New Adventures in Gardening: Urban Composting

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

It’s a gorgeous sunny spring day here in Point Lookout, New York, a beach hamlet where my husband typically takes a winter rental. I’ve been sequestered here since December, sheltering in place and minimizing most all social interaction, let alone mingling in crowds – even though I’ve been fully vaccinated since the end of March.

Despite the CDC’s latest guidance that it’s safe to remove my mask, I think it too soon to throw it away. The CDC’s track record on masks has been woeful.  And I believe New York continues to maintain its mandatory mask policy – a decision I applaud, as The New York Times reports many corporations – including Costco, Publix, Starbucks, and Walmart –  have opted to drop their storewide mask requirements for fully-vaccinated people.

My Brooklyn Garden

When we first moved into our Brooklyn home in the mid-90s, I was pleased it had a small backyard garden.  Each property in our street of town houses had what was originally intended as a laundry drying area, separated from each other by chain link fences. Our garden is shaded. Much of it then was dappled shade: the space centered on a three-trunked river birch tree,  and a neighbor’s huge maple tree loomed above. Our house cast its own shadows, which extended farther and farther into the garden from mid-morning on, Camille, the previous owner, had planted a pleasant woodland garden, with lots of native plants. Once I learned to respect the space I had rather than hope for the best with plants ill-suited to the location, most of the plants I added flourished. The maple tree died, and alas, we had to sacrifice the aged river birch, so that now, at least some of the garden is sunny for much of the day. The garden has suffered from my neglect, as during the last several years, I’ve spent much of the year outside the U.S. (including most of 2020).

As for the front yards on our block, there was not that much gardening taking place when we moved in. Now, our block is a perpetual contender in the annual Greenest Block in Brooklyn contest. In the most recent – 2019 –  we received an honourable mention; we’ve also won outright before. Much of my front yard was covered in concrete, save for a holly bush and a hedge, neither of which I touched. I wanted to add more plants without tearing up the concrete, so I started small and bought some terra cotta pots. The very day I set those out, one of my neighbors took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t expect the pots to last; they’d soon be smashed or stolen.

How could i prevent that from happening?  Well, my solution was to buy more pots and invite my younger neighbors to help me with my gardening.  I gave each of my helpers her/his own pot and some seeds, and the charge of watering and caring for the plant.  I filled other pots with plants purchased at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We didn’t have a car then and the garden is about a ten-minute walk away; I could pick out plants from the garden’s shop or at the annual plant sale and carry them home. An added benefit: the money I spent helped support the garden.

By the end of the summer, the front yard was very green, brightened by small shrubs and many flowers. One day, a smug adult neighbor buttonholed me to tell me how a bunch of kids had been sitting on my front steps, and when she confronted them, told her that they had my permission to enter my front yard. She laughed when she repeated what she thought to be such an obvious lie and told me how she’d chased them away. And then was aghast when I said, well actually, the kids did have my permission to hang out in my front yard to tend their plants.

Today, more than two decades later, I’ve yet to lose a pot to theft or vandalism.

Urban Composting

As I head back to Brooklyn tomorrow, I’ll port with me a wooden window box, recently planted with various herbs. These grow well in our sunny front yard. One year, I grew tomatoes in a couple of boxes, but when I worked out how much I spent on the dozen or so tomatoes I harvested, I realized buying tomatoes from the green market is much more sensible

For the last several years, I’ve neglected my gardening and I know all of my plants would benefit from improving the soil. In the past, as I learned more about the virtues of compost instead of chemicals, I purchased some and added it to my planting mix or occasionally replanted or top dressed existing plants.

Now I think I’m going to try to make my own compost, inspired by the example of my 85-year old mother. As regular readers might remember, Mom is keen gardener. She grows a variety of vegetables, and strawberries and blueberries as well (see Tend Your Own Garden: Personal Food Security During the Age of COVID-19 and Food Security in the Age of COVID-19: The First Harvest of the Season’s Bounty ). This year’s tomato plants are already in the ground in her North Carolina home and she’s already harvested some lettuce.

Mom recently purchased a small two-drum composter and started composting, following advice and recommendations of fellow gardeners.

I think I may do the same. Why don’t I just make a compost pile? I don’t really have the space. Part of my backyard is devoted to a stone patio, and the rest is planted. There’s also the problem of varmints. I’ve only seen one rat in during our time in our house and I don’t care to repeat that experience. And I well remember the event that caused my neighbor, Adrienne, to abandon hers. Another neighbor had watched a tribe of rats gallop through the common backyard space, on their way to feast on Adrienne’s compost set-up. Adrian decided to abandon her composting in the interests of neighborhood amity. Mom’s composter rests off the ground and appears well-insulated from hungry vermin – even snakes, I’m told.

Other than having a steady supply of fresh herbs, my gardening won’t improve my food security. Being able to create my own compost to nourish my plants is only one benefit of composting. Another is reducing the waste I dump into NYC’s garbage collection system. Unlike other U.S. cities, which have moved to adopt zero waste policies, the Big Apple currently collects only yard waste for composting, with no plans to tackle organic waste (as compared to Boston, which has recently launched plans to expand a pilot program, according to Waste Dive). I’ve become increasingly concerned about throwing my vegetable and fruit scraps into the rubbish bin, but in NYC, I’m on my own if I want to stop.

So, having decided, due to the COVID-19 situation to defer any near-term travel plans and shelter in place in Brooklyn at least for much of the summer, I’m ready to  devote more attention to tending my garden. Composting seems to be a logical next step. Readers?

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  1. harrybothered

    I got a two-drum elevated composter for my kitchen waste. Once I noticed a hummingbird hovering around it and even tapping on the plastic with her beak. I asked my mom if she had any idea what was going on and she told me the hummingbirds need bugs when they are laying eggs. Well, the composter is full of fruit flies, so next time the bird came around, I opened the lid and shook it and this cloud of fruit flies came pouring out. I went away a bit and soon the bird was swooping everywhere catching the flies.

    We now have a standard interaction – she comes a flies near my face, letting me know she wants some flies. I go open the bin and agitate so that the flies exit in droves. I sit down and she comes and catches about 5 or 6. This happens nearly every day now.

    Now, if I could figure out how to make friends with the mourning doves.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      That’s a great story. That’s what Mom has. I’ve never seen a hummingbird in NY, although my husband saw a ruby-throat yesterday, while birding in Harriman State Park. The bird was building a nest.

      It would be way cool to attract hummingbirds!

    2. heresy101

      While I haven’t had experience with mourning doves, my two barrel composter never ceases to amaze me. We have a little green bucket under the kitchen sink and ALL green material goes into the bucket – peelings, apple cores, egg shells, seeds, etc. This is dumped into the composter and is turned into rich compost by my hundreds of worms in the barrels. What I can’t figure out is how they got into the barrels because the barrels are 15″ off the ground! The compost is great except for the occasional little oval SKU sticker.

      1. harrybothered

        I wish some worms would find their way into mine. We have heavy clay soil and all my vegetable gardening is done in boxes. I’ve seen very few worms here.

        1. wilroncanada

          When our grandchildren visit, if the morning happens to have dew or it rains a little, my wife takes our three grandchildren, girls 13 and 10, and a boy 7, on a worm walk. they collect worms and deposit them into the 9 raised beds we have in our yard for much of our garden. We also add some to the soil around our raspberries, Cascade berries, our rhubarb our herb bed, and my daughter’s front garden of shrubs and perennial flowering plants. Over the years they have had lots of experience with worms, garden snakes, small lizards, slugs, snails even aphids, thrips and moths.

          1. harrybothered

            What a great story.

            Unfortunately, it only rains here in the winter time and the morning dew is short-lived. I haven’t seen any worms in the yard in the morning. Digging in this soil is impossible without some heavy tool that can break up compacted clay.

        2. russell1200

          If you actually get actual high heat composting, the earthworms will die in any case. But even with my drum composter, I often just mostly slow composting, in which case they do fine.

  2. Arizona Slim

    Make friends with mourning doves?

    Well, at my place, those opinionated birds found the perfect nesting spot. They are especially partial to my solar electric system’s combiner box.

    First couple started nesting there back in March 2019 and I have another couple out there now.

    As for my compost bin, it is a big mesh-lined box that is open on the top. Makes compost bin basketball easy and fun to play!

    The bin is also part of my garden. A few months ago, I tossed some moldy squash seeds into it. Guess what’s growing big and tall now?

    1. harrybothered

      We seem to have a shortage of them right now. There used to be about 10 that would come forage for the seeds that were on the ground from my little bird feeder but this year I only see one, occasionally there’s two.

      There was apparently a bad salmonella outbreak in the bird population here in Northern California. I actually didn’t hear much about it but I do wonder if that’s why there are so few mourning doves around. It also could be due to my new neighbor’s mostly outdoor cat.

      1. wilroncanada

        For some reason, mourning doves disappeared from my little town on Southern Vancouver Island. Then about 6 or 7 years ago one pair appeared cooing on the power lines a block away. Now there are about 10 pairs in the area. A lot of mourning going on.

        1. harrybothered

          Tell me about it. Unfortunately, I can’t tell my neighbors to keep Peach inside. I don’t think they could keep him inside. He’s one of those cats that refuses to stay inside. My mom’s neighbor in Bend had one of those, Isabel. She was so cute she didn’t look real – she looked like a stuffed animal. I once watched her trying to get the screen out of an upper floor window so she could escape the house. She disappeared and was probably eaten by a coyote.
          Just so you know, my two are strictly indoors. A friend of mine built them a catio on my concrete porch so they can kinda sorta be outdoors. They have caught some birds though that were brave enough (or stupid enough) to actually enter the catio confines.

        1. harrybothered

          Wow, that’s horrible. Thanks for the information.
          It was definitely a salmonella outbreak here. I heard about it when I heard the story that it seemed to be over. It would of been nice to hear about it while it was ongoing. ;)

    2. Nikkikat

      We had doves nest in a hanging plant pot on the patio. The same birds came back each year and would have 4 to 5 sets of babies. It was amazing how close these birds would allow me to be to them. They opened up a really wonderful summer to look forward to each year.
      Watching the pair care for and raise the young ones. Each year there would be another pair that show up and try to claim the flower pot but the male would chase them off. I believe these may have been one of their young returning the same place. It was fun to watch them gather all the nesting materials. The female would use some and discard other pieces of twigs and grasses gathered by the male. Once they hatched and grew too big for the nest they would remain hidden until evening when generally the male would take the older on into a tree or Bush for the night and the female would take the younger. Usually hatched about 3 days apart.
      This all ended when they were chased out and were lucky enough to escape the neighbors cat. We had successfully chased off crows and even a red shoulder hawk that flew all the way in under our patio cover and perched a chair.
      The cat won the day and I never had another morning dove in the yard.
      Five years later the neighbor moved and abandoned the cat. Nicky the cat came to live with us. He became an indoor cat eventually as he discovered it was pretty darn cushy at my house.

      1. harrybothered

        That was smart. Have any mourning doves returned now that Nicky has been tamed?
        What a wonderful experience you’ve had with your doves!

        My one (or occasionally two) mourning doves won’t let me anywhere near them. I would love to give them a safe area to nest and raise their young in, but the presence of Peach makes that impossible.

        1. Nikkikat

          No, the doves have mostly stayed away. There will be the occasional pair to show up and sit on the telephone wires here. None appear brave enough to visit the yard. Although they have occasionally used the bird bath. They sensed his presence. It’s been three years. The earlier post above about the salmonella in Calif. may have contributed to their absence.
          We do see some ring necked doves around. They are larger than the mourning doves and are not indigenous birds, but none the less make a nice cooing sound.
          The experience with those doves raising their young was so enjoyable. I still can’t get over how tame this pair seemed. The doves would fledge and then the male who watched them during the day would walk around with them outside our patio door. It entertained my Dad when he visited, he couldn’t get over it either.

  3. juliania

    I am also very short of space when it comes to the compost area, but have earlier used large nursery tubs from early tree plantings to store my compost, preferably on the soil in corners of the garden, starting with worms in residence that could burrow down for the moisture we always need in this mountain desert area.

    Lately I have gathered bags of leaves from neighbors and trenched paths in those corner gardens (do a lot of container plants as well) so that at spring planting time those trenches get filled with the leafmulch I’d spread over winter. It’s all to encourage the worms and create my own soil as it is hard for me to bring that in from elsewhere. I use planks on top of the leafmulch as paths – they do sink down, so are constantly refurbished with whatever is available, and any suitable kitchen waste materials are also dug in underneath. I expect this can be done here as my basic original ‘dirt’ was sand and rocks. It drains well. I’ve only done this a couple of years, but the cycle seems to work – each spring that composted trench gets dug out to gradually replenish the surrounding beds topsoil, as the mulch gets recycled to the trench — a bit of a mad hatter’s tea party with the worms being a sign of progress.

    I had hoped I would thereby eventually graduate to raised beds of the kind my uncle in New Zealand used to have – sadly so far that isn’t happening as the climate and terrain here is very different. But at least the beds are gradually improving, and what slugs I get seem to migrate to the plank path area or under garden tubs overnight, from whence they get biffed overwall to face(or not ) life among the cacti.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s what I can do.

  4. Norello

    “I’ve become increasingly concerned about throwing my vegetable and fruit scraps into the rubbish bin, but in NYC, I’m on my own if I want to stop.”

    If vegetable and fruit scarps are all that are going to be composted, collecting it in a can then burying it directly in the garden is the simplest approach. Vermicomposting, worms in a small box, would also work well and use only a small amount of indoor space.

    The following two links are short articles on composting which may be useful.

  5. bespokethis

    And I believe New York continues to maintain its mandatory mask policy – a decision I applaud, as The New York Times reports many corporations – including Costco, Publix, Starbucks, and Walmart – have opted to drop their storewide mask requirements for fully-vaccinated people. Jerri-Lynn Scofield [bold added]

    Sure and it’s not you that has to wear a near suffocating mask for 8+ hours a day at work – even if vaccinated or recovered from Covid?

    1. Yves Smith

      I am tired of this childish whining. I wear a mask while working out, as in strenuous weight training (I do bodyweight chins, 3-4 sets for instance). Guys and women in the gym did when required. I was in today and most still are. People in Asian countries routinely wear them when they have a cold, all day, not just at work but on their commute too. It’s not a hardship. Washing and drying my hair is vastly more of a nuisance and I don’t go all crybaby over that.

  6. curlydan

    Do you still have trees in your backyard? In my composting experience, you need a mix of the “browns” and the “greens” to compost well. Sounds like you have all the greens from food scraps. A good supply of leaves or other “browns” (including coffee grinds or newpaper) would be good to mix in with the greens.

    We produce more compost than we need, but I always can seek out a gardening neighbor who needs the extras I have.

    I could see space being your biggest issue. It seems like you really need 2 compost piles because you need one to thoroughly compost your stuff while the other you can dump in your recent scraps. I have a turnable plastic composter I got years ago from Costco whereas my “backup” composter is just some rolled-wire, small rectangular fencing with a lid on top (diamater about 18 inches I’m guessing). I can’t turn the pile in the rolled wire “composter”, but I only need to put things in it for a few months, so it hasn’t been a problem.. I don’t have many issues with critters–maybe because of the lid and the fact I mix a bunch of leaves with the food, but we don’t have many rats either where I live.

    Here’s a small plastic composter than Aldi was recently selling. They sold out in the first day. But if you had two of these, I think rats etc would struggle to get it.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      The composter I’m considering has two drums.

      We no longer have a tree in our backyard but a large oak tree stands in front of our house.

      1. Susan the other

        Nostalgic. In a good way. I’m old enough to remember Marjorie Morningstar, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Woody Allen’s lovely (funny but like a scrapbook) movie about his wartime childhood in Brooklyn. Funny I don’t think of Brooklyn as a gardening mecca, but why not. When I looked into drum composters they were all kinda big. You have to tend them, spin them regularly and know when the compost is ripe. I guess put them in a convenient place so when you walk past you can just give them a spin like a prayer wheel. I think l’ll look into getting one when we move. Here’s hoping the HOA isn’t into typical landscaping. An unsightly composter, heaven forbid. Hide it with a trellis.

  7. marieann

    We have been composting for years and I have only seen one rat and it was nowhere near the composters
    We have 3…the last 2 we picked up from the side of the road….we do have a large backyard.Ours are just square bins that sit on the ground and have a door that raises to get the finished compost out. All the compost is used in our backyard, there are a couple of veggie beds.

    I grow loads of tomatoes my favourite just now are the yellow grape ones…soo sweet.
    I find is cheap to grow most vegetables….I also have raspberries,strawberries, rhubarb and red currents….I have a serviceberry tree and the birds usually allow me to have a small amount of their berries.

    1. c_heale

      If you wanna avoid rats and cats don’t put meat, fish, etc., remnants in the compost.

  8. Wisteria loafer

    Thanks for this post, I liked hearing about your garden. I live in a desert area and the earth is very sandy. Last year i grew vegetables mostly in 5 gallon buckets filled with a mixture of potting soil, compost and sandy soil. I topped off the buckets with compost occasionally, and then brought the plants inside the sunroom for the winter. Sweet peppers and string beans have done fairly well. This year i dug some trenches in the sandy soil in a semi shady area and filled them with the same mix of compost, potting soil and sand. I plan to plant some beets and radishes there.

    The compost heap is composed of autumn raked leaves mixed with kitchen waste. I add to the pile, water it and mix everything up every week or so. I cover it with a tarp mostly as a courtesy to neighbors. No idea if this is right, but it seems to work fine so far. I have found there is much trial and error in gardening. I am just starting to learn the ropes.

    1. harrybothered

      I was doing the same thing to try to soften the clay soil. It worked pretty well but it just takes a long time. I think the tarp helps to heat it and keep it hot so that it decomposes faster. I used black plastic garbage bags for the same reason.

  9. Peter L.

    Over the last year, I’ve experimented with dumping food scrap waste, mixed with paper, directly into the soil of a narrow flowerbed. I dig a hole big enough to accept a small bucketful of our food scraps, soak the mixture in water and then cover it back up with dirt. So far, it seems to be working remarkably well. The soil is now teeming with fat earthworms. I was very pleased to see a robin pull one up the other day. Depending on the temperature and rainfall (hot and damp being fastest) it seems to take about month for the vast majority of stuff to break down. I haven’t yet decided how to use the compost, but I’m primarily motivated to do it because it cuts down on how much waste we leave at the curb. (I estimate it saves us at least 50% by weight.)

    There is zero evidence of rats, and I suspect this is because there are too many better food sources around.

  10. converger

    Worm bins. Faster and more compact than drum composting. Fabulous worm castings and worm tea. Put a rock on it to keep out raccoons. Turn it with a shovel every once in a while to keep it aerated and worms happy. We’ve settled on a setup with multiple trays: load the top one with fresh compost, empty the bottom one and put it on top when you want to start a new tray.

  11. HotFlash

    Composting is the bomb! I used to despair of getting anything except invasive non-native plants to grow in the front yard, but last couple of summers the it has been so lush that neighbours have taken to calling it The Jungle — you cannot see dirt anywhere. and the greenery is tall. My tomatoes were over 6 feet high. And productive, too! I have two composters in my little yard which get my fruit and veggie scraps and coffee grounds. They are City of Toronto issue, a bottomless barrel with a sliding door at the bottom. I alternate years, filling one and using from the other. Works fine for me, but the turning ones are supposed to be very much faster. Between the garden and foraging, I rarely buy fresh produce except when I want to can or freeze in quantity. My back yard won’t even grow weeds, but I am looking forward to tackling it next.

    Our city, Toronto, picks up organic waste weekly, has for years, but I only put meat scraps and such in my city-supplied Green Bin, stuff that would smell or attract vermin. We are Raccoon City, after all. The bin has a locking top and supposed to be proof against rats and raccoons. Organic waste is processed at city facilities into compost and biogas. Yard waste is also picked up, but only the brown, eh, no grass clippings. Toronto has a pretty aggressive waste program, we are quite proud of it.

    I’ve been top-dressing my front yard with the finished compost from my bins. The soil is alive, full of worms and other critters and the plants are thriving. The haskaps and red currants have set fruit, The snow and snap peas are about a foot high. In addition to a pea-patch with a more-or-less traditional trellis, this year I am trying to grow peas, and later, beans and other vine-ish things, up the existing barberry and syringa bushes. So far it looks like it’s working.

    Very best wishes for your garden, it is sure to bring you a lot of joy.

  12. alexis soule

    “Worms eat my garbage” is the classic reference.

    I have a little space outdoors (much less now, since a neighbor cut down some trees & I have 80% sun vs 80% shade, and have built raised beds … and now a mini-orchard following the “Grow a little fruit tree” system of pruning to keep the trees very small…

    I started worm composting about 4-6 months ago… takes a little bit of time to figure it out, get in harmony with the worms needs… then it takes about 15 minutes a week, and you have great worm castings, and an easier way to get rid of garbage in the winter.

    1. CanCyn

      Check out these beautiful worm boxes made by a fellow in Ottawa! Almost enough to make me overcome my squeamishness about having worms in the house.

  13. H Braithwaite

    If space is a problem you could look at a subpod, which can be part buried and then used as seating. You lift the lid to put in kitchen scraps then close it to sit on. Should keep rodents out and, because it has aeration holes to let in soil micro organisms and earthworms it doesn’t smell as it breaks down.
    I won’t post a link but you can buy from wiggly wiggles in the UK so I expect there is a US distributor.
    I have only done cold composting as I have space and I am lazy but this year and I going to try the Quick Return Maye E Bruce method of hot composting which promises compost in 4 to 6 weeks!

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