My first memory of composting is from autumn 2004. My best friend and I were in the midst of a leaf fight. I have no idea if this is a normal kid’s game or just something two kids racing towards a sugar crash created in a fit of boredom. The rules of the game were simple: find any leaf and chuck it at your opponent.
My friend had the upper hand since we were in her backyard. She’d find all the leaves and heave them at me before I’d manage to spot even one. That is until I found a massive mound of red-orange leaves in the back corner of her yard. I made a beeline towards it and jumped on top. I dug my hands deep into the leaves only to find banana peels and apple cores and orange peels beneath them. I was alarmed but shrugged off the feeling since I knew this was my only hope of winning the leaf fight. I threw as much of the chunky leafy mix I could fit in my tiny hands when my friend yelled that what I was throwing was off-limits. That was the compost pile.
The what pile? I’d never heard that word before. My family certainly didn’t have any off-limits piles of leaves in our yard. We didn’t even have piles of leaves in our yard. They’d all been raked into black trash bags and left on the curb to be picked up. That night on the ride home I asked my parents about it. They told me it was just something some people did. And that was that.
I stored this memory in the part of my brain that holds slightly embarrassing childhood memories until I started college and randomly came across an article about someone who composted in their dorm’s mini-fridge. Instantly and out of nowhere, this uncontrollable desire to start composting sprouted. But, I lived in the middle of Manhattan where, one, composting isn’t all that common and, two, the dorms I lived in had weekly room checks meaning that an RA would’ve definitely found and confiscated the contraband compost.
On and off for the next few years, I would collect compostables (and store them in my mini-fridge) until I could drop them off at the nearest city collection site. This only sated my desire until March of 2020.
Around mid-March, when it was apparent that something was about to go down, I made the decision to move home. Up until this point I had been living in Dublin where composting is commonplace. But now I would be back in the US and for the first time in about six years I wouldn’t be in a city. I would be in suburbia — in composting country.
After the move, I started small. Using a reclaimed plastic file storage bin, I indiscriminately re-homed any and all food scraps from the kitchen trashcan to the ‘compost’ bin. This attempt failed miserably. It had been going okay for the first few days until I noticed larvae and bugs and decomp that was not kosher. Trying desperately to not have my parents yell at me that they didn’t want bugs and rotting food in their garage, I moved the bin outside. This only worsened the situation. On the next downpour, the bin flooded and my attempt to resolve this situation only added fuel to the fire. This is when I realized that research was the much needed missing component in starting my oh so long for compost bin.
Round two started much more successfully. I’d read and researched the foundations of compost before even thinking about touching another fruit I’d have to peel. The whole process was both simpler and more complex than I’d initially thought. Yes, it is just compost, but it’s also a science: husbandry. Some people who are a little more invested in their compost manually add worms to speed up the process while others, like my best friend from childhood, left their compost on the ground so worms could find their way in. Both of these approaches, and many of the approaches I’d found online were not the right fit for us. They assumed that either you were committed to building an elaborate composting station, or had serious land and a complete lack of neighbors, or that you know what you’re doing. My Dad and I took the simplest and most R-R-R’s route — we found and repurposed a couple of blue storage bins that had been hiding out among our Christmas storage since the nineties.
I’d read that compost needs air and drainage holes, so we broke out my Dad’s trusty handheld drill. We began by drilling three holes on the bottom of the bins, about fifteen on the top perimeter, and a few more in other strategic places that an article had mentioned. Then came the fun part, making the compost core. Nearly everything we ate had the chance to join our bins. My parents eat salads daily and I go through bursts when I am obsessed with veggies so there were plenty of peels and stems that found their way into the compost. I had also kept the first failed attempt so that got added along with shredded cardboard and dish soap to one of the new bins.
After about a week of stockpiling and adding fresh food scraps that I had painstakingly sorted, I noticed that the bins were getting buggy, very buggy — more than the last attempt. And so buggy to the point where I didn’t want to open them. Oh, that’s another thing I’d learned; you need to aerate compost. Rotating and mixing is crucial to the health and speed of decomp of the pile. Back to the bug problem. There were hundreds of these wriggling little larvae that moved the compost with them. After a few days, big flies started to fly in and out through the air holes on the top of the bins. I hit the internet once again to find out if this was normal. I discovered that compost should follow the golden ratio of 4:1 browns to greens which I was most certainly not maintaining. With that said, bugs are not only normal, they’re an encouraging sign that your compost is in fact composting.
The next two months of composting went quickly, by lockdown standards. Every few days I would add greens to the bins and cut pizza boxes into small, easily compostable squares and add them, too. I even went as far as to add the dirt and weeds that I unearthed during my gardening. It was all going surprisingly well. The boxes radiated heat, which I’d read is another sign that things are breaking down properly. And I’d even noticed that there was more brown than what I’d put in. I felt like a true woman of nature.
The whole routine became second nature. I’d add the green scraps and cover them with browns on one day; and on other days I’d rotate the heaps. It helped that these routines were repetitive enough that I could finish everything within a three minute commercial break.
Then came a dilemma: the bins filled up. This worried me for two reasons. For one, these large bins were supposed to last us six months, but they only lasted three, meaning that either we eat a lot more veggies than the average person or that we are horrifically wasteful when it comes to how we prep our veg. Two, where should our food scraps go now?
It’s been a few months since I reached this impasse. We decided not to start another compost bin since we already had two going and, frankly, we were anxious about them not working out. Around the time that the bins had filled up, I started a new job. Going from unemployed during the lockdown to having a part-time retail job meant that I couldn’t focus solely on composting or tend to it as seriously. And between Halloween (my one month work-iversary) and now, there’s been two compost bins that have been sitting beneath my parents' window waiting patiently for attention.
When I first started composting I read somewhere that you can’t really go wrong with it — that as long as you feed it, it’ll produce. While I wanted that to be true, I also didn’t. Part of me wanted composting to be a labor-intensive project because if it is then there would be some justification to the amount of effort I spent babying my bins. At the same time, I prayed that my months of neglect wouldn’t counteract the months of care.
Today I finally checked on my compost. As I lifted the lids something inside me told me not to bother, that everything would be molded over and utterly unsalvageable. I checked anyway. The results were surprisingly mundane. There was no mold or swarms of insects or concerning ickiness. They were fine. The bins were full of healthy looking, beautiful dark brown compost. I’d made compost through neglect and love.
I’ll be moving in the next couple of months. Our new place has a huge back yard and no HOA so I can use my compost more fruitfully and get a little more creative and forgetful with my composting.
Here’s to another round of serious and lax composting.