Feeding the Earth
A Compost Convert's Testimony
by Betsy Kehne

I remember composting from a long time ago, though I don't remember calling it that. Back then it was the leaf pile. In iCompost Covert every fall we heaped fallen leaves, old plants and vegetables half-eaten by animals. It was a big pile, so big that we kids dug tunnels and built parapets, transforming it into a giant, biodegradable fort that five to 10 of us ruled from within.

Somehow, the pile never grew beyond the former year's boundaries, and renegade pumpkin seeds took root and prospered. Eventually the crumbly black soil in the center was returned to the garden, where it grew a new generation of vegetables and flowers. But a kid doesn't care about making good dirt, just playing in it.

I grew up and forgot all that until - 20-some years later - I bought my own house. My house was fine but by dirt was, well, mediocre.

Dig a hole and put kitchen scraps in it, a friend said. I wondered at her wisdom. Her yard was table-scrap heaven, a chuck wagon raided by misbehaved dogs. Is the idea of composting to sneak your scraps to the neighbors' dogs?

Still, her soil grew darker, her plants grew bushier and her flowers brighter.

So I dug at my new house, and I filled from my kitchen. Besides, I thought, who's going to know what I put in my compost? Soon I found out.

I watched as my new neighbor retrieved her over-plump beagle from my backyard. The dog had discovered my compost hole, and he was particularly fond of bagels. I closed my blinds and pretended not to be home.

Despite the bad news of breaking a beagle's diet, I realized some good news, too: the trash bags that filled up twice a week now only filled up weekly. And my dirt? Banana peels, broccoli stems and old grapes gradually disappeared. Though my dirt wasn't yet the thick black crumbly stuff in my friend's garden, every scoop squirmed with fat earth worms. My excitement grew as visions of good dirt and green plants danced in my head.

A class, I decided, would help my quest. So I showed up at 9:30 one morning for Anne Arundel County Recycling Division's Backyard Composting Workshop. I and 60 other people, plus the 80 or so who couldn't get in, had the same idea.

No meat, said Master Composter Lewis Shell, no varmints. (Except, I noted mentally, for bagel-eating beagles). Mix your browns and your greens equally and your compost bin will prosper. Turn it once a week. Keep it as damp as a squeezed out sponge.

To make his point, Shell displayed before and after bags of dirt. The first looked pale and sandy: straight from his old backyard, he said, and it could've been from mine. Then he showed us what he'd created with composting: dark brown coarse earth. My eyes grew big.

As well as advice, I got a free composting bin to get started. I snatched it and hurried home.

My neighbor and I share a compost bin now, because neither one of us alone can fill it up entirely. Not to mention that neither of us knows completely what we're doing. But between the two of us, we're going to make some good dirt.

Getting started was easy. The only thing I needed to buy was a five-tined pitchfork (smooth-pointed tips allow leaves and chunky stuff to slide off easily). We set up the bin and lined the bottom with sticks to allow air to circulate underneath. Then with a little bit of compost from an earlier attempt, we added grass clippings and leaves.

Now when I trim my house plants or peel a banana, I save them in a basket by my front door. Even at work, I gather scraps from co-workers' lunches: salad greens and fruits, anything that looks biodegradable. At the end of the day (or whenever I happen to walk by the bin) I empty a whole quart - maybe even two - of garbage that I'd return to the earth. Never a bad odor greets me, just an earthy smell that doesn't a nose crinkle.

Like Lew Shell said, anything will compost. We just help along the process. Or in some cases hinder it. Perhaps I pushed that theory to the limits one day, which my neighbor was quick to point out.

"One thing about composting," she explained delicately. "I don't think we're supposed to add plastic containers of mayonnaise."

Now that my neighbors know what I put in my compost, you might as well, too. If your dog is missing, you may find him munching on a bagel in my backyard.

You'll also find me digging in my compost bin. I sure like good dirt.

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VolumeVI Number 16
April 23-29, 1998
New Bay Times

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