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The Rot in Dwell Magazine, reader questions, compost art(!), other things
Writing you guys with a couple of quick (and exciting!) updates this week:
Firstly, I’m incredibly pleased (and a bit shocked!) to share that I'm part of an exhibit at Vielmetter Gallery in Los Angeles this month. It's a group show ("Plants Now!") focused on the potential of plants and their relationship to healing man-made problems. As expected, I made compost—entirely out of materials scavenged from the gallery itself. Big thanks to the staff, who were supremely tolerant of, if not actively amused by, my rummaging through their trash and alleyways, in service of scrounging out any and all even vaguely biodegradable materials.
As most of you could probably guess, I am not a “real” artist and I have no formal artistic training of any kind. I was invited into this show by David Horvitz, who has become a fellow gardener and a friend, and I said yes because I saw a chance to (hopefully) inspire a new set of minds with better waste management practices. At some point during the months it took to build the Vielmetter compost, a flock of employees had taken to trailing me around the office pointing at random things and asking excitedly: “Can you compost that?” “Can you compost THAT?” They were always delighted to hear the answer was “Yes.”
Truthfully, most things Vielmetter was throwing in the trash were compostable. Their food scraps, their price lists; their dried flowers and dead plants, their cardboard packaging, coffee grounds, and even old books. All of those things eventually made their way into the pile, and all of them are now well on their way to becoming soil. And that’s exactly the point of this compost. I want it to shine a small light on all the things around us that are not trash at all, but—properly stewarded—living earth.
More information about the finished piece is here.
There will be a special event around the compost on July 24 @ 5 PM. David has referred to this as a “compost performance,” “live-composting,” and (once) a “compost poem.” I am happy with any of those categories, as they each feel exactly the same amount of true and untrue. Truthfully, what I am asking people to do is collaborate. Everybody who comes is invited to bring something that they would like to add to the compost pile. This can be something they wish to release (a scrap of clothing?, a letter to a former friend)?, or something they wish to remember forever (a printed-out photograph, perhaps). It could be something amusing or obliquely special, like a used book or a tired houseplant. It’s entirely up to each person. Whatever people bring, though, I’ll prepare on site and add to the pile. This may require burning, chopping, or grinding things. Everything will be recorded in a notebook. Somebody mentioned something about a choir, but I’m not sure if that’s really happening. Like all things compost, it’s indeterminate.
Secondly, the esteemed Dwell Magazine commissioned me to write a “how to” on compost for the very beginner. The piece covers everything from what goes in your pile to basic maintenance, and it comes accompanied by some truly lovely illustrations by the artist Hannah Warren (see top). I did receive some follow-up questions on Twitter, though, and I wanted to address at least one of them here. From @garyfrankel:
Hi Cassie. Your Dwell article on composting was really useful, thank you. I was wondering how the compost reaches its readiness state while you're still incorporating fresh nitrogen and carbon into the pile. Is there a point where you let the pile settle to reach readiness, then start a new pile? I would appreciate your advice...
This is a good question, Gary!
It’s true that continually adding new material to a single pile will mean that your compost is in a perpetual state of decomposition, and thus unwise to use on your garden. That’s why many backyard composters employ a multi-bin or multi-pile system. There’s always one pile or bin where fresh materials are being added, and then one—or more!—where the compost is left alone to finish. The most traditional compost system utilizes three different bins. (The “three-bin system,” it’s called…obviously.) The first bin is where your newest materials are added and mixed, the second is where your compost “cooks,” aka becomes hot and very microbially active, and the third is where things go to complete decomposition. This system is very effective, but it does work best when you’re prepared to put in the elbow grease. You’ll need to shift materials from one bin to the next every few weeks.
If you have one, big, simple backyard pile, like me, it’s best to just be strategic about where you add and remove materials. Add new stuff to one section of the pile, like the top-right, and remove finished compost from another, like the bottom/left. Or you can divide your single pile into two separate, smaller piles. Add new stuff to Pile One, and let Pile Two just sit and hang out. Occasionally (like every four or five times that you add new material to Pile One), shift any compost that looks fairly broken down from Pile One to Pile Two, and gently mix it up. The most important thing, as ever, is not to overthink it. Your compost will be okay.
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