Tag Archives: food-scrap composting

Hell’s Kitchen Gardener Recommends: Books for Gardeners

This is the first entry in a new book corner for gardeners. img_3299

Life in the Soil
A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners
By James B. Nardi
The University of Chicago Press, 2007

Part guidebook, part natural history of the soil, Life in the Soil is an especially gratifying read for a composter-gardener and an excellent antidote for the tendency to view the plant world as existing primarily aboveground and the soil as material of use merely to hold plants in place. That tendency, in fact, could not be further from the truth. The author, a biologist and illustrator, characterizes the story of soil as “a marriage of the mineral world and the organic world.” “It is a good marriage; and as in all good marriages, the two partners work together in harmony. Each partner’s attributes are often enhanced in the other’s company.” From there, the reader moves through the breakdown of rock by weathering and acids to the work of the “pioneers” of rock, the algae, lichens, mosses, bacteria, and fungi, which make way for the plant roots that will eventually crack open rocks, creating more space for rock minerals and organic detritus to combine into the powerful and still-mysterious matter we call soil.

The last of three parts, “Working in Partnership With Creatures of the Soil” not only guides the reader in setting up and maintaining a compost pile but explores the science (cation exchange explained) and braids together the concerns that thread throughout the book: climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction.

There are diagrams and photographic plates, but Nardi’s illustrations of creatures, ranging from the microscopic to tiny to macro, are deliciously engaging. One of my favorites is the drawing of a daddy longlegs with hitchhiking mites. (Daddy longlegs take their passengers to new places they would never be able to visit on their own. While their long legs that serve as antennae lift their travelers above the fray, their ability to produce a noxious fluid when attacked keeps predators away.)

I often carry my copy with me to the garden or on nature walks and sometimes to the preschool classroom to help my young gardening students recognize what’s going on in our compost bin. This sturdy paperback edition puts up with all that travel and still looks pretty good albeit bristling with bookmarks and post-its and tinged with, well, soil.


Labor Day for Gardeners

Storm Hermine gave us perfect gardening weather: soft, cool, fall-ish, and the garden, free of humidity and intense heat, and almost lacking in mosquitoes, was also free of the strife that can often be the background noise there. At the garden debris compost bin, I was overjoyed (really, truly) to find two gardeners cutting up plant waste and putting it in the bin and not in the trash. I was so moved to see this that I walked up to them and thanked them. They happen to be two very nice guys I’ve run into off and on at the garden but don’t know all that well. They told me that they were a little afraid of composting, afraid of not doing the right thing and so—having been yelled at—tended to err on the side of caution and the garbage can. This day, they had decided to go for it. They were being careful not to put in invasive weeds. I was consoling, telling them I know it could be difficult to tell what was what sometimes.* This led to questions about composting in general and how food-scrap composting works at the garden. I organize this side of our composting efforts and require gardeners who want to do it to participate fully in the project, not just drop off their food scraps (the how and why of this I’ll get into in an upcoming post on composting). The starting place is a lesson on how to do something that seems kind of simple but can go so wrong, especially when it involves ten or more people. The timing was right, I was there, and one of the gardeners was actually interested in getting a lesson. And now I have a new food-scrap composter/gardener. Some good labor was had by all.


The food-scrap compost intake bin at the Clinton Community Garden. I use a garden fork to first dig food scraps in and later turn the material. After each addition of food scraps, I add a layer of leaves two to three times as thick as the food-scrap layer. These scraps are nicely chopped and have been eye-balled for bad stuff, like dairy, bones, rubber bands, and plastic bits.



Here’s what I don’t like to see. Yes, these items are all compostable, they might even be organic, but what are they doing here? They weren’t spoiled or even wrinkled. A family of four could have gotten breakfast out of this compost bin. I chalk this up to a rogue “composter” who seemed to joy in dropping perfectly edible food in the bin once a week and not even attempting to cover it up. All my regular composters know to chop up their peels and rinds and that wasting food is pretty uncool.

*As a side note, I tend to take a broader view of what plant matter can and can’t go in than our particular setup allows. I will never, ever compost morning glory—though the flowers are endearing, the plant is deadly in its ability to self-replicate and strangle a garden—but I am comfortable with most roots and even some seed heads that come out of garden beds going into the compost as long as they are broken down and treated to a good smothering layer of leaves. If there’s space, I will sometimes dry out borderline weedy plants by hanging them up or laying them out on a hard surface in the sun.





Vote for Year-Round Food-Scrap Composting in Hell’s Kitchen!

Freshly made compost spills out of the bin, ready for the garden.

Freshly made compost spills out of the bin, ready for the garden.

Hey, Hell’s Kitcheners, Gardeners, Composters, and all the rest of you Earth-conscious folk:

We have a great opportunity to make composting happen on a larger scale and year round in our community. Projects to be funded by City Council District 3 Participatory Budgeting are up for a vote starting this Saturday. My committee, Parks & Environment, has some excellent projects (see 8 through 14 on the ballot), including my contribution, #11 on the ballot: A Community Composting Center in Hell’s Kitchen. This is a proposal for a larger-scale food-waste composting operation with at least two drop-off days a week. Gardeners have a special stake in composting efforts, and I hope our gardening community in particular will come out to vote for this project. All residents of District 3, 14 years of age and older, are eligible to vote, so you can bring your favorite teen with you and vote as a family. Voting takes place April 11 through April 19 with several locations, including Hartley House, right over on West 46th Street.

For more voting locations and information, please visit: http://council.nyc.gov/d3/html/members/pb3.shtml

One more thought: Earth Day is coming up on April 22. Your vote for this community composting center is a simple and effective way to care for our Earth. Please plan to vote with Earth Day in mind.

For a poster to share, click on:

PB Vote Week Composting Projectpdf2

Why Compost? (And the People’s Climate March.)

Kitchen compost.

Kitchen compost.

Composting, like gardening, cuts across political and social boundaries. There are people who voted for Reagan who compost and have been doing it long before Reagan was in office! Why is it then that a good chunk of my fellow community gardeners (lots of liberal-minded New Yorkers) seem so resistant to the practice of composting? I write this out of my usual end-of-summer frustration. Every spring I have high hopes that composting will really take on in a big way partly because that’s the time of year most people ask me about it. But at summer’s end I can’t help feeling deflated by the quantity of garden debris in the trash bin situated next to the intake section of our large four-bin composter. Despite the inviting proximity of the composter, a lot of gardeners are choosing to put perfectly compostable garden prunings in the bin clearly labeled “trash.” Maybe the better question is not “Why compost?” but “Why trash it?”

I will not pretend that I’m immune to some of the reasons gardeners are using the trash can over the composter. Some are genuinely afraid of doing the wrong thing and I sympathize with that concern. We have some composting rules: garden material goes in the open-air four-bin system; food waste is collected once a week and goes in a separate series of enclosed composting bins (my area of expertise). Invasive weeds aren’t okay, and that means gardeners have to be able to recognize them. Seed heads and roots have to be trimmed off (to prevent weedy compost) and large plant pieces have to be cut up. This separating and cutting and occasional guesswork can get tedious, I know, but gardeners need to see it not as an extra but as the essential gardening task it is. I’m going to say that again: Composting is part of gardening. A vital part. If we’re gardeners, we have no excuse for being aware of composting and not doing it.

Sometimes getting people to compost (and to do it effectively) boils down to getting them to change the way they think and talk about compostable materials. More often than I thought possible, otherwise environmentally aware folks have asked me if I wanted some “garbage” for my compost pile. “Um, no, I don’t want garbage,” I say, “but I will recycle your fruit and veggie scraps for you and when it’s finished you can dig it in around your tomato plants.” There are well-meaning gardeners who nonetheless view my food-scrap composting operation as some kind of bizarre hobby. They see only the beginning of the process—putting rinds and egg shells into a box and closing the lid. Out of sight, out of mind. Just like a landfill.

Composting, of course, is the complete opposite of a landfill. It’s a dynamic process through which living things transform once-living things into a substance that can nourish other living things. A landfill simply fills up with stuff that could take hundreds of years to break down. Once degraded, the garbage in a landfill is not only of very little use to anyone or anything, it is likely to be toxic.

When I think about how to get people to take composting seriously and incorporate it into their daily lives, it’s very easy to get sidetracked with thoughts of policy making. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see composting made official throughout the city, but there has to be a coherent plan for doing that, a plan that is based on education and accessibility. So, any sort of plan really has to start quite literally from the ground up with listening to the people who are or would be doing the composting—in their homes, on their fire escapes, and in community gardens.

Those of us running composting projects at community gardens see and hear what most policy makers probably don’t: We find out what inspires people to compost and what discourages them. Community gardens have a history of being the laboratories for urban environmentalism. We can incubate projects that demonstrate to the wider community how to take better care of our earth.

Okay, back to that first question: Why compost? There are so many answers. Here are some.

Plants like compost.

Composting recycles organic waste instead of adding it to landfills.

You can save money by making your own excellent fertilizer with ingredients you would otherwise be putting in a landfill.

Composting reduces your garden’s carbon footprint because you don’t have to rely on trucked-in supplies.

Gardening with compost enriches the soil, so plants can grow, providing nourishment, oxygen, and a holding place for carbon.

Taking care of the natural environment happens on many, many levels, from recycling kitchen scraps in a community garden to taking to the streets. This Sunday, September 21, I’ll be marching with thousands of others in the People’s Climate March to wake up our leaders to the crisis of climate change. Hey, Hell’s Kitcheners, the march goes right through our neighborhood! Looking forward to walking together with lots of other gardeners (and nongardeners too). For more information, including timing of events and route details, visit http://peoplesclimate.org/march.

Don’t trash it. Compost your fruit and veggie food scraps at the Clinton Community Garden: Tomorrow, Saturday, September 20, from 11 am to noon. I’ll be there to collect your compost and answer composting questions. Saturday compost collection of food scraps continues at the garden through October 11, 2014. I’ll be posting more information about where else to compost in Hell’s Kitchen soon.