The Compost Follies: Playing with garbage entails a steep learning curve

During dinner a couple weeks ago, a few of my fellow Yestermorrow interns and I started discussing emotions that stimulated learning. One person offered that he thinks frustration is useful for learning. I emphatically disagreed, saying that excitement was much more motivating than frustration.

Either way, as I dive into the gardening process and its related endeavors, I am finding that I usually start out excited and then get frustrated. The small projects I’ve worked on so far have produced some satisfaction, but we’ll see how I feel in September. Case in point: compost.

webversion_feb09_gardenplan_111When I arrived at Yestermorrow in January, I had a head full of book knowledge about the importance of compost to organic gardening. Upon my first visit to the compost pile here, I decided that I would put all of this book learning to use and revamp the compost system. The school’s kitchen had outgrown the two-bin system and it was badly in need of updating.

I started spitballing the idea with a few different people, and after several rounds of design discussions, decided that I would pile the compost in a place in the garden. The idea was to do a modified windrow by building up a donut of straw around the compost to help retain heat. Once the pile was about 4 square feet around and 4 feet high, we would cover it over with straw and let it sit for a year. Then we’d begin another pile. We estimated that we’d only build about three piles a year this way.

Yes, a piece of the garden would be sacrificed, but I was assured that the ground underneath it would be the most fertile spot in the garden next year, and that the sacrifice would be well worth it. I was fired up about the experiment: It seemed so simple! I couldn’t help but wonder why it hadn’t already been done.

Getting wasted

I moved the compost January 21 with the help of a couple other interns. I think it took us three wheelbarrow trips. With a gleam in my eye, I posed for a picture inside the straw donut before we started throwing compost in. The first couple weeks of the new system went according to plan. Some of the frozen compost we’d added in to the new stuff started breaking up a bit. The donut looked neat and contained.

But one day in mid-February I went out to poke around the pile and found a sad display. A couple snowstorms and some dog visits had taken their toll on the orderliness of the pile. It seemed like it was spreading out instead of up: it was now taking up about 10 square feet, but was only about 2 feet high. The donut was in sad shape. Observing for a few days, I watched crows picking bits through the tarp we were using to cover it, squirrels run away with chunks, and the thinly spread pile of scraps freeze up. With a big sigh, I admitted that the pile was going to take up more garden space than I could sacrifice. So with the help of my fellow intern husband, who kept his comments mostly to himself, we moved it just down the slope and out of the garden. It took us about four wheelbarrow loads to move it, but luckily we didn’t have to take it far.

About a week after moving the pile this second time, I had scheduled a visit to a Montpelier, Vermont-based company called Vermont Compost. It was there that I saw part of the bigger problem of the system we’d devised for Yestermorrow. While we were producing more kitchen scraps than our bins could handle, we were not producing enough material to use the windrow method that larger compost piles use (at least not effectively). It was a huge eye opener for me to visit this company. They were making beautiful compost with the help of a big flock of chickens, residents who dropped off kitchen waste in collection bins, and farmers who delivered manure for composting. There were many businesses and households contributing the raw material to make the operation work.

You may have heard it before, but let me recount another absurdity of our industrialized, out-of-sight-out-of-mind food system of which waste is certainly a part: most U.S. residents actually pay for our biodegradable “garbage” to be hauled off to landfills in plastic bags, where it cannot break down properly and instead contributes to environmental degradation and a warming climate, as documented extensively here by the EPA. The EPA recommends “diverting organic material from landfills” as a way to reduce garbage’s contribution to climate change; this diversion in common language is called composting.

Touring a business like Vermont Compost is like getting walloped over the head with a great big “DUH!” Why is there not a composting site, or several, for municipal organic waste in every city, town, or county in this country? This isn’t just a great idea for environmentally oriented idealists — this is as much a profit-making venture as it is the right thing to do. The material needed for the end product is free, constantly generated, and readily available. I realize that it’s not quite so simple and there are many details and issues that would need to be addressed if municipal composting was widely adopted.

Staff of Vermont Compost and a related composting outfit in nearby Burlington (the Intervale Center) would attest to this: they both have had their share of legal and regulatory wrangling. But if we can build sewage systems, electrical grids, skyscrapers, freeway interchanges, and airports, then we could find a way to make municipal composting happen on a big scale in this country. If we wanted to. It can be done: Both Seattle and the Bay Area — read Marc’s post on his local composting landfill — offer separate compostable material pickup, but they’re by far the exception nationwide. Tom Philpott thinks composting might just be the issue the organic food movement needs to focus on.

webversion_march09_compostrevamp_01On the move again

You may have deduced that I was pretty fired up about compost by the time I got done with my tour. When I returned back to campus, our facilities manager pulled me aside to talk about our own composting situation. It turns out that I had put the pile into a ditch that fills with water during the spring melt. I hadn’t seen the ditch since it had been covered with snow since my arrival. The compost needed to be moved again.

Faced with moving the compost a third time, I just decided that I would put it back where it originally was. Once again, a sympathetic fellow intern helped me move it on a Friday afternoon. This time, we had to haul it all the way across campus and it took us seven wheelbarrow loads.

webversion_march09_compostproject_0110When we were done, we stood quietly surveying the area. I was staring off into the woodsy/swampy area in complete dejection and frustration. She broke the silence by noticing how overgrown the area was, and soon we were talking spiritedly about it. Two lonely white pine saplings were the only trees still alive in this area. It needed help; it was overgrown with wild vines and junk trees. The area was a mess. We began to wonder what it would look like if it was cleared…what it would look like if we used the cleared material to build up a wall…how it would look if inside that wall were new and bigger compost bins that were not falling down and could actually hold the material the kitchen produced. Then we got busy.

We started lopping and sawing with the help of an organic farmer doing work-for-trade for some classes here, and eventually the other interns. I finished the clearing on Saturday because I was too charged up to let it rest of the weekend, and the work-trader started assembling the wall Monday. Many of us have put a lot of hours into the compost area now, and it actually is working. We built three new bins made out of donated pallets that actually look something like all those pictures I’ve seen in books.

I’m not sure which to thank, the excitement or the frustration — I had plenty of both — but I’d say I’ve learned something from my compost follies.

12 Responsesto “The Compost Follies: Playing with garbage entails a steep learning curve”

  1. Nice post. I’m in the planning process for setting up some composting in our back yard, now that the snow has melted away and green things are breaking out.

  2. That is seriously impressive. I can’t wait until one day I have a yard and can have a compost contraption garden and hens. One will feed the other!

  3. Stephanie says:

    Yay hens! The design/build interns and I are working on designing a chicken coop right now and I’m excited about that very thing–the loops we can create between kitchen, chickens, compost.  When that project is up and running, I’ll show what our group comes up with. :)

  4. Composting is great and easy. We do it really simply, just a big pile which I flip over every few months to mix. The material from the existing pile starts the new pile. Where our chickens were for the winter, under their moveable hoop house, will become a compost pile. We compost everything from little things to large animal mortalities (e.g., 800 lb sows). In a few months there is nothing left but a grey stain and black gold. Even the bones vanish.

  5. Ann Duncan says:

    Great post! Love the way you wrapped up your ‘excitement vs frustration’ motivation question :)  I find both your enthusiasm and progress inspiring.  The energizing questions you asked yourself  (after apparent failures/challenges) remind me of the powerful message of Paul Stoltz’s book Adve...@Work. And your composting success-in-progress whets my appetite for promoting composting even more!

    Composting blessings!

  6. Ann Duncan says:

    Great post! LOVE the way you wrapped up your ‘enthusiasm vs frustration’ motivation question. The energizing questions you asked yourself remind me of Paul Stoltz’s message in his book AdversityQuotient@Work.
    Your composting success-in-progress inspires me even more in promoting composting across this land and around this globe.

    Blessings on your composting!


  7. Jennifer says:

    Deschutes County, OR also collects yard debris curbside & accepts yard debris at the landfill. They turn it into compost. I’ve got a little compost pile in my yard — but theirs is better, because the ponderosa pine needles in mine take for-ev-er to decompose. Those pine needles are my big frustration. I added worms to my compost last fall but apparently they won’t eat pine needles. Or pine cones.

    It’s a fun learning process, though, isn’t it?

  8. Ann Duncan says:

    I agree, Jennifer, it IS a fun learning process.  I understand that we can create enough bulk to allow the pile to heat up and decompose faster.  I have mine in a ‘holey’ garbage bin on wheels… and suspect a bigger one (providing for more bulk) would be better. It is working, (way cool!) just more slowly than I’d figured on.  I read that pine needles should not make up more than 10% of the total. I’m guessing I misunderstood about leaves, and should have waited for them to be a lot drier/older before adding them? Everything in there, except those leaves,  is wonderfully composted already. The leaves are coming along a LOT more slowly. Can’t believe how satisfying this little project has been, so far. I appreciate the info in The All New Square Foot Gardening book by Mel Bartholomew, for us small-timers :)


  9. brad says:

    As a former Vermonter who now does urban composting in Montréal, I have to say that maintaining the right blend of “green” (nitrogen-rich) and “brown” (carbon-rich) is perhaps the biggest challenge in composting no matter where you live. I am lucky enough to have two big maple trees that provide a pile of dead leaves in autumn and broken branches the rest of the year that I can chip and put into my two compost bins, but getting the compost started wasn’t easy. In the city you really need enclosed bins, not so much to keep out critters (with urban composting you pretty much have to avoid trying to compost anything that’s not a vegetable, otherwise you’ll have rats, raccoons, and skunks and complaints from the neighbors) but to maintain appearances. My neighbors tolerate my composting because I’m careful to avoid letting it get smelly or messy. Whenever I layer a pile of kitchen scraps, I cover it with a layer of nearly finished compost from the other bin. Which also reminds me that single-bin composting, even in the city, isn’t very practical. I use two bins, which were subsidized by the City of Montreal so they only cost me $25 apiece instead of the market rate of $75. When one bin gets full, I leave it to finish while I start filling up the next one. If you have just one bin you never really get finished compost as you’re always adding new material and mixing it in. Sometimes you can pull some finished compost out the bottom, but if you’re mixing the pile thoroughly there’s always going to be some new stuff mixed with the compost that’s finished.

    The two-bin system is working very well for me, and I’ve produced some fantastic black, rich compost that I’m spreading on our rock garden and lawn in a long-term attempt to improve our soil, which is pretty pathetic. It seems to be working.

  10. Stephanie P. says:

    Brad, sounds like you’re really fine-tuning your system; that’s awesome! We have been fortunate not to have much of a brown to green issue here; for the most part it’s easy to keep our pile in balance because we can compost all of our brown paper towel that gets used in all the bathrooms here. Plus we have an endless supply of straw and some woody material from our shops to add in when needed.

    Ann and Jennifer, to add to the book recs already, I really learned a lot from reading Rodale’s Guide to Composting. It has a really extensive list of all kinds of materials and whether or not you can compost them, what they do in the pile, what they add or take away. It’s really readable and a great quick reference.


  11. sara says:

    They compost in ‘donuts’ at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center out here in CA.  It was explained that temperate climate is key when it comes to using straw that way, and leaving the piles to do their thing, when I went on a garden tour there last summer.

    I just finished digging a 2x2x2 ‘pile’ for my yard, and started layering in kitchen waste and dry leaves, a couple days ago.  No smell or flies so far.  And there’s a colony of cats in the neighborhood that has all the would-be local rats and mice completely cowed.  Raccoons and skunks…  I’ll cross that bridge when they do.

  12. BRAY4ME says:

    Compost nirvana is having a large herbivore for a best friend. My compost bins quickly reach 120 to 160 degrees F. I know that’s actually too hot, but it sure is fun. This is a blog post with a photo of my bin set up: