Monday, April 11, 2011

Sustainable Living Project: My Dirty Little Secret

Sustainability seems to be the new buzzword.  From sustainable architecture to sustainable business practices, the word seems to be applied to every field imaginable.  In fact, while looking for some information on a local project, I found that my alma mater, the University of Illinois, even has an Office of Sustainability, encompassing all disciplines with course offerings and seminars open to the public.  Other universities even offer degrees in the field, ranging from Sustainable Clothing to Sustainable Tourism.

When I first heard this word being applied to areas other than agriculture, I wasn't quite sure what it meant.  I had visions of citizens not only planting vegetable gardens and raising chickens in their back yards, but building windmills and adding solar panels to provide their own electricity, and spinning wool to make their own clothing.  Obviously, in our urban society all these measures aren't very feasible.  I had misinterpreted the term to mean "self-sufficiency."  Sustainability doesn't mean individuals isolating themselves, but rather a collaborative effort to achieve a worthy goal.  The mission of sustainability, as the U of I's website states, is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."   "Going green," "reducing our carbon footprint," "being environmentally responsible"--whatever you want to call it, it all boils down to making sure that we leave this earth as good a place (or better) than we found it.

While the premise of the Sustainability movement sounds very noble, I don't usually get involved with causes like this, especially if there are political overtones.  However, I do think individuals can take actions in their own lives that can effect positive change in the future of our planet.    Last year for Jan's Earth Day project I wrote about small steps that I had taken or planned to take.  But this year I would like to focus on just one aspect, one that involves getting down and dirty--composting.

Our Master Gardeners' Idea Garden has an endless supply of compost available to add to the garden.
 Every gardener knows that good soil is the first step in creating a beautiful garden, and adding compost is one of the best ways of loosening heavy soil as well as adding much-needed nutrients.  But have you also thought about the benefits of composting in terms of the environment?  According to the LRC's website, yard debris accounts for 25% of all waste in the state of Illinois.  That doesn't mean, however, that this has to be added to the landfills.  Many communities offer curbside pick-up of yard waste, making it easy to recycle these materials.  In our small village, for example, residents don't even have to bag leaves--if they sweep them in piles near the curb, village workers vacuum up the leaves into a large truck and transport them to the landscape recycling center.  The once-familiar autumn smell of burning leaves no longer exists, and everyone, especially those with respiratory problems, can breathe easier.

Since I live outside the city limits, this service is not available to me, but I do my own recycling of yard waste.  After raking leaves last fall, I added a layer of leaves as a base for my new garden area, spread some over existing flower beds as protection for the winter, and added the rest to the compost bin or piled next to it.  This spring I raked those big leaves back off the flowerbeds, and as I trimmed perennials and emptied old potting soil from containers, the compost pile grew even higher. 

I don't pay much attention to the science of composting; in fact, I would call myself a "lazy composter."   I don't add worms to the compost pile to speed up the decomposition process, and I rarely think to stir the pile to aerate it.  I don't worry about the percentage of  "brown" and "green"--I just add yard debris and kitchen scraps as I accumulate them.  Unlike the fictional Maggie in my last post, I don't feel any guilt about all the coffee grounds I throw out, because they all get added to the compost.  So does the produce that somehow gets lost in the back of my refrigerator until it turns into unrecognizable mush.  Last fall I did construct a flimsy cage out of chicken wire and stakes to contain the pile a little better, but my dream is to one day have a wooden three-compartment bin, making it easier to get at the finished "black gold" whenever I want.  

Taking this lazy approach does help to cut down waste, but it means the process of converting it to usable compost takes much longer.  Last year I wanted more compost than I had available.  That is when I discovered a gold mine--the local Landscape Recycling Center.  The LRC has been taking in yard waste and selling the recycled products for several years, but I had never visited it until a Master Gardener classmate mentioned that she had gotten a pick-up load of compost for her garden at a very reasonable cost.

My first trip to the LRC was an interesting one.  I envisioned placing my order and then someone handing me several bags of compost all neatly tied up.  But no,  . . . while they will load up a truck bed, if you want a smaller amount you need to bag it yourself.  I found myself driving into a field filled with hills of mounded dirt and mulch and then scrabbling the compost with my bare hands into my containers.  As the dirt began sliding down, I couldn't help but picture myself being suddenly covered with an avalanche of compost, never to be seen again.  Fortunately, I survived and learned from the experience--from then on, I always wore old clothes and my garden shoes and brought along a scoop or shovel.

You can't beat the LRC's price for compost either.  On that first trip I learned of a special deal they offered--for $10 I purchased a 7-gallon pail from them, which I could then refill for free for the rest of the year.  And they don't care if you bring along other containers and fill them as well.  All this means unlimited compost for only $10 a year!  The LRC also offers different grades of mulch, also made from local materials, at a  reasonable cost as well.

Last summer I made many trips to the Landscape Center, and I plan to go back again this year.  I might add, as another environmental note, that the center is about 8 miles from my house, so I never made a special trip into town just for compost or mulch--using up extra gas--but always planned my stop there after I had already been in town for some other activity. 

Anyone can compost, especially with the products available today that can contain a pile of debris so it won't offend your neighbors or violate local codes.  But if you can't compost or need more than your pile produces, be sure to check to see if you also have a local landscape recycling center.  It may be the best dirty little secret in town!

Be sure to check out posts from other garden bloggers participating in the Sustainability Project at Jan's Thanks For Today.  And why not join in this worthwhile project?  Jan is giving away lots of cool prizes to participants, but you need to have your post up by April 15.


  1. Good morning Rose, I too am leery of buzz words that seem to be political, but I'm also trying to manage my own little piece of things in a responsible way, with a similar approach to composting - a couple of big piles. I wonder if I had that organized bin system, would I even use it - probably not! Here, we can get unscreened compost for free, or the lovely cleaned up stuff for a nominal fee - love that $10 bucket!

  2. I have a compost pile too Rose. It doesn't get much attention unless I want some of it or I am adding to the pile. I just dig under and around the sides to get whatever is easily retrieved. Your city compost area sounds great. I wish our city would do something like this with the mounds of debris they collect.

  3. Glad you survived your trip to the LRC! That was an experience for sure but oh so worth it. $10 is a great deal. I wished ours did this but several years ago they began selling it all to businesses in Alabama. Total bummer for local folks. Lucky you to have it available all the time.

  4. Oh I wish I could do composting too! The problem is getting the earthworms (we don't get em here - don't have land space here). I tried digging the little ground we have here and all I come up is nasty centipedes and millipedes. Yuck! I know! Wish there was something that made earthworms appear magically so that I can start composting!!!

  5. Ah, black gold! You are a rich woman, Rose :)

  6. Great post --- I love these recycling efforts that make compost available. Like you, I am a lazy composter, and while I have a ton of debris moldering away in my compost heap, it is taking a long time. So I order the finished stuff in a big truckload, and I know I'm getting recycled leaves from other people's yards!

  7. I am also a lazy composter, although my husband did build a three-bin wooden compost set for me. One problem is that it's under a tree, and the roots of the tree grow up into the finished compost and you can't shovel it out because of those roots! We're going to put some cement slabs down in that last bin this year to see if that will solve the problem.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds unrecognizable organic matter in the back of the veggie drawer every so often.

  8. What you need is a good bucketful of rabbit droppings...... that would really help with your composting! LOL!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  9. Wonderful post, Rose, and what a picture you painted while at the LRC. ;) I'm a lazy composter too, but somehow it works: all our veggie scraps, coffee grounds... go into a pile. Amazing though is to have a huge bin filled to the brim and once it decomposes, so little, but so wonderful. Hope your garden is growing.

  10. Great post Rose, composting our food and garden waste makes so much sense - and once you add in cardboard and shredded paper, it starts to really cut down on the landfill problem besetting our Western societies. Glad you didn't get buried in compost during your first trip! Even more glad I am not the only lazy composter. I was rather disapointed to realise just how much difference turnign the heap makes to the speed of the process. I moved our heaps last year to a more tucked away location, thus turning them in the process. I've never had so much wonderfully crumbly dark compose... Ah well, something to think about for the future!

  11. Rose, A very excellent post. I need to be better at finding free or near free materials from our city. The bucket is a marvelous idea. I may forward your post to the city~it would offset some costs. gail

  12. I have the same philosophy towards composting as you Rose. ;) But regardless we are still recycling and repurposing the yard waste from our gardens. :)

  13. I found myself nodding and saying "Yes" in my mind. We can all compost. I just wrote about a small compost bin for Fiskars on their garden website, and about how to start composting. Your post is really great with lots of info. I am a lazy composter myself. I just pile everything in a bin or container and let it do its thing. Thanks Rose.~~Dee

  14. I think that is such a wonderful idea that your local area is doing. I wish we had a Landscape Recycling Center here. I could see the idea would be a good idea for some black gold.

  15. I too am a let it be composter! I flip the pile occasionally and have never added worms. They seem to find the compost on their own so I reckon, I have natural compost :-) How lucky to have a compost supply up the road...

  16. Dear Rose,
    Black gold! We have always is mulch and food for my gardens. Not only do we use leaves and grass clippings but also our kitchen scrapes.
    Wonderful post.

  17. Hi Rose, I really enjoyed your post. I had never even heard of the term 'sustainability' until after I started garden blogging. And then, it was on all the 'green' blogs. I mean, the 'really green blogs. I didn't think I had anything in common with them at the time. I mean, I didn't want to get involved in political action causes or anything else that brought to mind. But then, I began to read a little more--and realized that we don't need to be 'really green' to practice sustainable methods. I mean, I am FAR from being very sustainable, because just the idea of collecting rain water and composting were all NEW to me when I got the idea for my Earth Day project. I began to realize that there were things I could and probably should start doing, in addition to some things I was already doing but didn't consider them a big deal.
    Anyway...whatever...the main thing is, we are all doing 'something'. And that is what counts. And it's easy, too! I do like the fact that you've got all that compost you can get at such a great price. I am not aware of anything like that around here. The small tumbling composter I'm using is definitely not big enough and I'm going to have to start using a pile again. The one from last year is really rich and it's almost miraculous when you think what it once was!
    Nature is neat. Nothing goes to waste. Thanks for sharing all of this wonderful info. Rose, and for linking to my project. Good luck!

  18. Cyndy, I think it's great that so many of us are doing our own little "things" that help to preserve our resources. Composting is such an easy thing, especially my lazy way.

  19. I too am a lazy composter, but I've been amazed at how much less garbage we threw out every week once the produce scraps were taken out. It's a great way to do something simple to help with that very amorphous concept of "sustainability."

  20. Lisa, I do the same thing; in fact, I dug out some fresh compost from the bottom of the pile yesterday for the veggie garden. The local landscape recycling center is a treasure.

    Tina, They sell their compost to Alabama?? I think all of ours is used locally. Yep, I'm glad to be alive:)

    Chandramouli, It's amazing how quickly the earthworms find this compost pile. I wouldn't be thrilled about the centipedes and millipedes either; I hope they're not the gigantic kind I saw at an exhibit recently.

    Joey, If soil were a currency, I would be wealthy indeed:)

    Laurrie, Yes, I don't feel guilty either in getting this compost from the center--it's recycling of the best kind.

    Renee, Lucky you to have that three-bin compartment! I hope the cement slabs do the trick. Could you move it somewhere, if not?

    Maggie, I remember when we had Buddy the rabbit--there were no shortage of "pellets" then:) Not a bad idea:)

    Di, Lots of giant cucumbers went into this pile last year:) I always have a few surprises growing out of it each summer, too; one year a very nice muskmelon vine.

  21. Janet, Judging by all the comments, I'm not the only lazy composter. I've got to find a way to turn the pile; my problem is we stuffed so many leaves into it last year, it's hard to do by hand.

    Gail, I wondered how many communities offer this kind of service. I think it's a great idea for any city.

    Racquel, My method takes awhile, but eventually it does turn into some very rich compost.

    Dee, I had a chance to purchase a composter for an inexpensive amount this weekend but passed it up. Maybe one of these days. In the meantime, the pile is doing its job.

    Lona, I used to buy bags of various types of compost at the garden centers, but this is such a better idea, plus it's better compost, I think.

    Skeeter, Yes, those earthworms seem to find their way to the pile, so I do have some natural helpers here.

  22. Jan, Thank you for hosting this again, and for making us all think a little harder about what we can do. I do stay away from the green zealots, too. I'm a middle-of-the road kind of person, but I think all of us can do something to protect the environment. I wish I could ride a bike to get groceries or run errands, but that just isn't practical where I live. This is not only recycling, but it's great for the garden, too!

    Rose, I have a coffee can under the kitchen sink for coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, and eggshells. It doesn't take long till it's full enough to empty onto the pile. Our weekly garbage is much less, too.

  23. I pretty much let the compost do its own thing too Rose. I'd like to get more proactive with it, as it seems like there's never enough compost, especially since I started growing veggies again three years ago. I'd love to have a local compost resource like the one you have!

  24. I love this purple flowers with amazing yellow center in it.
    dean graziosi

  25. Rose, I'm so glad you didn't disappear into that mountain of compost:) Lazy composting is more my style too. If it gets too complicated (checking the temperature, adding just the right amounts of green and brown, etc.), it kinda takes the fun out of it.

  26. A very thoughtful and thought provoking post Rose. I really should pay more attention to composting, our local council sell compost bins at discounted prices...I should get one!

    How well I remember the smell of those bonfires :( the rush around the house to close all the windows and into the garden to get the washing from the line before it was enveloped and how badly it affected my breathing... thankfully, they are largely a thing of the past now.

  27. I like the definition of the U of I department....future generations. Great!!
    I like the bucket and the ability to return all year to refill those buckets!! Very cool.
    I need to get my post written.

  28. I don't know if we have a landscape recycling center or not. But what a great idea! With our gumbo type clay around here that would be a great thing to have.

  29. I love compost, too. Sometimes it seems like the backbone of the garden. Great post!

  30. Nothing wrong with buying compost, esp. from a municipal facility! I never have enough.

  31. Rose, glad you weren't covered over by an avalanche of compost. I would miss you terribly.

    Your mention of getting compost from the local LRC really got my attention. I'll be checking that out for sure. Thanks for the idea.

    It was spring here for a couple of days, but starting tomorrow we're back to 40 degrees and rain/snow. Nothing I can do about it, so I'll just go with the flow.


  32. Wonderful post Rose. I very much enjoyed it.

  33. Very well said Rose. I envy your LRC. And that MG Idea Garden is beautiful!

    I compost the way you do. Just throw it all in there and don't worry about it. I got some nice compost out this spring. Composting is so easy, I don't know why everyone doesn't do it!

  34. Great post, Rose. Up here in my area we don't get many leaves because we can't grow many deciduous trees. So... in the autumn you will find me skulking about in the valley, stealing bags of leaves from the curb that have been set out for recycling pick up. :)) I compost 'em for my garden. That old saying: one woman's trash... most definitely applies to me.

  35. found myself nodding and saying "Yes" in my mind. We can all compost. I just wrote about a small compost bin for Fiskars on their garden website, and about how to start composting. Your post is really great with lots of info. I am a lazy composter myself. I just pile everything in a bin or container and let it do its thing.


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