Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From the Archives: Compost Builds Character

Jessica Mitford, one of my journalistic heroes, came from a family rich in strong opinions and eccentricity. She was a socialist from her early teens; her sisters Diana and Unity were Nazis; her mother campaigned against vaccines and conventional medicine. And her mother's brother, Geoffrey Bowles, was a passionate if slightly loony advocate for composting, devoting much of his time to writing letters to the editor on the topic.

Here is an excerpt from Mitford's memoir, Daughters and Rebels:

In Uncle Geoff’s view, the greatness of England had risen and waned in direct proportion to the use of natural manure, or compost, in fertilizing the soil. The Black Death of 1348 was caused by gradual loss of the humus fertility found under forest trees. The rise of the Elizabethans two centuries later was attributable to the widespread use of sheep manure.

"Collating old records shows that our greatness rises and falls with the living fertility of our soil. And now, many years of exhausted and chemically murdered soil, and of devitalized food from it, has softened our bodies, and still worse, softened our national character. It is an actual fact that character is largely a product of the soil. Many years of murdered food from deadened soil has made us too tame. Chemicals have had their poisonous day. It is now the worm’s turn to reform the manhood of England. The only way to regain our punch, our character, our lost virtues, and with them the freedom natural to islanders, is to subsoil and compost our land so as to allow moulds, bacteria, and earthworms to remake living soil to nourish Englishmen’s bodies and spirits."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sharon Astyk's Independence Days Challenge

This is the weekly round-up of moves toward sustainability and adaptability suggested in Sharon Astyk's blog at  Mine is more like monthly, or maybe quarterly, but the idea remains--to hold ourselves accountable, make a record to compare with other years, and share our ideas.

Plant something -- Tomatillos, lettuce, chicory, cucumbers; transplanted winter squash, peppers and tomatoes; added soil for the potatoes in barrels, set up coffee bean bags for planting.
Coffee bean bags-- biodegradable planters
Harvest something --Lettuce; the last of last-year's chard, braised for dinner with a little wine and a couple of olives; cilantro for the chili; parsley for everything, lovage for soup stock. The sugar snap peas and fava beans are flowering, so it won't be long now.

Preserve something--A batch of vegetable stock for soups.

Waste not: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." My friend and neighbor is putting in a small lowered patio, so we dug out some of the dirt that has to go. It's pretty sandy and rocky; we screened out the rocks to use at the bottom of my many big pots and mixed the soil with my compost.

I'm still getting produce from my Food Bank produce sorting shifts. This week I bent my rules about only taking items that can't go out for distribution due to cuts, soft spots, etc. A big bag of enormous celeriac showed up--they were the size of bowling balls and looked as weird and unappetizing as only a celeriac can look. I figured they wouldn't get many takers, except maybe from a few of the Russian families, so I took one home. I've been chipping away at it for purees and soup.

Want not-- This is about stocking up, building long-term supplies of storage foods and household  essentials: Nothing this week.

Eat the food --This category includes trying new recipes that make the most of what we have on hand, rotating our stocks of stored foods rather than saving them for an even rainier day, etc. I rummaged through the freezer last night and unearthed various forgotten items, some of which became dinner. The frozen winter squash is now near the front and I swear I will do something with it soon.
Build community food systems-- I'm now a garden mentor for a Food Bank program that picks 20 families a year, builds a small raised bed in their yard, and supplies soils, seeds and vegetable starts. I'm assigned one family to work with through the summer. In fact, they are doing a terrific job on their own and haven't needed me yet, but maybe something will come up as the season advances. In a few weeks I will start doing some produce education in the waiting line at the Food Bank, focusing on the vegetables that the Food Bank contracts to buy from local organic growers.

Happy tomatoes with 1+ cubic yards of compost below

Skill up (learn to do something new)--I learned to do something old. Over the past several weeks I've made and used a old-fashioned hotbed.You dig a hole a little bigger than your cold-frame and two-and-a-half feet deep. Fill that to within six inches from the top with compostable materials--I used leaves, coffee grounds, my neighbor's chicken coop cleanouts, weeds and kitchen scraps. Make sure these layers are, in the words of my 1914 British garden guide, "well-trodden." This involves clambering down into the hole (if I were younger I would jump) and stomping around. Cover the compost-to-be with six inches of soil, to just above the surrounding soil line. It will sink a bit as the stuff breaks down. Put the cold frame on top and your starts and seeded pots inside. The bacterial action below heats up the soil for three or four weeks, giving warm season plants the head start that we need in cloudy Northwest Washington. My tomatoes and peppers are a month ahead of their usual development. As a bonus, whatever I plant there next year will have all that composted soil to feed on. Making a hotbed is also, I have to say, a commentary on the class system. It was a lot of work, a lot of digging and material hauling, for a few weeks of heat. You either need time or plenty of low-paid staff, especially to do it on a large scale.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Dinner Bouquet

My friend Binda brought me this, on this rainy day--purple sprouting broccoli, flowering mizuna, and kale in bud. 

I already had some mashed potatoes left from this morning, when my granddaughter wanted to make them for breakfast, so I chopped the kale, steamed it, and stirred in the mash and some garlic. Delicious. The rest will brighten the kitchen for another day. Hurray for April!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Food Bank Fresh #3

Because of a bout with flu, cooking has been on the back burner lately, and I kept my Food Bank foraging to a minimum this week.  However, I couldn't bear to see big bag of oyster mushrooms, deemed too dried out by a volunteer with more seniority and less fungi fanaticism, go to the pig bucket. So mushroom stock will be the base for the next Soup Night recipe. Oyster mushrooms are down the scale in the rich taste department, but I also scored a couple of aging portabellas and some other miscellany. 

Usually a mushroom donation includes some that are too far gone to distribute along with others that are still fresh and firm. We start a new container of the good ones and add to it as we sort until there's a meal's worth. You might get all standard grocery store shrooms; you might get a variety. I've even seen a few chanterelles head out to the distribution line and I hope they made someone's day.  Mushrooms are one exception to the "can't distribute if it's cut rule," but the presliced ones are generally too far gone anyway by the time they get to us. 

I also brought back a big, limp bunch of organic chard. I love chard and have picked away at my overwintered plants until there isn't much left. (They should make one more flurry of growth before they bolt.) Binda taught me to revive them by putting the whole bunch under water rather than just the stems in a glass. It works; I braised the chard and ate the entire bunch myself.  

Winter Gardening back in print, just in time for spring planting

Binda just gave me a cabbage as beautiful as this.

 My friend Binda Colebrook and I spent a couple of months this summer researching and editing the revisions to her classic book, Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest. In the 1970s when I returned to Western Washington following my collegiate sojourn in California, this is the book that taught me how to retool my gardening for Pacific Northwest realities. When I moved to Whatcom County in 1980, she was one of the first people I met. I edited the 2nd edition of Winter Gardening and it has been a treat to revisit our collaboration nearly 30 years later. Over that timespan seed companies have come and gone, genetically modified plants have become a battleground, and organic agriculture has gone mainstream, as have the kales and endives and leeks that were exotic to many readers when Binda first began to explain them.

This is the 5th edition of Winter Gardening. It covers--among other things--winter hardy varieties and their freeze-out temperatures, cold frames and other do-it-yourself weather protection, making the most of your specific site and soil, an invaluable introduction to integrated pest management, crop-rotation for smaller spaces, a well-annotated resource list for quality seed companies and organic farming activism, and poetry. One of Binda's gifts, honed through decades of work and thought, is to combine the specificity and the spirituality of life in the garden in a way that does justice to both.

Winter Gardening will be available in April. You can pre-order it now from the publisher, New Society, or through your favorite online bookseller. It's none too soon to start planning and planting for fresh produce next January.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Support Grow Northwest Magazine

This is a good magazine, run by good, competent people, in a tough market. They are expanding to monthly publication, which will give them a stronger voice. They have 8 more days to go with a Kickstarter funding drive. It's all or nothing--either they raise $10,000 (As of today they have $7665) or they get zip.

A couple of links for more information:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Soup Night #2

French Onion Soup, straight from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol 1. That's what 22 cups of sliced onions looks like in a great big bread bowl. If we had smellovision, I could also share what the house smelled like after caramelizing them in two big pans for about 45 minutes and simmering another hour. No one complained though, and a good time seemed to be had by all.

It was an economical way to feed 22 people. The onions, grown a block away, were a trade for a mattress we no longer use. The (cheap) soup bones for the stock came from the Mexican butcher down the road, and were so meaty that I made carne asada for tonight's dinner out of them too. The rest of the stock ingredients were lurking in back corners of the vegetable drawer. I bought a little gruyere to jazz up the cheap Swiss and Romano that comprised the bulk of the cheese. Some butter, some olive oil, a couple baguettes, a bit of wine, et voila. Life is good. Gathering with friends on a dreary rainy night is excellent. Sampling Deb's brownies, Rena's chocolate coconut torte, Mary Jane's soda bread and other treats is yet another bonus.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Independence Days challenge week 2

I’ll post this here until it gets transferred to Sharon Astyk’s blog at

Plant something – Sugar snap peas and early lettuces are in. I’ve been clearing out in the garden during our nearly annual early-February warm spell, aka the “sucker season” since it lures us into thinking it’s time to start the warm weather crops. The peas and lettuces should be fine, just slower, even if we do get more snow and hard freezes. Next up is potatoes in tubs. 

Harvest something – Mixed greens—kale, chard, radicchio, and corn salad. Not much of any of them, but it added up to the greens for one dinner. 

Preserve something—Roasted red peppers; winter squash purée. 

Waste not: I’ve logged another week of cooking with the produce that the Food Bank can’t distribute: It’s Food Bank Fresh 2 at 
My neighbors also let me glean from their winter garden; they have surplus leeks that soon will be heading to seed. 
I’m going to try a hot bed this spring to jump start some tomatoes and peppers, so I’ve been stockpiling coffee grounds from the local stand. Probably I’ll get some of my neighbor’s surplus chicken manure too. I’ll be using the instructions from my classic 1914 guide, Garden Work for Every Day. 

Want not—I finally made it to Cash and Carry to get my baking yeast by the ½ pound instead of those little glass jars. Now that I’ve begun baking bread again, this saves money and keeps a supply on hand. 

Eat the food –I put applesauce from last fall into some baked goods and made fruit salad from odds and ends that no longer looked so enticing as snacks. 

Build community food systems –Bought cheese, and had a nice chat, at Pleasant Valley Farm, which has been supplying artisan raw milk gouda and farmstead cheeses in Whatcom County for decades, and got eggs from Twisted S Ranch, which, sadly, no longer supplies buffalo. They sold the herd and closed down in December after a dispute over environmental requirements. It’s ironic that it seems to have been a conflict between buffalo and salmon habitat—two once essential native food supplies that people are trying to preserve. 

Skill up (learn to do something new)—Nothing this week, although I’m soon to see if I remember how to darn socks. My best pair of Smartwool hiking socks have weirdly developed holes on top of both toes—worth a try to see if I can keep them going.

Food Bank Fresh #2

This week's Food Bank rejects included  some limp purple kale, several red peppers with small cuts or soft spots, pears and apples (likewise), a couple zucchini, a chayote squash, and a bulk food bag of ground cardamom, smelling like heaven. There was also a mysterious pale yellow "squash" that turned out to be a melon. (The tub at left in the picture has a couple of chards and raddicchios that are waking from their winter's nap. There were more before I used some as a bed for marinated chicken the night before.)

I don't usually buy non-organic sweet peppers, which, given the cost of organically grown ones, means that I rarely eat them unless it's a good year in my garden. (I've learned the sticker code from my fellow volunteers. Organic produce has a 9 at the start of the ID number.) Bell peppers are a regular on the Dirty Dozen list of produce that shows up in the market with the most pesticide residues. But it was just too hard to throw these beauties away, and part of this project is about learning what it's like to plan meals from what's available at the Food Bank.  So I decided to roast them and remove the skins to sort of split the difference. (A good resource for pesticide residues on food is

I roasted the peppers by putting them on the burners of my gas range, turning them as the skins began to blacken. It was an arresting sight--the bright red peppers arrayed across the shiny black stove--and as Ron pointed out, it smelled as though someone in the house was smoking weed. Once they were blackened and blistered over most of the skin, I put them in a plastic bag. The resulting steam loosens up the skin and makes them easier to peel. I stored them with just a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and boy are they good. We had pasta with the peppers, the zucchini (grilled), a little garlic, oil and salt. Grated cheese on the side, home made bread, and some Organic Girl salad greens, also from the Food Bank courtesy of Trader Joe's. Volunteer sorters always hope to get the TJ boxes because they are top quality and tidy--no rooting around through rotten apples and assorted scraps to get at the good stuff. 

I made fruit salad from the melon (which provided more bulk than taste, I have to say), pears and apples, and a couple of oranges whose skins were starting to harden up in my fruit basket. We had that at breakfast for the next few days. The saggy kale went into a glass of water and has now revived and looks fresh as can be. I'm having it for lunch today. I ended up composting the chayote, and I am still deciding what uses to make of the cardamom. Clearly some curries are in my future, and cookies. I also got a full box of rolled oats that couldn't be distributed because of a small tear in the security seal, so my granddaughter and I made oatmeal raisin bars and I'll crank out another batch of granola shortly. My friend Gale shared her granola recipe with me; it's simple and quick, and I never get tired of it: 

3 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup sunflower seeds
scant 1/4 cup light oil
6 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped nuts (I prefer walnuts)
spices to taste--I like cinnamon and ginger
raisins, cranberries or other dried fruit to taste (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F.  

Combine everything but the fruit in a large bowl. 

Spread out mixture on a lined cookie sheet, bake for 15 minutes. Remove and stir to redistribute the granola and bake another 15 minutes. 

Remove from oven, add dried fruit (if used) and cool before storing. 

Even with the pricey maple syrup, this is way cheaper than store-bought, and so good. 

I have yet to "work the line" at the Food Bank, meaning actually helping with distribution to clients. I'm eager to get to know some clients and see who gravitates to the fresh produce, since canned goods and box food are also a big part of the distribution. When I think about how well we've been eating using Food Bank produce the past few weeks, it's easy to discount the reality that I have a well-stocked kitchen, no picky eaters (aka children) at home, and the time to chop, roast and simmer. Still, I'm guessing that many clients could do more if they knew more, and we are looking for ways to share that kind of knowledge.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Food Bank Fresh

I’ve started volunteering at the Food Bank, sorting and cleaning donated vegetables and fruit one morning a week.
My co-sorters are a lively crew, ranging from teenagers to people in their 70s, and they have been teaching me the rules. Especially in winter, when fresh produce is scarcer, there are many judgment calls about whether a tomato is too soft or a carrot too wiggly to go out on the line to the waiting clients.  However, some rules are clearly stated: If there’s a break in the skin, it can’t go out. And if you saw the company some of those items keep in the donation boxes, you would see why they can’t risk anyone eating them raw. (Produce that doesn’t make the grade for distribution to humans goes in a bin for a local hog farm, except for the apples and carrots that are boxed up for someone’s horses.) Still, it’s tough to throw away a beautiful firm potato with a one little nick, or a carrot that’s bendy but not rotting, just a bit dehydrated. At least it's tough if you make as much vegetable stock as I do. That's what bendy carrots are for. Volunteers are allowed to take some produce home, and though I feel funny about helping myself to anything that could have gone to someone in need, I figure it's ok to take the ones that would otherwise feed pigs. Today I decided to gather some of the not-quite-good-enough items to see what I could do with them that was both safe and tasty.

 The top photo shows my nicks-and-dents veggie haul for today, plus a log of Trader Joe's brie that couldn't go out because the outer plastic had a tear. In includes tomatoes (organic), carrots, parsnips, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, and a chayote squash. Also a pear, but on second thought I've sent that to the compost,  although it's pristine except for the small cut. Hidden from view somewhere is an avocado.

I didn't want to have any of it raw or lightly cooked--better safe than sorry. So here's what I made:

Roasted peppers, tomatoes and chayote and lentil soup
I roasted the chayote and most of the tomatoes and peppers at 400, stirring occasionally, until they were very soft and starting to char. (Non food bank additions were a bit of olive oil, salt, and hot sauce.) That's at left. 

Most of the rest of the produce went into lentil soup. I didn't get the lentils from the food bank, but they are available to clients, so I figured it was still a realistic meal. I used olive oil, a little red wine, Spike seasoning salt, lemon juice, and paprika. If I'd had a soup bone I wouldn't have needed as much extra flavoring, but there's hardly ever a surplus of meat for distribution.

Same basic information from the food bank website: 

Who We Serve 

You might be surprised to learn who asks Bellingham Food Bank for help in feeding their family. Did you know that most recipients waiting in line at the food bank also work?

  • 15% of all families in the Bellingham city limits use the food bank at least once a year
  • 50% of food bank recipients are children or senior citizens
  • 60% of food bank families skip or cut the size of meals on a weekly basis
Every month Bellingham Food Bank receives more than 9,500 visits and responds by handing out approximately 220,000 pounds of food.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"Independence Days" Challenge, via Sharon Astyk at The Chatelaine's Keys

Sharon Astyk, who farms, writes books and blogs, teaches homesteading skills, and raises a big family in upstate New York. is relaunching her Independence Days challenge. The idea is for people to document the steps they are taking to build independence (and community interdependence) to adapt more gracefully to changes in climate/economy/fossil fuel availability. Part of the point is that small changes can accumulate over time to create a new way of looking at the resources around us.

Participants post weekly to her blog, detailing steps they've taken in the categories below. As she has lots of followers, the result is a compilation of ideas and mostly small, feasible projects around the world. Here's my opening contribution, which I have arbitrarily expanded to the cover the last month.

Plant something -- Not yet. I will have reduced garden space this year and the bed that usually houses my earliest plantings won't be available.
Harvest something --The parsley, thyme, and rosemary made it through our last snowstorm and hard freeze (thank goodness the snow preceded the single-digit temps to provide insulation) and have been going into soups and sauces. Kale, collards, chard, spinach and corn salad all are waking up as daylight reaches that magic 10 hours threshold. Garden veggies tonight!

Preserve something--My granddaughter and I got a box of apple seconds at a local orchard and made applesauce.

Waste not: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." With an eye to the reduced garden, I went through my seeds and took ones I won't be using to the community seed swap (see community food systems below); my nice neighbor Kate gave me used chicken bedding for my compost pile, and I continue to pick up used coffee grounds from the espresso place down the street. The compost bins are in good shape for the soil amending that will take place soon. We are lucky to live in a city where recycling is easy--between the curbside pickup for glass, plastic, papers and food/garden waste, and the drop-off center near my house for stuff like broken plastic flowerpots and plastic film, not a lot goes in the garbage. 
I also recently went on metered water--it's still optional here--so that I can track what I use and be more mindful; good thing all three rainbarrels are full to the brim.

Want not-- This is about stocking up, building long-term supplies of storage foods and household  essentials. Not much going on here at my house. The only supply I've added to lately is soup bowls. I bought a bunch at Goodwill to accommodate my guest list for a monthly Soup Night gathering.

Eat the food --This category includes trying new recipes that make the most of what we have on hand, rotating our stocks of stored foods rather than saving them for an even rainier day, etc. When making the vegetable stock for the aforementioned Soup Night, I was able to use most of the no-longer-in-their-first-youth parsnips, carrots, and Jerusalem artichokes that were languishing in my fridge. Soup for 27 people means a lot of stock, and it was delicious. I'm also proud to have caught a couple of stored winter squash just before they went bad. Given the space they take in my small garden, it would be a real shame not to eat them.

Build community food systems-- The Community Seed Day, aka Seed Swap, is in its fourth year in Bellingham. It's a great idea and a wonderful place to meet and greet fellow gardeners. Hundreds of people came. 
On Monday I had my first volunteer day at the Food Bank, preparing vegetables for distribution. It's impressive how much food flows through one big room, and where it goes. Since no vegetables with any kind of cut on the skin can be distributed, and since some of the donations are marginal at best, a lot doesn't make it to the clients. But neither does it go in the garbage. Volunteers can take home the slightly mangled onions and nicked zucchinis that can't go out on the distribution line. A local pig farmer picks up the less savory produce, except for apples, which go to a horse farm.

Skill up (learn to do something new)--I just learned how to remove and replace a toilet and how to check for natural gas leaks with soap spray.

For more information on the Independence Days challenge:

For more on Sharon Astyk and her books:

For the Community Seed Day, in case you want to start one of your own:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rotten Times

Remember Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now—“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”? Well me I love the smell of compost in the morning. It’s a sweet, ephemeral fragrance, similar to a chanterelle or a  Woods blewitt mushroom, and it reliably makes me happy. 

Recently I’ve been doing some reading to learn more about one of my favorite processes and to refine my techniques. City compost has some extra challenges. It can’t waste space and it can’t stink, so you have to pay attention to detail. I use three bins, one as a sort of preprocessor, for woody and weedy stuff that I don’t want to put directly on the pile, and two as the working composters. Within that restricted system, I’m trying for maximum completeness, so that I don’t have weed seeds surviving to sprout in my soil and so that all possible nutrients are available to my plants, and maximum speed, so that I can produce as much as possible as fast as possible in a limited space.
Compost making has three main variables: content, temperature, and aeration. Those are the boundaries within which a host of bacteria and invertebrates turn a bit of this and a lot of that into the fragrant, crumbly material that improves soil structure, provides the big three of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, boosts plants’ immune systems, and supplies important micronutrients such as manganese, copper, iron and zinc. Besides all that, it gives a free and honorable resting place for your kitchen scraps, fallen leaves, dead houseplants, and shredded financial papers. 

No more compost--Claudius is rank enough already
Composting is a natural process—leaves fall off the trees, browsing deer add their droppings, rain falls, mice tunnel through the resulting moist layers of carbonaceous and nitrogen-rich stuff—and next spring you’ve got another layer of humus to keep the cycle going.  Humans have been concentrating that system for agricultural use for thousands of years and writing about it for nearly that long. Shakespeare has Hamlet tell his mother to stay away from the wicked Claudius by saying not to “spread the compost on the weeds/to make them ranker.” Gertrude didn’t do so well at taking that metaphorical advice; I have troubles with it myself in the literal domain. I sometimes wonder if I am composting for the sake of the buttercups more than for the squash. 

H.H. Thomas, in the lovely little British guide from 1913, Garden Work for Every Day, does not specifically address compost making, but he does talk about the hotbeds, which use the same principle:
“Leaves alone will make quite a good hotbed, they are more lasting in heat than stable litter, but are not so violent. Undoubtedly the best thing is a mixture of the two. When making a hotbed see that it is trodden very firmly, or the heat will be very violent at first, but will quickly be spent. Instead of forming a large heap and then treading it, let the litter be put on in layers and trodden frequently and well. … Do not use the bed until the violence of the heat has subsided.”
Thomas worked for years in the Baron de Rothschild’s French gardens and of the Royal Gardens of Windsor before turning to writing and editing, so he should know. And his warnings about the violence of the heat are well taken. I recently learned, courtesy of University of Illinois Extension’s excellent series of articles, that three main sets of bacteria are responsible for composting decomposition, each operating in a different temperature range. They are the bridge between the basic compost ingredients—carbon and nitrogen—and the humus that results from their work. As they oxidize this organic material, creating the bacterial equivalent of heavy breathing, the pile heats up. Psychrophilic (psychro is from the Greek word for “chilly”) bacteria start the process. When their work gets the pile up to around 70 degrees F, mesophilic bacteria take over and pump things up to around 100 degrees. 

When I headed out this morning, frost was on the grass but a little stir made the compost bin steam—Mesophilia in action. This is also the temperature preferred by Actinomycetes, which it turns out are the ones I have to thank for that smell I like so much. They are “a higher form bacteria similar to fungi and molds,” says Illinois Extension, so the fragrance similarity isn’t surprising.  They also get credit for working through my shredded paper and woody Jerusalem artichoke stalks because they can handle the cellulose that is beyond the scope of most of their less-complex relatives. 

As the pile gets hotter, the mesophiliacs migrate toward the cooler outer edges where the temperature is more to their liking; in summer this strategy works well since the ambient temperature is likely to be enough to keep them happy, In winter it’s not so successful, one of the reasons winter piles decompose more slowly and less completely. Without major messy effort, I can’t completely mix in the material from the outer edges of my enclosed bins, so the outer reaches tend to lag well behind the inner core.
In the hotter inner regions, thermophilic bacteria pick up the tempo, heating up to as much as 160 F. These are the “live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” members of the composting world. They break materials down rapidly and thoroughly, they kill off weed seeds and pathogens, and they generally burn out after a few days, after which the temperatures drop again and the mesophilic bacteria return to the field. 

The thermophilic bacteria are the reason that big municipal composting facilities—with much greater mass and with mechanical systems for moisturizing and aerating, can handle lots of the animal products, pizza boxes, and woody plants that can overwhelm home systems. But having said that, I’ll happily admit that I ignore the warnings against composting cheese, milk, fats, meat scraps, etc., in home systems. They are all organic materials and they rot just fine. The problems they can cause are twofold: smell and varmints. Rotting meat smells a lot worse to us and a lot better to rats, raccoons, and skunks than rotting lettuce does. A determined rat will chew right through a heavy-duty plastic compost bin, and raccoons are skilled lid removers (I once saw one unscrew a gallon glass container). So you do need to be careful. My cats and big silly dog seem to be enough keep away the local rodent population; probably they are so well fed in my neighborhood that they don’t need to take extra risks. But the smell can be an issue. One summer I got carried away with salmon scraps in the compost bin, and the stench was appalling for a few days. But generally there are no repercussions as long as you bury the scraps deep, provide nitrogen for quick bacterial action, and keep the bin mixture aerated. 

A far more common source of bad smells in compost is lack of oxygen. If oxygen levels fall below 5 percent, the aerobic bacteria die off and the anaerobic ones move in. This is bad for several reasons. Anaerobic decomposition is much, much slower (and slimier); the nitrogen it produces is often in forms plants can’t use; and it stinks: guess what compounds named cadaverine, and putrescine smell like? You can buy a flashy compost twirler for aeration, but I get by fine by poking in air holes with a piece of rebar.

Another issue for city people tends to be a reliable nitrogen source. You want a ratio of about 30-1 carbon to nitrogen in your starting pile; decomposition will use up carbon and produce nitrogen, resulting, if all goes well, in the ideal 8-1 ratio of the finished product. The carbon is easy—leaves, shredded paper, hay and straw, dry stalks of this and that are all good sources. But avid gardeners can get pretty emotional about their nitrogen. I remember my mother-in-law, who was definitely not a country girl, practically caressing the buckets of aged cow manure we used to bring from the farm to her splendid Seattle camellias and rhododendrons. “This stuff is gold,” she would say. 

In my long composting career I’ve used all sorts of things. Horse manure, our standby during my childhood, has a number of problems. Horses are inefficient digesters, one of the things that makes feeding them so expensive, so their manure tends to be rife with sproutable weed seeds. And since they eat lots of hay, the chances of getting a batch that has been contaminated with broadleaf herbicides is greater than with many other animal manures. On the other hand, the smell isn’t offensive, at least not to me, and that’s a plus in urban neighborhoods. Cow manure is sloppy and a bit stinkier, but it’s good stuff, especially if the animals have been bedded in straw. For a really good manure source and a really terrible smell, there’s fermented turkey droppings. When I lived in Glen Ellen, California, we used to get it by the truckload from a nearby farm. That stuff created a horrific, miasmic reek that filled the air and clung to clothes and skin. Luckily I was living on up on a ridgetop, hundreds yards from the nearest neighbor. The tomatoes we grew with it were the best I’ve ever had. 

Chicken manure is a local favorite in my poultry-obsessed neighborhood. Fresh chicken manure is very high in nitrogen, too hot to handle for direct application to plants, but able to get right to work on the straw or wood chips that often comprise the bedding. It can smell pretty bad on its own, but it’s not so offensive when mixed. The chicken/wood chip mixture I’m using now from my nice neighbor Kate across the alley is working much better than the horse/straw combo I tried last year. That stuff just sat around month after month; I know it was slowly, slowly breaking down, but I don’t have the space for the patience required.

Another less than successful experience was llama dung (some aficionados call them llama berries, but I’m not going there). Llamas are browsers, more like goats and camels than like cows, and their manure is correspondingly more concentrated and less seedy than that of cows and horses. It barely smells at all. My problem was getting it moist enough to make a home for the bacteria. I’m guessing that their evolution up on the arid altiplano makes them efficient retainers of all available water. The clumps sat for months unaffected by the moisture in the rest of the pile. I had to soak them in buckets of water, and that’s just too much work. Eventually I loaded up the remainder of my pile of dung plus straw and used it to mulch my raspberries for the winter. I’m figuring a bunch of rain and some freezes and thaws will eventually make it give up its integrity and head back into the carbon cycle. 

Coffee grounds are the new compost savior around here, where there’s almost literally an espresso stand on every corner.   The Buzz Inn stand in my neighborhood puts out its daily blend of espresso disks, coffee grounds and filters, lettuce, eggshells, and the odd orange peel and tomato slice in kitchen garbage bags. It is a first-rate composting material—good nitrogen ratio/decent amounts of phosphorus and potassium/good water retention—it’s got it all. You can also put it right on the garden as mulch, but then your yard smells like stale coffee. So I put most of it in the bins. I do, however, mix it with the fallen leaves I leave for mulch around the ornamentals and with the sawdust I used to acidify the blueberries. On its own, sawdust will pull nitrogen that’s already in the soil to aid its own decomposition, and that’s counterproductive. I’m hoping that it can grab the nitrogen from the coffee grounds instead. 

I’ll admit that I’m sometimes feel just a little embarrassed about the intensity—not to say violence—of my connection with my compost piles, so I was delighted to find the following quote from Bette Midler, aka The Compost Queen.

My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God's presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.
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