Friday, April 20, 2012

Post #6 Keeping your soil healthy and our landfills smaller

When I started work with the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy in March I knew that a big part of my Spring workload was to get our backyard garden off the ground.  Upon arrival I asked myself, 'what does this garden need?'  We needed to remove a lot of rocks, install deer-proof fencing and a watering system, we needed to buy seeds, obtain a soil test,  procure some type of fertilizer, and develop a planting plan.  So, where did I start?  What did I do first?  That first week- when the March days were still a bit chilly and the nights a bit frosty- I started making compost.  I knew that making compost was going to take a relatively long time (compared to buying seeds) and was one of the most important aspects of a long-term sustainable garden.  Why?  Its simple- the productivity of your garden (much like the productivity of a forest) relies on the proper condition of its soil.  By composting onsite at the Armstrong House Education Center we will always have home made humus to add to our garden's soil.

Lets back up.  What is compost?  Compost is a stable organic medium that holds water and nutrients, provides a lofty structure, buffers pH, prevents leaching of minerals and is generally a wonderful addition to your soil.  You could read on and on and on about what compost is and why it is awesome.

How do you make compost?  Imagine you just mowed your lawn and you throw all the clippings in the corner of your property.  Over time, worms, bugs, fungus and bacteria literally eat the leaves and break them down into smaller pieces.  In the end, all thats left is a big pile of usable carbon, nitrogen, calcium and other minerals.  Composting is the exact same thing with only one major difference- compost is usually managed (read: sped up) to yield a usable human product.  I lifted the following quote off of a compost website:      
"Compost" is a matter of location and planning. Anything living starts decomposing when it dies. You call it compost when you put it in a pile and WATCH it decompose. "

A handful of beautiful compost

My backyard compost system is like most other peoples.  I compost food scraps: lemon peels, egg shells, apple cores, squash guts, pineapple tops, broccoli ends, coffee grounds and all the rest of the organic matter that comes out of my kitchen as 'waste'.  These items are then mixed with things like sawdust, woodchips, leaves, dirt, straw and grass clippings.  Mix together, aerate, water, give it some time and Voila! COMPOST!

 Compost systems (don't let the word 'system' scare- we are still just decomposing organic matter) come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are made to be stored inside your kitchen. Some systems are set up to take meat, bones, fat, and oils.  Some take advantage of worms. At a compost workshop in Vermont I met one guy-a dairy farmer- who was composting whole dead cows and another guy- a slaughterhouse-owner- who was composting 'waste' blood.  Almost anything organic can be composted!  In retrospect, I never would have imagined all those workshop attendees- crunchy granola types, professional cow killers, professional cow milkers, recycling gurus, and me (an admitted soil chemistry geek) to be in the same place at the same time.  There is something about compost that brings people together.

A poster for a compost program in New York City.  

So what is appealing about compost?  Why are people across the country beginning to compost in whatever way, shape and form they can.  Why is the City of Portland, Oregon spending public money on a city-wide composting initiative?  How can it be that American companies that make industrial sized, super efficient composting apparatuses are selling their products (to the tune of $25,000+) to Universities, high schools and corporations?  Simple answer: composting makes sense.

Here is the undisputed alternative to composting our organic food 'waste'.  Throw your food in the garbage at home.  Garbage bag fills up- put it on the curb.  Machine picks it up and brings it to a landfill.  Why are our landfills filled with food?  Do we care about seagull populations so much that we really want to feed them?  If you own a business, you pay to haul your garbage, which means you pay to haul food.  If you own a kitchen and you buy plastic garbage bags, you are paying money to haul something that doesn't need to be hauled in a bag.  If your local curbside garbage service is paid for by tax money, your tax money is paying for hauling something that should never leave your property.

Living Lighter on the Land is all about seeing things in new ways.  When I see food scraps and leaves, I don't see dirt and waste, I see vitamins, minerals, nutrients and energy.  Those things don't belong in the landfill, they below at home in your garden.  Looking at your plate after dinner, what do you see?
Living Lighter on the Land is also about honoring our biological and ecological nature.  Food isn't 'garbage' or 'waste'- it is (or was) a living organism.  That organism breathed, grew, metabolized, and developed before it got to your plate and it deserves a respectful and appropriate burial.            

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