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.

Leaf Cover In Action


I plucked this very carrot – this rather large Atomic Red carrot grown from seeds purchased from the catalog – from beneath my six inches of leaf cover in my community garden this past weekend.

Saturday I stopped by the garden for the first time in a few weeks. We’re still getting our semi-weekly farm share, and I have been stocking up in my make-shift root cellar, so I had not needed to tap into the last hardy rows of kale, leeks and carrots left at the garden. But I was having a little holiday get-together and I thought that these red beauties would make a nice addition to my veggie plate.

Sure enough, the ground was frozen rock solid. The air temp was above freezing, however, so I plucked the last of the blue lacinato kale (also known as dinosaur kale) leaves, which were doing surprisingly well having weathered a few weeks of cold weather. If you plan to leave your kale in the garden past the frost date, I read that it is best to pick the leaves in weather that is above 32 degrees because the thawing allows the water to redistribute and ensures better storage and taste. After a few weeks of freezing and thawing while living in the garden, the leaves looked as healthy as they did in October. The ground was too frozen to dig up the stalks, however, so I guess those are staying in til spring cleaning.

I also pulled the leaves back that were covering the roots of the row of leeks that I left in the ground. I was pleased that I could get my shovel in where my leaves had been insulating the dirt and the leeks were healthy. Same with the carrots – the leafy green tops were just starting to die down beneath the mound of leaf cover, and it was easy to dig out a few Atomic Reds to show off that evening on my snack table.

Verdict: the leaf cover experiment worked!

Harvesting Garlic

Finally, more than seven months later, I am reaping the benefits of my planted garlic cloves. I watched the green shoots grow – the first sprouts in the garden, four months ago now – and knew that this day would come. I read about when to harvest garlic: mid-summer was generally when they would be ready; I’d know when because the tops will “die back”. As with most of my garden experiments, I couldn’t exactly picture or pin-point how or when this would happen. But sure enough, as I was weeding the other day, I saw unequivocably that those garlic tops were dead. So dead, that if I hadn’t been careful, I might have cleared away the brown, straw-like former-sprout and not even know that there was a garlic bulb below the dirt. I poked around (my garlic is interspersed throughout my garden) and saw that most of the garlic tops were dying and I would need to be harvesting all those beautiful bulbs soon. But what did I do after I dug a dozen or so heads (smaller than I thought they’d be – and with a bit of a red tinge to them) from the ground?

In my internet research, I found a lot of ideas. Preserving in vinegar, freezing whole or chopping cloves and dehydrating are some ideas. Most of these methods also keep the all or most of garlic’s health properties as well. All fine and good, but I wanted them as close to their harvested state as possible. One source said that that freshly harvested would keep 4 – 12 months at room temperature. (I have the few I dug up the other day in my little garlic bowl – a pot with a top and a few air holes that is meant to keep the garlic aerated but dark.) But I will also throw a bunch of heads in a mesh bag in the “root cellar” nook of my basement, as a few other sources recommended. It sounds like aeration is important, as is darkness and temps that don’t much fluctuate. I’ll report back. In the meantime, garlic, zuke and spinach stir fry over lentils tonight for dinner!