Scene and Heard

A Novice Composter Finds the Going Smelly and Messy

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By Scene And Heard
Sunday, July 26, 2009

Urban farming inserts most of us into a world that makes us appreciate the professionals. Why are the bottoms of our tomatoes turning brown on the vine?

Chronicles of Composting: Making compost is easy! That's what the flier I picked up at the Beatley library in Alexandria promised. I was ready to take on the mantle of a conscientious composter.

So far, though, my attempt to compost has not saved the earth, though President Obama will be happy to know that it has stimulated the economy. With dreams of transforming carrot peels into rich loam, I spent $149 for a compost "tumbler" and $24.95 for a Super Hot Compost Starter. I am eying a stoneware crock ($29.95) for the kitchen counter to collect scraps. Then I may need Biobag liners -- $23.95 for a pack of 100 -- and charcoal filters to reduce the smell (another $6.95 for a pack of two).

The flier suggested making a bin out of a few wooden planks or chicken wire. But that seemed too sloppy for my suburban yard and too accessible to roving rodents. So, I took the higher-end -- read: higher-price -- route. Alas, I didn't read a whole lot more until my new equipment landed with a big thud ($10 extra shipping charge) on my front porch.

According to the instructions that came with the composter, the recipe to make a "batch" of compost is two parts of brown material like dead leaves to one part of green material like grass clippings and vegetable scraps. My first corrected misperception was I must wait four to eight weeks for it to decompose before I can make more. I had envisioned bringing the day's kitchen scraps out to the compost bin, where they would happily burrow in with the rest of the stuff in a continuous cycle: Peel, chop, throw into compost bin, repeat next meal.

Instead, I have a queue of "organic material" that is rapidly expanding into all my garbage cans, not composting but getting stinkier by the day. I haven't wheeled them out to the street for trash day -- yet.

I must tumble the contents of the bin five to 10 times every day or so, and the pile should feel warm, or about 160 degrees. Wait, should I buy a compost thermometer for $19.95 to make sure? After the first week, my pile, at least the part I could bear touching, still felt soggy and cold.

So I visited the Arlington County Extension Office for advice. The cheerful extension agent told me her father used to make vast amounts of compost from discarded office paper piled on a concrete slab. I felt very green, as in amateurish, not environmental, with my newly purchased accoutrements. She gave me more fliers, as well as ideas about what to do if the pile seems too dry, too wet, too smelly or too buggy. She assured me that eventually my goop will become compost.

It just might take a while.

Composting might be a fad now, but it isn't new. Prehistoric people discovered that a mixture of manure and crop residue turned into more fertile material than either one alone. Farmers composted for eons until the 20th century, when synthetic fertilizers were pronounced superior by the agricultural powers that be.

Still, I wonder what this newfound interest in composting reveals about us as Americans, or about me in particular. We want to do the right thing -- as long as it's not too messy. We are primed to be thrifty with our leftovers -- which we spend a few hundred dollars to save. We're ready to save the Earth -- just don't make it too hard or complicated. No, we don't do things perfectly -- but we at least try. I'm off to give the tumbler another turn or five. Someday, maybe, my heap will turn into humus.

-- Paula Tarnapol Whitacre, Alexandria


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