Kent’s Composting Tips and Secret Weapon

Today in our continuing dialog on composting, a guest post from Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition board member, Kent Strumpell who we met up with at this week’s inspiring LACBC awards gala:

I’m sure there are more correct procedures, but this is what I’ve found works.

I use a compost bin that has direct soil contact. I think this allows the introduction of soil organisms and serves to drain the pile if it gets too wet. I’ve done this same process with free standing piles as well.

I start with a small pile of dry leaves and add a load of kitchen scraps. I also add a couple shovels-full of rich soil to get things started, particularly with some worms and bugs to propagate the new pile. I’m not fastidious about what goes in, so the occasional fish and chicken scraps and leftover cat food gets into the mix, even oily stuff, but mostly it’s the usual veggies, fruits, paper napkins, etc. Though experts say no fats should go in, I’ve yet to see (or smell) a problem.

Each time I add new kitchen scraps, I add 1-2 shovels-full of dry leaves and some water if needed, turning and mixing the old and new stuff with a cultivator or shovel to aerate the pile. The proportion of dry to wet material is important. There should be enough dry leaves so the compost is kinda’ fluffy and moist, not soggy, but the dry material shouldn’t overwhelm the wet either.

Now the secret. I cut a piece of black 6 mil vinyl to approximately cover the pile and lay this directly on top of the compost (anything similar will work). I’ve found this helps keep the pile moist when I’m not able to check on it (sometimes for a week or two) and the bugs and worms seem to thrive underneath this membrane. I got the idea after noticing that I’d find rich bug habitat under boards, etc. laying around my yard. My compost piles teem with worms, sow bugs and other critters, all working hard for me. If you do a free standing compost pile, cut the plastic big enough to cover to the ground and hold it in place with rocks or bricks.

I add my scraps about once or twice a week. I don’t use the pile to consume large quantities of leaves, I just add enough of them to keep things in balance. It easily keeps up with my kitchen scrap production and gives me a rich, dark compost about like coffee grounds when it is done. I draw finished stuff off at the bottom occasionally. Or, if I want to use the whole batch, I stop adding to it for a few weeks so it can digest everything.

Bitter Greens

Today we continued our winter planting in our illegal parkway garden adding arugula, a green that America has suddenly discovered after last month’s factory farming spinach nightmare. We also added a tough and bitter leaf chicory from our friends at Grow Italian. Hopefully, by succession planting we should have a winter and spring full of green, if somewhat bitter vegetables.

How do we prepare these bitter greens around the compound? Very simply — in a pan with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sometimes we add some Parmigiano Reggiano. Fresh, strong tasting vegetables don’t need much else.

The Green Cone

SurviveLA contributor and neo-country singer Corey Travis, currently on tour with his band in London, Malta, and Tunisia, sends us word of a “kitchen waste eliminator” called the Green Cone, that he bought after seeing a review in that modernist porn magazine Dwell. The cone part of the Green Cone sits on top of a basket buried in the ground. You put your kitchen waste in the cone, add some “accelerator powder” provided by the company, and let the waste dissolve into the ground. The system is similar to dog waste disposal products such as the “Doggie Dooley” and is basically a primitive septic tank, that turns solid waste into liquids which then, if all goes well, percolate into the soil.

The Green Cone, supposedly digests all kitchen waste including meat, fish, bones, animal waste, and dairy products, items not recommended in most compost piles due to the fact that they smell bad while decomposing, attract pests, and could possibly transmit Salmonella and E. coli bacteria if used on food crops. The green cone is, however, not a composter and the end result should not be used as garden compost due to the fact that home compost piles usually can’t generate enough heat to kill the bad bacteria in meat and animal waste. For the reasons you shouldn’t put meat products in compost piles check out the excellent composting safety tips found at the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

The Green Cone could work as a good solution for folks who don’t have much of a garden, have access to a small bit of soil, and want to lesson the amount of waste going to the landfill. The key thing will be to see how well the waste dissolves, since most septic systems have to be pumped out occasionally. We’re also curious to see if any bad smells or critters manage to break into the cone. Once again the Green Cone is a septic system and not a solution for anyone who wants to create compost for a food garden.

Lastly, we don’t know if this will work in a Green Cone, but a town in Sweden has an even more advanced waste disposal plan, which involves a new kind of funeral rite, where bodies are freeze-dried, ground up and spread on trees as compost.

Beads and Roman Sandals Won’t Be Seen

I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed tee shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.” – Kurt Cobain

After installing the new herb spiral in the backyard a certain member of the SurviveLA compound, commenting on the design, remarked facetiously, “Welcome home brother.” For those not in the know, that particular phrase is the greeting at any event sponsored by the Rainbow Family of Light, a group of hippies that have met each year in a different state for the annual “Rainbow Gathering” ever since 1972.

Now the topic of hippies is controversial around the SurviveLA compound, but first things first — we ain’t hippies. In fact at every hippie thing we’ve been to, including the Rainbow Gathering in Arizona in 1998 (along with art critic and thoughtstylist Doug Harvey), we always hear the word “narc” whispered behind our backs probably due to our short hair and white-bread appearance. But, the fact is we love hippies despite the lentil-filled coolers, naked yoga, dream catchers and tie-dye. We’re all trying to make the world a better place, after all.

It’s curious though, that when you grow your own vegetables and don’t buy into some of the other crap our ever-present consumer culture demands of us somehow you automatically get labeled a hippie. While sadly the original hippie movement went astray, we “dig” the new and more pragmatic kind of hippie stuff happening over at Arthur Magazine. Besides, in the end, we’re all untied against the “Man”.

Somehow this long winded rant leads us back to the creation of the herb spiral which replaced an overgrown patch of lavender. Built with concrete salvaged from some recent demolition work the spiral also has a set of bamboo poles in the center to grow pole beans in the winter and tomatoes in the summer. The concrete spiral functions as a path to pick the herbs which include thyme, sage, chives, garic chives, tarragon, and chamomile. Our design is a modification of the permacultural herb spiral which is essentially a mound. In the permaculture version the water hungry plants are placed at the bottom of the mound and the dry plants at the top, the idea being that the water collects towards the bottom of the mound shaped spiral. We didn’t do the mound thing out of laziness and a lack of materials, and because the herbs we planted don’t require much water anyways.

As for the spiral shape itself, we’d like to think that it’s our little tribute to Robert Smithson, more than Jerry Garcia.

Parkway Plantings

The cow dookie in the spinach scandal of the past month (for more on that read this excellent article) should prompt everyone to consider planting your own garden.

Hopefully Homegrown Evolution won’t be buying any bagged vegetables this winter since we just planted our parkway garden this afternoon after installing a drip irrigation system (more on the drip system in a later post). Winter is the best growing season for vegetables here in Los Angeles, and now is the time to start planting.

Our parkway garden consists of two 1.8 x 1.8 meter raised beds with a central wire frame obelisk in each bed to support beans. We ordered all of our seeds this winter from Seeds from Italy and have begun succession planting seeds every two weeks.

North Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the north bed we have:

Broccoli Rabe – Cima di Rapa Novantina, which matures in 55 to 80 days and Cima di Rapa Quarantina, which matures in 32 to 35 days. Broccoli is somewhat difficult to grow and requires vigilance to keep pests under control, and frequent fertilizer applications (organic, of course). The faster growing Quarantina, is easier to grow since the crop is produced faster and bugs have less time to munch on it. We grew both of these varieties last year and marveled at the taste of fresh broccoli, which is nothing like the bland crap in our supermarkets.

Cauliflower – Cavolfiore di Sicilia Violetto. This purple Sicilian cauliflower is stunning and tasty. Again, far superior to the tasteless white stuff our country’s factory farms crank out.

Beets – Bietola da Orto Cylindra. We actually like the leaves better than the roots and this variety is supposed to produce a nice beet green.

Radicchio Rossa di Treviso. Homegrown Evolution has yet to produce decent radicchio. We’re giving it another try this winter.

South Bed as of October 2, 2006

In the south bed:

Agretti – a trendy vegetable with some blue state types. We’ve never had it, probably because we don’t haunt expensive Italian eateries in the yoga mat totin’ and Lexus drivin’ sectors of our fair metropolis. We suspect that Agretti is going to be extremely bitter, just like the Italian dandelion greens we grew a few years back. You cook these bitter greens in olive oil and garlic and you get used to the strong taste. It’s a reminder that the bastards who control what passes for agriculture in this country have taken all the flavor out of our vegetables.

Rapa da Foglia senza Testa, i.e. rabe without a head. Yet another bitter vegetable, this is a kind of turnip green that looks kind of like broccoli rabe, except that you eat the leaves. A bit susceptible to bugs, but we had a successful crop last year.

Carrots – Carota Pariser Market. This is a small round carrot that French folks apparently like.

Around the wire obelisks, that give our street garden a certain gravitas in addition to supporting climbing plants, we have planted a very exotic looking bean called Borlotto lingua di Fuoco or “Tongue of Fire” (a reference to Pentecost we suspect rather than the cheesy 1970s Italian thriller). This is a pole bean with a brilliant red color that, sadly, disappears after cooking.

One of the nice things about planting the seeds in our street garden this afternoon was chatting with the folks who come by. Sadly, we found out that one neighbor is breaking up with his wife and needs to find an apartment. But on a happier note, another neighbor reminisced about his Italian grandfather who grew lots of vegetables and even made his own wine in the Bronx. Hmm, wine . . .