Archive for the ‘Composting’ Category

Last week John sent me a photo (see below) from home. A virile green shoot had burst through the tiny portal in my once-Ikea, toy bin now homemade kitchen composter. When I got home and lifted the lid, I saw that it wasn’t alone. In addition to my family of fruit flies (which are thankfully dying down as the weather gets colder) I also had a seedling farm. I wondered what I could be growing? Cantaloupe? Acorn Squash? Baby apple tree? Green pepper? I have wanted to add peppers to my indoor windowsill garden. Currently the garden is bursting with tomatoes and basil and I think a spicy jalapeno plant might be a nice and doable addition.

The compost is pretty mature. As I dug around I thought about how some life is desperate to continue, while other seeds and peels happily rot and return to the earth. The compost felt clumpy like clay, with a few sharp eggshells cutting through. It’s true; I inadvertently killed a few little green sprouts, but managed to extract one or two in tact. I replanted them with the herbs in the living room. It wonder if they will take. And if they do, what will the become? I guess time will tell.

In the process of my seedling excavation, I discovered the above treasure –– an errant whole clove of garlic that had been tossed and was clearly thriving.  If I never mentioned it, I don’t just love garlic, I’m a little in love with it. If I don’t have it, I crave it. But I had never thought about growing it. Until my compost bin served me this little offering.

I carefully extracted the garlic from the rest of the stuff. I re-potted the small, gnarly and tentacled thing in my hanging basket that had once held baby lettuce. According to a botanist friend, garlic does not need that much room. But in case, the Internet is right and it needs more room, the pot is pretty deep. Of course, it will take 6 months or so for me to find out if it will work, since garlic has a long maturation period. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Because if I could grow garlic and tomatoes in my living room, I would really be a happy renter.


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The first foreign word I ever really learned was poubelle. I was 22 on a bus from Paris to Athens. It was the year after I had graduated from college and my college roommate and I met in France two days before Christmas. She was studying in Poitiers. I was about to start 6 months of backpacking across Europe.  It was before there were cell phones, and since we weren’t sure exactly when my plane would get in, we had a plan to meet in front of the Eiffel tower, every hour on the hour until we met up. Miraculously we found each other. We didn’t have a plan, just a map and desire to go somewhere sunny. We opened the map and found the most southern place a bus could take us. That’s how we ended up on a 2 day bus trip to Athens.

By the time I rode that bus, I had already taken years of high school Spanish. I had even had a few semesters of college French. So poubelle wasn’t the first bit of foreign language that had been put in my head. It was the first word I discovered on my own.

I learned poubelle from a little girl. She was maybe two and she was sitting in the front of the bus with her mother. I think we were somewhere in Italy when I remember hearing her chirp the word, which despite it’s meaning, was melodious and lovely. She repeated the word over and over in her tiny baby voice, which only made it more charming waving the wrapper from a piece of gum in the air. Finally, her mother brought the trash can over and she deposited it with delight. That’s when it clicked in my head. Poubelle means garbage. And making that connection – learning that word – changed how I understood and come to use language in a fundamental way. It was, as they say in the dusty halls of academia, a seminal moment.

Twenty years later, its slightly ironic that garbage has become a pivotal point in my day-to-day life. I think about the world in terms of the garbage I am making. Garbage no longer has a fixed meaning. And some things that used to be garbage are now something else. (I’ll go into details in the next few posts)

When I first started to think about eating sustainably, I watched the documentary No Impact Man and I kept every bit of garbage I couldn’t recycle or compost. Even though I was being so mindful about what I consumed, the amount of refuse I created was overwhelming.  That image of the pile of plastic and Styrofoam, I couldn’t recycle has stuck with me. So for me, limiting the amount of garbage I create ( and goes into the landfill) seems a very tangible and visible way to reduce my impact on the world.

Now, although I do throw some things out, I am very careful. And in my household I have some guidelines I’ve developed to help minimize the amount of trash that gets put in the landfill. Over the next few days (or weeks) I’m going to outline what I do. But here’s my quick top five list.

  1. Think about whether it will make garbage before you buy it.
  2. Don’t assume it should go in the garbage.(This means batteries and electronics but also the amazing things I have come to reuse)
  3. Don’t buy stuff that comes packages.(I’m not always good at this, but I do.)
  4. Compost food scraps
  5. Don’t take the plastic bags. (That means in the grocery store, at lunch, for the bag of apples –wherever they try to pawn those suckers off on you!)

Note: This is part of the That’s How We Do It: 2011 series of blogs which give a top line overview of the “sustainable basics” or measures I am taking to live sustainably in NYC.

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Despite my former pesky problems,  my worm bin is doing great. Today, I lifted up the top strata and found a rich, beautiful layer of compost dotted with egg shells (which seem to be the last to decompose) and thick with fat happy, wriggly worms. Finally, my battle with the fruit flies seems to be at a truce. But, I have happy news for anyone in the neighborhood (or TriBeCa or the Village) who wants to compost but isn’t into worms.

Starting next weekend, March 5th to be exact, the Greenmarkets in Inwood, Greenwich Village and TriBeCa will join Union Square Greenmarket and begin to collect compostable kitchen scraps.  During this temporary pilot program Greenmarket groupies in these neighborhoods will be able to drop off fruit and vegetable scraps to be hauled away to  to facility to become compost.

This is good news for anyone in these neighborhood who wants to compost but isn’t quite ready to be roomies with rollie pollies or worms. (Come on — they never hog the shower!)

In case you don’t know, according to the GrowNY food comprises about 17% of NYC’s waste stream. Food when it’s composted turns back into nutrients that can enrich soil, but when it’s sent a landfill it costs the city money to dispose  and can create greenhouse gas emissions.  It’s a literal waste.

I’ve blogged about the impact of composting before, but I want to remind myself and everyone that this is an easy way to make a difference  and for those of us who live near these Saturday Greenmarkets, it just got easier.

What can you compost: (from GrowNY)

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Non-greasy food scraps or leftovers (rice, pasta, bread, cereal, etc.)
  • Coffee grounds & filters, tea bags
  • Hair and nails (animal or human), egg and nut shells
  • Cut or dried flowers, houseplants and potting soil

Meat, chicken, fish, greasy food scraps, fat, oil, dairy, dog or cat feces, kitty litter, coal or charcoal, coconuts, diseased and/or insect-infested houseplants or soil are all no-nos.

If holding on to scraps until Saturday sounds messy, here’s the trick —  you throw it all in a bag in the freezer or the fridge and it minimizes the ick factor.

The pilot will only run until June 30, 2011.  If it’s a success, it will become permanent and other markets will adopt the program. I want to find out what success means. I’ll call around on Monday and see if I can find out. I also believe that fresh compost from this program will be available for purchase in these markets — but again, I need to confirm whether or not this is true.

Here’s a list of the Greenmarkets who will be participating in the program:

  • The Inwood Greenmarkets on Isham Street
  • The Abingdon Square Greenmarket on Hudson and Eight Avenue, between West 12th & Bethune streets
  • The TriBeCa Greenmarket on Greenwich Street, between Chambers and Duane streets

Note: According to GrowNY you can also drop off compost at these Greenmarkets:

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My new compost seems to be doing much better. The worms are wiggling, fat and happy. And with the help of  a layer damp newspaper on the top, we have licked our  fruit fly problem. Tomorrow I will get more boxes from my father’s house and make that home-made worm box so that I can give the 2nd and 3rd grade class their rolly pollies and worms back.

In the meantime, I’m excited about the payback from my composting travails. As you see above, I am the proud farmer of a real live radish. In fact, my windowsill garden is doing great. With the exception of my thyme, my other herbs are thriving. The Swiss Chard my sister gave me last spring is growing healthy and strong. As the summer heat grew more chilly, the Swiss Chard really perked up. And even inside, it’s doing great. In early September, I planted a circle of radishes around the chard. And last week, I saw a red and white top starting to poke out. This weekend I hope to have my first harvest.

I read that with radishes you can stagger the plantings. So when I emptied the fruit-fly infested compost bin, I used my pot of compost to plant lettuce and more radishes. The seedlings are definitely sprouting and I’m very proud.

Is growing food in your living room urban farming? I’m not sure. I want to look into growing tomotos. But beyond that, I’m not sure how much more I’ll do. So for the moment,  fresh eggs or no fresh eggs, we are not getting a pet chicken.

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According to the SunChips website, the EPA states that 26% of the municipal waste stream going to landfills is organic material that could have been composted. But I’m not sure I really believe SunChips, because for one thing they took  most of the “compostable bags” off the market for being loud. And despite the Sun Chips claim that those “compostable bags” would break down in 12 weeks, my own test SunChips bag didn’t. I realized this last Saturday when cleaned out my worm condo.

For two weeks I piled mounds of  shredded newspaper onto my gorgeous, stinky compost. But the fruit fly epidemic in my kitchen didn’t go away. When I opened the box, and turned the compost, the soil was teaming with tiny wiggly larvae. On top of the flies, I was also discovering some sort of silver fish with long wiggly bodies and pinchers at the top crawling along the floorboards and up the walls. Ok, they may have been smaller than a bit of yarn. But still, it was one too many creepy crawly things in the kitchen.

So I had to take drastic measures.

First, I emptied all the compost. When I was done, I had a huge flower-pot full or rich soil. I planted some lettuces and radish seeds, covered the pot with plastic wrap and put it on the fire escape. I hoped the cold would kill the fruit flies without killing the seedlings. It seems to have worked.

Then on Saturday morning, I dumped the not-quite-finished but infested compost into a garbage bag, painstakingly pulling out all the worms and rolly polly’s I could find. I’m happy to report that many of the worms were fat and happy.  I made them a temporary bed in a Chinese food container with holes cut in the top, and gave the worm bin a hot shower bath and then left it outside overnight. Again, I hoped that whatever potential infestation the hot water didn’t cure, the cold air might. (I don’t think fruit flies like the cold).

As I was I was sorting out worms, I wondered what would Michael Pollan  would say about it all. In The Botany of Desire, he  makes a compelling argument that things in the natural world are using us an evolutionary stepping stone. Well, I say, if the worms have learned to use me as an evolutionary tool to thrive and conquer the world, I hope they chow down a lot of garbage in the process

The whole worm relocation process took over two hours. I basically I gave up most of a Saturday morning  and it really tested my resolve. The regular kitchen garbage can was sitting there, eager to help me out. It would have been so easy to just send the flies to the landfill. But I didn’t. Instead I hauled the bag of compost to my dad’s house in the suburbs.

My dad is in the process of moving out of the house that I grew up in. I’ve been having a lot of issues around the garbage that cleaning out a house filled with 50 plus years of flotsam and jetsam creates. His inclination is to toss a lot into the regular trash. I have been trying to collect fabric and sort out stuff that can be recycled. (Anyone know where to recycle old trophies in NYC?)

His real estate agent seems to think that new is better — more valuable. So they’ve taken out a lot of “old” hardware, lighting fixtures, and replaced it with shiny, new, ugly stuff.  Even the plantings in the yard are being “made new.” Hence an over  fifty year old Rhododendron may be dug up because it’s blocking light in the living room. Whatever happened to mature plantings being a selling point? My father also said he plans to have the compost pile removed. I think his exact words were:  “My agent said nobody wants a pile of shit in the backyard.”

Ironically, he told me that last bit of news after I had just dumped the compost into the big pile in the back. I’m sure I looked horrified.

We always composted garden scraps when I was a kid. I had such visceral memory of the four by four wooden frames with a thick screen stapled that my father made and used to sift out soil that my mother added to her begonias and tomato plants. We also  had a wormy apple tree in the backyard and an Italian plum tree that usually did better and produced about an apron full of sweet egg-shaped fruit. Both trees are both, but I remember the experience of growing and eating food from the backyard. How much has that affected me and all the crazy stuff I’m attempting to do in my NYC apartment?

True, composting is not exactly easy. But it’s not the hardest thing in the world. And the truth is, the only sure fire way to make your organic garbage disappear is to compost it. It’s not new but it’s pretty valuable.  My father promised me that his lawn people will be compost our big pile of shit from the backyard and not throw it in the trash.  And unlike SunChips, I do believe him.

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