Happy little bacteria

When we lived in Vermont we had a black compost bin behind the house.  Into it we tossed nearly all the food waste (everything but meat, bones, and fish) from our kitchen, as well as regular supplements of grass trimmings, leaves, and sticks.  For six years we put stuff in that bin, and yet it never filled.  The stuff just broke down naturally and decreased in volume as it did.

Once a year I’d open up a little hatch near the bottom of the bin and pull out half a dozen shovels full of rich brown compost.  I’d toss it on the garden in the spring, and as a result we never needed fertilizer.  Between composting and recycling, we also hardly had trash to throw out.  It was a great system.

We became big advocates of composting. I even had a little book that I’d share with people who asked about it.  But you don’t need a book to start composting.  All you have to do is buy or make a bin, and start tossing the biodegradable stuff in it.  You can get fancy and think about layering the materials or worrying about nitrogen levels, or adding moisture, but I never really put any effort into it and still everything broke down just like Mother Nature intended.

While traveling in the Airstream, composting became an impossibility.  You need a certain “critical mass” to get the bacterial process going, and a little jar in the trailer wasn’t going to cut it.  Being compost loonies, we actually looked forward to the day when we’d once again get a pile started in our backyard.

Last weekend Eleanor bought a bin locally from Tucson Organic Gardeners.  They usually cost about $80 but if you hunt around you can often find discount deals through the local municipality or a gardening club.  We paid $40 for ours because it was essentially a recycled plastic trash can, turned upside down and drilled full of holes.  (The Tucson Organic Gardeners call it a “zero carbon footprint” compost bin.)

Installation is easy.  Just plunk it down on earth (not pavement) somewhere convenient, at least ten feet from the house.  Scrape up the soil a bit.  Kick-start it with something yummy.

I’ve started ours with a mixture of Halloween pumpkins and palm fronds.  The fronds provide the “brown” (dry carbon-rich stuff) and the pumpkins provide the “green” (damp nitrogen-rich stuff).  Keep the mix to about 50-50 and your pile should be self-sufficient once it gets big enough.  Being in Arid-zona I might have to add a little moisture to our composter once in a while, but other than that the process is the same.  The bin and the bacteria do all the work. The bin keeps the pile moist while letting in a little oxygen, and the happy little bacteria get busy eating up everything.  As they say, “Compost Happens.”

teva-hangar.jpgWell, most of the time.  Eleanor showed me a clothes hanger that came with a Teva product.  The hanger advertised itself as being “BIODEGRADABLE  polylactide polymer,” and a “compostable corn-based plastic hanger.”  Well, doesn’t that feel nice and green?  Too bad it’s just window dressing.  The hanger won’t go into our heap, because in fact it won’t biodegrade under the conditions found in typical backyard compost. It needs extraordinarily high temperatures, found only in a handful of commercial composting operations nationwide.  So it will end up in the same place as a petroleum-based plastic hanger — the landfill.  There’s a lot of stuff out there pretending to be “green.”

Emma says that composting means “there’s fewer trash heaps in the world.”  (She already gets it, even before we have the homeschooling lessons on bacterial decay.)  But besides doing a small thing to help make our ecology more sustainable, there’s a reward at the end: soft, sweet-smelling brown soil that will go into next year’s garden and help grow tomatoes and herbs for Eleanor’s kitchen.

Eleanor collects her food scraps in a plastic tub under the kitchen sink.  Every 2-3 days, we walk out to the composter and toss ‘em in.  This works very well for us, but people sometimes tell me that they don’t want to do this because they are concerned about attracting insects or creating odors in the kitchen.  We’ve never had such problems, probably because we keep the tub sealed, and because we are religious about dumping it regularly.  It’s easier than emptying the trash can.

Since we stopped living in the Airstream, our impact on the earth has gone up.  We use more water, generate more trash, buy more things, and use more electricity. It’s a difficult-to-avoid consequence of being in a house.  Diverting our food scraps, leaves, clippings, and even dryer lint to a closed cycle that turns eventually into more food, is not only a way to compensate for our increased impact, but kind of fun.  It’s not often that we find something that is free, rewarding, green, results in a valuable product (fertilizer), and provides a home science lesson all at once. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine