Mar 2, 2012


Mention the word "compost" and some people instantly develop a rash, especially city folks. "Won't that encourage rats?" Stray dogs will get in there!" and "That will smell!" Really? When was the last time you saw packs of dogs roaming the streets of New York? I've tried on numerous occasions to explain that the materials to be composted are kitchen and garden scraps, excluding meat, meat products and greasy foods that any stray dogs or cats may be tempted to investigate and as far as I know, rats do not particularly consider coffee grounds and pistachio shells gourmet food. I have found that if I am a bit patient I could educate some people and alleviate their concerns with a few sentences. However, some are just bent on being and remaining as anti-progressive as possible. Their energies would be better spent on trying to decrease the amount of  sidewalk litter and fried chicken bones that are a dog walker's nightmare.

I first learned about composting from my friends in Massachusetts, about twenty years ago. Jeff and Bruno tend a beautiful vegetable garden and lush flower beds around their lovely home in Ashield. Over the years they have kept a couple sheep, speckled chickens, some with feather-covered legs and a donkey. I noticed that they saved all biodegradable kitchen waste and also burnt most cardboard and paper waste as kindling in the wood stove. Many years ago my ex-husband and I gave them a present of a stainless steel compost pail with we found in a catalog from Lee Valley and it is still what they use today to transport kitchen waste to the back of the house to be added to the pile including waste from the animals and garden cuttings. The compost created is later used to naturally fertilize the garden beds, resulting in plump, chemical-free produce which is used to make delicious meals. I always end up eating much of the tomatoes, raspberries and blueberries before they reach the house.

In May of 2004 I began gardening in the garden next to my apartment building as the movers unpacked my furniture to move in. However, it is just recently that I began to compost in earnest. Many previous attempts at heaping garden debris in a secluded corner of the garden to decompose have been a fiasco. Just when I thought it was safe, a maintenance guy always cleared the pile away. Last November, after years of waiting for the management company to give written permission for a grant to build a large bin, I embarked on a project to build one. Ideally I would have liked a three-bin cedar container. Three years ago the cost of materials was over $300 and since I also seem to be getting nowhere with permissions from the management company to allow Greenthumb to assist with signs and overall garden materials, I went with a cheaper option.

For a few days my tiny kitchen was turned into a workshop as I designed and constructed a single-bin container out of pine and half-inch chicken wire. One of the four sides is made up of two removable frames to allow for easy access. It is painted bright red and I may never completely remove the paw prints that a curious cat creatively spread all over my floors, rugs and sofa. The color has the effect that the bin appears to be a piece of sculpture in its almost entirely green environment, and stands out nicely in the snow and winter months. 

A few weeks ago I bought my first kitchen composting pail. Yes, that same one from from Lee Valley. I line it with a plastic grocery bag (that I collect for cat litter) and add a full pail to the compost bin on my way to the subway. I cook a lot so peels, seeds, roots and other inedible pieces of food can really pile up. It is amazing how relieved I am to know that I never have to dispose of any of this stuff again, ever.  I think I had subconsciously felt a bit of guilt each time I threw out any biodegradable kitchen matter. Now I don't even feel bad about throwing out houseplants like Christmas poinsettias or the seasonal potted plants like ones the boys recently got me on my birthday. They are added to the pail then to the compost bin to begin a second life along with garden cuttings, weeds, spent plants and dried leaves. The scraps create a smorgasbord for earthworms which digest them and speed up the process of creating nutrient-rich soil to best fertilize and nourish plants in the garden. I am still wary of fearful neighbors and so I exclude eggshells and cooked, perishable foods like bread, and pasta and stick with fruit and vegetable waste, for the time being.

There are community composting programs around the city that accept kitchen scraps and offer instruction on starting indoor worm composting bins. But it is rare that anyone without a means (or desire) to garden, like most apartment dwellers, is willing to schlep their kitchen waste around town, especially if there is no immediate or useful reward. It is my hope to get funding to create a three-bin composter made out of cedar or teak and invite others on the block to recycle their kitchen waste too.  I also hope that maybe this bin and overall composting area will help to convince the clean-up and maintenance guys that lawn cuttings and fall leaves should be recycled and not bagged up and placed on the sidewalk along with the hoards of non-perishable waste. Soon. Another day, another battle.
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