Written by Ken Leinbach
    Sunday, 01 September 2013

If I had a car this would be the personalized license plate for me. It is perfect! If more people would only emulate me, the world would be a much better place don't you think? Am I being arrogant? Sure. Pompous? You bet. Conceited? Not in the slightest. Supercilious? Maybe . . . need to look that one up. But am I right? Absolutely!

Just to be clear, in case you are taking me seriously the last thing I really want is the world to truly emulate me. I'm as messed up a the best of us — just ask my family or my therapist. It would, however, be nice if a few more people chose to compost. Because when it comes to making dirt I am definitely emulatable (take that, spell check!)

This weekend I harvested our household's yearly supply of dirt. Three large outdoor trash bins full of beautiful, black, luscious soil and one large 20 gallon tub of black gold (worm castings) — the winter's take from our vermiculture bin that we've had in operation now for almost 15 years in the basement! 

The process is ever so wondrous and easy to do. Well, relatively easy that is. You just put in a year's worth of all organic household waste (think banana peels, onion skins, lettuce cores, etc.) and the output is a prodigious amount of incredible, nutrient-rich topsoil for the garden. When sifting this lovely-to-touch, rich-smelling humus the foul odor and slimy origin of rotting food seems almost impossible — like turning coal into diamonds!

Alright, alright, maybe this is a stretch but until you have had the proud experience yourself of mastering the art of dirt creation, don't judge. It is quite the trick and can make you feel like a full fledged magician! In truth however, you are just witness to the beauty and magic of an ecological cycle at its best. Our waste is food for the worms (plus a ton of other microorganisms). A worm's waste is food for plants in our garden. The garden then produces food for us, the waste of which goes back to the worms. Its cool.

When I said earlier a year's supply of "all organic household waste," I really mean all of it. Here is how we do it at our house.

All food scraps go into a sealed container under our sink. Once or twice a week this is dumped in our main pile outside or, in the winter, into the worm bin in the basement. "Feed the worms inside or out" is one task of eight on the chore wheel that rotated weekly as our kids grew up. As we eat a largely vegetarian diet we do not have to worry about meat waste which should not be composted. Corn based Kitty litter and animal waste goes into a separate pile as the resulting soil from this source is not for the garden but rather for the non-edible plants in the yard. All yard waste joins the food waste pile. In the fall we don't rake our leaves into the street (why let someone else have these valuable nutrients!) but instead rake them into a large pile where we shred them with our electric lawn mower, reducing the pile by two thirds. The shredded leaf pile lives behind our storage shed and near our two 4-foot-cubed caged compost bins (one for the garden and one for the yard). Every time we put food or waste into either pile we always immediately cover it with shredded leaves (or sometimes wood chips). The covering keeps smells to almost nothing and seems to prevent any rodent or raccoon issues as well. Every so often (every six to eight weeks or so) we thoroughly stir up all the piles with a shovel and pitchfork to get a little oxygen into the mix and check on the decomposing ecosystem. We stir the leaf pile as well, as we want the shredded leaves to break down even as we use them as "smell cover". By fall, all leaves are composted and by spring, everything else is too!

And that, my friend, is it! Now you can MUL8ME! At least when it comes to compost.

At our house composting is hardly work; it's more of a regular and easy habit. In this case, habit is our friend. When we started our garden the soil was mostly clay and our bounty was . . . well, not very bountiful. Each year, however, as we mix this compost humus into the soil it has become richer and deeper and life giving. The end result — at least the end that most people enjoy — is delicious and yummy vegetables that grace our table and our canning jars. In truth, however, there is no end nor beginning within this circular compost cycle. While most like the taste treat of the food on the table, for me the best part of this circle is the spring harvest of dirt.

Now to tie this to the work we do at the Urban Ecology Center.

I think of what we do with children and youth in the same light as composting. By spending a lot time with kids outside in positive mentorship relationships (gathering dirt on their hands, feet and clothes, I might add) our children develop a rich, wondrous and magical childhood, which leads hopefully and eventually to environmentally aware adults. Just as making dirt is a process, making "adults from kids" too is a process. Following this metaphor, I'd like to end with this snippet of a day that, to me, is the equivalent of "composting" as shared by Matt Flower, one of our Environmental Educators:

"Brittaney and I had a group of 26 8th graders from OW Holmes Elmentary School that came over to help plant a tree and to do some service learning this morning. It was a great trip ...

After arriving at the Center, we met a man that the Milwaukee Rotary sent out to video tape the kids planting a sycamore tree down by the river (the kids named the tree "Mighty Tiger"). Joel, Caitlin and Joanna, our stewardship staff, were awesome and did a great job of including all the kids!

After the planting, we split up into two groups and went into the park to pull garlic mustard. Some went on over to a giant willow tree and had a blast climbing every limb. Then we slowly made our way into the valley, learned about some of the wild flowers that are helped by pulling garlic mustard and ate bunches of wild onions. I know, kids eating onions?

We continued down the path to an area that has three crab apple trees that are in full blossom. I told the kids to have someone use their phone to take a picture while some others go under the trees and gently shake them to release a shower of petals. They loved it! So much so, that one of the boys turned to the group as they were looking at each other lightly covered with soft white and pink petals, "What's going on? I think I'm in love with nature!" Can you imagine :)

We went up to the prairie and I found a 2 1/2 foot Garter Snake that the kids touched and held. Brittaney's group was busy eating violets and watching the Coopers Hawk perched high in an oak. The principal made a surprise visit to us in the park and listened to the kids tell their exciting stories and show him their pictures. Think about that experience and what an impact that simple trip to our Urban Ecology Center made in just two wonderful hours! Wow!"

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach is a nationally recognized science educator and leader in community-based environmental education. From a trailer in a high-crime city park, Ken has had fun facilitating the grassroots effort to create and grow the Urban Ecology Center which is the topic of his first book.

Striving to live with as little environmental impact as possible, Ken lives in the community in which he works and, not owning a car, commutes by bike, unicycle, roller blades, and occasionally even by kayak on the Milwaukee River.



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