The Man Who Loves Rotting Things


Most people have some skeleton in the closet, an offbeat pastime, a guilty pleasure, something that, in their most paranoid daydreams, could land them as guest specimens on one of those sleazy TV talk shows.

My bad dream goes like this:

"Men who compost! On the next 'Geraldo!' "

Or: "Men who compost, and the women who love them! Next time on 'Sally Jessy!' "

OK, there it is, the complete dirt: I keep a compost bin in my back yard. What can I say? To quote the T-shirt I once received as a gift, "Compost happens."

It started happening for me a few years ago, when I turned 30 and my gardening gene kicked in, two to three decades earlier than in most males. Around the same time, I became involved in my community's recycling center. It didn't take long for those two interests to intersect in the form of composting, which, after all, is recycling in the garden.

Now I routinely toss the bulk of my family's kitchen and yard waste into my back-yard bin, a red 55-gallon oil drum with small holes on its bottom and side. Thanks to a simple mixture of organic materials and the hard labor of numerous earthworms for whom I've developed a certain fondness, I have a steady supply of free fertilizer.

"Black gold," the gardening magazines call it. "An inevitable response to the waste-disposal problem" is what more and more municipal governments are calling it. Nationwide, a growing number of officials have realized they must do something about the yard waste that constitutes about a quarter of the refuse in landfills.

To date, few governments have passed the talking stage and actually launched large-scale community composting facilities. Two such plants were set up this year in Connecticut through a joint effort of the National Audubon Society and the Proctor & Gamble Company. (Composting, like politics, can make strange bedfellows.)

Regular citizens, too, could help a lot by composting in their yards. According to a recent poll, 12 percent of Americans mine at home for the black gold of compost. Somehow that strikes me as an inflated figure. I know only one person who composts, and that's Mike Klingaman, the guy who writes the gardening column for this newspaper. He's practically obligated to compost.

In fact, judging by the reactions I get when people learn about my composting -- they gasp or draw back or move to a different zip code -- I'm doubtful anyone would ever admit to a pollster that he or she composts. To most people, it seems, compost's name is mud.

As a card-carrying suburbanite, I was at first confused by these reactions. I always thought people moved to the suburbs so they could have their own little plot of terra firma and be closer to the earth.

I've since concluded that what most suburbanites desire isn't so much to be closer to Mother Nature as it is to wrestle the old girl to the ground with their electrified mowers, trimmers, blowers, sprayers, whackers, pruners, edgers and other weaponry of "landscaping."

No, I'm not advocating knee-high lawns or untamed stretches of quack grass. All I'm saying is I sense in suburbia an attitude toward nature that isn't, well, natural. It might account for the "you need help, pal" looks I get when people learn about the oil drum in which I've been mixing table scraps, leaves, grass clippings, cow manure, ground lime and the fattest, happiest bunch of earthworms you've ever met. Yet what could be more natural?

I confess, when I started composting, I attacked it with the gonzo zeal of the convert. I asked friends at work to save me the banana peels and apple cores from their lunches. I approached neighbors who were mowing their lawns and told them to hold onto their grass cuttings for me. I would have gone door-to-door through my neighborhood and offered my services as a leaf raker, but I felt bad about muscling in on the 10-year-old kid who usually did the job.

These days, I'm more matter-of-fact. Composting has become a habit around my house. When my 3-year-old daughter won't finish her broccoli, or we have leftover coffee grounds or melon rinds, we just toss the stuff into the plastic gallon container that sits on the kitchen counter. Once the container is filled, I take it to the back yard and mix the contents with the material already composted in the 55-gallon drum.

Easy, organic, good for my garden, good for the environment, composting embodies the "think globally, act locally" philosophy. It would be tough to get more local than my back yard, where the compost bin sits 10 feet from my kitchen door.

And if Geraldo calls? I'll give him Klingaman's number.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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