I was wandering in a Philadelphia park one day, years ago when I lived in the city, and a woman stopped me to ask if I was looking for "the workshop." I told her I was just walking but asked what the workshop was about. "Composting," she told me. Serendipity had struck. I told her I had recently planted a garden and wanted to learn more about composting, something I'd read about but never tried.
"We have an open spot in the workshop," she told me. "Someone just dropped out. Want to join us?"
So, I stayed for the talk about composting. Which was more than just a talk. At the end of the event, each participant received a composter, courtesy of the city. I had a ream of instructions on balancing, aerating and watering my "greens and browns" and a big, black plastic dome, designed to make composting clean and contained in an urban setting like ours. That was my instant entry into the world of composting.
Then we sold the house in Philly. The new owners were happy to hear that our composter and pile of "black gold" conveyed. We were in the middle of a downsizing saga and lived in apartments for the next couple years and never found it convenient to stash a pile of rotting food scraps. It wasn't until we got here to the mountain where we had the space and incentive to compost again. With two open-air compost piles and four barrels of "humanure" in various stages of decomposition, we have a full-on compost enterprise.
Why compost? Less "waste" goes to the landfill. Because of this, less fossil fuels are consumed, and fewer greenhouse gas are released. Human waste doesn't get flushed away in gallons of drinking water. Nutrients go into gardens, and, as a result, less commercial fertilizers are needed, reducing even more energy and resource consumption. Soil composition is improved. And we get a little exercise. It's a win any way you look at it. Plus, it's not hard. Or messy. Or smelly.
My "recipe" for easy composting: Mix the "greens and browns," but don't worry about a perfect ratio. Green, or nitrogen-rich materials, means food scraps, fresh lawn waste, human feces. Brown, or carbon-rich items, means dead leaves, wood shavings from our toilet, torn newspapers. Keep things moist (an occasional spray from the hose does the trick) and aerated. In the open-air bins, aerating means turning things over with the pitchfork. In the "humanure" barrels, aeration means using our corkscrew compost turner. Toss in a little native soil now and then to introduce local microorganisms to the feast.
Composting is still magic to me. I understand only the basics: I'm fostering and feeding gazillion microorganisms who, in turn, convert my raw materials into nutrient-rich humus. A simple way to know if things are going well is to sink my hand into the middle of a compost pile. If it's hot, things are humming.
Now, there are a few more complications, to be certain. The barrels that get filled with waste and cover from our composting toilet will sit and decompose for at least a year to be certain the resulting humus has no pathogens. Even then, we won't use it on our vegetable garden. That's why we keep separate piles. Lawn waste and food scraps feed the pile that will go to the veggie garden. The toilet-generated compost will go on trees and ornamentals.
We could have been composting all along. Even in those apartments. Years and years of would-be organic fertilizer got transported to and wasted in the landfill. We just didn't know.
Now we do.