I think about compost all the time. From food scraps to humanure, we discard, bury, sterilize, and burn some of our most fertile resources. Decomposition of organic matter happens naturally, we just have to set simple public health boundaries for rats and transmissible diseases.
Growing up, my parents kept a couple of compost piles in the back yard and it was very normal for us to save food scraps in a plastic bin under the sink. I think the bin was actually a drawer from the freezer that we didn’t need for some reason. My interest in composting went to a new level during Thanksgiving break in the fall of 2008. I decided not to fly back to Texas and instead I visited my older brother at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, a community devoted “to caring for people and the Earth by learning and demonstrating a holistic, sustainable culture.” I had never been to such a place and I soaked it up. There was so much to see everywhere on the property. It felt like a place where every mundane aspect of life had been reimagined. Most important in the context I this post is that this was the first time I ever used a composting toilet. I will always remember my time at Earthaven as a formative, positive, eye-opening experience. Over the next couple of years I realized my role could be connecting with the culture and innovations at places like Earthaven and helping to translate them to the mainstream. In my mind, that involves making these practices beautiful and functional.
A year later, I started a composting program on my college campus. Digging up some of that pristine grass and installing the composting system at UR was one of my favorite days of college. It was my small attempt to make the place more interesting and feel connected to the soil.
It was a special project for me. I loved seeing friends carrying bags of compost from their apartments. Like many college programs, the compost system fell into disrepair and the boxes were removed a few years after I graduated.
My first year out of college, the brother who had lived at Earthaven moved in with me. He started a compost pile in the backyard and it was fun to get back into that routine. Of course, composting can sometimes be a little like a cast iron skillet: everyone has their own way to do it and sometimes they are hard to share. One time, I was doing something that my brother didn’t like and we got in one of the biggest fights of the year together. We’re passionate composters 🙂 My main issue was that I wanted composting to be a low-stress activity. Things break down. I don’t want to think too much about it. A few years later we moved into a different house and I felt the energy to get it going again. I bought a plastic tumbler, pictured below, because we had just a small garden in the front and patio out back. This is a picture of it in its current, discarded state.
This tumbler served me well for a couple of years. I like how easy it is to turn, how sturdy it is near the ground, and how it collects compost tea in the reservoir below. My main complaint is that it is difficult to get the compost out. It gets stuck in the corners, the opening is too small, and the compost can tend to get too wet even with the drain holes in the bottom. It was also not enough room for us. After it filled up I started supplementing with five-gallon buckets with holes drilled in the bottom and sides.
My current composting system is a little more ambitious. We have more outdoor space now so lots more room to experiment. A couple of months after moving in I noticed that one corner of the back yard had a steep slope. The soil had washed down the hill and left the area eroded and also created a gap under the sidewalk above. I had read about contour lines and thought that I could set up a fence sort of perpendicular to the slope to hold my leaves, collect rain water, slow erosion, and start to build up the soil. As a bonus, I had somewhere to put my leaves every year. At some point in the process I also learned about leaf mold (composted leaves) and it has been incredible to dig to the bottom of the pile and find loads of this soil amendment to spread around the garden.
During the summer of 2020 I planted a wildflower seed mix around the top edge of the leaf pile. I like the flowers and also wanted the roots to help with building up the soil. I also added two natural wood terraces on contour, the top for planting and the bottom for walking around and reaching everything.
Around that same time I made a connection: if I was piling all of my dry matter in one place, it made sense to do my kitchen scrap composting there as well. I started to prefer the five-gallon buckets to the store-bought tumbler and I moved them over to the leaf pile to try it out. Once the buckets filled up, I let them compost until I needed the room. For the next stage, I dug holes into the clay farther up the hill and put the compost there to finish. Whenever I have the motivation, I dig it out and save it or spread it around. The photo below is from the summer of 2020.
And this is from the most recent fall, 2021. This photo was taken after the first major raking effort in the back yard so the pile finally started to fill back up. I love the look of leaves.
At one point I spray painted the buckets a camo grey color to try and help them blend in. I think it helped, but the paint is also chipping which is not ideal and eventually I just dug the buckets into the ground so they could be more easily buried in the leaves.
I really do love having the leaves so accessible. Not having enough dry matter has always been an issue for my compost so this is a real significant win-win.
I also like that with the compost more connected with the soil there is room for volunteer plants to sprout. Here is a spaghetti squash that unfortunately did not survive, but added some nice greenery.
These tomatoes at the top of the hill are all volunteers from the compost. They were prolific, producing far more than the tomatoes I planted “on purpose.” I wrote about them already in a previous post.
Here is a more recent view of the leaf pile after raking all the leaves from the back yard, front yard, and street. It is more than it looks.
Here is the same pile after doing a little grape stomp to keep it from blowing away.
I’ve filled it this much at least once more since taking these last two photos and I think I have one last large batch to rake before my full leaf harvest is complete. It may look like just a leaf pile, but it is an entire universe of worms, millipedes, ants, fungus, and an occasional salamander. Birds love to pick through the leaves for food. Here is some compost I recently turned out to make room for the next batch.
Composting is definitely a lifestyle. It can be messy and it usually involves interacting with rotting material at some point in the process. It’s also just so much easier and quicker to throw everything away. Even though I like my system, food scraps can pile up quickly. This is an aesthetic and time-consuming aspect of composting that can sometimes be a turn-off.
At this point in the process, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve become the “difficult composter” I wanted to avoid. In making this system that works so well for me I have also made it difficult for other people to participate. I want to work on the user experience so that anyone could take out the compost bucket and know what to do. In the spring I also want to plant some native honeysuckle around the fencing. I personally don’t mind the appearance, but I’ve received some negative feedback. Like I said, I want people to leave with a positive impression of compost and I want composting to be beautiful as well as functional so I’m happy to make the change. If friends and family associate rotting food with the sweet smell of honeysuckle then I will feel like I have done my job.