Taking advantage of the first sunny day we’ve had in at least two weeks, and probably the fourth sunny day since I returned to El Salvador in early August, I spent the morning playing in the dirt of my garden. I had several tomato seedlings that were desperately waiting to be planted out as well as several flowers I bought last weekend at a local vivero (nursery). For the very part-time gardener that I am these days, what suits me best is being able to go to the local garden centers and purchase some wonderful organic fertilizers from seaweed or worm castings or chicken poop. Unfortunately, here in San Salvador, the only products I’ve come across at any of the countless viveros I’ve stopped at are chemical fertilizers. All I can find are bags of colorful powders and granules in a variety of N-P-K combination – all from chemicals, not the slightest bit organic.
As a result, I am forced to rely on my making my own compost to amend the soil with and enhance the nutrient level. (Which I would have to guess would probably be quite low with all of this rain we’ve been having, I imagine nutrients are constantly being leached away.) Luckily, with favorable temperatures year-round, compost piles go from dinner scraps to rich soil in a month or two. Throw a few worms into the mix and it’s even faster. I compost everything that comes out of my kitchen – cooked and uncooked scraps of food, leftovers, indiscriminately. I keep out only meat bones, which are an extreme rarity in my kitchen anyhow.
My composting is done in a 5-gallon plastic container designed to be a water dispenser. I drilled over one hundred small holes in the sides of the canister to theoretically improve aeration to help prevent my compost bin from becoming anaerobic. I think it mostly works. So I collect my kitchen scraps in an old 32-oz yogurt container, and empty it every day into the blue plastic 5-gallon cylinders. Every time I add food scraps, I also add some grass clippings that I previously collected from the school’s yard waste compost pile. There is quite a lot of grass to be mowed on campus, and so I help myself to a bucket full of grass clippings about once a month. In addition to the grass clippings I also add shredded cardboard or newspapers if I have any on hand. This helps keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio balanced in my compost.
Most biologists might balk when a gardener says, “I’m adding some carbon to my compost pile,” when they’re throwing in some cardboard. The biologist would respond with, “all organic matter is made up of large amounts of carbon!! Those food scraps especially!!” And it’s true – everything you’re putting into your compost contains carbon. And also nitrogen. But not in equal amounts. Something like cardboard would have 350 parts carbon to every one part nitrogen, while your household food scraps would have only about 20 parts carbon to every one part nitrogen. So you can see the difference. If you only put your food scraps in a pile, you’d have a very stinky and probably soggy mess. So if I saw your pile and suggested: Put more carbon in it!, what I would mean is that you should find some materials with a higher ratio of carbon to nitrogen, such as cardboard or newspaper or wood chips. But if you have too much of these high-carbon materials, then the decomposition slows down. In my blue plastic canisters, I think my carbon to nitrogen ratio is very low, perhaps too low for most gardeners to consider a healthy compost pile. But perhaps it’s just right for this climate, because with a few worms in the bin, I went from food scrap-cardboard-grass clipping trifle to rich dark soil in a matter of weeks.
Does it work? Well, I’m no soil scientist or botanist. I’m just someone who loves growing plants and eating delicious food. But I can tell you what I saw. In my backyard, in the back of my backyard, when I first arrived over a year ago, was just a blank wall. It was a white wall, which angrily pierced my eyes with its brightness whenever the sun shone on its whiteness. So I requested that we have some banana plants and other vegetation planted that would cover up the blinding white and bring some green (and food!) into my life. When the gardener came to bring the bananas, I helped by digging one of the three holes where the bananas would be planted. My assistance was certainly not altruistic because I had a compost bin that was full, but not quite ready. It still had many avocado peels and egg shells in its midst. So I dug a deep hole and dumped the compost in. (Side note: it was after that that I bought my second blue plastic bin, so while one bin is being filled with new food scraps, the other is “resting” and becoming soil!)
Over this pile of nearly done compost, a tall banana plant was planted. On either side of this banana, another banana was planted – three in all. And wouldn’t you know it, almost a year later and guess which banana plant is the largest? The one in the middle, the one planted over the compost of mine. Coincidence? Well, maybe. But I’d like to think that the extra nutrients and possibly even aeration that the compost provided made the banana (and the banana plant’s roots) so much happier that it outgrew its non-compost-receiving neighbors. Yes, I do feel badly now about neglecting them. Of course this is purely anecdotal, scientifically unsubstantiated qualitative data in a non-replicated non-controlled study. But that banana is quite a bit bigger, as you can see.
The moral of this post is that compost is easy and everyone should be doing it. Even if you won’t use it yourself in your own garden. Even if you just let it sit there in a pile. You can watch it magically shrink and take peace in the fact that you are dealing with at least some of your own waste yourself. Plus, unless you eat lots of bony meat every day, your household trash will smell a whole lot better! And if you are a bit of a gardener, the compost will enrich your flowers or vegetables, and you can smile smugly at your plump tomatoes, knowing it truly was your efforts that made them so.