Streams

Urban Composters Go to Extremes

Thursday, May 14, 2009

My talks with New Yorkers about their extraordinary efforts to compost made me look at what I was doing with my food scraps...and inspired me to stop throwing them out in the trash.  I've started collecting them so that someone ELSE can compost them.  I used to have a backyard, with a garden a small pond, and a black plastic compost bin when I lived in Boerum Hill. [sigh!  I miss it!]  My husband and I are now in a second-floor co-op apartment in Clinton Hill.  We put our coffee grounds, eggshells, and vegetable peelings in a plastic bag in one of our refrigerator storage bins.  I briefly considered worm composting, surreptitiously, in our storage area in our building's basement, but decided not to.  It's already hard enough to get someone to take care of our three cats when we go away; how do you ask the neighbor down the hall to look in on your worms

I heard a lot of great composting stories.  Courtenay Symonds wrote me to say she's been vermicomposting for two or three years, and now has so much compost, she doesn't know what to do with it.  "I have tried everything from giving compost away....to fashioning seed-bombs from flower seeds and compost for distribution to friends and others who like to bomb open, unused urban spaces with wildflowers come spring." 

Our own Fred Mogul e-mailed me about one of the people featured in my story, Dianne Debicella, who wants to use her compost in her planters.  "I hope your would-be container gardener knows about drainage," says Fred.  He suggests mixing the compost with good ol' potting soil. "Compost soaks up water like a sponge, and drainage is as or more important to plants as the nutrients they get from compost, especially in pots."  He says we shouldn't "romanticize" compost; "It's just one small part of growing stuff successfully."

David Calligeros, with Remains Lighting, wrote me to say his company recently opened a 25,000 square foot factory in Bushwick, and it's building a big garden in the side yeard.  "One of the features of it," he writes, "will be a compost pile!"  [Notice the exclamation point.  Yes, composting makes people happy.]  David also says he's experimented with "compostable" partyware -- corn-based cups, potato-based forks and knives, and sugar cane-based plats.  He reports the plates disappeared, but "the rest of that stuff is a bunch of hooey.  I've picked almost all of the cups out of my compost this spring, completely pristine and untransformed.  They are now in the recycling bin, awaiting plastic pick-up day."

Then, there's the bad news....the cuts to composting programs. Dan Tainow,  the compost project coordinator at the Queens Botanical Garden, says he thinks the two staff composting positions will survive into the next fiscal year, because of savings the program found THIS fiscal year.  However, the future is uncertain.  The end of funding for composting workshops at the city's four botanical gardens and at the Lower East Side Ecology Center in Manhattan, as I explained in my piece, comes as interest is growing.  Dan writes, "We had an increase of about 100 bin sales between 2007 (200) and 2008 (300), even though we had to raise the price from $20 to $50 near the end of 2008." [Again, due to budget cuts.] Questions about composting have increased, from 89 in March 2008, to 166 in March, 2009.  He says he had 25 applicants for the garden's Master Composter Program last year.  This year, 40 people applied.

Here's the story, which aired on "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."  Give a listen, and add your composting thoughts/advice/experience in our comments box, below.

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A week\'s worth of food scraps dumped into a bin in Fort Greene.
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Diane Debicella creates compost on the front stoop of her apartment.
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Inside the composter, food scraps break down into crumbly compost.
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Don\'t call it a \"garbage\" can. These cans are for donated food scraps.
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Signs alert contributors against dumping plastic, meat or bones.
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A volunteer hauls bags of collected food scraps to community gardens.
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A community garden volunteer bags up food scraps for composting.

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Comments [2]

Dan Tainow

Just wanted to clear up a few common compost confusions in this post.
-A worm bin does not need to be checked on while on vacation, just make sure the bin is full of bedding (shredded paper) and it can go over a month with no problems.
-Most of our soils, especially around street trees, in NYC are depleted, so there is always someone or some plant that wants/needs your compost, so maybe we should "romanticize" compost more! Most gardeners know that you should not use just compost to plant in. We always recommend 2 parts potting soil to 1 part worm compost for planters, and your outdoor garden beds can probably take more compost than you can make.
-"Compostable" plastics will usually only break down in an industrial scale compost operation where temperatures exceed 130 degrees F for several days, and these plastics are not accepted for recycling in NYC.
Please feel free to email any compost questions you have.

May. 18 2009 12:42 PM
Caroline

Yay composting! BTW- Worms don't have to live hidden in your basement! They can live right under your sink in the kitchen and will take care of themselves in their own little ecosystem while you're on vacation. Just give them some extra apple cores and onion peels before you leave...

May. 17 2009 09:54 AM

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