Thursday, March 11, 2010

Urban Composting

Tonight I attended an urban composting lecture at the City of Chicago's Center for Green Technology. For years, I have passed this center and I have always wondered what it looked like inside, and what programs they offered. When I recently I picked up a brochure at the library advertising spring educational programs -- including the one tonight on urban composting -- and decided to sign myself up. I wish I could attend some of the talks at the Family Farmed Expo going on at UIC, but my work schedule prevents it -- all I could squeeze in this week was a nighttime lecture. The Center itself is located on Sacramento in what appears to be a former industrial site near the train tracks. It has a killer view of downtown from the rear and is a green living oasis: rain barrels, solar panels, native plantings, the list goes on! Definitely worth a stop if you are over in these parts visiting the Garfield Park Conservatory.

The speaker for tonight's lecture was Bill Shores of Shores Garden Consulting. He had a long, well-designed power point presentation that covered nearly the entire spectrum of composting. I especially enjoyed his emphasis on "passive systems". So often, I feel like composting experts promote only complicated, labor-intensive methods, or else discuss specific bins that come at hefty price tags. Mr. Shores reassured the audience that just keeping leaves in plastic bags for 9 months would yield great compost. He lingered on the ease and benefits of sheet mulching (re-branded of late as "lasagna gardening"). On the topic of turning piles, he shrugged and called it "optional". He argued that microfauna, like pill bugs, do sufficient "turning" of the pile. I love an expert who makes their topic simple and accessible!

Shores did suggest multiple times that shredding was key to a well-maintained and efficiently decomposing pile. He showed some cheap options (a leaf vacuum, an electric mower) but then showed his shredder of choice: a big motor-driven shredder/chipper built in Wisconsin. It comes with a hefty price tag (upwards of $800) and he suggested going in on it with some neighbors...if only I had like-minded folks living on my block! Maybe I can find a big-box or hardware store that rents a similar device for a low hourly price. As it stands now, I'll just continue to run over my debris with the push mower before adding it to my piles. It made me wistful for places like Berkeley, CA where the public libraries also loan out household tools. I wish we had an urban garden tool library, where Chicagoans could borrow shredders, rototillers, electric and push mowers, etc. It is silly, when you think about it, that house after house, block after block, owns the same expensive equipment that is used only for a few hours every week, if that often.

Shores is a big fan of worm bins, and he had a lot of interesting pictures of the way he has integrated them into the urban garden he helps to run. I was interested that he has started trying to winter over some bins outside. I wish he had more time to discuss how he insulated the bins, and how well his worm population survived. The best tip he gave -- and one I haven't heard anywhere else-- was to "pre-digest" food scraps for the worms, by leaving them to anaerobic bacteria in a covered plastic bucket for a few weeks. Then you feed those softened scraps to the worms. This makes sense to me, since I have been noticing that some foods linger in the bin for quite sometime, no matter how finely I chop them. He spent a lot of time discussing fruit-fly control -- from my research, seems like beneficial nematodes are the best option, and he mentioned these too. I did check up on this and it seems like the fruit flies are a nuisance to humans, but do no harm to the worms themselves. Currently, he is spraying weekly Bt for control -- I am skittish of additional maintenance activities and additional cost. If I need to, I'll use a homemade fruit fly trap, but so far, so good (knock on wood).

I was able to bring up my concern to him that a family who cooks a vegetable-heavy diet at home most nights of the week simply can't rely on a single worm bin for all of their composting needs. He conceded that "probably six" bins would be needed in that case, and when I brought up the issue of space efficiency and apartment dwellers, he countered that the bins could be placed in otherwise neglected areas like crawl spaces. I appreciated his honesty -- I am beginning to bristle a bit at all of the brochures that present one bin as the answer to all composting needs. You either must have an outdoor system too, or you need to be ready to ramp up the bins as the worm population grows. Either way, it is more work than one single 30-gallon container, especially if it is going to be a genuine effort at composting and not just a fun science project.

The lecture was a survey of most of the methods I already use -- I have three different styles of outdoor bins, a vermiculture set-up and I have started sheet mulching (my first bed is pictured above - I am trying to "cook" it down with black plastic). I still felt like it was useful to hear tips from an expert, and I loved all of the pictures he showed of the various gardens and composting systems he maintains. Some of his salvaged wood bins are quite attractive, more so than my black plastic tumbler or my giant mesh "playpen". If I have any leftover leaves this season, maybe I will try the "leave it in the plastic bag" method. How to convince my neighbor -- who already shudders at my bins -- that a stack of plastic bags isn't an eyesore?

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