Starting the New Year With Fresh Dirt
Will Rogers, who lived through the great dust bowl once said: “They’re making more people every day—but they ain’t making any more dirt.” It’s as true today as it was then. Will is gone, but the dirt he walked on is still here and it’s our turn to take care of it. One of the simplest ways is to compost, to feed the earth and to invest in its future.
Composting is simpler than it seems. I started a few years ago, pretty much by just guessing what I was doing, not following any particular rule. Of course as time went by and as I became curious about how certain things broke down naturally, I started reading up on what the rules on composting were, if there were any. (I’m the type of person who likes to do things first and then read about them. Why? Because reading makes things look like a chore to me, like a difficult task. So if I just do it, I’m more likely to accomplish it than if I study it first.)
I don’t have a back yard and not much space to do composting, but I still wanted to try it. The first composting test I did was in my old round barbecue container, a relic that sat for years on the patio and hadn’t been used in ages. It seemed like the perfect place because it is metal, which keeps the heat in, it has a grid, which assures that air is circulated and it has a cover, which not only keeps the compost nice and warm, but also keeps animals out.
I dug up some dead dirt that surrounded my porch. The dirt was more like clay, without life and dry as bone. I put the dirt in the “composter” and then covered it with fruit and vegetable scraps from my juicer and coffee grinds and tea. I covered the food with leaves from surrounding trees and rinsed my coffee and tea thermos into the compost and covered it all with more dirt. I found some worms in some of my plants and I threw them into the compost, hoping that they would like their new home and the food.
About once a week I moved the compost around to give it some air and after about a month, I was amazed at the fresh smell of dirt that I “created” by composting. The dead soil was now alive and fresh and it was full of bugs and lots of worms. How did the bugs get there and how did the worms multiply so quickly? I was fascinated! I loved my new experiment and I really felt connected to nature again, in the middle of the city. It was an awesome feeling!
I expanded my compost experiment by getting two large clay planters and I filled them with dead dirt and food scraps. Having 3 containers made it easier to rotate the food and to compost a lot more.
Throughout the years I noticed that during the warm months, everything degraded quicker than in the cold winter months. I started experimenting by throwing tissues, paper, egg shells, and clothes scraps into the compost and even utensils that claimed to be biodegradable.
One simple rule I learned about composting is to give it air, water, and brown materials like leafs and yard scrap. The soil should look like a sponge cake. Not too wet and not too dry. If it’s too wet, make sure the compost container (be it a planter, trash can, plastic bin, stacked tires, a wooden box or a compost bin from the store) has some drainage and holes to breath. If you see maggots, your soil is probably too moist, so you should mix some extra dirt and leaves and dry materials in your compost.
Fruits, vegetables, and plants: Anything goes. Some decompose faster than others. It helps if the scraps are in small pieces. For example, I chop up the melon rinds. Worms and the little bugs love nuts and shells to bury in, so go ahead and throw them in there, as well.
Coffee and tea: Coffee grounds (okay to add the paper filter) and tea leaves (okay if packaged as long as it’s not in plastic) have great nutritional value to the soil, so go ahead and throw them in there as well.
Paper products: From office paper, newspaper, Kleenex and magazines, you can add it all to the compost. If you use the soil for herbs and vegetables, you might want to leave out Kleenex and paper with ink.
Corn-Based Products: The corn-based utensil that I put into the compost probably 2 years ago is still there. Turns out that there is no such thing as biodegradable corn-based product if not disposed properly. And, as of today, there is no proper way to dispose of them. Recycling bins don’t take them and not many facilities take these biodegradable products because they are not equipped to get rid of them.
There are many more issues with corn products and you can read up on it in this excellent article written by Elizabeth Royt, author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, which I bought on Amazon a couple years ago. Also an excellent book!
There are no studies that can prove how long it takes to get rid of these products. It can take hundreds or thousands of years. A lot of companies claim that they are green and they are offering all these fancy products only to make money! But we need to remember that anything that is chemically enhanced has consequences. So it’s always best to stay with natural products. Glass, ceramic, metal and cotton are natural. Try to use these products as much as possible! Find no excuse why you can’t use these. Challenge yourself!
Meat and animal products: When my turtle died, I wasn’t sure what to do with the carcass. My husband just put it deep inside our barbecue compost pile. I was afraid to open the lid for fear of the smell or didn’t want to see my turtle half-rotten. Well, after maybe 6 weeks, my curiosity got hold of me and I had to check what happened to Tommy. I found the shell completely cleaned out and empty. It was simply amazing! I love composting! Of course, this particular compost heap is off the ground and covered, so no smell could escape and it had plenty of air and moisture and clippings and bugs to break down the meat quickly. No animal can get to it or get into it, not even our cats who, by the way, didn’t notice anything different about that compost. With that said, if you are to compost meat or other animal products, make sure that a moderate amount is placed into the bin and that it’s buried deep. Nature will take care of it in time.
Pet poop: According to some studies, cat poop, as well as dog poop, is harmful to some animals when it gets into our oceans. For that reason, I would not recommend that you flush your pets’ poop nor that you compost it. It’s better if you toss it into the trash.
My friends, Eric and Kelly, write in their book “The Urban Homestead”, “it’s hard to go wrong in composting. There are efficient ways to go about it that will speed up the process, but no matter what you do, you will eventually end up with usable compost”.
So if you want to compost to have better soil for your plants or vegetables, or if you compost to bring the soil in your garden alive, or if you compost to be sustainable and green, or just for the heck of it, you are doing our planet a favor.
You can do it if you have a patio or a balcony, or a small porch or a big garden. It is simple, fun and it will enrich your life.
Make your new resolutions for 2010. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.
Enci is the publisher of the theatre site Bitter Lemons, the Co-Founder of the Bike Writers Collective, she’s on the board of Bikeside, on the Cyclists/LAPD Task Force, on the SAG Conservatory Committee, and she works with government entities to make Los Angeles more bike-friendly and bike-conscious.
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