I finally got around to the long-overdue chore of managing my compost bin just in time for fall planting, and got a nasty surprise…. 

Listen while you read to “Fairy Tale” from TPO’s “10 Strings” album. While my foray into the compost bin was driven by necessity more than curiosity, what awaited me inside was still pretty scary!

Sunday, September 09, 2012

We’ve been doing vermicomposting (earthworms) ever since I set up a container garden in three wine barrels when we lived in south central L.A., and when we moved to Chinatown in 2009 and I finally had my very first *real* in-the-ground garden (I’ll eventually get around to writing about this), I set up a regular compost bin as well, and then decommissioned the worm bin since we had such a thriving population of earthworms in the garden thanks to Chi’s good work in taking care of them.  The compost bin has been working splendidly so far, but was getting a little too neglected since it’s been so hot this summer (2012) that I haven’t felt much like being out in the withering heat in the concrete parking area behind our duplex to deal with it (especially since the neighbors buggered up the new hose and nozzle that we had bought (AGAIN!) so now it leaks all over the place, making it an especially irksome pain in the ass to water anything with it).  Up until very recently (past couple weeks or so) my compost bin has smelled actually rather pleasant — kind of sweet, and not disgusting-rotten-sweet — which I attribute to being careful about what we put in it.  However recently it has started smelling nasty, which means that things have gone south.  A putrid smell typically indicates that an anaerobic condition has taken over, which is not a good thing.

Anyway, the first step of this production was to make the compost bin readily accessible, which meant making my way through an increasingly dense network of spider webs and cutting the lower branches of the little palm tree that has been growing bigger and bigger in the concrete block enclosure housing the plum tree and another unruly large plant in the back corner of the parking area.  I then clipped off a few branches of the plum tree and found another plum ripening on a low branch next to the trunk within easy reach.  Wow!  It’s been a long time since I could stand upright next to the compost bin!  Now I could get in and turn over the contents to aerate it.

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The big mess. The compost bin is in the back corner next to the little palm tree

The way I manage the compost is as follows: we have a little trash can with a small bucket inside that we keep in the kitchen to put kitchen scraps into as they are produced (fruit/vegetable waste, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea leaves, stale/mouldy bread, rotten produce that has been in the fridge for too long, stuff like that).

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Kitchen scraps being dumped into the compost bucket

Next to the compost bin out back I keep a 30-gallon plastic trash bin full of dirt.  The dirt comes from the containers I have out back that when I turn them over and replant them, I take out the top ⅓ of the dirt and put it in the compost dirt bin and replace it with fresh potting soil.  I mix a bunch of organic fertilizer into the soil remaining in the containers since it is typically depleted by the time I turn over the containers for the next season’s shift.

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The dirt bin is underneath that bit of scaffolding with all the banana trash piled on top of it

There is another 15-gallon plastic container that I use to store “brown matter”, i.e., dried-out clippings from the garden (leaves and soft stuff.  I don’t bother composting woody branches since they take so long to break down).  Those go in the yard trash bin that gets hauled out to the curb each week, although recently I have begun saving larger branches since I plan on eventually acquiring an outdoor fireplace now that we finally have some patio furniture out back.

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The “brown matter” bin full of (mostly) chopped-up banana trash

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Xmas tree trunk and plum branches being saved for firewood

Since the beginning of this year a considerable pile of brown matter has accumulated: a large-ish Christmas tree someone had dumped at the curb after the holidays that was never picked up by the trash truck so I salvaged it, intending to strip the needles off to compost them and improve the PH of our soil, which tends to be too alkaline for most edible garden plants; a bunch of banana trash (leaves I’d removed as they turn brown, and the main stems of three banana plants I had taken out after they produced fruit and died off.)  Every few months or so I would spend about 30 minutes sitting in the baking sun stripping fir needles, and by that point had only succeeded in reducing that tree by a scant 30% or so, and with the addition of the banana trunks and leaves, that part of the parking area had become a gigantic mess.  The “brown matter trash can” was also full, so it was high time for a major operation.

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Xmas tree and banana trunks awaiting composting. The banana stalk was harvested before the bananas were fully mature so they weren’t good to eat, so I composted that one.

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More banana trunks

Well…….I took the lid off the bin, stuck the spading fork in, turned over one spadeful of compost, and OMG!!!!  GROSS!!!!  (horrified shriek)  The top of the pile of stuff inside seemed to come alive with a teeming mass of maggoty, grubby-looking creatures!  It was so disgusting and unexpected that I nearly slammed the lid back down and ran away screaming my head off.  I decided that was enough turning, and it was time to change tasks and have another go at that Christmas tree and the banana trash.  I had been wondering why the resident population of flies seemed to be exploding recently and I’d never seen so many spider webs in one place before.

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Chopping up the banana stalks

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Stripping the needles off the Xmas tree branches is one tedious, time-consuming effort!

Within the next 1.5 hours I reduced most of the banana stuff (all the leaves, plus about 60% of the oldest of the stalks – the Cuban Red) to little pieces that filled the brown matter container twice and stripped all the fir tree branches that had been lying on the ground since the last time I worked on that tree a couple months ago.  I dumped the first lot of banana trash and all the fir needles in on top of the horde of maggots, and then practically gave myself a hernia dumping the remaining third of the 30-gallon trash bin of dirt over the banana stuff and put the lid back on.  I then got the broom and swept up the remaining debris, leaving a big clean spot that had been heretofore occupied by that huge, confused pile of yard waste.  I’m sure our landlord will be pleased with my efforts.

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A motherlode of brown matter and dirt dumped on top of the maggots to suffocate them and bring the compost back into balance

I researched the situation the next day at the day job and it seems that the way I handled it will make short work of the maggots, i.e., they’ll suffocate underneath all the stuff I dumped on top of them, and adding a bunch of “brown” matter (all the dried-out leaves I cut up, plus tinder-dry fir needles I’d stripped, topped by a load of dirt and then all watered in well is supposed to return the happy balance my compost had previously enjoyed (i.e., the sort-of sweet smell that indicates all is well), and do away with the putrid, anaerobic smell it has now.  I hope all these creepy, nasty buggy things don’t come seething out like Pandora’s Box when I go to put the compost in the garden in a couple weeks or I’ll be having compost nightmares forever after!

Suffice it to say that compost management is NOT a particularly enjoyable aspect of gardening for me (especially given the huge colony of large cockroaches that has taken up residence inside the bin!), however I put up with it because it is the environmentally responsible thing to do, and plus, getting that stuff for free beats the hell out of having to pay big bucks for really expensive organic soil amendments at the garden center, which in my experience practically always end up being of conspicuously inferior quality (even the ones from reputable brands) to the compost I make at home from our own kitchen scraps and garden trash.

That said, the maintenance burden does get to be a bit much sometimes.  In addition to the routine maintenance chores, there is always some damn thing falling apart and going to shit around here, and while most of these piddly, tedious, nuisance tasks are simple and of short duration, the sum total of all of them together is a totally overwhelming, monstrous burden that sucks all of my energy away and chews up all my RAM.  I am well and truly sick of spending my whole life staggering under an overwhelming maintenance burden and overhead…not only financially, but physically as well because I am spread much too thin.  I am fed up with looking at sickly, dying, neglected houseplants since I never seem to find enough time or energy to take proper care of them, so they end up looking much like the way I feel most of the time.

I have to keep reminding myself that having to spend time each week handling cockroach- and maggot-infested putrid vegetable matter is a small price to pay for having freshly-picked organically grown things to eat just a few steps out my door; and it is part of a larger ecosystem that helps forestall another recurring and detestable pain in the ass: having to keep clearing the fridge of really expensive rotting veggies from the farmers’ market since they are not often sold in the amounts that I actually need, and then having to spend more time cleaning up the mess they leave.  If I can keep the garden in a functional, productive state year-round (perfectly attainable here if an appropriate level of effort is made), and the more stuff I can produce at home, the less stuff there will be going to shit in the refrigerator, and that particular nightmare will nearly disappear.  It won’t completely though, given Chi’s inveterate proclivity to shit up everything he touches, including the fridge.

I know I urgently need to totally re-engineer my timeline and get the routine maintenance chores on some sort of schedule, but I have a feeling that even if I did, I would still end up with a situation in which I spend every second of my time that I’m awake dealing with shit, the majority of which is caused by Chi.  And sitting in front of my computer doing practically nothing because I’m too burned out on dealing with endless shit to do anything else.

Why do I have to spend all of my time on weekends dealing with shit?  Because I’m busy dealing with shit all week at my day job and dealing with my husband’s endless shit the rest of the time.  I need a new life.

One disaster at a time….

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