My Pile: Why Not?

Anne Scott-James, author of The Pleasure Garden, writes: “However small your garden, you must provide for two of the serious gardener’s necessities, a tool shed and a compost heap.” In my small suburban backyard, these two necessities are side by side.

In fact, along with a trampoline, much used by my son and the neighborhood kids and which sits on the opposite side of the shed from my pile, these three structures dominate the back of my backyard.

The shed, a prefab, 8 ft. by 8 ft. saltbox that I had trucked to my property from its Amish country makers several years ago, really is a necessity. My small cottage-style home lacks a garage, so into the shed go the bikes, lawn mower and cushions for the patio furniture, for safe-keeping, along with my collection of gardening tools, the leaf blower and hedge trimmer, cans and jugs of gas and oil, a couple ladders, and the other things you stick in a shed.

My pile is a fixture in the backyard, same as the tool shed and trampoline.

Like the trampoline, my pile is more of an elective. Despite Scott-James’ admonition, I realize and accept my pile fully as something I willingly choose to do. The compost heap stands as a statement of intent, of purpose, of what I value. It truly is a landmark, at least on the scale of my humble backyard.

The reasons why I keep a compost heap are what this blog is all about: among them, improving the soil, repurposing yard and food waste, sustainability, reducing my carbon footprint, creating something of lasting value virtually for free, nurturing a connection to biology, fostering a sense of community, exercise, entertainment, introspection and, yes, pleasure. In act and deed, a steady supply of all of that and more.

So the better question may be, why not keep a compost pile?

It may be an odd time of year to ask the question, as my pile, sequestered by the cold of winter and soon to be blanketed by forecasted snow, steadily recedes out of sight if not from mind. My pile is still there, hard by the tool shed and stack of firewood, but at this point in its life cycle is as distant and removed as it will ever be, from me, for now.

It’s been a week since I last dug into its top portion to mix in two full buckets of food scraps, covering them with a smattering of leaves and a fresh helping of salt marsh hay gathered from the beach. Since then, a blustery rainstorm has soaked my pile, and the temperatures have dropped to well below freezing, turning its outer layer of leaves into a hard-crusted mantle that to the touch feels like permafrost. I can only hope that underneath this cloak of cold my pile continues to churn and burn away.

Funny, but I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision to compost. I’ve always liked to garden, and I suppose there was often a pile of leaves and organic detritus somewhere in a corner of the yard I tended waiting to be raked up into a bag or trashcan and hauled away. Or left forgotten…

My pile first came to be when I realized the copious leftovers to be had from the test kitchen at the food magazine I worked for in Los Angeles, the idea being that perhaps I could add these fresh greens and shells of deveined shrimp to the heap of yard waste I had stashed among a hillside patch of English Ivy under the ponderosa pine that lorded over the duplex I lived in. The rakings were mostly pine needles and the dry, brittle scrapings from underneath the olive trees that also grew on the property. In the dry, Mediterranean climate of the Hollywood Hills, that heap of collected yard trimmings wasn’t going anywhere unless I did something with it.

My choice. No one asked me to do it, not my landlord and certainly not the law. This being 25 years ago, composting was very much a fringe pursuit, an afterthought from the Age of Aquarius by way of earnest organic cranks and proselytizers like J.I. Rodale or garden aesthetes like Eleanor Perenyi.

The times, they are a changing. But ever so slowly. Despite mounds of evidence in support of composting, both at home and on a community and even industrial level, despite a sweeping cultural shift toward such a practice in sustainability and, lately, a raft of regulations to spur compliance of this greater good, tending my pile remains a quirky hobby of a habit that brands me as the neighborhood eccentric. As much as my pile stands out in my backyard, it stands for the most part as a solitary, somewhat quixotic enterprise.

“Even though more and more cities around the nation are offering compost pickup along with their trash and recycling, most of us are on our own to figure out how to recycle our food waste,” I read in a recent blog posting on www.sustainableamerica.org, titled “I Want to Compost, But…”

“And the rate of composting bears that out: only 5% of our food waste makes it to compost instead of landfills or incinerators. But there’s a growing awareness of the food waste problem, and most people want to help. A recent study sponsored by the National Waste & Recycling Association found that 67% of Americans would be willing to compost food waste if it was more convenient to do so.”

Convenience seems to be the greatest hurdle, and to that I would add cost, comfort and commitment. Adopting a new habit or practice — by person, then more culturally — requires a shift in what you are comfortable with, coupled with the decision to stick with it.

An important driver of my composting these days is, in fact, the convenience it affords. Having a backyard compost heap in which to park the leaves that fall each year in my yard is a blessing. It’s much easier for me to haul leaves and other yard waste to the corner of my yard than it is to stuff them into what would likely be dozens and dozens of brown refuse bags to stack along the roadside for pickup.

So, too, is it more convenient for me to stash my daily coffee grounds and food scraps into a small lidded bucket that I keep in the kitchen rather than dump them in the trash can. In my house, that wet, messy waste is what forces me to take the garbage out – often long before the container is anywhere near full of other household waste.

I’m fortunate to have stumbled across my “Hooch” bucket, a tag-sale find that has turned out to be a wonderfully useful addition to both my kitchen and my pile. The small plastic container, with lid and handle, looks just fine on the kitchen counter, and effectively keeps my food waste and its smells in check until I can tote it out to my pile.

The internet and bricks and mortar stores are awash in similar solutions for such compost storage, both indoors and out. Case in point, the www.altenergymag.com website, where I came across an article, “No More Excuses! Home Composting is Easier than Ever” by Kent Swanson, which provides some helpful product information that I would likely consider if I was starting composting from scratch:

Stainless Steel compost bucket“Most people don’t like to have a pile of these scraps sitting on their kitchen counter. Innovative products such as this stainless steel compost pail make it easy to save your kitchen scraps until they’re ready for the compost bin. This compost pail is easy to store under your kitchen sink, and thanks to a carbon filter, there is virtually no odor.”

And though I admire my pile for its sprawling, seemingly unkempt nature in the backyard, I can understand why another homeowner or backyard gardener wouldn’t be so inclined to tend to such a construct.

Author Swanson helpfully provides a tidier solution:

Australian tumbler“Thanks to a wide variety of new composting products on the market, home composting is now quicker and easier than ever. Moreover, with many new compost bins and tumblers, there is no need to have an unattractive compost pile in the corner of your yard at all.

For example, the Australian Tumbler Composter holds up to 58 gallons worth of kitchen scraps and yard waste. What makes this product great is that you simply need to spin it on a daily basis to fully mix your kitchen scraps and yard waste to active the composting process. Additionally, although the traditional compost pile may take several months to produce organic compost, this Tumbler will have your compost ready in less than a month.

Now that’s what I call convenience! If I had a smaller backyard, or a recalcitrant spouse or neighbor, I can see myself dappling with such a device.

Cost is another concern, of course, and as a resolute skinflint, I’ve always rationalized my backyard composting as a way to save money – on garbage pickup, yard maintenance and gardening. By reducing my kitchen waste stream, I don’t see the need to subscribe to the twice-weekly garbage pickup that is the rule of our local vendors. Nor have I ever paid someone to take the leaves that fall across my yard off my hands, much less mow the lawn or weed or sort out my plantings. And by producing so much fresh humus each season, my pile allows me to have a garden, for free, that needs no fertilizer or soil amendments and virtually no purchased herbicide or pesticide controls.

That said, I’m fully aware that I am an outlier, especially regarding the time and energy I devote to my pile, and time is money. There is an opportunity cost to composting, and the hours I spend tending my pile do add up. I sometimes fret that with the time I spend on my pile doing something I enjoy, for free, I could be doing something more renumerative. Like driving an Uber car. Still, I’ve always figured that the hours I “waste” doting on my pile is time I’m not using to spend money on more expensive hobbies.

This may not be the case for others, and for those people, other viable options for composting are emerging. So I read online, most recently at www.greenplanet.com, in “7 Things to Do with Compost if You Don’t Garden.”

“Perhaps the easiest solution, if it’s available to you, is to find a curbside compost service that will pick up your food scraps once a week, right at your house,” writes Mariele Ventrice. “According to EarthShare, more than 150 U.S. cities now offer curbside composting as a public service, to go along with trash collection and recycling. However, if you’re not one of the lucky ones, there are plenty of private compost pickup companies that will do this for you. From what I’ve seen, it costs around $8/week and is incredibly easy — just throw your scraps in a bin provided and someone from the company will pick it up each week, replacing it with another bin.”

I’m intrigued by the news of the rise of the compost entrepreneurs that have sprung up in communities around the country, often by millennials who use bikes to run urban routes, like chimney sweeps of old, the milk vans of a generation ago or the paper boys of my youth, collecting compost as they go. (For just one example, check out what the fellows at tilthyrichcompost.com are doing in Durham, N.C.) Godspeed to them, and failing that, find a neighbor, work mate or friend who gardens and pawn off your food waste on them. They will appreciate the thought, and perhaps return your kitchen scrap deposits as red ripe tomatoes next summer.

So it turns out that with a little digging, there are, if not easy, then at least some worthwhile and viable answers that address the issue of why not to compost in terms of convenience and cost.

Comfort and commitment require a little more effort when it comes to compost. I admit, to borrow a cliché, there is a fly in the ointment. A few flies, on occasion. Fruit flies, to be specific.

In my experience, the biggest turn-off to composting at home is the prospect of having the kitchen food-waste receptacle become the habitat of fruit flies. Though innocuous and non-biting, these flittering little drones (the Drosophila melanogaster, of high school biology texts) can become bothersome if allowed to populate a compost bucket indoors. The solution to eliminating their presence is fairly easy – simply keep the kitchen scraps in a lidded container, and after dumping it out, clean the bucket just as you would a dirty dish, with some soap or a spritz of a disinfectant that contains bleach or similar product.

The second biggest concern about home composting regards outdoor pests, chiefly rodents. Every guide to compost fairly screams with the advice not to add meat scraps, dairy products or fats to an outdoor heap, for fear of attracting varmints to your backyard compost heap.

Given the wide range of fauna that frequents virtually every suburban backyard, mine included, this is not a surprising concern.

I share my suburban property with many wild creatures. I rather like that the bird feeder I keep filled through the winter attracts such a wide variety of songbirds, and have learned to tolerate the sparrows and grackles and other “unwanted” birds. The yard and garden attracts all kinds of four-legged critters through the seasons, from skunks to possums to raccoons and deer and more. They, too, and the owls and hawks and foxes and coyotes that prey upon them, have their place in my yard, and I have learned to live with them, grudgingly, for some.

And though voles, moles and field mice, as well as chipmunks and squirrels, are also in residence on my grounds, and mostly tolerated, I draw the line at rats. Fortunately, those rodents are seldom a problem with my pile, but if they were, I would not be a happy composter for long.

Which leads us to commitment. To be effective and sustainable, composting needs to become a habit, one that’s both personal and widespread, a cultural meme.

“Composting isn’t just for cooks — it’s for anyone who throws out leftovers, stale bread, or pizza…”

“It’s for everyone,” I read on Huffington Post, in “Why Compost?” by Aly Miller. And everyone recycles plastic and paper, so what’s stopping us from recycling food waste? Toss it in a bin, cover with some soil and newspaper, and let microorganisms go to work, turning food into fertilizer for your neighbor’s garden.

“Why go through all that effort? Now watch their jaws drop: food scraps are the number one material sent to landfills. In New York, it accounts for a third of all residential trash; more food is thrown out than paper or plastic.  All of that goes to landfills, and for us New Yorkers, that means Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina. It costs the city 336 million dollars each year, but if we could return our food to the soil, we could save 100 million dollars a year.

“Your food gets dumped in landfills, where it’s trapped by tons of garbage, which generate 20 percent of the nations’ emissions of greenhouse gases. Microorganisms break it down by anaerobic digestion, emitting methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 22 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In a biogas facility, food scraps can generate electricity, but when food sits in landfills, the only work it does is raise the global temperature.

’Ok, that makes sense,’ someone said, ‘but I’ll only ever compost if the city makes it super easy for someone like me.’

“That’s what people said, 20 years ago, about recycling paper and plastic. Now, it’s second nature.

“San Francisco is a case in point: despite its residents’ initial complaints, the city diverts 80 percent of all waste from landfills with their city-wide composting and recycling programs. It makes sense that the Big Apple, mecca of restaurant life, consumption, and now, rooftop farming, will follow suit.

“It’s anticipated that New York City’s rodent and cockroach populations will decrease with this composting system. Instead of bags of food waste sitting on the curbside, people would store them inside in airtight bins until collection day.

“Looking at it that way, the inside of your compost bin isn’t some gross pile of dead plants and soggy bread; it’s a simple solution which practical people should take pride in endorsing.”

Composting gives my suburban backyard, and me, by direct extension, a sense of practical purpose it otherwise would not have. My pile allows me to be productive, the product being something akin to new soil. There may not be anything truly “new’ under the sun, but my pile at least allows me to play the ancient role of alchemist, to tap into humankind’s deeply rooted quest to somehow turn inert, base elements into something new and precious.

Why not?

Looking across the lawn and gardens to my pile, a backyard fixture.

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