Backyard Tributary

Take a deep breath.

And another.

Now imagine this united moment: home kitchens, cafés, bistros, all-you-can-eat buffets, school cafeterias, churches, mosques, temples, food trucks, convention centers, the white house, hospitals, fast food restaurants, and food courts at the mall gather all of the leftover food…and dump it.

Flump, crsshh, trasshh!

The headwaters of Food River. Every person in the United States contributes to this monumental feature of our landscape, but not many do what we are about to do next: follow it.

The first droplets quickly become rivulets that condense into larger white and black plastic bags temporarily held in cans in kitchens and behind buildings. As the food eddies begin to swirl, rise, and gain momentum, the surface tension increases, threatening, and occasionally succeeding, to spill over its banks. To avoid a food flood, the swelling leftovers are gathered and dumped into garbage truck basins. Their motors rumble, mechanical arms lift, dump, compact and intensify the food flow.

Now imagine these fleets of garbage trucks passing by your house, 300 every hour, on their way to the transfer station, like they do in the south Bronx. Imagine the sound. The smell. In a matter of days, Food River swiftly roils into mighty rapids, rushing down a cascading ladder of larger and larger containers until it crashes against its final destination, a massive, rotting food wave mixed with other trash, engulfed forever by a landfill where it will finally lay still, stagnant, and belch 15% of the nation’s annual methane emissions into the air.

Unlike other rivers, Food River is under no threat of running dry. It courses through restaurants, houses, and neighborhoods, carrying 38 million tons of food waste to landfills every year. If we convert those 38 million tons into gallons, it would replace all of the water going over Niagara Falls for an entire month. We could survive a trip over the massive food-fall in a dumpster.

Pause your imagination for just a couple more Food River facts. It carries enough uneaten food to feed 190 million people—every day. And even though it consists primarily of food, that food carries water. Twenty-five percent of the freshwater in the United States is used to grow food that never gets eaten.

Ugh, numbers! They tell one kind of story, they quantify ‘how much,’ they get baked into pies and charts, but they do not scrape food into a compost bucket instead of a garbage can. Statistics do not build worm bins. Numbers do not dig a hole in the compost pile, dump leftovers in, and cover it up again. Numbers weigh on us, numb us, are quickly forgotten, like food waste.

But the more we throw away, the less chance we have to begin again. Food River’s current course forfeits the potential life locked up in all that organic matter. A massive amount of useful nutrients that can transform the future of food and soil and bugs and butterflies and humans.

So let’s begin with the end, with what is left, and break down into our elemental parts, our elemental selves, into the dirt and the dust, down and down until our cheeks touch the soil and our noses smell the earth and we can no longer bear to waste it. So far to the end that it becomes the beginning. Soil is food, food is soil. Let’s jumpstart into numberless, new cycles.

The water cycle: evaporation, condensation, precipitation, sublimation.

The soil cycle: food waste collection, decomposition, application, invigoration.

Compost piles are the clouds of the soil cycle.

Leftovers, one of the country’s greatest wastes, is ripe to be one of our greatest natural resources. There is an inexplicable beauty and harmony here. A beautiful equation that simply needs balancing. We need to take these leftovers and deposit them not into the landfill, but back into the soil. We need compost. And to do that, we have to divert the great Food River into our own backyards.

Take a deep breath.

And another.

Imagine this:

Dinner: made, served, shared, savored, coaxed into a few picky eaters’ mouths, cleared and stacked into plate cairns on the counter. The last thing anyone wants to do now is add more chores. It is done. Scraped. Rinsed. Let the garbage truck take it away and out of reach and sight and smell. Take it away. Take it away and never think of that last bite of bagel with cream cheese, the pickle juice in the empty jar, the crunchy rice or coconut curry beginning to split. Especially not the mildewed dinner roll or long forgotten yogurt with flecks of gray-green mold from the depths of the fridge. These are the leftovers that cannot be fluffed into something new. Leftovers destined for a plastic lined and lidded future. For the great and ever flowing Food River.

Not this time.

This time, dump them, place them, scrape them, scoop them all into a compost bin kept under your sink (or in my case, often on the counter) with glee, curiosity, thankfulness, and maybe a little bit of rebellious flair. Those smelly leftovers have a future now, a mysteriously quiet and captivating journey to new life in your yard or garage or, dare I say it, custom made coffee table that doubles as a worm bin.

Yes! Your leftovers have potential, a purpose, somewhere left to go, something left to do, and it has the power to transform the earth and us at the same time.

This blog explores many ways to divert food’s fluvial course from the headwaters of your plate to the rich compost delta in your backyard.

Let’s make clouds of compost.

Tuesday Afternoon

My corner eye thought they were birds,

but leaves, just detached from limb,

flickered and flipped a brief migration,

landed at wind’s discretion.

Soon dappled light will be replaced

by straight shadows clacking in birches,

those be-jangled enthusiasts of fall

and its golden, breezy air.

Then they were leaves,

but no, peep-piping birds fluttered,

re-leafing trees, dropping tenderly

onto bare branches, nestling softly

into needled pines.

Sun is softer now, air sharp,

a languid, restless token.

My paddle board caught the wind, too,

a leaf on the water,

detached from shore,

rippling down the cold lake.

I turned to go back.

What leaf would ever do that?

Is that a cat?

It sits on our deck, huge and dare I say looming, eyeing our two actual cats through the sliding glass door, its little paws resting contentedly on its light brown belly, perfectly balanced on its back legs and long, gloriously flowing tail, waiting very insistently for something….for food.

It is the biggest squirrel I have ever seen.

It is not at all like the ground squirrels, or gray diggers as we call them, ubiquitous in Eastern Washington. Those squirrels do not live in trees, but in rocky outcrops and underground tunnels dug entirely too close to the septic tank’s main line. My Mom once hired a high schooler to eradicate said gray digger from our garden by “local means.”

Oh yes, he came, with his hunting license, his hunter’s orange, his rifle, and a lawn chair, sat quiet as a cat for at least two hours on our deck, his back to the house, watching the stone garden wall where the gray diggers were known to idle on warm rocks after stuffing their bellies with strawberries, and when the gun went off, “BAM!!” it scared us all ****less. Mom paid him. He packed up.

The next day, two more gray diggers sprouted from that same rock.

No, this “cat” is the eastern fox squirrel—brash, bold, beautiful, and as big as a cat. It’s as if an artist took a brush and blended the deepest shades of brown, tan, and rusted orange into one. Sometimes they drape themselves over our deck railing and sleep, waiting for someone to paint them. I’ve recently learned there is a name for this. It’s called “splooting.”

There are other squirrels in Michigan. Red and eastern gray squirrels (which include the black ones, somehow), and Michigan’s northern and southern flying squirrels (though I have never seen one) flitting in the treetops of our backyard and flirting with my newly bloomed tulips. I fire-walled those bulbs in the fall with black netting hidden under fallen leaves, fed them with bone meal and brought them through the last frosts of spring with burlap blankets, only to discover their superb, rich, red blooms decapitated one morning by hungry squirrels.

There are plenty of “local means” in Michigan that I could call.

A Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist had this to say in January, “It is not like anything you can get in the store, and it just has a very unique, light taste but kind of a nutty flavor in it.” (Detroit Free Press)

One day, longing for freedom from mothering and hoping to fill that hollow spot that needed my mother nature, I went to a patch of woods near our house. A rhythmic gnawing snatched my ear, and in the crook of a maple branch sat a fox squirrel. She held a pine cone in her clever, furry fingers, and chewed the seeds and spit the chaff out the side of her mouth, which was turned up in a kind of sideways crescent. Eye level with me, happy to let me watch the bright brown fur that outlined her eyes, the perfectly shaped tail that exactly mirrored the curve of her back, her thin lips, moving so nimbly and fast that the pine cone came apart in a blur of precision, leaving shreds behind like leaves on the trail until just a cone-cob remained.

She chattered at me, loudly. I had watched long enough.

Watching squirrels, the Iroquois story goes, taught people how to tap trees. Robin Kimmerer, a mother, plant ecologist and writer, tells the story in her book, “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Squirrels were hungry, and so were people. It was the hungry time—the end of winter and the beginning of spring—so squirrels gnawed at tree branches with their spile-like teeth and licked the sap that seeped out while it flowed up the outer and inner bark from the tree’s underground “root” cellar. Last year’s sunshine for this year’s life.

The squirrel-tapped sap froze on the surface and then—sublimation. It was so cold that water in the sap transformed directly into a gas, leaving a bead of sweeter sap the squirrels returned to for food.

Kimmerer describes how Native Americans around the Great Lakes used long, hollowed out logs to sublimate sap on a large scale. They poured sap into the shallow channel so it would freeze. Then, they would chip out water that was now ice, distilling sap with cold instead of heat to save precious fuel.


This is the second year that we have tapped a tree in our backyard. Can’t get much more Michigan than the simple fact that we even thought about doing it. And a Silver Maple, no less, not even a sugar one.

As the smoke from our fire curled into our neighbor’s backyard, he did not miss a beat. “Boiling sap?” It does smell delicious. Our arch was rudimentary. The sap, smoky. Ten gallons of sap, 5 hours of solid burning, and 1 pint of syrup. We were as excited as kids when we poured it on pancakes and used it in cocktails. We live in a city of 50,000 people, and our neighborhood is full of maple trees and squirrels.

An urban sugar bush.

Everything is flowing, the tree sap, the blood in my heart, the Red Cedar River, the stories about people and squirrels who lived here for thousands of years before we did, and my gradual understanding of where my family lives, eats, and watches squirrels.

Nothing is still.

Especially not the over-sized squirrel sitting on my deck that destroyed my tulips and taught people how to tap trees.

The Marvelous Buffer of Time…

I notice, has worked to absorb and redistribute the last two years of pandemic shock waves.

​Ebb and flow

In the fall of 2021, we dropped our girls off at their first day of school after a harried summer, but I swear I had just picked them up from their last day of school, which was a hair’s breadth away from their first day back at school after nearly a year of virtual school. The student’s excited voices and first-day-of-school smiles muffled by masks.

Low tide of loss

It feels like so much time has passed since my Dad passed, but it is the same two years layered on top of the girls’ interrupted school routine. Three summers, two winters, already, without him. The grief no longer crashes down on me. I pick up memories of Dad as I walk through a day like we used to pick up the sand dollars he loved on the Oregon and Washington coasts. Sand dollars are slime-fuzzy purple when alive, white as bone when they are not. They are easier to find than petoskey stones, but no less wonderful.

Wave swells

The cats aged, and the kids, and the chicken. I thought she was going to lay her last egg, so to speak, but she must have heard me say that out loud ’cause she perked (pecked?) back up and is still going strong. The garden has another two years of wild iterations. At the end of August, tall and stemmy, reaching out to bumble bees, smelling of anise hyssop. Now in 2022, two new apple trees cushoined in snow.

Soothing lake waves

The pandemic left our calendar hatch wide open, inviting friends from Ohio back into our lives. We met at Shavehead Lake. The startling name fails to keep ethereal swans away, or the people at the campground who brought our meals to the cabin each day and stocked our fire pits with gasoline-soaked wood chips. Kids tangled arms and blankets. We jumped into Shavehead Lake in late summer (warm), fall (still warm), and early spring (shockingly cold). 

Then camping in Wilderness Park in June. Drive north until you get to the bridge, but just before crossing it, turn left like a troll and end up at Stone Bay. I took naps on the beach, grasses rustling, with beach spiders of every shape and size scuttling across endless games of tic-tac-toe in the sand.

And later that year, many trips to Lake Lansing, more to Lake Michigan, Grand Traverse Bay…as the pandemic waves came and receded, Michigan’s water bodies soothed the blows, provided days where I didn’t think about a virus or a mask because

I was on the water,

buffered by waves and time,

and by this last marvelous thing.

There were moments, days, I got angry with people who, during a pandemic in which hundreds of thousands have died, did not wear a mask in the simplest of public situations: a rest stop along Hwy 127, going north for solo camping on Drummond Island. I cursed at them under my mask. Glared holes into their maskless faces. Blamed them for the never ending worry of sending my kids to school without a vaccine, for stressing health care workers to the breaking point, for not considering the larger picture, the human landscape.

I fumed all the way to Detour where a ferry would take me across St. Marys River to an island, an island away from people. I got out of the car, stretched, tried to shake off my anger. Checked the ferry fare on a large board at the dock, decided not to buy food from a small food truck parked nearby, and was flooded with memories of all those ferries I took to Lopez Island, Washington, so many ferry lines like this and so many mis-remembered ferry schedules. I said goodbye to a boyfriend from Seattle that I had just broken up with on his way to miss the only ferry off of the island that day…A long night. A long time before this pandemic.

Detour Ferry

“Have you been on a ferry before?” he startled me from his Dodge pickup. Carharts, no mask, the kind of person I was recently furious with but also genuinely devastated by. My grief for people dying each day of Covid I absolutely laid at the feet of people who drove a pickup and wore boots like those.

“Um, yes, but not this one.” 

“$20 round trip, and you can pay on the ferry.”

“Thanks. Do you live on the island or…?” Being nice on the outside, gritting teeth under my mask.

“Yes ma’am. I commute from Drummond almost every day for work.”

“That’s a nice commute though. I’ve never been on the island, but I’m thinking of camping there tonight and tomorrow. Do you recommend any good camping sites?”

“If it were me, I’d just drive into the woods and find a spot, but Yacht Haven marina has showers and a nice lawn you can pitch your tent on by the water.”

A little wary, I decided to stick to my original plan, the township campground on the northwest shore.

“Okay, I’ll check it out. Thanks.”

The ferry chugged in from its short jaunt across the river. It unloaded cars and trucks and even a semitruck carrying enormous tree trunks. The last ferry I’d been on was with my Dad–the last time I was with him before we knew about his pancreatic cancer. Then came the familiar routine: car doors shut, engines ignite, the line slowly pulls forward, this car left, this truck right, me straight behind a pickup towing a fishing boat. Engines off. Ferry pulls away, and we are on the water. I got out to peer over the tall rim of the boat and waited to pay my fare. The ferry worker never came. Annoyed, I went to find him.

“He’s got you covered.” Points to Mr. Carhart’s pickup.

Immediately my body went slack under this wave of unexpected kindness. All of my silent judgment washed away like jagged flotsam. The warm surprise of gratitude quickly rushed in behind.

I spent two nights on Drummond Island, a long, langorious weeekend of walks, exploring new geology (more on that later), solitude, loons calling in the morning, the most glorious sunset I’ve seen in a long time, wishing for a paddle board.

I had just enough cash to pay for my camping spot, $30, thanks to my ferry godfather.

Holey trinity: Mother, daughters, and the holy nose


I was always bargaining with God in the back seat of the car on the way to church about picking my nose.

This is the last time, I promise, then I’ll never pick my nose again. I really want to go to heaven, so this is the last booger, I swear.

Then it would itch.

Or it was an especially dusty day.

Or I could feel it in there, waiting. God would understand.

My Dad always picked his nose in our pick-up truck on the way to school. I pretended not to see, staring out the window, peripheral vision betraying me.

There were all kinds of hairs in there, I knew. I’d seen those, too. He was 6’6″ tall, so it was difficult not to look anywhere but up his large-nostriled nose.

If I hadn’t picked my nose so much as a kid, then maybe my left nostril would be the same size as my right one.

Now I’ll never know, because I’m not a kid anymore.

Now I have my own kids, and I’m sure they’ve seen me pick my nose a few times. God knows. Okay, many times.

My daughter picks her nose while she reads books. Completely absorbed, absent-minded picking. I’m not sure where they end up. I try not to stare that long.

Upon being introduced to Michigan State University’s mascot at age 4, she promptly picked her nose. Sparty got down on one knee, nose to nose, and brought his felted finger to his fuzzy, oversized nostril in mutual understanding.


Most mammals can’t pick their noses, it’s not physically possible. Imagine a cat trying to do that. Or an elephant.

Or a whale.

It’s impossible to pick your nose while snorkeling and listening to millions of tiny underwater clicks–fish mandibles munching minerals–while feeling the strangest, strongest desire to never exhale carbon dioxide ever again in order to preserve this beautiful, intricate, aquatic dance of astonishing color, light, and texture.

Coral icons, layer upon layer of life, plated with sun-gold.

Is it only hominids who dig for gold? For there is something extremely human about nose picking. The pointer finger neatly fits (but not the thumb). It is completely self-directed. An exercise in free will. Public or private? Long or short? Deep or shallow?

I’ve outgrown my original deal with God. As my daughters and I grow older, there is more reason to believe God delights in creating life, not bargaining with it.

My daughters’ noses were cleared after their first, startling, beautiful breath fresh from my womb.

God took a deep, loving belly breath–in through the nose, out through the mouth–and dust swirled into life. The same dust forged in exploding stars, the same dust we pick from our noses.

Now I know (tapping the side of my nose) that the nose was created not just for fingers, but for aromas–detectors of danger and decay, gateways to otherworldly pleasures and pains, solidifiers of memory, pathways for life’s breath–inhale and exhale.



my Mom’s perfume and favorite, faded pink and purple plaid shirt.


my shoulders drop.


the top of my daughters’ tiny heads, smooth baby scent tinged in tiny, translucent hair.


I close my eyes


my husband’s aftershave, a can he used for more than five years because he loves adventure, not things, people, not self-grooming.


I am still


motorcycle exhaust and 5-year-old me between my Dad’s arms, leaning into every turn without fear, hair flying, elation, alfalfa, and dust filling my nose.


I miss him


asphalt after rain, nettles in spring, pine needled trees on Mt. Adams, strawberries in warm June sun, cookies in the oven.


Way to Compost 2: Worms

They are born, eat, breathe through their skin, and burrow beneath us in the darkness of the soil. Darwin described them as “the intestines of the earth” and went on to say that “it may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

Lowest of the low, or saints of the soil?

Anatomically speaking, worms are wild. Between mouth and tail, earthworms are divided into more than 150 segments. If you cut a worm on the 75th segment, it will not, as the urban myth suggests, become two worms. The head may grow a new tail, but the tail will not grow a new head. With one, long digestive tract that runs the entire length of its body, worms are born to digest. They are also hermaphrodytes, have five hearts, no need for eyes, hatch three or four at a time from a cocoon, and breathe through their skin.

But not all worms are the same. In fact there are over 7,260 species of worms. Some, like the inch-long ice worm called Solifugus (sun-avoiding), have adapted to living on the edge of icebergs in Alaska. Their ability to provide a burst of energy to their cells in extreme cold may help scientists understand how life could survive on icy moons like Europa.

One of the largest earthworms on the planet is found in Washington State, if you can find one. The giant Palouse earthworm is pinkish white and smells like a lily if you were to scratch its slimy chin, hence the name Driloleirusis, “lily-like” worm. The Palouse worm is a native species that thrives in the bunchgrass prairies, but agriculture has destroyed much of its habitat. Only one person has seen this lovely giant since 1978.

For composters, the red wiggler is the holy grail of humus and is found on every continent except Antarctica. Eisenia Fetida, which means “to stink,” loves to live in loose, rich, warm places like manure piles and worm bins. If they feel threatened, they release a yellow, stinky liquid that deters birds. But if you give them a safe place to live, time, and food, they produce manure, or castings, that contain about 50 percent more calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and bacteria than the surrounding soil. These castings do not stink at all. In fact, they smell like soil and feel like silk. One day, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Each red wiggler can digest up to its body weight in one day. So, five pounds of red wigglers can eat up to 35 pounds of food waste every week! In economic terms, there is no better return on an investment. Worms are livestock that eat leftovers we don’t even want, multiply themselves twice or thrice every three weeks, and create one of the most balanced, nutrient-rich soil amendments on earth. All life in and above the ground is partly dependent on worms’ ability to transform organic matter into available plant food.

I am a dedicated practitioner of worm wifery, and you can be, too! Here are the basics:

1) A home. Any kind of closed container with good drainage will work. I made one from plywood, but Rubbermaid bins with holes in the bottom work, too.

2) Bedding. Red wigglers need plenty of carbonaceous material to move around in. Shredded paper from the office, a shredded newspaper (after reading it), peat moss, and manure are all good sources of bedding.

3) Moisture. Dry conditions suffocate the worms. If you squeeze the bedding, a little water should drip from your hand.

4) Food. Red Wigglers are mostly vegetarian, and dislike anything acidic like tomatoes and lemons. Occasionally, I throw in some citrus peels and a little leftover cheese because the worms are active enough to eat it up quickly. Like us, worms need carbohydrates. All carbon sources like paper towels, napkins, paper plates, and newspapers go in the worm bin. Crushed egg shells help balance the pH in the bin, and a few handfuls of dirt give the worms grit for their gizzards.

Once all of the essentials are provided, an amazing transformation takes place. A worm bin becomes an entire ecosystem unto itself. I’ve had beetles, springtails, frogs, lizards, spiders, tiny white worms called potworms, and an earthworm or two find their way into my bin. The red wigglers don’t mind the extra boarders. New worm owners are often afraid they might escape out the drainage holes at night, but if the bin is raised off of the ground, the worms will stay in the dark and the moisture. The only reason my worms have fled the coop, so to speak, was because I taped off all the drainage holes in preparation for the moving van (oh yes, my worms have traveled across the country). They must have needed that oxygen, because the next morning, I had little pyramids of worms on the floor, fleeing the sealed bin to catch their breath. I never closed those holes again. To keep critters out, I sometimes put a bit of hardware cloth over them.

It’s easy to take worms for granted. It’s easy, once you have an established bin, to forgot about them completely. But once you have a few thousand of them silently and steadily eating leftovers in your garage or backyard (or inside your coffee table?! Oh yes, it’s been done), their quiet, slow, transformative magic will startle you. Each time I lift the lid of the worm bin and see absolutely no trace of rotten food, only dots of castings scattered across shredded newspaper and clumps of red wigglers hugging food or curled inside eggshells, I am amazed at the absolute transformation. All I needed was a bin, a few worms, shredded paper, and my own food waste for creatures to transform it into the richest plant food on the planet.

Click on the links below to the Tilth Alliance’s worm bin designs. These are the ones I started off withhe plywood bin is for those with access to power tools, or a neighbor’s shop. Mine is still going strong after 20 years!

This “off the shelf” bin is much easier to make. Instead of the “O-ring” and metal valves, and metal vents, I simply drilled holes at the top for ventilation and a larger hole in the bottom for drainage. Tilt the bin towards that hole and place a container under it to catch the worm juice. This has been in my garagin and going strong for 10 years.

Questions? Share them with me! I’m happy to help!


A few years ago, one of our best loved chickens died.  Despite her constant search for a hole in the garden fence, Cacciatore was a wonderful earwig eater and provided our family with beautiful, light brown eggs.  Mom liked having her around while she was weeding, so instead of burying her way out in the field somewhere, I decided to compost her.

Composting farm animals like chickens and cows is a feasible and efficient way to return massive amounts of nutrients to the soil.  “Offal,” as the carcasses of animals are called, is an invaluable resource for composting.  Temperature requirements for this kind of compost are higher and need to be sustained for a longer period of time, which means a lower carbon to nitrogen ratio.  The more nitrogen in the pile, the hotter the pile will be.  Sustaining this heat is the trick.  There needs to be plenty of water and oxygen in order to provide the heat loving bacteria with enough energy and food to keep up the good work.

When I decided to compost Cacciatore, this is what I did.  I gathered all the nitrogen I could find—green grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and chicken manure—and mixed these with bulky carbon material for aeration.  I watered as I worked until the finished pile, about four cubic feet inside strawbale walls, was as wet as a wrung out sponge.  A thick layer of straw served as insulation and discouraged flies.

After two days, the dial on my compost thermometer registered 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  I dug into the center, put Cacciatore in, covered her, and waited.  The pile stayed at 150 for about a week.  I turned it once more in the fall, watering as I worked, and the temperatures rose again to 160 for another week.  Turning the pile twice allowed any material on the edges to have its turn in the hot center.  This ensures that any harmful bacteria or weed seeds all got hot enough to be completely broken down and inert.

I let it sit for a few months until the time came in late summer to move the compost pile into the garden.  With every shovelful, I half expected to see bone, beak, or feather, but crumbly, deep dark humus was all I found.  Cacciatore was finally welcome inside the garden fence.

How does such a complete transformation happen inside such a simple pile of kitchen waste, garden trimmings, and manure?  With the help of billions of microorganisms.  Where on earth will you find these microorganisms to help you transform waste into compost?  Don’t worry, they have already found you.  Just building a compost pile is like lighting a neon sign that buzzes, “Microorganisms Welcome!”

When Carbon and Nitrogen are combined in the right ratio (25 or 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen), when there is enough moisture, some oxygen, and enough mass, the bacteria already found on the waste begin to go to work.

When temperatures are high in a compost pile, anywhere from 130-160, heat loving bacteria (thermophyllic) are hard at work in compost.  On a chilly day you can see the evidence as steam rising from your pile.  Bacteria sweat.  Like us, they burn carbon and release carbon dioxide and water into the air.  They can sustain this work for 3 days to a week, just the right amount of time for many of the pathogens and weed seeds in the middle of the pile to break down (tomato and squash seeds are another story).

Turning the outside of the pile to the inside will ensure that the rest of the pile gets a seat in the middle, too.  You can turn a pile by hand.  If you are lucky enough to have a front loader handy, this is a fast way to turn a large pile on a farm.  Composting in a barrel allows for easy turning either raised on an axel so you can turn it with a handle or just on the ground so you can roll it.  Worms will turn the compost for you (see “worm husbandry”).

When temperatures fall between 80 and 100 degrees, conditions are right for mesophyllic (middle loving) bacteria to explode in numbers.  Now the pile smells “earthy,” like soil. This is the pleasant halitosis of the bacteria actinomycetes (act-tee-no-my-see-tees).  They are breaking down the compost into even tinier particles, and you can see them as white, webby strands throughout the compost pile.

Fungi make their appearance at the very end.  The fruits of their labor bloom as mushrooms on the surface of compost, telling you it will be ready soon.  You will know compost is ready when it smells good, like rich soil, is dark brown, and looks nothing like the slimy, rotten waste it was before.  According to a 1996 article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade, bacteria “comprise as much as half of all living things on the planet.”  Bacteria are found on almost every surface of the earth, whether internal or external.  Lucky for us, they work to our benefit in compost piles, our stomachs, landfills, wine casks, breweries, forest floors, and sourdough bakeries.  Such a transformation is miraculous, and the end result, humus, is still a mystery to scientists, but there are some things we do know.

We know that humus is the most stable form of plant food available on the earth and can remain in the soil, providing plants with nitrogen, for over 100 years.  We know that over half of the humus on the planet has been lost to over grazing and over working the land.  We know that humus takes a long time to form.  The longer a compost pile cures, the more stable humus you will find.  Like good bread, wine, and beer, it’s worth the wait.  One to two years is a safe bet.  Then it’s time for the compost to return to the garden, the fruit trees, the house plants, and the earth.

Why Compost?

Let’s talk about compost—what it is and why we need to make it happen now more than ever. Every time we eat plants or animals who eat plants, the nutrients they and we need to grow are taken from the soil and put into our bodies for energy. We burn it as energy, but there are always leftovers. Up to 40% of the food grown in the United States is wasted. If these leftovers are not returned to the soil to be recycled, then the cycles that sustain life are broken and things start to get messy.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating. A handful of compost contains more living organisms than there are people on earth! Our eyes cannot see it, but compost is dynamically alive! The nutrients, minerals, bacteria, fungus, and other microscopic life forms found in compost are vital for healthy soil.

In the United States, we use soil 10 times faster than the natural rate of replenishment, and we only have about 60 years of topsoil left in the world. Such an estimate has to give us pause, and a dose of healthy concern. We need compost in all its forms—backyard piles, turned under cover crops, worm bins, municipal compost operations, forest floors, manure left in the field or composted in the barn, compost toilets (yes, human compost)—and every other way we can think of. We need to balance our soil withdrawals with compost deposits.

This can happen in your own backyard, in a church kitchen, in a community garden, in a garage, and even in an apartment. I’ll discuss how to make compost piles unique to your life style a bit later, but for now I’ll sum up what makes composting work no matter what form it takes. There are 5 keys to creating a healthy compost pile—carbon, nitrogen, water, air, and mass.

1. Carbon and nitrogen are the main ingredients of compost. Vibrant compost piles need a ratio of 20-35 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Carbon, the “brown” materials, are usually brown and dry. Bags of fallen leaves, newspaper, cardboard boxes, paper towels and napkins, wood chips, straw, brown grass clippings, and the morning croissant are all examples of carbon. These are what the compost microorganisms need for sustained energy. Smaller pieces of brown material will break down more quickly because there is more surface area for the microorganisms to work on. Chipping wood or mowing leaves helps to speed up the composting process.

2. Nitrogen, the “green” materials, are usually green and wet. Fresh grass clippings, kitchen scraps, manure of all kinds, coffee grounds, and nutrients like blood and bone meal are all good sources of nitrogen. These will be used by the microorganisms to build their microscopic bodies.

3. A compost pile should be as wet as a wrung out sponge. In order to move, breathe, and function, the microorganisms doing all the work need this water.

4. The microorganisms that break down organic matter also need oxygen. You can compost without oxygen, but it’s smellier. This is called anaerobic composting (more on that later). Making sure the pile has plenty of brown, carbon material to create pockets of air will ensure it has enough oxygen. The pile should be a bit fluffy, like a compost soufflé. As it breaks down, the cake will flatten and reduce in size. This is a good sign.

5. The last key is mass. If it’s not big enough, the compost pile will not be active. A 3’ by 3’ pile is the minimum size for decomposition to really start. But piles built outside need to be at least knee high and wide. You can put your pile inside chicken wire, straw bales, re-used pallets, or even a cheap garbage can buried a foot in the ground with holes drilled into the bottom. For more about how to do this, visit my Ways to Compost.

Way to Compost 1: The Backyard Food Digester

For gardens and people in the city, room and time are big obstacles to composting.  A food digester, sometimes known as a green cone, is perfect if you want to keep organic matter out of your garbage but not work too hard, take up too much space, or think too much about composting it.  Basically, it’s like building a stomach in your backyard that will digest all your leftover food.

Here’s how to do it.  Find an old plastic trash can, or buy a cheap one at the hardware store.  Drill holes all over the bottom and about two feet up the side all the way around for drainage, aeration, and to let the worms in and out. Then, dig a hole so that at least a quarter of the can is in the ground in a shaded, well-hidden place.  This is the only hard labor required.  Put a layer of leaves or small twigs in the bottom of the can.  This is the first layer of your compost “cake.”  From here on out it will go like this:  kitchen scraps, browns (leaves, a little soil, old grass clippings), kitchen scraps, browns, and so on until it is full.

Here’s how the digester system works from kitchen to compost.  Keep a gallon sized, lidded container under the sink to scrape food scraps and vegetable peelings into.  It can be plastic or stainless steel.  Don’t be afraid to put in uneaten mac and cheese, soup, bread, rice, tacos, Fritos—anything you didn’t eat.  And don’t forget that all paper towels, napkins, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters, paper plates, the tubes inside of toilet paper, and newspaper can go in, too.  Carbon sources like these help keep odors at bay (carbon is a great filter) and worms very happy.

Make a trip to the compost container once a week to dump your lidded container.  Be sure to cover it brown stuff—soil, grass clippings, or straw.  You can keep a pile of these brown materials right next to the digester.  I suggest putting on an “inner” lid of pine branches or even a pizza container as well as the trash can lid.  This keeps down smells and reduces fruit flies.  The outer lid should be secured with a bungee cord so little critters like raccoons and rats don’t help themselves.

That’s it!  In about a year with no turning or thinking, the bottom of your bin will be rich compost ready to put around plants in a small garden.  Two digesters side by side is another good idea.  When compost is harvested from the bottom of the first one, the partly digested top material can be shoveled into the bottom of the second one and the process starts over.  Or, you can fill up the first and wait for it all to compost while filling up the second one.

Of course, there will be some troubleshooting.

  1. If the material becomes too dry, it won’t decompose. Be sure to water the digester, especially in the summer, if it is too dry.
  2. Remember to keep a lid on.
  3. Avoid putting meat and dairy in the digester, and bury the food well each time with browns and the inner lid so that maggots and fruit flies will not be a problem. Besides worms, there will be all kinds of bugs in the food digester. It’s a plethora of study material for future entomologists.  Sow bugs, little white springtails, ants, centipedes, beetles, and other kinds of creepy crawlies are harmless and help to break down the organic matter.
  4. If the digester smells (too wet, maybe), mix in soil and carbon sources and it should be better in a couple of days.
  5. You may find vigorous, hybrid varieties of squash and tomato growing where you spread the compost. These seeds persist in this type of composting since there isn’t enough heat to destroy them.

And now for a sneak peak at my backyard food digester, eight years old, quietly working away, mostly forgotten, tucked behind the shed where I hope no one looks. But for you…

Notice three large pinecones–raccoon latrine deterrents (ouch! works great) and weight for lid…a brick or bungee also works…a pile of leaves to layer after dumping kitchen waste…only pistachio shells and pumpken seeds are recognizable. I never turned it or rolled it, only layered it. About once a year, I shovel the finished compost into my wheelbarrow. Looks like it’s time!

One stomach behind the shed is great, two stomachs would be ideal. One to fill again while the full one digests. Don’t you wish you had two stomachs? Now you can!

Composting back to life

Compost connects leftovers to new life

When anything once alive dies and is put in a compost pile, microscopic life forms begin their work of living and dying. They break down organic matter into tinier and tinier pieces, more elemental with each pass through their microscopic bodies. They eat and live and also die, until all that has died becomes entirely new—a particle of nitrogen or carbon, a trace mineral, a salt—so it can be taken up again into plant roots, into animals and human bodies, into trees, then fall back down to the soil as sticks, leaves, bones, and flesh. We label this up and down rhythm life and death—a beginning and then an end. But death it is not the end with compost, rather it is the beginning of something new. I do not completely understand how the transformation happens. Science can explain the invisible process in books, but I go out to the compost pile on a regular basis to observe and maybe absorb a little of the mystery that gives life to our human and earthly bodies.

There is not just one way to compost. It can be done in many ways, and all of them lead to a rich source of life for the soil. I admit that composting is not always fun, like riding a roller coaster or going to a movie is fun. It is not always easy, like throwing away food is easy. It can be mundane, messy, and sometimes annoying. Composting is a mindful act—a decision to humbly take responsibility for our own waste. I found, once I committed myself to it and carved out the time to care for my own waste, that I had invisible helpers. I created a big pile of smelly, clumpy, sloppy waste, but a mysterious collaboration of earthly life transformed it into sweet smelling, crumbly, richly dark humus—the building block of life in the soil. I also noticed that I was more forgiving of my own “garbage.” My life’s leftovers—the sadness and pain I usually put a lid on and never wanted to deal with—were uncovered, held, observed, and worked into my life with love. I began to feel more whole.

I invite you into the messy, mundane, mysterious, and restorative life of compost.