Compost happens

(but it sure helps if you know what you're doing!)

One woman's story of grooming garbage on the path to perfect piles

by Patty Hoengiman
tarting a compost pile seemed like the thing to do. I had been recycling everything possible for a long time, and this was the next step. When my birthday came around, I asked my husband for a compost bin. "Are you sure, honey?" he asked skeptically, knowing that perfume and candies had always been top on the list.
Then came the negotiation phase. He wanted to know WHO was going to be taking kitchen scraps out to this thing, where on earth we were going to find space on the kitchen counter to keep our peelings and if he was going to have to DO anything to HELP with this new hobby. I assured him that he wouldn't have to lift a finger.
The composter arrived and I allocated a tiny corner between a wall and a fence on the 20 by 20 foot patio of our condo. It was close to the back door and tucked under a tree. Perfect! Now the adventure began. Everything went into it: magnolia leaves, kitchen scraps, hair from my hair brush. This was exciting! More things to recycle! My compulsive behavior was being fed on a daily basis. Now, how long was it going to take before the brown gold would come pouring out that cute little door at the bottom of the bin?
Several months passed and the fruit fly population was quadrupling in the county by my composting efforts alone. AAARRGH! What was wrong with this compost bin? I had the lid on it, but they still appeared! I added water, just like the instructions said. Being a dedicated soul, I continued adding things, finding the whole process more and more offensive. The fruit flies were swarming all over the patio by now and I was ready to just give up.
In desperation, I went to my local gardening store and made a plea for help. They recommended an organic compost starter. It looked like a chemical to me, so it was with some skepticism on behalf of Mother Earth's well being that I spent $4 on the stuff. It said to take everything out of the bin, and start putting it back a little at a time, adding a gallon of water mixed with the magic starter for every 4-6 inches of materials. This was going to be my last effort, so I decided to give it my all.
Within a day the difference was astonishing. There was steam rising from within. It felt warm and smelled sweet, almost woodsy. I couldn't believe the difference.
Finally, somebody happened to mention that the "dump and run" method of adding food to a composter is what brings out the fruit flies. You're supposed to dig it in or cover it with other stuff. So that was it! Also, it became obvious that water was the magic elixir for heating up the pile. If only I'd known before!
Since that time I have never had to use the organic starter again, although the box is still in my garage. Now, it's become second nature to use my trowel to bury food instead of leaving it on top and to mix fresh things with dry leaves. It takes just an extra minute once a week to aerate the pile using a 4 foot length of rebar, churning with one hand, watering it with the other, down deep into the pile.
You'd never know from these frustrating beginnings that 5 years later I would be coordinating a Master Composter Program and giving talks all over San Diego on composting. It just shows that a little knowledge can go a long way!
If you have composting questions, please call me on the ROTline at Solana Recyclers, (619) 436-7986. Maybe I can help spare you some frustration. By the way, we have since moved to Carlsbad and I have a 12 foot long compost pile, plus three compost bins and a worm bin! My husband doesn't ask anymore when a load of manure is dropped off, he just chuckles. Me, I can't get enough compost, and the best part is, it's FREE!