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4/12/2010
A Feast for Your Garden
A Feast for Your Garden

Enrich your every day with compost

EVERY MORNING we peel a grapefruit or maybe an orange, piling up scented rinds on the counter. Next we turn to making green juice. Lettuce, celery, carrots, the occasional cucumber, all pour forth precious nutrients, leaving behind vegetable fibers and pulp. Later in the day, we brew coffee; three cups worth filtered and dispersed into an afternoon wake-me-up, leaving behind caked grounds in one convenient basket. Throughout the day we make a point to recycle newspapers and refill water bottles, but the organic scraps of our daily rituals are left to amass in garbage cans and landfills. What if we could turn them into gold?

“Black gold,” the nickname for humus, is the yield from the organic alchemy of composting—the controlled transformation of everyday refuse into hard-working soil. Collected in a heap or bin, compost (material on its way to becoming humus) is a mixture of so-called “browns,” dry, carbon-rich matter such as fall leaves, dead plants, soiled cardboard, even egg shells; and wet, nitrogen-rich “greens,” such as fresh leaves, tea bags, seaweed and manure. It is a veritable feast for macrofauna including earthworms, mites, millipedes and nematodes, as well as microfauna such as bacteria and fungi who break down the material, producing nutrient- rich soil plentiful with helpful microbes and other beneficial microorganisms.

Other than this macro- and micro-food, all that is needed is air and water, balanced so the in-progress compost is damp—like a wrung-out sponge—but not soggy. Too much water produces a stagnant heap; too much air dries it out, decreasing or even halting microbial activity. After two months to a year, depending on how vigorously the compost is maintained, the mass will reduce by half, with green and brown matter indistinguishable.

This mature compost, with its rich brown color, even texture and earthy smell, is ready for use on indoor or outdoor plants as well as crops. Best spread near the plant’s surface one to four inches deep, it can also be placed in a burlap sack and steeped in water, with the resulting “compost tea” providing a nutritious spray for thirsty soil.

Healthy Diet, Healthy Planet

Just as we should nourish ourselves with only the best, fresh-from-the-earth foods, so too we should feed our plants—and the earth itself—only the best organic ingredients. Genetically modified food or herbicide- treated flora won’t be found in a well-prepared compost bin.

In Biodynamics®, where composting is integral to the sustainable, self-fueling environment, farmers treat the compost with certain components called “Preparations,” which promote the conditions that lead to an even healthier end product. Ingredients include yarrow flowers, chamomile flowers, stinging nettle leaves, stems and flowers, oak bark, dandelion flowers, and a spray made of water and valerian flowers.

In his 1924 class on Biodynamics®, natural scientist and founder of Biodynamics® (and Weleda) Dr. Rudolf Steiner shared the importance of composting with farmers seeking ways to regenerate their crops: “With compost we have a means of kindling the life within the earth itself.” Indeed, this is literally the case, with mature compost delivering healthy microbes and hearty nutrients to hungry soil. Joseph Brinkley, a Biodynamic® farming specialist at Grgich Hills Estate, a vineyard in Rutherford, California, further explains that Biodynamic® composting provides “spiritual nourishment” to the earth and its inhabitants: “After so many years of policies and practices that encourage the ruthless exploitation of the land, Biodynamics® is our way of truly healing the earth.”

Giving Back to the Community

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that one quarter of the solid-waste stream in the United States is compostable, meaning that a good deal of potential humus gets thrown away. However, as more and more people realize we cannot keep taking without giving back, composting—popular among organic and Biodynamic® growers—is becoming a part of the lives of salespeople and engineers, writers and reference librarians. Resident consumers are composting their clippings and scraps at home, but it doesn’t stop there. Composting programs have sprung up in communities as diverse as elementary schools and prisons. At Grgich Hills, they are composting 100 percent of the grape materials used in the winemaking process.

Most remarkably, this movement is not just relegated to suburban and rural areas. The city of San Francisco, in its attempt to generate “zero waste” by 2020, enacted an ordinance in October 2009 requiring residents to compost their organic scraps or be fined. San Franciscans embraced the plan; before the law officially went into effect, residential and commercial collections reached 500 tons per day.

Even if you live in a city that does not collect your compost, there are opportunities to recycle your kitchen scraps, with many community gardens, farmers’ markets and even some health food stores offering compost collection. For an option even closer to home, composting can be done in an urban backyard or even inside a small city apartment using a worm bin. (See the sidebars for ideas on how to start and successfully maintain a composting project.)

Just because our fruits, vegetables, leaves and clippings have finished their work in our kitchens and yards, it doesn’t mean they have finished their work in the world. Through composting, they continue giving energy to the earth, feeding the trees and shrubs that in turn will keep feeding and shading us. mk