Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Simply stated, compost is black gold.

Am I talking about oil?—“Black Gold?”

No, I’m not talking about oil; oil is absolutely nothing compared to compost. If the world went ‘Bang!’ tomorrow, and we were back to a stone and a spear, oil wouldn’t mean a thing. It would just be that same old black gooey stuff my dear immigrant Grandfather used to dig up in his back yard every time he went to move
his outhouse. He called it (God forgive me!) “that-a goddy-d*mmy oil-y!” His swear, not mine—I don’t talk like that, and neither does he, any more, God bless him. He’s been dead about seventy-four years.

According to family legend, his nephew saved him the “oil aggravation” by buying the land nearby, drilling under my Grandfather’s land, and suctioning away every last drop of the oil, thereby relieving my Grandfather of the problem.

Oh, well; it was just oil.

But compost, now, compost is what your veggie plants eat to grow. It’s what earthworms give their lives making, singing all alone there in the dark. Yes, singing. When you see a Robin cock his head to listen, when hunting on a lawn, does he hear the earthworm’s music, eat it along with the ‘singer’, and then sing it back again to us? I wonder.

Strictly speaking, though, a scientific study done recently absolutely confirmed that earthworms actually sing, using their little setae, which are kind of like bristles all along their bodies. Of course, we don’t do it that way, but hey, to each his own, right?

Well, why not? Crickets rub their ankles together to make music, and we don’t do that either. I had a first (and last) date with a guy in high school once, who tried that in our living room, but before he could even get one note going, he was flying though the air out onto our front lawn, and my sainted father was gently reminding him to “Give our regards to your parents, son!—and don’t you ever let me see your ugly face around here again!”

So much for home-made cricket music.

Back to the compost:

Compost is pretty much made up of two sorts of components: green stuff and brown stuff. Let’s clear the air quickly: “brown stuff” doesn’t mean manure; “manure” means manure.

“Brown stuff” means dead leaves, dry grass, torn bits of black-and-white newspaper and such. “Green stuff” is green grass clippings, kitchen waste (except meats, dairy, grease and unfortunately, onions, which repel earthworms, who are your best friends in the world after your parents, your priest/minister/rabbi, and your spouse.) Earthworms eat bits of green stuff, brown stuff and manure, pass this through their skinny little selves, and expel for our benefit the richest manure in the world, known as “earthworm castings.” Earthworm castings are what your veggies write at the top of their Santa Claus list.

And it’s all made up of brown stuff, green stuff and manure. The smaller you can cut these elements, the quicker they will become rich, dark brown, velvety new earth. Now, you may have some questions about adding manure to the mix. You can use horse, cow, chicken, lion, elephant (I kid you not; some people beg it from zoos, and it’s not a bad idea!) camel, just about anything except human and pet manure (dog, cat-, rat-, mouse-, snake-, or gerbil--manure, too.) Goldfish water from the bowl or aquarium is fine.

Even compost has its limits.

You can add well-rotted, listen to that again, WELL-ROTTED manure to your compost bin, but not fresh manure. Fresh manure has too much ammonia in it and unless it’s had months to rot down and mellow, will burn your plants the way acid will burn flesh. Not a pretty analogy, but I want you to understand the magnitude of the problem. Why grow all these lovely veggies and flowers, and then scorch them to death because you didn’t rot the manure down? Be wise and used well-rotted manure to begin with. You can use all of that you can collect.

You can, however, add fresh manure to your compost bin, only if you are willing to let it “cook down” before you try using it. It helps the pile rot faster, but it, in itself, takes a good long while before it becomes usable.

People in big cities, where they have Police Stables, are in luck; they can get horse manure, happily mixed with bedding straw, usually for nothing. If they send their kids with big double-bagged trash bags, the kids get to know the police, the police get to know the kids, and they will often help out when they can, especially with community gardens (and especially if you share a bit of produce with them—they’re only human, you know, and they like veggies as much as we do) and all is well.

Most of us have to make do with dead leaves, kitchen waste (see list*), and torn-up black-and-white newspapers. Nix on the colors; they’re poison Mix this in a ¾ brown waste--¼ green waste ratio, either in a 4’X4’ bin made of chicken wire connected to old 2X4s at the corners, a compost tumbler, or any 4’ X 4’ X 4’ container that lets air and water in, and will allow you to turn the manure every few days to a week.

Every time the container gets full, move it off to one side and shovel the contents back into it.

Sounds stupid.


This aerates the contents and helps them heat up. The best compost is that which has heated to 160*F inside, has stayed that way for a bit and has ‘cooked’ well. This gives rise to all kinds of beneficial bacteria that make your soil an absolute feast for your plants. When it is finished, it will smell like God’s Breath on a good day. Like fresh-turned earth in the Spring. It’s wonderful!

In cities, many people choose to buy a compost tumbler, and for what it does, it’s worth the price—if you have one. You can get compost from some of them in as little as two weeks. Check out my recommendations on this blog re: compost tumblers and other useful garden and kitchen gadgets. You’ll be glad you did.

When your compost has cooled and smells the way I’ve described it, fill your planting containers with it and put in your seed. Save the rest to invigorate your planting beds. Your little plants should just jump into action. And nothing makes a bitter, snowy day so fresh and hopeful as a container full of new green plants “Spring--ing” into life!

*Usable waste:

Outer lettuce/cabbage leaves Bell and other pepper membranes and stems
Eggplant, squash, broccoli and other veggie peelings, and carrot tops and scrapings/peelings Coffee grounds/tea leaves/opened tea bags
Shrimp/lobster shells (well-crushed)
Any potato peelings you don’t bake (Yum!—Potato skins!)
The coarse outer beet tops (use the tender small ones for cooked greens)
that soggy green stuff in the fridge that used to be something good,
but you can’t remember what
paper napkins, like black-and-white newspaper, will also decompose well

Unusable waste:

Onion/onion skins
meat (any)/meat drippings
cheese, regular or cottage/ricotta/feta, etc.
eggs, raw or cooked
clam/mussel shells
citrus/citrus peels (depends on the state you live in)
grits, cooked
office paper--takes much longer to decompose
colored papers or slick-surface papers

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1 comment:

  1. Just found this after your LinkedIn invitation. I've been composting for the past 3 years since we moved to a place with a big yard, partly wooded. We just pile the dead leaves and freshly cut grass into a big pile out of the way and shovel in the veggie remainders as we have them. I didn't know not to put onion in there! Good thing we hardly use it. Oops. I have two piles, actually: one we're adding to and the other I'm using to add to my garden. Love it!

    Oh, I used to be an avid Star Trek viewer. ;-) Nice to meet you!