How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Compost

On getting over childhood fears in the name of a better garden.

Composting

Are there worms in there? (Photo: David Freund/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Winter is the season of worrying and wondering for gardeners. For my dad, that usually meant a reckoning of his eggplant harvest, which was regularly decimated by flea beetles. This was despite the different alchemical sprays and protective barriers he housed the plants in. And there were books about tomato training systems to read, a basement hydroponic garden to flirt with (“All of the information I can find about hydroponics online is about growing marijuana”). There were new soil amendments to consider.

One winter, he decided to redouble his composting efforts by enlisting some squiggly help in the form of a mail-ordered mass of nightcrawlers. The worms, as thick as my adolescent pinky and creepily long, were ensconced in a long wooden box full of shredded newspaper. There, in the dark, damp cold of our Iowa basement, the writhing mass consumed and excreted the strips of newsprint, then consumed and excreted the digested pulp. They consumed and excreted, consumed and excreted, consumed and excreted, ad infinitum.

In the backyard, earthworms where a source of fascination: The way two shortened worms wriggled away after a long one was caught under the sharp edge of a scooping shovel; the predictable appearance of large specimens on the wet sidewalk after a summer storm, and how some of those worms were dehydrated into crunchy rings if they didn’t make it back into the grass before the sun came out. But in the basement, shut inside their coffin-like box, they were an image of terror for me—more pointedly then, and still somewhat so now.

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Picturing that compost sarcophagus as I write, it’s hard not to wonder if some worm-induced wound has kept me from working composting into my own gardening experiments. As I’ve gone from growing herbs in a hanging basket on a too shady apartment balcony in college to planning out a 5,000-square-foot garden in the backyard of my first house, I’ve never taken it upon myself to rot my kitchen scraps for the garden’s good. (Except for one small-scale effort that ended in a bucket of maggots.)

That’s not to say that I don’t use or think about compost. In summer, I troll Craigslist’s farm+garden section looking for people selling or, preferably, giving away the stuff. Bags of criminally expensive biodynamic dirt always tempt me at the nursery, and I’m still trying to track down this guy who takes care of horses in Los Angeles, who is rumored to give away their composted manure to gardeners. I’ve wondered how bat guano is harvested, if vegans are OK with eating vegetables that sucked up nutrients from applications of blood and bone meal, and considered the scatological affect that fertilizing my tomatoes with compost comprised of waste from the Los Angeles Zoo would have on the terroir of my backyard.   

The zoo-waste compost in question is made available to Angelenos for free, a give-away program that’s just one facet of the city’s multi-department composting efforts, which started out as a pilot program in 1996. Seventeen years later, 3,500 tons of organic material is made into compost at the Griffith Park Composting Facility annually. Like a backyard composting set up, the program is geared toward making waste into something usable. But in the country’s second-largest municipality, the waste isn’t just kitchen scraps. To make the compost, mulch from the Recreation and Parks department is mixed with “zoo doo,” as the city calls it, and Hyperion wet cake—the sludge that comes from the largest waste water plant in the city. The mixture heats up to temperatures that top out at 145 degrees as it rots in aerated piles over the course of 15 days. The facility produces about 300 cubic yards per month.

Turns out that manure from elephants and other herbivores wasn’t the most provocative ingredient in the compost I spread over my backyard last year: That sludge, the “wet cake” is anaerobically digested sewer waste.     

Strangely, that freaks me out far less than my dad’s nightcrawlers, and composting the treated waste is a far better solution than pouring the raw stuff into the Pacific—which was standard practice until 1925. Forty-five tons of biosolids are funneled into the compost program on a daily basis, a small percentage of the volume Hyperion handles in 24 hours. Far more—500 tons a day—is destined for the nearly 5,000 acres of animal-feed crops at the city-owned Green Acres farm in nearby Kern County. That practice has led to a legal headache: Measure E, which bans the practice, has bounced around state courts for the last six years; the latest ruling, issued last month, may kill the Measure altogether.

Legal challenges aside, the practice of utilizing waste for agricultural purposes is increasingly common. In a recent story about Kansas City, MO’s biosolids program, NPR reported that processing half of a city’s waste into fertilizer is close to the average in America, according to Ned Beecher of the North East Biosolids and Residuals Association. “Cities from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles now sell or use most of their human waste,” according to Beecher. “Much of it ends up as fertilizer for hay, corn, soybean, wheat or grape crops.”

For what it’s worth, the U.S. Composting Council tests TOPGRO, as the City calls the compost (there are plans to package it for retail sale), for heavy metals and pathogens like salmonella. The most recent Compost Technical Data Sheet posted on the Bureau of Sanitation’s website, from last October, is for a batch that was free of pathogens, heavy metals and physical contaminants, like “sharps content.” It’s good to know that it’s not broken beer bottles and fecal coliforms that are spurring the growth in gardens and parks around L.A.

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There’s an empty lot on Mission Rd., just east of downtown Los Angeles, where, amongst numerous auto-glass repair shops, Angelenos can go pick up free compost on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you hand your ID over to the firefighter manning the card table, the only spare sign of official business at the give-away site, you can borrow a shovel.

People come with pick-up trucks, with garbage bags, with the trunk of their sedan lined with heavy blue tarp, and they take their fill from the mounds of dull black dirt, which still steams with the heat of decomposition when you turn over a shovelful.

The thoroughly prepared arrive not only with gloves, containers and shovels, but with facemasks, too. TOPGRO has a fierce, rank smell, like the amplified aroma of decaying leaves on the forest floor mixed with what must be the combined scent of Los Angeles’ own shit—that of residents of the city and zoo alike. It’s more the presence of that smell, which lingers for weeks (in your car, on your gloves, in and around your plants), rather than the knowledge of where it comes from that pushed me to take advantage of another aspect of the City’s composting program this year: I’m planning to buy a $20 bin from the city and take a free class in backyard composting class.

The composting workshops, held twice a month, can draw as many as 60 or 70 people, depending on the weather, according to Michael Crossely, who runs the program for the city. The city buys the bins in bulk, and sells them back to Angelenos below cost.

I’ll dump my kitchen scraps into the bin, mixing them with grass clippings, leaves or other dry organic material (skipping that step is how I ended up with maggots before), leaving it to rot into rich fertilizer for my garden. No more hours wasted searching for free compost on Craigslist, reliving wormy childhood nightmares or spending too long pondering the connection between my tomatoes and the city’s sewage. 

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