Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 


Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”



I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

Build a Worm Tower

Host: Leonnie Shanahan. More info: www.ecofilms.com.au

Mrs. Homegrown here:

One of our commenters on the compost debate, Nick H., offered up a link to a great video about worm towers, so we thought we’d share. A worm tower is a wide (at least 50cm dia.) pipe sunk halfway into the ground, with access holes on the lower half to allow the worms to come and go. Food and bedding is dropped in the top, which is kept capped.

We happen to have worm & compost expert Nancy Klehm staying with us this weekend, and she explained to us that this particular technology makes a lot of sense for hot, dry climates (note the video comes from Australia), because it’s sunken and it allows the worms to distribute themselves in the cool soil during the day. Conversely, I can imagine this wouldn’t be such a great thing in rainy climates as it could easily flood.

Nancy told us the worm holes clog up, so you do have to remove the pipe for cleaning fairly regularly, and perhaps take that opportunity to reposition it. I imagine that’s when the casting harvest would occur, and harvest promises to be a pretty messy process. 

The video speaks of using PVC pipe for the tower. PVC is cheap and easy to work with, but it’s pretty well established that it leaches toxins as it degrades, so you might want to seek out pipe in other materials. As an aside, we used to use PVC pipe in our self-irrigating pots, still still have PVC in some of them, but are phasing it out in favor of metal or bamboo pipe. Yet we still have PVC lines as part of our irrigation system. This is something you have to weigh and decide for yourself. 

Once Erik dragged home a section of ceramic sewer pipe he found in the street. It lingered in our yard for years, and was finally returned to the street. Now we’re singing the pack rat’s lament (See! See what happens when you throw things away!), because it would have been perfect for this.

On first glance I’d characterize this system as a novel idea, one which is worm-friendly, and best suited to hot, dry climates. It looks convenient to set up and use, but probably not the best system to use if you’re primarily interested in the castings.

If we can find another length of sewer pipe we’ll try it out and report back.

Compost Rebuttal

Kelly’s secret compost pile.

I found out via a blog post last week that Kelly had secretly constructed a compost pile to deal with a surplus of kitchen scraps. She knew I’d be unhappy with this due to my anal retentive approach to composting.

So why am I unhappy with this pile? The reason is simple: it’s too small and will never generate enough heat to:

  • Kill weed seeds.
  • Kill human and plant pathogens.
  • Kill root nematodes.

Don’t just believe me, listen to soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham in this youtube video:

Ingham’s work is controversial, but I believe time will prove her ideas correct. To grow fussy plants like vegetables we need to introduce beneficial microorganisms and fungi into the soil via well made compost. To make that compost we need to monitor the pile’s temperature carefully (it should be between 55ºC and 65ºC for at least three days according to Ingham). The pile also needs oxygen, provided by introducing loose materials like straw and through periodic turning. A compost pile needs water too. It’s not difficult to achieve the conditions Ingham specifies. You just need enough mass combined with the use of a compost thermometer to figure out when to turn the pile. 

O.K., so now I’m headed out into the garden to combine that tiny and ugly tire pile to the new pile I’m building.

For more information on Ingham’s work read, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Just rebutting the rebuttal. I don’t disagree with anything Erik says above, and Ingham’s work is fascinating.  But to be clear about my post, the “sooper seekrit” pile was not about producing compost, it was about disposing of waste. Indeed, such a small pile does not have the mass to heat up enough to burn off nasties or to decompose very quickly, but it suited my needs at the time. Homemade compost is a wonderous thing. It’s vital to organic gardening, and moreover it’s really satisfying to take the waste products from your kitchen and garden and make them into something which will build your soil. You get to keep all that wealth close at hand. However, if you don’t want or need compost for your garden, but you don’t want to send green scraps to the landfill, you can return it to the earth in more casual ways, like the sooper seekrit pile.

My Sooper Seekrit Compost Pile

Welcome to the Lucy and Ricky show!

As some of you know, Erik is a complete and utter compost wonk. A heavy book about the science of decomposition is pleasure reading for him. He has a really, really big thermometer and knows how to use it.

We’ve kept a compost pile for years and years, but only in the last two years has it become an obsession for him. One of his more recent projects has been to make an gigantic bin in our back yard. This is the sort of bin you could use to dispose of bodies. He became so persnickety about the proper usage of the Wonder Bin that I was afraid to take scraps out there. Emptying the compost pail became his duty.

Then, one day, something went wrong in compost nirvana. You’d have to ask him for the details of his crisis, but the upshot was that he didn’t want anything new to go in the bin.

“But…but…” I said, pointing at the full compost pail on the counter.

“I’ll deal with it,” he said.

One day passed, and the next. He put a big mixing bowl on the counter next to the overflowing pail and started throwing his scraps in there. Flies gathered. 10 lbs of rotting scraps on the counter bothers Erik not a whit.

Of course the notion of putting it all in the trash never crossed our minds. At this point, it’s unthinkable, like driving around without a seat belt.

“This can’t go on,” I said, when a second mixing bowl of scraps joined the first, and the fruit flies started passing out party fliers to the whole neighborhood.

“It will have to go in the green bin,” he said with an air of grim decision.

The green bin is the dedicated wheelie bin given us by the city to collect green waste. We use it only for green waste we can’t compost, partially because we need as much compost as we can make, and partially because I hear the city often uses the green bin material as landfill covering.

I just couldn’t put it in the green bin, so I went out in the back yard, collected a couple of the old tires rolling around back there (we’re classy that way), stacked them up under the avocado tree and started my own alternative compost pile.

I did not tell Erik about the AlternoPile because I knew he’d squawk about it. “There’s not enough mass!” he’d protest. Or maybe he’d cry, his face blanching with horror, “Your nitrogen inputs are way too high! For God’s sake, stop this madness!”  

Sometimes things just gotta rot without you thinking about them, you know?

I also was not worried he’d discover my sooper seekrit pile because Erik has a particularly advanced form of man blindness. He couldn’t find a boa constrictor in the fridge. I don’t have to hide his Christmas presents. And I figured a couple of tires under the tree were not going to attract his attention for a long while

To his credit, he did notice it, after a couple of weeks, and asked, “Did you plant something in the tires?” Because I was in the bathroom and didn’t have to look him in the face I was able to say, “No honey, I didn’t plant anything in the tires.”

He investigated no more, and the secret pile continued. Yesterday he finally rebuilt his compost pile, and now it’s accepting scraps again. The game is up.  I’ll let the tires sit and stew. In a few months I can move them and will leave behind nothing but a little pile of compost.

The moral:

If you’ve been thinking you can’t compost because you don’t generate much green waste, or you don’t have space for a big bin, or just don’t want to screw with it,  I’d say try it anyway. My two tires absorbed our green waste for weeks, and would have continued to do so. That’s kitchen waste for two people who cook a lot, but no yard trimmings, obviously.  I’d dump the pail in there, and cover the scraps with handfuls of hay or dry leaves.

Sometimes the level would raise high, but this stuff shrinks fast, so it maintained a level one tire deep most of the time, and would have done so until compost started building up at the bottom. Eventually I would have put the top tire on the ground and shoveled the contents of the bottom tire into the top tire, basically turning everything upside down. This would speed things along a bit, and would reveal any finished compost at the very bottom.

Caveats: This system doesn’t generate heat through mass, so will be much slower than a real compost pile. It is best used when the weather is warmer to help things along. And again, this isn’t what you do if you want compost for your garden. This is just one way to quietly return your kitchen waste to the earth.

When Erik sees this post he’s going scream, “Luuuuuucy!!!!” and proceed to write a rebuttal explaining why a tiny compost pile is a bad idea, but no matter what he says, I believe composting can be as simple as this.

So I had this dream

Here I am, with the soon-to-be-forgotten worms and a fantastic class of Waldorf kids

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So last night I had this dream that I was sitting at a kitchen table with someone (don’t know who it was) and I noticed something that looked like a dried out worm coiled on the edge of one of the dishes. I pointed it out to this other person, and she reached out and crushed it with her fingertip. It crumbled to pieces on the tabletop. I laughed and said, “I sure hope that’s not one of my worms!” She laughed, too, and mischievously blew the crumbs in my direction.

And thus does one’s subconscious work. I woke with a start, remembering that, after showing off my worms to class of visiting school kids, I’d left the bin out on the back porch for a night, and day, and half of another night. Usually the worms live in the kitchen. I jumped out of bed and brought them back in.

The problem with worms is that they’re so darn quiet.

The worms are fine. They’re tough, and our weather is mild. But I was a little worried about them  because they are house-worms, acclimated to room temperature, and I’d left them out in the open, on concrete, and in a shallow bin.

See, worms can take care of themselves just fine if given the room and resources they need to cool themselves down, warm themselves up, and regulate their moisture. However, when they’re in a shallow little bin, they just don’t have much latitude for adjustment. It’s our responsibility as worm keepers to regulate their environment.

Luckily for us and our forgotten worms, even though it was unseasonably warm yesterday,  the sun is low on the horizon, so our back porch wasn’t baking in the western sun, like it does most of the year. Otherwise, the worms, being unable to hide deep in the soil, might have steam cooked in the bin during that long, forgotten day. 

Of course, worms can be kept outdoors in all but the most extreme temperatures, but their bins need to be sited correctly–kept in nice shady spots, protected from the rain, and elevated from cold-conducting cement surfaces. (Maybe some of you folks who live in snow country could chime in on what you do with your worms when it’s freezing out?)


Learn How to Compost Via the Humanure Handbook

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionComposting ain’t rocket science but it does require some finesse. Following up on an earlier post which contained a comparison of different composters, I thought I’d mention my favorite written resource on how to compost. In my opinion, the best writing on the subject comes from a surprising source, the Humanure Handbook by Joeseph Jenkins. Best of all, an edition of this book is available online for free. Even if you have no intention of composting human waste, The Humanure Handbook contains excellent directions on how to easily maintain a hot n’ healthy compost pile. You can access the free edition here. Jenkins also has a bunch of great how-to videos here.

On the subject of humanure, news coverage of the terrible cholera outbreak in Haiti only gets half of the story. I keep hearing the press refer to the problem as one of a “lack of access to clean water.” True, but the other half of the problem is what Jenkin’s Humanure book is about, keeping human waste out of waterways in the first place and turning it into a resource rather than a disposal problem.

Extreme Recycling

Over at Edible Geography a post, Upgrade Excreta, on three artists and designers working with human waste. Above, design student James Gilpin, who has allegedly figured out how to turn the pee of elderly diabetics into fine single malt scotch. Now that’s what I call recycling!

Meanwhile, Chicago artist and activist Nancy Klehm has completed her Humble Pile humanure project, releasing a stunning t-shirt in the process.

Lastly, designer Tobias Wong has created little glittery pills that make your poop sparkle.

Love the Grub 2.1

Black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, common in compost piles, are a free protein source for chickens and fish. It’s possible to create a composter to deliberately propagate BSF. Jerry (sorry I don’t know your last name) of the Black Soldier Fly Blog, has put together excellent and very detailed instructions on how to construct the BSF composter above. It’s a kind of Logan’s Run for larvae. Soldier fly females enter through the pipe on the top of the bucket and lay their eggs in food scraps you place in the bottom of the device. Larvae hatch and climb up a spiral tube and fall into a holding box.

You can buy a commercial BSF propogator, the Biopod, but it’s a bit over my price range. I’ll be putting together this BSF composter soon and will report back on my results.

Thanks to Federico of the Los Angeles Eco-village for the tip on this. See Federico’s blog http://eeio.blogspot.com/ for some other amazing DIY projects.

Also, see our previous post on the BSF.

Compost Pail Comparison

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Just a quick product review.

Containers to hold your kitchen scraps are now common accoutrements sold in home stores. The idea is you fill them up as you prepare food and they are able to store the coffee grounds and broccoli stems without getting any flies or foul smells until you have a chance to get out to the compost pile.
I used to use a large yogurt container for this and store it in the fridge. The problem was, the container was way too small so I still had to empty it practically every day. If I was preparing a lot of veggies I would overflow, with scraps piling up on plates on the counter. My kitchen looked dirty and embarrassing. So the idea of a larger container to hold my food waste is appealing.
My kitchen has stainless steel appliances so when I saw a coordinating compost pail at a big box store, I had to indulge. But the honeymoon ended quickly. I recently bought a pail that I like much better. So I thought I would share the information.
So the pail on the right, with the holes on the top is my old compost pail. The pail comes with these removable carbon filters. A word to the wise. Never, ever purchase a product like this. I am convinced that it is a poor design, made to force you into buying more carbon filters. I actually had fruit fly larvae embedded in one of the filters. My roommate refused to even open the thing.
The pail is hard to clean. It is always scummy. The top little handle part fell off and it is inside the lid somewhere under the carbon filter. Too many parts.
The pail on the left is my new pail. It is from Gardener’s Supply Company. The design is simple- a pail and fitted lid. No holes, no carbon filters. And it is about half the price of the other one. It can go in the dishwasher and is easy to clean overall. Simple design, no parts to purchase later, I love it. It fits several days worth of kitchen scraps unless I’m doing a big meal for guests. I like only having to empty the pail every three or four days.
Of course any vessel with a fitted lid would work to hold your kitchen scraps. Many everyday containers could be used for this purpose. But I love that this one matches my kitchen and looks neat and tidy. I like that it is easy to clean, dishwasher safe, slick and shiny. No one knows what is rotting on my kitchen counter when I hide it in this pretty pail.