No Impact Week: Stop Stalling, Start Composting

Want to shrink your eco-footprint the easy way? Here's an idea so simple, it's mostly about what you don't have to do.

Don't leave out bags of leaves by the curb. Stop crowding the landfill with your egg shells, artichoke leaves and corn husks. Erase the shame of all those cucumbers that seemed like such a great idea at the farmer's market but rotted before you got around to making gazpacho. Make your grass clippings, peony stalks, and pea vines disappear the easy way. That's right. Start a compost pile.

Yes, you knew that one, but do you do it? Most people considering compost tune out when they start hearing about aerators, watering schedules, and getting worms by overnight delivery, and rightly so. All that stuff makes the project sounds like more work than having a baby, with even less promise that it will support you in your dotage.

Nonsense. It's true you can turn compost into a science, investing in turners, tillers, elevated storage bins, long-handled pokers with built-in thermometers, and doubtless a host of other implements with which I am as yet unacquainted.

The question is, why bother? Unless you're planning to sell the stuff and need a lot of useless information for the catalog copy, who cares about the core temperature at the center of the pile?

For those who simply want to find a guilt-free way to get rid of a lot of organic stuff that the garbage collectors are increasingly reluctant to take, I offer the neglectful alternative. It does require a small patch of private property, but that's something we actually have a lot of in this country. If you start now, you'll be ready to take part in my favorite post-Halloween ritual, described below.

Here's the drill:
Find a neglected piece of ground, not so sheltered that it never gets any rain, and designate that area as compost central. Around three feet square should do it unless you have many deciduous trees, in which case you should plan on something slightly bigger. You can create a bin by making a circle of chicken wire, but you don't really need to. Convenient access is the only requirement. Do not let yourself be seduced by those fancy plastic bins advertised in the garden catalogs. They're expensive, they're ugly, and they're much too small.

Once you have chosen your location, start piling all your organic garbage there. Right now. Gather grass clippings. Collect dead flowers. Trim bushes. Pull weeds, as long as they're not ones that will reseed when you use the compost.

And then, before you do another thing, DUMP THEM ON THE PILE.

Now go back into the kitchen. Get a leakproof bucket or canister that's not too ugly and keep it on the counter or under the sink, ready to fill with vegetable scraps. Admire it while you drink a cup of coffee. Put the coffee grounds inside. Make a salad. Put the tomato cores and carrot scrapings inside. No meat, please, unless you really like raccoons and other vermin. But yes to stale bread and onion peels and that tablespoon of leftover peas that you will never use.

In the cool of the evening, when the swallows fill the twilight and the first stars begin to appear, take the bucket outside AND DUMP IT ON THE PILE.

Now take it to the next level. This time of year, when fallen leaves crunch underfoot, cancel the lawn service. Ignore those expensive paper bags or special containers many municipalities now require for leaf disposal. Bring out the old-fashioned rakes, have fun jumping in the leaf piles, and then gather the crumbled remnants onto a tarp or into a plastic bin, haul them to the compost heap, and DUMP THEM ON THE PILE.

Once you have mastered this basic move you are ready for the next step.


Do nothing. Even as you continue to apply miscellaneous vegetation to the top of the compost, the mass will mysteriously grow smaller. Over the winter even the most gigantic mound of organic garbage will shrink by half. Come spring, friendly worms and beetles will appear on their own, ready to chew through your refuse and turn it into potting soil.

If you have enough patience, your complete lack of effort will be richly rewarded. In a year or so you will have several inches of finest mulch at the bottom of your pile. If you want to use it, dig it out. If you don't, ignore it for another two or three years. Then start another pile, and let the first one subside for a season. By then it all should be fine mulch, and you will have disposed of many cubic feet of solid waste that would otherwise occupy much more space in a landfill. You will have saved yourself many trips to the garbage can. You will have an endless supply of potting soil and wonderful mulch to improve the quality of your garden beds.

You will also open your garden to serendipity. I have a friend who tossed a salad in the compost and came back, two months later, to find a fine lot of tomato seedlings. Transplanted to the sun, they were delicious, she assures me. And all because she make the initial step of DUMPING THEM ON THE PILE.

But you don't have to wait that long for the fun part. In our house, the compost season ends around Thanksgiving, when yard work is over and it's too cold to be out scattering coffee grounds on an ice-covered mound. But the real grand finale comes earlier, just a few weeks from now. Let others sing of smashing pumpkins; I much prefer tossing a moldering jack-o-lantern into a pile of autumn leaves and watching as it sinks down out of sight. By next Halloween, it will have vanished into not even a ghost of its former self. And that is really magic.