Decay Part IV:  Browns, Greens and Puns
by Jeff Lewis

More Preposterously Named Composters

Green Johanna Hot Komposter – A Swedish contraption that generates high internal temperatures that decompose meat, bone and dairy—usually verboten in backyard compost.  One selling point is its locking mechanism, which “helps keep… children out” of the rotting meat.  Johanna is making a tactical blunder, though.  It doesn’t take a genius to realize that she should emphasize Swedish and Hot, and drop the Green Komposter from the title.

Worm-A-Roo Vermiculture Factory – What segment of the population are they trying to appeal to with “Worm-A-Roo?”  A. A. Milne readers?  Kids of Australian expatriates?

The Volcano System – Fondly known as “The Disintegrator,” the Volcano System claims to handle meat and pet waste, which sounds like a recipe for disaster, as it basically is just a 3 ½ foot tall plastic cylinder.

Wriggly Ranch, Worm Condo, Worm Bungalow, The Worm Chalet – Four names for the same concept:  plastic containers that hold worms.

Brave New Composter – Not sure what this has to do with Huxley’s satire of H. G. Wells, but any product that relies on your own recycled milk jugs for structural support—I’m not making this up—is dubious.

The Swag Hanging Outdoor Worm System – This isn’t the type of swag that most people dream of.  Cate to Leo after opening her swag at the Oscars:  “It holds 20,000 red worms.  Gorgeous!”

Tumbleweed Pet Poo Converter – Here’s an enviable bit of marketing copy:  “Now, instead of throwing the crap down the toilet, in the trash or into the neighbor's yard, you can help eliminate part of your waste stream by using the power of composting redworms to do the dirty work for you.”  Also on the market:  The Doggie Dooley Pet Waste Digester.  If I ever have the misfortune of knowing someone who owns one of these, please let it be someone who reads the instructions, or failing that, at least has the sense not to put the compost on the leeks or leafy vegetables.

Playing Loose With the Puns

Resigned to an online purchase, I decided to forgo the crazy names at and buy a low-tech composter subsidized by the city of Oakland.  I ended up with a big plastic cylinder, but at least it was cheap.  I was a little disappointed when I pulled it out of the box and it was already muddy, but what do you expect for $30?  As a bonus, it included a How-To video, called “Do the Rot Thing.”  It’s not quite the polemic that the Spike Lee classic is, but it does seem to deal in racial stereotyping. 
Why, I ask, is the white guy the expert composter, who turned his pile into humus in only three weeks, while the Latino and Asian families took three months to finish theirs?  Did the video need to show the Latino family eating salsa and the Asian woman chopping her yard waste with a cleaver?  Worst of all, the head of the African-American family was a single mother who didn’t even have a compost bin and had to put her yard trimmings in a chicken-wire hoop.  It took her compost nine months to fully decay.  If this video was produced in a less diverse locale it might raise some eyebrows, but it was filmed in the hometown of the Black Panther Party.  By the way, if you have any more questions after watching the video, the host invites you to call the Rotline.  Oh, composters, how we do like our puns! 
Minor complaints aside, “Do the Rot Thing” was very helpful, describing the optimal mix of air, water, nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials that need to be present for the inner temperature to reach the high level necessary for fast decomposition.  Here are the composting basics:

Thinking that this seemed pretty clear, I combed our yard for waste.  Unfortunately, in my zeal I neglected the weed interdiction because our lawn is nothing more than a patchwork of different grass-like weeds.

Soon, I also began to question the nature of “Greenness” and “Brownness.”  Sure, grass is green, but egg shells, pine needles and coffee?  All of our leaves were still green—at what point do they become a Brown?  Are leafy vegetables Greens or are they vegetablesque Browns?  A call to the Rotline would clear this up, but I don’t like to talk on the phone, so I decided to learn by trial and error.

A certifiable error occurred a week later when I turned the pile without wearing a nose clip.  “Good God!”, I gasped, memories of the dead rat in my bedroom wall streaming back to me.  Smell is a fantastic conduit for memory.  I staggered upwind and when the shock had passed, I gathered up an armful of leaves and jogged back to the bin, holding my breath.  Not taking any chances, I slammed the leaves onto the pile and sprinted around the corner before the odor could get me a second time.  Thankfully, “Do the Rot Thing” was right—a layer of leaves masks smells marvelously, reducing the vicinity of the bin from “dead-rat horrific” to a mere “dookie-foot stinky.”

Looking Forward to Life in the Hot Zone

For Christmas, my friend Beth gave me a great and thoughtful present:  a compost thermometer.  Her mother is an expert composter, whose pile gets enviously hot, so we’ve had a few discussions about composting in the past.  The best composting results occur in what the brochure that came with the thermometer calls “The Hot Zone.”  At 130 to 160 degrees, the microorganisms go wild—sometimes generating so much heat that they can catch a dry pile on fire.  Back in the BCE, that’s got to have beaten the heck out of all that flint striking and stick rubbing nonsense.

Until I improve my skills, the Hot Zone is out of my reach, but there’s still the “Active Zone” at 100-130 or, failing that, the “Steady Zone” between 80-100.  Earlier in the winter, I’d noticed a little steam coming out of the compost and I could feel a little warmth on the sides of the plastic bin, so I was pretty excited to learn which it would be, Active or Steady.  I had a hunch my pile was just Steady, but I held out hope for the higher levels.

I couldn’t believe the results.  If I hadn’t tested the thermometer before I stuck it into the pile, I would have returned it, knowing it was broken.  Fifty-nine degrees!  59!  It was fifty-five outside.  I couldn’t do better than four degrees?

Measures Must Be Taken

One of the keys to efficient composting is a multi-bin rotation system.  If you keep putting new waste into a composter, it’ll take forever to finish breaking everything down, so Master Gardeners generally have several compost piles in various states of decay.  I decided, therefore, that if I ever was going to break sixty, let alone reach the Active Zone, I needed a second composter.  This left me with a dilemma because our yard doesn’t have room for too many large composters.  There are plenty of expensive small plastic ones on the market, but I’ve converted from my early days when I ogled the $150 models.  I’m now in the “$150 for a plastic tub?” school of thought, so I bought a $17 trash can with a locking lid and drilled a bunch of composter-like holes in the top, bottom and sides.

After a week, this second compost pile—comprised of the most decayed contents of my primary bin—languishes in the high fifties and I’m getting frustrated.  During a recent hot spell, both piles were actually cooler than ambient temperature.  My last, best hope comes in pellet or liquid form:  composting enzymes.  Allegedly, they can jumpstart your compost, giving it the pep needed to reach the Hot Zone.  But can you really call yourself an organic gardener if you need to sprinkle chemicals into your compost heap?  Maybe not, but you’re not an organic gardener if your compost can’t crack sixty degrees.  As soon as I get the opportunity, I’m buying the chemicals.

Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Lewis