very happy to hear your tips.