Ground to Ground

The Beautiful Inexactness of Composting

Annie objects to the smell; I wish I had become an environmental engineer.

From the top of the hill to the left we see a concrete slab where the organics are dumped. They will be mixed with a portion of the mountains of yard waste staged to the right and then piled up to form enormous static windrows. The 1100 cubic yards of material will be placed over 150 yards of aeration pipe to form rows that are 25 feet wide and 12 feet high. In six months to a year the finished compost will be sifted and sold as pure compost and various blends of compost, black dirt and sand.


Cucumber Pickle Recipe

Finding the right carbon-nitrogen ratio is an art, even for the professionals at Specialized Environmental Technologies, Inc. The front-end loader operators just have a feel for what and how much to add to the mixer. Was the Mackinac constructed with an equal dose of intuition? No. It’s just that making compost isn’t so much like building a bridge than it is like following my grandmother’s pickle recipe that calls for “a lump of alum the size of end of thumb.”

When I was new to composting, I wanted definitive answers to protect us from an invasion of raccoons that would no doubt threaten should we get it wrong. Until I accepted that it would be sufficient to wing it within certain parameters, not much could happen. So nothing did happen until the incongruence of throwing away a few carrot peels couldn’t be overcome by the stubborn habits of a throw-away culture with its peculiar notions of sanitation. Seeing that I was stashing the scraps in a coffee can on the counter, Brian brought home a county-subsidized standard-issue black plastic compost bin and thereby abruptly ended weeks of wavering between an expensive tumbler and screwing some free pallets together.

While fascinating, the tour of the commercial composting facility was not the focus of Resolution Compost 2012, a small program I was coordinating. That was to convince residents to embrace the inexactness of composting in their own backyards. In exchange for enduring a bit of training, participants could buy a deeply discounted compost bin, much like the one we had.

“No PowerPoint!”

My emphatic tone must have made Annie wonder if I was good hire.

More pressing than designing a workshop that wouldn’t bore the hell out of people was the need to find a way to unload 125 compost bins from the truck. We needed a forklift and this had me stumped. After pursuing a few dead ends, the coordinator of Recycling and Central Receiving at the University of St. Thomas (UST) said yes. Bob had the loading dock we needed, space to host the event and an enthusiastic Green Team hungry for a project. When the bins didn’t arrive as planned the morning before the event, it was Bob who called me with the bad news.


With Bob’s Green Team ready to offer a composting workshop, the glitch was a downer but ultimately not a showstopper thanks to the miracle of overnight delivery.

To prepare, the students attended a presentation by a Master Gardener. Not long into it, another trainer who was there to address a related topic jabbed a protesting index finger into the air and announced, “I disagree!” She was objecting to telling people about aerating the compost pile.

“I don’t aerate my pile and it works fine.” She said.

Trying to respect her personal experience while easing the tension, I said, “We want to make sure that beginners have the basics as to avoid problems, such as a bad smell that…”

“My compost doesn’t smell bad.” She said.

Still looking for a way out, I said, “Aerating the compost a little will make stuff break down faster. People might want to know that.”

“You’re making it too complicated.” She argued. “People won’t do it if it’s complicated. There are studies.” She said.

Something my piano tuner once told me came to mind.

“When a person buys a piano, the cost of maintenance is never mentioned because salesmen are trained to avoid saying anything that could jeopardize a deal.”

Turning my attention to the students who might have justifiably bolted had it not been for the sandwiches on the table thanks to Annie who knew how to fill a room, I suggested that we keep the workshop conversational. “For example, ‘Every now and then it would be a good idea to poke a few holes in the pile with a garden fork or even just a sharp stick.'” I said. “As you’re demonstrating how easy this is to do, you can mention that it’ll make the pile break down faster.” Still trying to satisfy my protester, I continued with the example, “‘Even if you do nothing, nature will take its course.'”

It was an unintended lesson in the beautiful inexactness of composting. Yet, straight answers are still useful.

How long will it take?

About nine months.

How do I balance the brown with the green?

Start with adding roughly three parts leaves to one part food scraps.

How often am I supposed to aerate the pile?

Whenever you add to it, poke it five times with a sharp stick.

These aren’t “right” answers. They’re just a place to start.


Claim ticket for compost workshop.

At the workshop, participants wandered between a set of hands-on, student-led stations that emphasized different aspects of composting such as what to put in it, aerating the pile and using the finished product. People could stay at each station as long as needed and then get a claim ticket punched. Once done, the ticket could be exchanged for a compost bin.

As a bonus, we included a station that showcased UST’s campus coffee ground composting program where the college uses a series of worm factories to handle the waste. The operation left an impression on me.

“Why couldn’t every coffee shop do this?”

My question would lead to planning a vermicomposting workshop with the man behind UST’s innovative project, Dr. Chester Wilson from the Department of Biology. Seeing that I was distressed when a no-fail blueprint continued to elude me as I searched the Internet for consistent instructions for making a cheap worm factory out of five-gallon buckets, Chester smiled and suggested that the contradicting information might suggest that the system is somewhat forgiving and could tolerate a certain degree of variation. He saw this as a bonus and seemed somewhat puzzled by the emphasis on “bedding.” The insistence on using coconut coir was particularly amusing.


A community gardener makes a worm composting bin at a workshop held at the University of St. Thomas in partnership with Merriam Station Community Garden.

A group of mostly community gardeners attended the workshop. We made worm bins using buckets I found on Craig’s List. Chester provided the worms and suggested that we begin by feeding the animals a handful or so of coffee grounds. We could give them more food once the worms were done, which we would know when we observed that the coffee filters were mostly gone.

Thinking of my grandmother’s pickles, I didn’t ask for more explicit instructions. Developing “a feel for it” was going to require experience and quite possibly a battle with some fruit flies. But in the end, with a little care, patience and enough curiosity, the worms would win.

One thought on “The Beautiful Inexactness of Composting

  1. You know that is so true. Each pile is different and while the balance of greens and browns is normally the same, what I do while it’s cooking really depends on what comes to mind. Sometimes I’ll poke it with a stick or have plastic drain pile threading through it, kicking it is good, or letting the chickens scratch through the pile for worms. When making a Summer pile, the kids are more likely to pee on it. All of those things are OK, and make it less like work and more like a bit of discovery and garden adventure. 🙂

    Great article BTW but no Powerpoint c’mon!!


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