I began working as a garden intern with MHC this past January when I was assigned command of the Hub’s compost bins at the Crestmont garden. Its been a crazy, smelly, and magical journey since then and I want to tell you all about it!!
Since January Haley (a Hub volunteer) and I have been taking turns riding in the idiosyncratic trucks of compost volunteers Jay and Tom, picking up food waste from Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’s pantry and two local businesses, the Village Deli and Soma/Laughing Planet.
When our journey began we were in the depths of a fairly mild winter, so most of the food we were dumping and digging into was in varying states of frozen. It seemed as if the layers of coffee grounds, stale bread, rotting greens, and overripe berries were determined to maintain their state of being, never surrendering to the natural process of decomposition that makes compost magic.However, once spring came and the ground began to thaw the compost bins finally began to awaken. What was once dead became alive as the microorganisms, worms, and other critters began to break down the food waste with the help of the oxygen introduced to the process through the turning done by interns and volunteers. As excited as we were that our compost was maturing, we were very disturbed by the putrid stench it released when turned. IT WAS RANK. One of our interns actually started dry-heaving while turning the compost; others chose to wear bandanas over their faces to mask the stench. There was no love to be found for our beloved infant compost.
As the intern in charge of compost, I felt responsible for the misery and was frankly embarrassed that I raised such smelly compost! I immediately began doing research and developed a trifecta approach to solving the stench. A) Before adding things to the compost pile, I would, with the help of Jay, Tom, and other volunteers, chop all of the food waste into smaller pieces with a shovel to encourage quicker decomposition. B) Intersperse the bread waste among the layers of compost so it was better mixed with the other food waste (because it is so highly processed, bread is particularly difficult to compost). C) Make sure the compost is turned at least once a week.
The test came when we had to remove the compost from the old bins so that the city could tear them down and replace them with fresh wood (the wood in the old bins was rotting). Several layers of unfinished and semi-finished compost were spread on the garden beds as sheet mulch as well as in piles for the new bins. Miraculously, it DIDN'T SMELL AWFUL!! It actually smelled pretty good (as good as rotting food can, anyway). The real treat came when we got to the bottom of one of the first compost bins I ever added to. Sitting among all the spiders, worms, and rollypoly bugs, there was a mound of matter that was a deeper brown than the rest. After a moment of breathless awe, I picked it up, felt it in my hands, smelled it, and danced around like a new parent. It was finished compost, some of the healthiest soil on the planet. It had the texture of clay mixed with fine sand and smelled just like freshly tilled dirt. The compost had reached the end of its journey and it was BEAUTIFUL. I kept a bit of it in a tiny mason jar that I keep in my room to remind me of the journey and humanity’s ability to responsibly deal with our waste, giving it back to the earth like an offering of gratitude for providing life.