Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Organic Composting Primer

By Rena Distasio

MARCH 1, 1999:  According to a federal government statistic I read recently (which may well be unrealistic about Americans' consumption practices), Americans make up only 5 percent of the world's population, but are responsible for consuming and wasting more than 15 percent of its resources. And based on the amounts of food I see discarded in restaurants alone, it's easy to deduce that we need to change our wasteful ways.

I'm sure we could feed an entire Third World nation for a year on the food we throw away in a day. But since it's impossible to distribute our waste to those in need (laws strictly forbid restaurants from giving away leftovers), our only recourse is to recycle. We do it with aluminum, plastic and paper, and now we should be doing it by composting our leftover food.

Composting is nothing more than piling together organic waste so it can rot and become humus--a black, nutrient rich, soil-like substance that can be used as both a fertilizer and soil conditioner. It's easy to make and, by aerating clay soils and adding nutrients to sandy soils, it produces healthy, disease resistant plants without the use of chemicals.

After building numerous piles in my three years as a layman organic gardener, I've discovered that even the most casual efforts bring good results. It doesn't matter if you use a container or just start piling stuff on the ground. Either way, remember this is an organic process, so build or purchase a bin made only from 100 percent untreated wood or, better yet, recycled plastic.

Next, decide on a method. The "hot" approach produces the most compost the soonest, but requires a lot of work initially. In order to stimulate as many microbes as possible to start their decomposing action (which is what gives the pile its heat), you need to build a big pile all at once. Make it at least 3 feet by 3 feet, using a ratio of about 25 parts "brown" carbon materials (leaves, hay, etc.) to 1 part "green" nitrogen materials (grass clippings, rotting veggies and fruit). There are all kinds of "jump starters" you can add as well, like powdered blood, bone meal or human urine. Peeing into a storage container can be messy (not to mention a little weird), so if you're not a guy or don't have one handy, you may want to skip this last ingredient. And human feces are strictly verboten.

Start with leaves and grass clippings, then raid your refrigerator and garbage for egg shells, stale bread, rotting fruit and vegetables, peelings (banana skins are great), coffee grounds (filters, too) and leftover rice and pasta. Shredded newspaper (black and white print only) is also a good "brown" ingredient.

Almost anything organic goes, but there are a few things that shouldn't. Animal manure (think "farm" animal) is great. Human, doggy and kitty doodoo isn't. Meat is not a good idea either, although I broke that rule two years ago when I jumpstarted a languishing pile with 80 pounds of carcasses left over from our annual crawfish boil. The pile heated up overnight, and the maggots eventually did grow up and fly away, but unless you live in the middle of nowhere like I do, don't try this at home.

Once your pile is built, keep it moist but not soggy, turn it every day, and in a few weeks to a few months you should have enough rich black humus to amend a 10 feet by 10 feet bed.

If you can't build your pile all at once, the "cold" method works just as well, but it takes more time. Start with the same 3 feet by 3 feet area and pile whatever you can whenever you can. You should be able to strain a good half wheelbarrow full of usable stuff on a monthly basis, but if you're building an entirely new bed it will take at least a year before this method produces enough humus to do your soil any good.

Once you've achieved humus status, till the black gold into new beds down to about 8 inches, or use it as a top dressing around existing plants. You can also make compost "tea" by soaking a few handfuls in a gallon of water and using it on your plants in place of other fertilizers. The first time I ever had a really good crop of tomatoes was when I watered them with compost tea just after budding.

Abide by the composter's motto--"if you pile it, it will rot"--and your newly conditioned soil will reward you with healthy, productive plant life. More importantly, each new composter is one person removed from the cycle of waste and chemical dependence that's slowly mucking up our natural world.

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