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The Life of Compost

By Kelly Lecko

Decomposition is a new friend of mine. He used to be a distant figure, like Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, standing solemn and proud in the back of the room. Yet we kept catching each others’ eye; Decomposition has fascinated me for a long time and yet I, shy in meeting new folks, had not yet gone up to engage him in a deeper conversation. But when my supervisor, Trevor, gave us the opportunity for extensive research, I found myself being asked to dance by Decomposition and suddenly I was waltzing through the farm dance called: The Circle of Life. 

A few weeks ago, my co-Fellow Nick Faircloth told you about his research on rice. It has been so wonderful to work alongside someone so passionate about a topic- his enthusiasm is contagious. So I, too, channeled my excitement into reading. My topic: compost. And this is how Decomposition taught me how to waltz. 

First of all, compost is complicated. Any compost pile you encounter is a living, breathing life force. It needs the basics, like any organism: food, water, shelter, space and air.

[photos: here, we gave our compost pile shelter, food and air. Water was already present in the moist pile.]  

Like a pet dog, compost can be a major time commitment; or, like a cat, it can be left on its own for a while; you can give it lots of attention, turning it and adding to it, or you can be more passive; sizes vary, and the equipment necessary can be daunting. All of this depends on what kind of set-up you have. Hence, the statement: Compost is complicated. I felt very incompetent on compost care-taking when I first started, that’s for sure.

But my new friend Decomposition broke it down for me. (Haha, “broke it down”- get it?) Through my reading I learned that the simplicity of compost is in its life cycle: the mesophilic stage is when organic matter first meets Decomposition. The thermophilic stage is when certain heat-loving microorganisms do their best work and your kitchen scraps become unrecognizable. Finally, the cooling and curing stage allows the final touches to be added to your compost by organisms such as earthworms. By keeping these stages in mind, and by monitoring the temperature, one can learn the rhythm of one’s compost and will get better at waltzing.

At this point, I want to step back and say: I am definitely NOT an expert composter! I just have a lot of theory floating around in my head. The next step is to apply all that I have learned. Luckily, I have a compost pile in desperate need of attention at the AMI Urban Farm! Ben and Emily (my predecessors and the superhuman Fellows who established this farm last year) left for us a partially-started compost pile, lying dormant in the cold temperatures of winter, and just waiting for a new Fellow to come give it some love.

 [There I am, “giving the compost some love” by diligently checking the temperature.  ]

Because I have been so energized by my research, Trevor and Nick have let me take ownership of the compost pile, designating me as the Compost Manager for the time being. So far we have collaborated with the VSDB cafeteria to set aside food stuffs, and we have decided on a system which will work best for us (we hope).

Composting systems themselves vary widely, as you probably know, from pits, to piles, from wooden bins to plastic tumblers with a turning crank. Each person needs to decide what is best for their garden: what are your needs, your inputs, your time commitment and your willingness to put some sweat into this endeavor?  If you are interested in starting a compost pile, and are not sure where to start, you are in luck! I have created a simple flowchart with some basic questions you might want to ask yourself (below). I hope you feel invited to take a tour through it! Also below, you will find some more resources that I found handy throughout my recent compost studies. I have also been looking into the science of brewing compost tea, and using it as fertilizer and pest management. The learning never stops!

So if you ever want to dance with Decomposition, come find me- I’d be happy to introduce you.

A Few Resources:

Books: The Complete Compost Guide, by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin

Let it Rot!: The Gardener's Guide to Composting (Third Edition, by Stu Campbell

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