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.
When 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.
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.
On 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.
When 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.