Compost for Brooklyn

I didn’t think I would find my community amid a once abandoned lot filled with rotting food scraps. I merely had gotten used to composting in my apartment in Somerville, composting my produce scraps in the city-sized anaerobic composter in my ample back stairwell in the winter months or walking a bucket full of scraps to the large compost pile at the community garden a few blocks away from spring to fall. It was an step or two than just tossing the extra cucumber peels or carrot tops into the trash, but it had become a part of my routine. One more thing to do, like bringing reusable bags to the supermarket or picking up my monthly meat CSA. In fact I had my locavore diet so perfectly calibrated that I had at least met the farmer who was directly responsible for about 90% of the food in my home. It was easy, I’d say to friends. I wrote a book about how, with a little planning, anyone could do it.

But then my husband and I began spending more time at a sublet in Brooklyn. Our vegetable scraps filled numerous plastic containers that we stacked waist-high; the farmer’s markets were a three hour endeavor, requiring two trains and six flights of stairs. The local meat CSA dropped off on a day we were often in Somerville for work. The sun coverage on my new front porch (which I had realized that I was lucky enough to have in the first place) was not quite enough to encourage a harvest of a late planting of lettuce and broccoli rabe. In the first few weeks in Brooklyn, I followed all of my best advice. It was true, I knew I would eventually find the same balance that we had in Somerville. Finding our go-to local farmers could happen slowly, I realized – we weren’t going to starve. But the compost situation began to get dire. I just could not imagine throwing out those apple cores and wilted lettuce leaves that I had been committed about returning to the earth for years, now. I could not even fathom the days of a stinky, liquid garbage, of two full baskets a week, of sending so many nutrients to the landfill instead of the soil.

My efforts at finding a community garden were coming up short, especially so late into the growing season, but finally I put the two simple words “compost” and “brooklyn” into my search engine. Lo and behold I saw that the spirit of composting was alive and well in Brooklyn; I found a once-neglected lot not more than a fifteen minute walk from our apartment that had been turned into one of the most dedicated compost gardens in the city. I visited during their next drop off hours the following say and offered to volunteer on the spot.

Now, five months later, I can easily say that I have found my community of people passionate about composting and dedicated to consuming a more local-centric and sustainable diet. We have shared food and wine, have gossiped and brainstormed. I have helped write a successful grant for the garden and met people from the neighborhood whom I never would have known if not for the act of compost. And, once a month, rain or shine or freezing cold, I now volunteer to help collect and chop the scraps we collect during open hours, which helps to divert hundreds of pounds of food waste from the garbage and back into the ground. It’s the least I could do to repay this dedicated group for the work they have done bringing a little more green space to my new crowded city.

I have since joined the local food coop and found a sunnier spot for my lettuce sprouts, come spring. And my new friends at Compost for Brooklyn have begun talks to make the garden a drop off point for a CSA in the coming season. I was one of the first on the list. The best thing is that I realized that it wasn’t hard to find a way to live a the sustainable life that I want to – even in a new city. I just had to find my community in Brooklyn. And to do that I had to follow my passion – even if that passion is decaying food.

Locavore (Kitchen) in the (Winter) City

I am certainly not in the minority when I state that I am sick of winter. There are still hefty drifts outside that haven’t melted despite almost two weeks where the temperature spend hours above freezing. Last night I watched the rain turn to snow – as in I saw that very minute that it happened – and it was almost beautiful. Almost. If it were a few months ago – hell, one month ago – I might have found it beautiful. But now I am done. And not just because of the weather. I am eager to get outside and do something, anything, with the earth. And the problem is not only the temperature, but the snow that still coats my tomato pots and provides obstacle to opening the gate and trudging to the compost bin at the garden. It is these little things that I did not anticipate in this particularly snowy and cold winter. And while I chose my home – the house itself and the location on which it sits – for many reasons that have to do with its proximity to people and places and things to which I want to be near enough to help weave the fabric of my daily existence – I also knowingly gave up space and traded open fields for fenced-in lots. But particularly in the winter, when my world always seems a little smaller and colder and darker, do I feel the import of these choices, both in the ways they improve my life, but also in the ways it is made more challenging. Below is a non-exhaustive list of thoughts, lessons and challenges of this year’s locavore winter kitchen – in the city.

– Root Storage 1: We are lucky enough to have a mostly non-leaking, and relatively vast and clean basement for a city dwelling. My husband has commandeered most of it for his music studio and the rest is filled with boxes and tools and holiday decorations and three studded snow tires and our tenant’s storage and our chest freezer. But in this one corner, right when one gets to the bottom of the stairs, there is a concrete shelf, about three feet high and equally deep, that runs along about ten feet of our foundation. A corner of this has been designated our wine cellar and root cellar. Who knows, maybe that’s what it was originally intended for one hundred plus years ago when it was built. I kept the red onions and butternut squash that I bought in bulk it separate, ventilated boxes, but some light got in and a few of my onions are sprouting. When they do that, they basically take the energy from the veg itself and put it all into a new, green shoot. The onion becomes mushy and inedible. I need to go through these boxes soon and chop up and freeze the squash I have left and sort out the good onions from the bad, maybe moving some to the fridge to slow the aging. Next year: better storage boxes.

– Root storage 2: I also keep root veggies (and a cabbage!) in separate paper bags literally throw atop each other in an area above our back stairs. It’s pretty chilly (but not as much so as the basement) but totally dark. The humidity is a bit less too, which shows itself in the somewhat wrinkled rutabegas and beets. But these are easily revived and I’ve successfully kept my winter farm share veggies here while I tried to cycle through them in stews and roasts. Next year, I plan to perfect this system, perhaps by storing some veggies hidden in wine crates filled with rice.


– Canning storage: I know I am not supposed to keep these out in the sunlight, but frankly I am running out of storage space. I think I hit upon a generously perfect number of quarts of tomatoes – by far the item I miss the most in the winter. My goal for the canned tomatoes: not to “save” them. I’m always debating whether some use or recipe is “worthy” of my home-canned tomatoes. I have been better this winter (probably because of the amount I canned) to just use them up when a recipe calls for it – such as stews, marinara and other Italian sauces, chili, slow cooking braises, etc. That’s why I canned them after all.

– Compost: I have been very good about composting, even in the depths of winter. What I did not anticipate was that I would have no access to our community garden compost bin for such a long time. I have a smaller counter top bin that I will empty into my back hallway mini-composter but depend on the community bin when my at-home system gets too full. Like now. There’s nothing much I can do at the moment except keep cramming in scraps (my system depends on a microbe accelerant and not oxygen) until enough snow melts where I can access the garden. Next year – try to start with an empty at-home bin when the snow starts flying – oh and pray for less snow.

– Food: Like last year I rarely go to the grocery store. I depend primarily on our storage veggies, canned goods and frozen meat for most meals, supplementing it all with fresh greenhouse greens from our deep winter farm share that we pick up every two weeks. For additional items we try to hit the new winter farmer’s market that sets up camp on Saturday mornings about six blocks away. Dairy and eggs come from Sherman’s along with occasional grains, beans and lentils. We’re still picking up ten pounds of meat once a month from Chestnut Farms. I’m not militant – I drink coffee (locally roasted Rao’s) every day and go through plenty of peanut butter (locally produced Teddy). I buy a scone. We always have olive oil on hand. We go out to eat on occasion. My husband brings home dark chocolate and wine from the store where he works. I live a pretty delicious life.

Looking over this list, I am pretty proud of my decisions and I can honestly say that none of this is hard. Shopping locally is no harder than shopping at a grocery store. Eating locally sourced beef stew with root vegetables is no harder, and arguably more delicious, than eating anything else. Sure this depends on some planning ahead and general willingness to cook (planning and cooking being two things I genuinely enjoy) but now it is all second nature to us. And while the costs are more than if I were a pure bargain shopper (buying the cheapest eggs and meat and dairy are, well, much cheaper, but don’t at all coincide with my political or health beliefs), they are by no means extravagant and certainly within reach of a working musician and adjunct professor’s budget. Being locavores in the city (and I often use the plural because my husband is an active participant) – even in the winter – is relatively easy, certainly more kind and generally more healthy and delicious than however we used to eat in the depths of winter.

In Defense of Dirt

When I get ready to spend time in my small community garden – anything that will require more than a bit of light weeding, watering or picking – I change into old clothes (preferably dark colors) and worn sneakers.

“Well, of course,” even a semi-astute reader might say, “you don’t want to get your nice clothes dirty.” And it is true – we’re taught from an early age that dirt is bad, dirt needs to be kept out of the house and even that something dirty can make you sick. As in “Don’t eat that – it’s dirty!” And there is, of course, sound reasoning in those lessons: one doesn’t want to stain a lovely yellow blouse with ugly brown splatters and there is plenty of evidence that ingesting something that might have come into contact with a germ-harboring location such as, say, a handrail on the subway, might likely result in catching a bug (as in the flu or a cold – don’t get me started on the bad rap that insects get!). However it isn’t really dirt itself that might makes one sick. I beg to convince you, dear reader, rather that dirt is the very life blood of, well, life.

Exhibit A is my community garden. When it was constructed five years ago, fresh soil was brought in for the raised beds and any dirt that might come into contact with food-producing plants was tested. My dirt was declared safe, fertile, perfectly balanced. And I used that dirt to plant tomatoes and peppers and kale and onions and basil and beets and a dozen other edibles – to varying degrees of success – in the interim. This past season I was really getting my timing and mix of plants down. I knew when I might have my best success planting seeds versus seedlings; I watered when it was hot (which was often) and experimented with shading techniques for the more tender shoots. The weather provided plenty of sunshine and a few drenching rains – my hose (or that of my generous neighbor) provided the rest of the needed moisture. So why, then did my tomatoes look anemic? How come my carrots grew in spindly legs rather than one strong root? What caused some seeds to sprout and full patches to lay dormant? It was my dirt. I had not appreciably fed or fertilized it in the time that it had been under my control. My tomatoes lacked the nutrients they needed; my carrots decided to divide and conquer in order to ensure survival. Sure their tops were bushy and green, but at the expense of its barely edible root.

Enter Exhibit B – my backyard tomato pots. In a moment of divine inspiration – or maybe because I was running low on dirt and didn’t want to spend another twenty dollars at the local nursery to buy something people spend a lot of time and money trying to get rid of – I filled the bottom third of my tomato pots with half-finished compost from my home bin. It was a win-win situation: my bin was full and my tomato pots weren’t. These plants – some started from seed and others from the same greenhouse as those in my community garden – were monstrous. They climbed their trellis and produced dozens of firm, fragrant fruit. Even with significantly shorter hours in direct sunlight, these plants far out-performed their siblings at the garden. Considering the few differing factors – I blamed the dirt.

Which brings me to Exhibit C: my compost bin. I received my indoor composter for Christmas last year and had it filled about three quarters full within a month. But then the magic of compost kicked in (with help from my all-natural Bokashi compost starter) and it stayed about three quarters full until spring when I emptied most of its contents into my tomato pots. I was worried at first when I saw the white fuzz and smelled the fermenting, rotting smell. These things were bad, right? They were dirty! Well, yes, exactly that. It was the (controlled) rotting of the food and the microbes that broke it down into a dark brown substance that looked an awful lot like dirt that defines working compost. As the organic matter decomposes the liquid is released as compost tea (an elixir for plants, but rather fecund smelling, so beware indoor usage) and the remaining mass shrinks. So yeah, those who garden (should) know this: dirt is made from decomposed organic matter – or rather the end result of allowing fruits and vegetables (and other things) to rot and rot and rot until there is nothing left but dirt. Good, delicious, fertile dirt. And it is from this substance that seeds and seedlings and plants take their nutrients back so that they can create more fruits and vegetables for us to eat again. There you have it – the circle of life.

Of course what I have in my garden is a bunch of dirty dirt – dirt with its life force spent from too much life making. It’s old. It needs to be replenished, fed, rejuvenated. So I learned my lesson this season. My garden needs more food to help create my food. I’m going to feed my dirt with fresh, fully broken down compost and maybe some organic dirt food as well. I’m going to turn it good and deep to mix the top layer with the fresher dirt from six, maybe ten inches below the surface. I’m even going to test it, to see what it’s missing. And maybe look into crop rotation to use the food I am growing in my dirt to help feed the dirt as well as people.

It’s amazing, dirt is. So amazing that maybe next time I won’t think so much about what I have on when I work in the garden, but rather wear my dirt stains and mud splotches as a badge of pride.

Compost and Tomatoes

I’ve been tending to my rotting baby since the first of the year – I received a compost bin for Christmas and have been feeding it small bits of vegetable ends and the compost microbe sawdust that is supposed to speed the process along for those of us in a small, non-rural space. Miraculously, every time I think I am about to fill the three gallon or so sized bin, it shrinks in size, releasing its delicious and fecund compost tea from a spigot in the bottom.

But really, I have been stressing lately. Yes, it was composting rather quickly (the contents smelled suitably rancid and it was starting to look like a dirty version of the vegetable ends that I had been feeding the bin). But still, it wasn’t DIRT. And I really was going to fill the bin rather soon. I pondered this dilemma as a walked the eight blocks or so to  the local greenhouse for tomato seedlings, a half dozen of which would end up in the sunniest sliver of my back yard. A memory of my fifth grade history lesson drifted through my head: the native americans would plant a dead fish beneath their crops and allowed it to compost itself right into the ground. Why couldn’t I add my almost-compost to the bottom of my tomato pots?

Thus, an hour later, while swatting flies with a wave of my trowel, I added about six inches of my rotting baby to the bottom of my pots, filling them the rest of the way with garden soil. I loosened the roots at the bottom of the seedlings and planted them snugly in the pots, pressing the dirt around their thick stems. Them I watered them at the roots, letting them drink until the water pooled on the surface for a few minutes.

My compost bin is empty now – just in time to be filled with the stems of the local spinach we have draining in the sink and the root ends of the radishes I bought from Sherman’s the other day. With seedlings in the ground just starting to flower, I’m sure it won’t be long until I find ways to fill it once again.