Turning garbage into gold
Residents spread the passion of 'compost culture'
They might not have names, but the worms in Kristen and John Anderson's College Terrace worm composter are still the family's pets. Eight-year-old Sophie loves to play with the wriggly critters and John says they do seem to have their own personalities.
"We've kind of grown attached to the worms," said Kristen, a 10-year-plus composter who is so enthusiastic about the hobby that she took time out from her vacation for a phone interview.
At the annual College Terrace Residents' Association meeting in March, Anderson brought along her worms and gave a demonstration as part of the neighborhood association's "green team," she said.
Throughout Palo Alto, a movement has been brewing. People serious about helping the environment are turning to composting in its many forms to reduce how much trash they send to landfills, cut down on the amount of carbon-dioxide they produce and improve their gardens.
They hot compost, cold compost, worm wrangle, ferment and even brew compost and worm tea.
What they're really doing is transforming household food scraps and yard waste into a substance that fertilizes soil. At the end of a couple of months' time, those kitchen scraps that stink up the garbage become the sweet smell of success: a fine, dark-brown, granular soil amendment that makes home gardens bloom with fragrant flowers and a bounty of vegetables.
The infinite ways these residents turn their garbage and yard waste into black gold are slowly finding their way into the neighborhood consciousness and backyards throughout the city.
Some lean over the backyard fence, encouraging neighbors and friends to start their own compost pile; others spread the word at farmers markets and neighborhood picnics, raffling off a bag of worm castings or crumbly compost in hopes of sparking interest.
They meet in garden groups and through neighborhood "green teams" to share tidbits on how to keep a bin from smelling or to talk about optimal temperatures for keeping compost-creating microorganisms alive.
For some, there is an almost mission-like devotion to their craft. Volunteer teams of "master composters" take 12-week, in-depth classes on the science of compost, including compost biology and integrated pest management and host demonstrations at farmers markets and garden events, intent on getting the word out, they said.
"There's a culture of people who are adamant about this," said Sarah Smith, coordinator of the home-composting program for Santa Clara County's Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission, which offers composting classes through its Bay-Friendly Gardening classes.
Gone are the days of lugging an overflowing trash can to the curb in the middle of the night.
"It's rather pathetic. We're down to the smallest trash can they have," said 30-year compost veteran Ann Burrell of Barron Park. Nearly everything that can be composted is composted in her backyard.
"And we put absolutely nothing into the landfill," she said.
Instead, she tends to eight composting bins, layering them with leaves, grass clippings and other vegetative matter, often donated by friends and neighbors who offer a steady supply.
Burrell's father was a professional market gardener in England, where she grew up with the principles of composting, she said.
"It's amazing to take this largely yucky stuff and absolutely wonderful stuff comes out the other end," she said.
Sometimes, she shares the bounty.
"I have a friend who gives me oak leaves, so I gave her bags of compost," she said. Her friend has since started composting, too.
Burrell also hosted a gathering on compost for her neighbors.
"We're slowly getting people on our street interested. I got my neighbor doing it again. It's a slow process of exposing people," she said.
On a nearby street, friends of Mark and Romola Georgia might be offered worm or compost "tea."
The Georgias' front-yard garden is a gathering spot for strolling neighbors, who often come to sit among the flowers and vegetables raised in beds layered homemade compost.
Worm and compost "teas" are made by soaking compost or worm castings (aka, worm poop) placed in a special bag in water. The resulting nutrient-rich brew is sprayed on leaves and soil and is said to help eliminate pests and fertilize plants.
Georgia makes compost from his vegetable vines, stems and leaves. Neighbors donate their scraps and the Georgias have a compost-sharing arrangement with the son of a neighbor, who also gardens, he said.
Georgia used to be a "turner," compost parlance for people who subscribe to the "hot compost" method of getting the temperature in the pile to rise to 120 to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. The piles are turned frequently to keep them aerated, release ammonia and to help the microorganisms that break down organic materials to do their jobs.
Hot composting was much work, so now he does "cold" composting. He layers pruned woody stems and stalks with other materials from the garden, including tomato vines and sunflower stalks. Nature pretty much does the rest.
Georgia also keeps a worm bin for household food scraps. The permeable floor of the worm bin is layered with corrugated cardboard and filled one-third with moistened newspaper strips. The recipe is simple: Add a layer of food scraps and a pound or two of red wriggly worms — a type of worm that lives in the top duff of forests — and let the critters do the work.
Microorganisms eat the food and the worms devour the microorganisms. After a month or two, the castings, which are dark brown, granular and somewhat sweet smelling, are ready for harvesting.
A space beneath the bin catches nutrient-rich liquid, which Mark Georgia drains through a spigot and uses in the garden, he said.
One turn-off for many people is the idea that flies, vermin and foul odors will accompany the piles of decomposing materials, but Georgia said if done correctly, there isn't any odor. And vermin don't like scraps covered in dirt.
Georgia especially likes that compost has helped turn his garden's naturally high-clay content into a "living soil" full of beneficial creatures. After years of adding compost, Georgia no longer needs to double-dig his soil, a practice he followed to loosen the earth. Plant roots no longer have to struggle through the hard soil and are healthier and more productive with compost. The soil is loose and weeds are also easy to pull, he said.
The world of composting is colored by two hues: greens and browns. Greens, such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps and other moist materials, provide nitrogen. Browns, such as dried leaves, cardboard and shredded newspaper, provide carbon. Both are used by microorganisms, which break down the materials into rich compost.
"It's just a matter of balance," said Carolyn Dorsch, a master composter and volunteer teacher with San Mateo County RecycleWorks.
Composting gets into the blood — it's a little bit of alchemy, where a balance of three "browns" to one "green" and a little water gets the microorganisms going, Dorsch said.
When the proper mix is assembled, things begin to heat up, as the microorganisms give off heat and start breaking matter down in the first few days.
The lifecycle of a pile is about two-and-a-half to three months, and then it's ready for the garden. Compost contains micro- and macronutrients often missing from synthetic fertilizers and releases nutrients more slowly, often over months or years, according to research at the University of Washington.
"It holds water better than mulch and reduces evaporation better," Dorsch said.
Composting doesn't need fancy equipment, although some advocates fork over hundreds of dollars for fancy bins and tea-making equipment.
Robyn Duby of College Terrace recently purchased her first pound of worms. At first, she looked skeptically at the mass of wriggling creatures.
"It cost 30 bucks. You can buy a lot of filet mignon or crabs for that," she said.
Duby began composting 10 years ago, after she and a neighbor went to a class.
"It's so neat to see it break down and how healthy the soil becomes," she said. She plans to raffle off a bag of compost at the neighborhood annual picnic in May, she said.
Duby's family of three produces enough compost to cover about one-tenth of her garden. Anderson said it takes a year of her family's fruit and vegetable scraps to fill up an 18-gallon bin with compost.
Composting can even be done in the home, proponents said. Dorsch said she knows a woman who kept a worm bin in her dorm room at college.
Since making her own compost, Dorsch doesn't buy fertilizer anymore, she said. The compost provides everything her garden needs, except water.
She showed off her Wriggly Wranch worm bin, a series of black plastic tubs with perforated bottoms so the worms can crawl up and down.
"When I started making worm compost I got so excited I'd start shopping at the store and think: 'What would the worms like?'" she said. Their favorite edible is watermelon, she added.
Dorsch is so dedicated to composting that she has taken her habit on the road as well. On a recent vacation to Hawaii with another composting friend, the women shared a cottage and did their own food preparation.
"We had a big pile of food scraps," she said, noting they could find no compost pile. But they couldn't bear to toss the peelings into the trash.
"We finally carefully dug a hole in the garden and buried them," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at email@example.com.