COMPOST: A fine line between talking waste and talking shit

 At CG we naturally love compost, and most of our soil comes from our own three-section compost bin where we put both plants and kitchen waste. But one has to be sensible about what goes in, such as making sure that meat or cooked food doesn’t slip through, unless you want to attract every rodent in the neighbourhood. Rotting food and compost waste are not the same thing. Many a bag of kitchen waste donated to us has been spoilt by the the presence of meat, bread, pasta, etc. It is neither good for the compost, nor is it pleasant to pull out when we do find it in the compost.

When making compost, a good balance needs to be struck between soft and hard waste. If you only put in kitchen slop, you will end up with a big pile of yucky poo, to quote the technical term. If you just put in brown sticks, you will end up with a pile of wood, pure and simple. Neither is particularly useful or practical for the purposes of making compost. So balance is the key. Some smaller brown materials, such as dried plants, leaves and thin twigs can be added to thicken the mix, but what you don’t want is a whole load of brown sticks and branches being added, as these will simply sit there for months if not years and clog up the compost. You could always use them as firewood and then add the ashes to the compost, but just make sure that you only add in wood ash, and not coal ash which is not good for compost. Green wood from tree branches can be added to the compost, but you need to chop and snap it into smaller pieces first and bury it in the compost where the constant moisture and warmth will help break it down. If you just leave whole green branches on top of the compost, the green wood will simply dry out and then you’re stuck with the wood problem again.

On one occasion, while turning over the compost, I noticed that it stank to high heaven. This apparently is one such indicator that the compost waste is unbalanced – too much kitchen waste and not enough green and brown materials. I hence collected a load of weeds, grass and leaves, adding them into the mix. Also, having just pruned one of the trees in the garden, I added in the green branches, chopped up into tiny pieces. These materials helped absorb the excess moisture, and within 24 hours the smell was gone, even after turning the compost over again.

In the absence of urinals in the garden, we do on occasion have a little wee-wee on the compost heap, to use another technical term, as the nitrogen content of urine is beneficial to the compost (in moderation). But that’s where we stop. Someone did ask me once about the self-sufficiency benefits of using excrement for agriculture, citing that in feudal Japan, human waste was considered a highly prized form of fertilizer (due to them not having much livestock on their land, hence not much manure). The trouble with that theory is that while the inhabitants of ancient Japan ate a very healthy diet of vegetables and some fish, what we eat these days creates a form of waste that is not comparable. In any case, leaving feudal Japan aside, one generally ought to make a clear difference between manure and poo. Think of manure as a form of fertilizer that partly comes from the carefully selected or treated waste produced by certain animals, usually herbivores, such as cows. On the other hand, think of poo as a bacteria-ridden health hazard that comes out of most humans and household pets. You can use the former to grow vegetables; you can use the latter to inadvertently create a typhoid epidemic that could wipe out half of Northern Europe. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but an important one.

The use of kitchen waste, believe it or not, was a recent source of debate at Common Ground, as one of our members raised the issue that non-organic kitchen waste should not go into the compost bin. Their argument had some basis to it, saying that we should maintain the organic rule in every aspect of the garden, but I had my reservations. So we had a discussion about it in one of our recent committee meetings. My arguments against only having organic waste were as follows:

1) The rule had never been properly adhered to in the past, so much so that I wasn’t even aware of it until that other member mentioned it.

2) The rule is difficult to enforce, short of creating a squad of compost cops.

3) The presence of residual pesticide and fertilizer in non-organic kitchen waste is marginal, probably no greater than similar contamination through the air and tap water.

4) The earnest intentions of the rule have little to do with the reality of gardening in Central London. The production of good compost, essential to the garden, is slow enough without starting to restrict what kind of vegetables and fruits can go in.

5) The rule goes against the community spirit of the garden, I for one felt that turning people away for bringing the wrong kind of compost sent out the wrong message. (Honestly, how shitty would that be?).

I’m glad to say that other members present at the meeting agreed with me and we voted against making the compost heap organic-only. Democracy in action, ladies and gentlemen! This small incident does however raise a more serious issue about the difference between the garden’s vocal idealists and the doers. Without wanting to sound too harsh, in my time tending to the CG garden I have often had to listen to the opinions of people who tell me what I should be doing but who are not willing to come and do it themselves. This doesn’t just concern the garden, but all aspect of life; as an old colleague of mine used to say: it may sound good but it looks better. In this media and internet fuelled world, it seems that everyone has an opinion about everything and feels the need to share it with everyone else. Some refer to it as the democratization of society. I think of it more as the proliferation of hot air – everybody talking and nobody listening. While I can’t do much about the way the world is going, I can at least instill a simple rule in the garden: first show that you are willing to do, and then we can start discussing ideas.

If ideas, hollow talk and empty words were fertile, we would no longer need a compost heap.

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