The Composting Process: A Metaphor and Sustainable Resource

Hello fellow PICAns and villagers! My name is Alex Eisele (eyes-lee) and I am this years compost coordinator for PICA. Compost is a great way to produce healthy, organic, sustainable and nutritious fertilizer for your garden. It is a beautiful (albeit smelly) link in the sustainable agriculture chain that connects the various end products of food production and consumption with the first stages of amending garden beds before planting. The best thing about composting is that anyone can do it, seeing as how we all eat food and thus produce food waste.  Here at PICA, using the food waste generated in the village houses, we use a six-bin hot composting process, which is the fastest way to produce a sterilized, nitrogen-rich soil amendment. Although this process yields the quickest and most nutritious compost, it also requires the most attention. First we build a pile in bin #1, using a combination of food scraps (no meat, dairy, or cooked foods please!), straw, fresh plant trimmings and weeds; various dried twigs, leaves, and plant matter; horse manure, and some water. The pile sits for a week as healthy, microscopic bacteria-buddies begin aerobic decomposition, creating an internal heat that reaches 130-150 degrees farenheit, killing all harmful bacteria and unwanted seeds. The pile is turned, once a week, down the chain of bins until it reaches bin #6, where after sitting for another week, it is sifted.  The finished compost is dumped in the Foundational Roots, B-quad garden, and the larger leftovers are put into the “Bi-Sift” bin and used as a bacteria-boosting amendment when building a new pile.

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Although at PICA we use a hot compost process, there are a few different ways to produce compost, creating plenty of options to choose from when figuring out which method will work best for your schedule, yard size, amount and type of food waste, etc.  In addition to hot composting, there is also cold composting, which includes worm composting (vermiculture), and underground compost.  In cold compost, you simply build a pile or heap of intermixed layers of food scraps, plant materials, soil, and manure (if you have it) and let it sit stationary for three months to a year. Sometimes worms are added to the pile in a process known as vermiculture, which is a very good method if you do not have a lot of space to dedicate to compost.  A healthy worm compost will be contained in a bin or tub (as you don’t want your worms to leave you) which is poked with holes for airflow and drainage.  Add about one-half quart of food scraps per week (more or less depending on the size of your pile and amount of worms) and use shredded newspaper, straw, dried leaves and/or grass trimmings for a top and bottom layer of the worm pile. The worms feed on the bacteria which grow on the food scraps, producing what are called “castings”, the finished product of vermiculture. Underground compost simply involves digging a small hole, placing a 4-6 inch layer of food scraps in it, and burying it for about six months.  The upside of cold compost is that it does not take as much work to manage since it does not need to be turned.  The downsides are that it takes a much longer time to yield a finished product that product is not as nitrogen-rich as hot compost, and you may have to deal with unwanted seeds and spores.

            The composting process, whichever method you use, is a perfect example of recycling and sustainability. It is a metaphor for struggle and growth, the challenges we face , as it takes the waste remnants of the gardening process, and turns it into a vital source of life. I love my job as compost coordinator for many reasons, one of which is it’s metaphorical value. After high school I was a scared, depressed, self-conscious individual who, despite my best attempts, let the negative experiences in my past (various traumas and regrets) rule my future. Over the next six years I began to really look at those experiences, and confront them with intent to heal, and through the therapeutic writing of poetry (where I discovered my love of metaphor), recycled them into a strength which helped me make my most immediate dream come true: transferring to UCSC and beginning to change the world for the better, one sustainable step at a time.

ImageAbout the author: Alex Eisele is the PICA Compost Coordinator for the 2013-2014 academic year.

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