I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Monday, May 10, 2010

Trash Pile or Compost?

Composting has always kind of been a mystery to me. How do the slimy egg shells and the grainy coffee grind turn into that beautiful soft nourishing stuff you buy in the plastic bags every spring in Kmart’s garden center. I do not get it. I associate composting with the greasy nasty bucket my paternal grandmother kept beside the kitchen counter. I was really too young to remember what actually happened to the stuff in that bucket but what I do remember is that anything that was food scrap of any kind went in it and it was gross and dirty. I also remember that if you threw your pop can in there you were in trouble too. :)

In spite of these less than pleasant associations with composting Fred and I have realized that we, as a family, produce exorbitant amounts of trash every year. While we have managed to only put out one trash can full every two weeks or so, greatly cutting down on what we use to produce, we know that we are still throwing away some stuff that could be composted. Not only are we creating more trash in the landfill than is necessary, we are robbing ourselves of a valuable resource and we are spending more money than we need to every year in potting soil for our back porch garden and flower beds.

So how do we economically change? That is our big question. We have read several articles on composting and the best (and least stinky) ways to do so. We thought at first we would like to have one of those composting barrels that you see advertised in all the gardening magazines. You know the ones, they look like big green drums turned on their side and they are attached to a metal frame with a hand crank on one side and here is the kicker there is always a nice looking, smartly dressed young woman standing off to the side holding the handle, ready to give the barrel a crank. Or, my personal favorite is when her designer-garden-glove-clad hand is reaching in the barrel with a huge smile on her face and a velvety handful of dirt coating her glove with a caption like: “Less mess and no smell! Make your own nourishing top soil!”

Well let me tell you, those barrels are NOT cheap and they are way out of our already thin stretched budget for the year. (If you have been following this blog you know that we are making baby steps, trying to improve the quality of our lives and move towards a smaller ecological footprint in our little family. I wonder how people who want to be “green” all of a sudden just wake up and completely remodel their lives? It is expensive!) I will say this, I promise that my grandma, a school cook, and my grandpa, a mechanic, who raised nine children and most all of their own food, did most certainly NOT have a thousand dollar composting barrel. I am pretty sure the bucket that sat off beside the stove came from the feed store and had several other lives before it made it to grandma’s kitchen. As it becomes trendier to be “green” it also becomes more expensive and our consumer driven culture urges us to spend more and more on gadgets and tools, ultimately defeating the purpose of going green in the first place!

I find that as I try to curb my “gotta have it” mentality instead of wanting/needing to spend all kinds of money on new clothes, new shoes, new purses and new jewelry I have moved towards wanting to spend on new gadgets and “green” toys. All a company has to do is label something as “GREEN” and dress it up with a little slick eco-friendly looking packaging and in my zealousness to do-it-right-right-now I find myself drawn to it like a crow to something shiny, whether we need it or not. As I begin to recognize this trait in myself (and in Fred) this is something we have decided to work on together. We have to be able to curb that initial desire to buy it, get it, have it right now and discern what we actually need to further our goals versus what we think we need based on clever advertising or societal programming. We wonder, if we are constantly buying more stuff aren’t we just continuing the problem, just redirecting it into a different venue?

So back to my conundrum: How did grandma turn all that trash into top soil? Or did she even bother? They raised chickens and a small garden and at times other animals. Did those scraps even make it into some kind of compost or were there even more immediate needs for them? I do not know and I cannot ask grandma or grandpa they have both been gone for several years. For all I know those scraps may have just been fed to one of the many dogs who came and went through their yard. I don’t know. What I do know is that Fred and I would like to use the scraps from our own kitchen as compost, but how? We know for sure we are not spending a thousand dollars on a slick home compositing machine with all the bells and whistles. So what do we do?

For years, before his death, Fred’s dad installed car lifts in garages all around the state. The byproduct of that career is a building full of gadgets and supplies (aka junk) that sits on the creek bank of our property. That building used to be the Sandford & Son bane of my existence; however, as we try to build things ourselves and become more self-sufficient as a family, that building is quickly becoming the Aladdin’s cave of our world. In it we found almost all of the supplies to build our chicken coop, we only had to buy a few pressure treated landscape timbers, some hinges and a can of paint. We have found the paint for our beehives and the fuel for our smoker as well as a myriad of other treasures. So could we find the raw materials needed to build our own composting machine? Fred dove into the building to find out.

At first it looked promising, upon initial inspection Fred found a couple of fifty gallon drums that would be a good size not only for our dreamed of composting machine but also for a rain bucket that we hoped to use to catch run off for use in watering our plants and animals. Upon closer inspection though, the barrels had suspicious and unidentifiable smells. Not knowing what was previously stored in the barrels, and having no way to ask Fred’s dad, we are afraid to use them to house anything that will be consumed or that will be part of the chain of consumption by our family. After all, it would be pretty bad if we went to all this effort only to find out in the long run that we had poisoned ourselves and our whole family with the compost we had so diligently saved.

That left us back at square one, do we invest in the compost barrel or do we try something else? After more research and reading I came across the website of some local people living “off-grid.” Frankly, their idea of “off-grid” and my idea of “off-grid” are extremely different but what I learned while looking at their page and their pictures was: they composted without the aid of a barrel or any man-made equivalent in which to house their waste. Instead they buried the scraps and unused bio-degradables under a leaf pile on their property. The leaves acted as a natural thermal blanket to trap the heat and help speed the process along and also provided some barrier to the smell of rot emanating from the pile Eureka! That was it! We thought we had our answer.

We have a ready-made spot on the lower corner of our fence line where the leaves from all our trees seem to drift and settle. We thought we could merely lift the leaves and begin throwing all our bio-degradable waste underneath. The added bonus was: it would not change the look of our yard at all, no giant drum sitting off the back porch in constant need of cranking only some leaves to occasionally stir. Well this worked out for about five hot minutes or until we let Louie out to go to the restroom.

Our sweet dumb dog, who on a good day could not smell a cheese burger in front of his face, zeroed in on the compost pile like a fighter pilot. Thank heaven we had not put a bunch of trash out there or, not only would our yard look like a war zone, but we would probably also had been faced with huge vet bills from a sick dog. Needless to say, Louie hit the compost pile at ninety miles an hour, slinging trash and chicken poop all over himself and the lawn, yay. Compost pile in the corner? FAIL.

We may be back to the barrel idea out of sheer necessity. We cannot have Louie eating his weight in compost ever time we let him out and we obviously cannot trust him to resist the urge to roll in everything stinky in the yard. So we are back to the drawing board on the compost. The thousand dollar barrel is still out. We may try and make a cheaper version of it ourselves. Another option is to use some old sections of chain link fence to section off the leaf corner and stick with that plan. The problem there is if we fence off that corner the leaves may just gather on the outside of the fence instead of drifting into the corner like they have done in the past. We are not giving up on our dreams of velvety rich dirt made in our own backyard; we have just been kicked back to go. I do not want to spend hours picking up leaves and moving them into the fence every day because frankly, the more self-sufficient we become the more time consuming these activities are, at least for us in our novice state.

It is a little frustrating and a little funny. I have found that it helps to have a sense of humor about all of this. Yes, we are serious in our pursuit, but are we perfect? NO WAY! Are we bumbling klutzes who have no clue what they are doing and are stumbling about in the dark? ABSOLUTELY! Besides, who would not think it was funny to see a dog tearing around the yard in circles looking for all intent purposes like he just won the doggy lotto with a mouthful of day old chicken poop covered news paper?! I know, gross, but it was pretty funny. We keep plugging along, in the immortal words of my mother “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (In my head I always added “or bitter” to the end of that quip!)


Here is a funny little update for all of you following the bee-drama:
Fred and I have been asked by the president of the KVBA to help this week with a presentation to a local Girl Scout troop. They must be desperate for speakers! Ha! He specifically told Fred that they would like me to say something because he thinks the Girl Scouts will be more responsive to information coming from a female. Um, ok? In my head I picture it going something like this:

“Uh, hi, I’m Autumn. Beekeeping is great. I’ve killed half my bees in less than four months and I’ve been stung repeatedly in bizarre places. I’ve managed to trap one queen, possibly kill another and murder an entire split. Doesn’t beekeeping sound like the career for you? Please don’t ask me any questions because I seriously doubt I can give you an answer that even remotely sounds believable.”

Yes, I am being dramatic, I know it probably will not be that bad. But I seriously doubt I have much critical knowledge to impart to a bunch of Girl Scouts about beekeeping. Come back to read about it, I will update if they do not burn me at the stake!

Much love and thanks for reading,



  1. A black garbage can is probably a good solution. plastic is not so green, but it should work well and be easy to agitate. I'm dealing with an identical dilemma right now.

  2. We always had a compost pile for household scraps. But once we got dogs, forget it. We kept saying that we were going to make one, but never did. We share your dilemma about what kind of compost system makes sense.

    My problem with compost piles that are not contained is that they attract rodents and other unwanted animals. I've been reading some reviews on compost systems, and some of the highest rated ones are $200. or less. $200. is still a chunk of change, but you could end up spending that on an exterminator, if rats decided to take up permanent residence.

    We do have large compost piles that are made up of all of our horse manure. But they don't seem to attract critters.

    : ) Donna


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