An equation for compost

At the beginning of the universe, there is a time when energy and matter are one and everything is smushing about namelessly and without form, creating everything else we hold so precious, the very stuff of stars and even us down here on this ball of rock and lava. This is the closest I can get to describing what I feel when I churn my compost two or three times a week. You feel like an alchemist _ yes, that mystical forebear of chemistry practised in the middle ages _ watching stuff that was once kitchen waste, straw and leaves mere weeks ago transmute into something as basic and fecund and nutritious as soil. The alchemists never made any gold, if only they had quantum physics and gazillion-dollar Star Trek replicators.

An organic gardening tip: My Hippeastrum started doing well when I gave it some egg water. What happened was that I was boiling eggs and one of them cracked and made a mess in the water. I filtered out the water and gave it to the plants. Worked out well.

But in making compost, I have been able to create something a little more valuable, at least to me, than gold _ black soil that I have often heard people describe as black gold. Isn’t it strange? Words like nutritious and gold being used for what is basically dirt. Let me also add ‘wholesome’ to my pile of adjectives. What amazes me is that composting is a way of mimicking that process at the beginning of it all _ transmutation _ matter gets churned, microbes and little insects have a feast, poop and heat is released in the form of energy and what remains is something that looks different from what went in. Pure physics and gorgeous biology. For the life of me, I wouldn’t be able to write an equation for compost though it really deserves one, something like E=mc2 or the Drake equation that predicts the existence of intelligent life out in the galaxy and beyond.

Compost made in a black garbage bag. It is brown in colour due to the sawdust, which was easier to handle inside a garbage bag and also takes a while to break down.

The ancients understood the magic of composting at the dawn of settled agriculture thousands of years ago and it is incredible how all this knowledge disappeared in the middle of the modern era, sometime in the 20th century with the rise of the chemical fertiliser and pesticide industry. The economists always point out how without these chemicals we could not possibly have fed a planet full of people. But while doing so, we have also killed a lot of soil, and along with pests also decimated pollinating insects that had evolved in collusion with flowering plants over millions of years. And let’s not forget the beneficial microbial, fungal and insect life living in soils. Millions have been fed, but somehow our daily nutrition is now riddled with gaping holes that affect us in more ways than we even know of and these holes have had to be filled in with synthetic vitamin capsules. That is just not ideal, even for the economists.

Maybe this modern shift away from soil has something to do with the way we love to pour concrete over everything _ that ultimate construction garnish that defines our modernity. As the cities I lived in became more urban, laid down more road, and the cement and iron fortresses tore into the grounds and skies, there was one common indicator that the native soil was disappearing. It was the dust. Friction, from millions of feet, tyres and just the wind, grinds on the concrete. Fine particles are released into the air, which rub against more cement and the process goes on, and a lot of it just flies in through our windows onto our shelves and into our lungs. Dust is also the result of denudation, when the weeds and plants are pulled from the ground for whatever reason and the top soil left bare is stripped by the wind. So many ancient civilisations have fallen to this slow dust and been buried. The dust of our Indian cities is a spectre that we perhaps ignore to our peril. We should see it as a warning suspended in fine particles carried in the wind.

Compost made in a clay pot

Here is a recipe for compost: I don’t have much space living as I do in a concrete fortress. But one year, I even managed to make some compost in a black garbage bag, not an ideal situation, but something was better than nothing. Although, I do have a 165 sq-ft terrace balcony that makes composting just about possible. I now have clay pots for the job, but when I was using garbage bags and plastic buckets I had less of a problem managing the critters that are inevitably attracted to the process. Within the 30 litre lidded plastic bucket or a largish black garbage bag (remember black absorbs heat), the compost cooking was faster as there was more condensation and humid heat. But getting air into the mixture was a difficulty. When I kept the critters out, I also kept out a lot of air. Now I use environment-friendly clay pots made by cottage-industry potters, but all the problems got reversed. The lids are all ill-fitting, so ants to beetles every journeyman insect likes to party in my compost. The clay is porous so I constantly have to moisten the pile. From all this, I learned to cover the pile in the pots with a layer of thick newspaper. It keeps out the flies and allows the heat to build in the pile without escaping.

But I guess, when you decide to compost even in the close quarters of an apartment, you have to make your peace at least with some of these critters, my amnesty, however, ends with cockroaches and rats _ don’t want them anywhere near my pile. I take precautions like never adding anything sweet, processed, cheesy, fruity, starchy, fishy, meaty or bony to my pile _ not even potato skins, though I do add the skins of beetroots. I have noticed that if the banana skin count exceeds a certain upper limit, there is the possibility of attracting nesting black ants. Though I said nothing fruity, I add banana skins for its potassium content. Once I forgot that tomato was a fruit and started adding all those squishy tomato cores and was rewarded with a terrible fruit fly problem. I had flies in my eyes and hair. I have stopped adding the cores, but I still add the ends or stubs of tomato that we cut off on the chopping board (as for the body, everything in moderation for the compost too). Remember that the compost pile like your body needs different coloured veggie and flowery remains, well, almost like your body. Different colours mean different pigments and these break down into varied micro-nutrients.

One of my composting pots (from dailydump.org)

It took me years to master my compost recipe. It was trial and error, which I mostly enjoyed, before I found the mixture that suits me best. I have heard chefs say that their fascination with cooking began as they watched their mothers cook. It was the same for me, except with composting. My mother has a garden, and she would bury all the kitchen scraps, including fish bones, around the garden. She didn’t have any particular method, but I could see that the soil in those patches turned black and crumbly in around six months. And some of our fruit trees gave more munificently after they were fed thus. On my own living in apartments, I found quickly that I needed a recipe.

And this is what works for me now. I start building in alternate layers of brown and green. The greens are formed by a mixture of kitchen scraps _ tea leaves, coffee grounds, vegetable odds and ends from the chopping board (cut-up peels from onions, garlic, leeks, orange/lemon, discarded stems of spinach, broccoli, peppers etc) powdered eggshells and cut flowers from the vases. I collect the kitchen scraps in plastic bags and store in the freezer. When I need them, I take out the bags and leave to warm up till the scraps start to smell vaguely like pickles before adding to the pile. Freezing also does the job of shattering and shredding the kitchen scraps. Those large ice crystals can really break up the insides of veggies. Remember, compost is not supposed to smell bad, if this happens, I quickly add sawdust. This always works for some scientific reason that I have not been able to fathom. Perhaps, it absorbs the excess moisture that the anaerobic bacteria need, thus creating more space for air to get into the pile and restore balance, but I don’t know for sure.

The browns are made up of crispy brown, fallen leaves, straw, sawdust and cut-up egg cartons. In between these layers, I like to add what are called compost accelerators. They speed up the cooking process. An accelerator could be any one of these things _ powders of chamomile or valerian, dried cow dung, a teaspoon or two of old expired Spirulina freed from their capsules, half-formed or fully done compost from previous batches and sweepings and prunings from my balcony garden. Sometimes I add alkaline lime (calcium hydroxide), if there’s too much acidic lime (lemon rinds) in the compost.

After going to the trouble of building these layers, I promptly go at them with a pair of garden forks, stirring everything together adding a little water if I have to. But never let it get too wet or you’ll end up with gloop. I will continue adding these layers and stirring this active pile two or three times a week, till it grows to fill about two-thirds of the container, then I stop adding to it, but continue turning the pile two or three times a week. I will then start a new pile in whatever other container I can find. For me, composting stops during the Indian monsoon. Living in an apartment, space is limited and as long as it is not raining, the composting carries on in the open-to-the-sky terrace/balcony. Once the rains start in June, I am forced to cover all the previous year’s work in tarpaulin and leave everything to mature for about six months. By November, I open up my pots or buckets to find nice sweet smelling black earth that the plants love.

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4 Responses to An equation for compost

  1. lisaakari says:

    Great article! Do you use worms at all in your food composting? (either garbage bag or the crocks)? I’m still learning and it was interesting to see that you have your personal mix recipe down. 🙂 I hope I get the hang of it as well as you have.

    • an earthian says:

      I don’t use worms, though I am fascinated by them and some have found their way into my containers from potted plants I have bought from nurseries. In regular composting without worms, if the compost got too hot, they would probably die in the excess heat. I don’t think in vermicomposting the mix gets too hot, you would know more about that than I would since you are already experimenting. In my mother’s garden there were a lot of earthworms. They would come up top to the surface in rainy weather and leave their casts above ground, and I would walk around with a pail to collect these for the plants. You seem to be already coming up with your own workable solutions _ so hang in there.

  2. I love how this post is so much more than instructions for making compost.

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