Urban Farming, Chapter 11: Compost Happens



My compost pile smells like shit. And not in a good way. I'm told I've been overdosing on nitrogen and not adding enough carbon. That makes sense, since I started with a pile of grass clippings, with relatively no dead fodder such as leaves or straw. After all the rain of the past few weeks, the clippings compacted into a slimy blanket of what looks like wet green felt when I dig it up with my pitchfork. (Did I mention I got a pitchfork for Mother's Day? So hot.)

After building my pile primarily with yard waste--grass clippings, weeds, etc.--I finally took the compost plunge by throwing in non-protein kitchen scraps such as fruit peelings, egg shells and tea leaves. When my pitchfork jabs into a cantaloupe rind or corn husk, I feel sort of bad-ass, as if I've shattered some barrier that existed between my yard and me. This makes me realize just how warped my relationship with my quarter-acre of urban nature actually is. (If the idea of food touching the ground makes me shudder, then clearly I don't have healthy expectations of my food actually coming from the ground.)

Having turned the pile and mixed some air into all that sogginess, I feel like things are composting a little better now. The acrid smell is abating, and I see lots of happy worms. (How do I know they are happy? Well, they're not sun-baked on the asphalt, so they should be pretty psyched.)

My new obsession with my compost pile comes as I realize just how shitty my soil is--here again, I don't mean that in a good way. Far from the fluffy-crumbly curds of moist organic matter that I would wish for my fledgling garden, my dirt has achieved the texture of over-baked cornbread, crackled across the top in a way that looks good in decorative painting but bad on arable land. The fact that little strings of frisée and arugula have pierced the surface is nothing short of miraculous. I owe my plants better, and I'm counting on my homemade compost to make the difference next year.

Metro provides some very helpful resources for would-be composters, including a pamphlet, demonstrations, classes, thermometers for checking the heat of your pile, buckets for collecting kitchen scraps and Earth Machine compost bins, which are currently back-ordered. As for me, I'm sticking with the simple gadget-free pile method, which seems the easiest and gives me a great opportunity to use my pitchfork. But I'd love to hear how other people are making compost happen.

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