Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Black Gold in the Garden

In the green paradigm of "reduce, reuse, recycle", I think our culture still gets it the wrong way around. Or at least, I know I do. The campaign to recycle has become a victim of its own success; while the concept of recycling is embedded into our social consciousness, and is something most of us do without arguing over its merits, it also gives us a false sense of solution. We think that by throwing our plastic water bottle into the recycling bin we've done a good thing, when what we really need to be doing is buying less plastic water bottles, or reusing the ones we've already gone ahead and bought.

Composting is one of the more feel-good acts of making and sustainability that my family maintains, because all three R's are incorporated into its practice. We reduce the amount of waste we put into landfills, we reuse some of the waste we have made by turning it into compost, and we recycle, in its truest sense, the scraps of those fruits and vegetables and paper towels we bought in the first place by putting them back into the earth where they originated.

You don't need a lot of space to compost, but I'm grateful that we have a small garden so that we can do ours outside. (If you didn't catch the excellent documentary "No Impact Man", be sure to watch it. One of the more tragi-comical scenes has to do with an indoor composting bin that uses special red worms to help break down the food scraps.) Because we have so many kitchen scraps, we have two large composters in our garden which we rotate so that one gets time to aerate and break down its contents while the other is being filled up. One of them is a rotating bin, which works much faster than the other, a large, perforated, standing bin that takes a bit longer to do its magic.

This tumbler bin, which we bought here wasn't exactly cheap, but the handier folks among you can find plenty of guidance online for building your own, including this model from the Popular Mechanics website.

Somehow, lots of big juicy worms always find their way into this bin. My boy Jake loves digging around for them. I have no idea how they get in there, and if you do please share the answer with me.

This upright model, which is called a Gourmet Garden, was picked up at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden member sale last year. I think we paid around $50 for it, and its huge. It's sturdy enough to deter animals, but well ventilated so that the stuff inside can actually break down. I aid this process by frequently stabbing and turning its contents with a pitchfork.

You can see from the photo below that the contents are still in a state of partial decomposition. Compost that is garden ready should look, feel and smell like dirt. It shouldn't stink, feel slimy, or contain big chunks of avocado peel and eggshells.

In this image you can see the little slats and holes in the side of the bin, which keep it well aerated.

Successful composting requires following a few very simple rules, like maintaining adequate air flow, and a proper balance of green and brown contents. We also strictly follow the no protein protocol, since we're city folks, and we want to keep the rats in the subway tunnels where they belong. There are a million places to find information on how to compost. I'm including these very useful and comprehensive bits of information from the website Garden of OZ.

One additional tip I'm going to include that isn't mentioned in the above link has to do with one of the more annoying side effects of composting in the summer: fruit flies. We get lots of them where we live, and they hover over the scrap bin even when its shut tight. To minimize this nuisance, I make a couple of traps and leave them around the scrap collecting bin and also by the kitchen sink, where they also tend to congregate. To make a trap, a take an empty, washed out jam jar and puncture a bunch of holes in the top with a very small nail. I put a piece of banana or a few berries in the jar and screw the lid on top. If the holes are the right size, the flies can get in but can't get out. The fruit inside will get pretty nasty pretty quickly, so I take the jar outside and empty it into the compost bin and refill it with new fruit scraps every few days. This doesn't totally eliminate the problem, but it minimizes it significantly. If you have any additional tips or tricks for dealing with fruit flies, I'd love to hear about them.

The best thing about compost is how amazingly well it keeps my plants and flowers looking. Truth is, I do not have a green thumb. I stick stuff in the soil and cross my fingers. But when I put a layer of compost on top of my plants (many of which are potted because, remember, I'm a city dweller), they look better and better every year. It really is black gold.

Finally, I'm including an image of the alpine strawberries the kids and I planted this year. My boys seldom all eat the same foods, but they all love berries. My heart nearly broke last year when I read about the California State Dept. of Pesticide Regulation giving a green light to strawberry farmers who were lobbying to use methyl iodide, a proven toxin, in their berry crops. I no longer buy grocery store strawberries that aren't organic now, and the truth is they're never nearly as delicious as local ones in season anyway (like most food, I know). So I'm so excited for these guys to come out and ripen, and for my boys to get a chance to make the earth to table connection that is too often lacking in our urban existence. I'll post pictures of our berries again when they're ripe for picking.

Here's a song to wish you all a happy first day of June. The Decemberists' June Hymn.

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