By Amelia Young
July 22, 2021
I was all set to write a breakdown of composting for this month's column. It was gonna be a clean, mean, digestion machine. The material was rich and I had an outline that I was following. (Rare stuff.)
I hope to write that column soon. However, today is one of the last days of spring, and as more people start to meet each other using their actual faces and breathing the same air (safely and otherwise), I realize I'm deeply tired of instructions.
Instead, let me introduce you to my compost system.
Unlike most beloved objects and vehicles in my life, my compost system is nameless*. It is SO ALIVE though! Backyard composting is like putting all the wild microorganisms from your neighborhood in a fishbowl, except instead of a depressed beta following your movements around the room you have a dense container of beneficial bacteria chowing through moldy veggies and transforming them into nutrient-rich soil. It's like the 7th best pet you could get.
It's also warm! Healthy, active compost generates heat. The bigger the pile the warmer it can get. Some larger compost systems are even used to heat greenhouses. Mine isn't nearly big enough for that, but the first year I started it, I put my hand to the side of the bin one winter day and felt it working.
The scent of good compost is amazing. Healthy piles are sweet and earthy smelling, never foul or sour. To achieve this you have to focus on *balance*. Not too wet, and not too dry. Not too many "greens" (nitrogen-rich vegetable matter) or "browns" (carbon-rich matter like sawdust and leaves) in proportion.
Frequent turning helps control moisture levels and adds necessary air to the mix. I have an old rowing oar that I leverage against the edge of the bin, allowing me to pull stuff up from the bottom, then mix it around. There are also less labor-intensive types of compost bins, like tumbler models with hand cranks.
I made most of my system myself. The Darth Vader helmet on the left is a plastic unit subsidized by my city's DPW. You put fresh stuff in through the top, and a little door on the front slides up and lets you take finished compost from the bottom. Unfortunately, burrowers chewed through the base and dug a clandestine distribution network underneath. Their cabal lasted many months before I discovered the tunnels. I reinforced the structure with steel mesh and demoted it to "finished compost."
The bins on the right are made from steel trash cans, drilled with enough holes to mimic set pieces in a mafia movie shootout (aeration!). The one in the middle is the "percolator." After an initial load of early-stage compost, it receives only dry browns, and gets mixed regularly.
The one on the right is the "mouth," the one we feed.
When the microorganisms have done their jobs and I've done mine, the compost is fresh, fluffy, and as dark as rain-soaked tree bark.
*feel free to PM me with compost bin name suggestions