The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
In a northern suburb of Chicago, on a small tract of formerly unused land situated between a commuter train track and bicycle path, an all-volunteer group is doing some amazing work. Each year, the Glencoe Community Garden grows approximate 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of organic vegetables, all to be donated to food pantries and other non-profit agencies in the Chicago area. The Garden began with a grant from Congregation Am Shalom in celebration of its 40th anniversary.
I had a simmering interest in compost, with semi-success using a small tumbler in our backyard. I heard about the Glencoe Community Garden and met Nina Schroeder, one of the founders of the Garden to learn more about their program. We met at their neatly crafted, three-bin compost system. All empty. With their focus on building the Garden’s infrastructure, acquiring farming knowledge and growing and distributing food, the three compost bins went unused. It is hard to believe, but even for the amazing, dedicated individuals running the Garden, there’s a limit. While there was no one to teach me, I got an incredible opportunity to learn while doing: take the compost program and run with it.
What began as simply a plan to “close the loop,” that is to convert the end of the season plant material into compost, morphed into a residential and commercial compost program. Last year, we collected over 1,500 gallons of fruit and vegetable waste. The program now includes worm composting, and also hot and cold composting. This year, the Garden will launch its bicycle-powered residential pick up program, and will also install a solar powered compost tea gizmo, using a mesh bag containing fresh compost, we plan to steep the compost in a rain barrel. The water is aerated using a solar powered pump. After a few days, the liquid is sprayed on plants for foliar feedings. Additionally, we are still trying to use compost to heat our greenhouse.
How did this happen?
It’s pretty simple. Nature is awesome. I don’t mean that in a teenager, “nature is awesome, dude!” sort of way. I mean the utterly humbling, totally hooking you in version. I’ll admit that the first season was hard work. No “browns” (high carbon materials such as leaves or sawdust) or “greens” (high nitrogen materials such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and brewery waste) had been collected. So, there were hours spent shredding newspaper, tearing up cardboard and raking neighbors’ yards. I was able to collect coffee grounds from a local Starbucks and discarded produce from a grocery. I did my best to adhere to some approximate proportions and turned the pile a few days each week.
Then it happened. The temperature in the pile start to rise. One hundred twenty. One hundred thirty. One hundred forty. When I turned the pile, steam would rise up. And the compost went from “garbage” to the dark, rich, loamy sweet smelling substance I had read about. I must have seemed manic, texting and emailing friends and family with the latest temperature readings. But I wasn’t making compost. This was nature taking back what belonged to it. Suddenly, the idea of putting organic waste into plastic bags destined to the landfill seemed vulgar.
I could tell more about how to make compost (just chop everything up as much as you can stand, make sure that the pile stays moist and there is some equivalence of “greens” to “browns.”) Instead, here’s the message: our planet is sick and needs our help. About a third of all landfills consist of food waste. This then produces methane, a greenhouse gas far worse than carbon dioxide. This is one thing that every household, business and organization can do: make compost. Just remember, nature is awesome, and composting is a great way to be a part of it.
Fred Miller is a member of Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. He is an urban farming hobbiest when not earning a living as a psychiatrist.