A Friendly Greeting from Annelids

Over the last few weeks, this blog has sketched out the basic outline of a green wizardry rooted in the appropriate tech movement of the Seventies but reshaped to meet the needs of the deindustrial future now taking shape around us. So far that outline has been drawn on a relatively abstract level; that’s useful as a starting point, but the practical dimension has to be addressed if a project like this is to have any impact at all on the profoundly concrete predicament facing the industrial world.

Hardly anything is so common nowadays as abstract enthusiasms that never quite find their way down to the messy realm of action in the world. The peak oil blogosphere is a particularly good place to spot them; just look for the people who insist that fourth-generation fission reactors, or fusion power, or algal biodiesel, or ethanol, or – well, you can fill in the blanks yourself – is going to save us all and permit some version of business as usual to continue indefinitely. I’ve already discussed at some length the many reasons why that isn’t going to happen, but set that aside for a moment; even if one or more of these technologies did happen to be a viable response, what actual contribution to that response is made by posting enthusiastic comments about it on internet sites?

As the old proverb has it, talk is cheap, and talk on the internet seems to be cheaper than most. One of the reasons behind this blog’s recent shift from analysis to action is precisely that we have plenty of the former and not enough of the latter. Thus it’s time to roll up our sleeves, break out the tools, and get grubby. In this post, and over the weeks and months to come, I’ll be examining specific pieces of the appropriate tech toolkit, sharing my experiences with them, and offering tips on at least some of the available resources. Not all my readers will be in a position to use all of the things that will be covered; some of my readers may have been doing one or another of them longer than I have. If you’re in either group, please be patient; many other readers won’t know this stuff, and each of the techniques I’ll be covering casts useful light on green wizardry as a whole, so you may just learn something anyway.

That latter point is especially true of the subject of this week’s post. Ask a hundred people who don’t practice organic gardening what the heart and soul of a successful organic garden is, and you’ll more than likely get a hundred different answers. Ask a hundred people who do practice organic gardening the same question, and my guess is that a majority of them will give you one answer: the compost bin. What some of them will go on to tell you, and most of the others know intuitively, is that the humble and lovable compost bin is the template on which the entire structure of any future sustainable society will pretty much have to be modeled.

Step out back with me, at least in some imaginary sense, and you can see how this works. My current compost bin is a roughly cubic object four feet on a side, made of recycled lumber and chicken wire, snugged up to the fence that surrounds my backyard garden. Every day, kitchen scraps and garden waste goes into it; every spring, a wheelbarrow load or two of rich brown dirt comes out of it and gets worked into the garden beds. There’s lesson number one for a sustainable society: the word “garbage” simply means a resource we aren’t clever enough to use yet.

Lesson number two requires taking a shovel and turning the compost. Once you’ve done that, let me introduce you to a few million of my closest friends: the living things that make compost happen. What organisms you get in a compost bin will be determined by how hot and fast you like to do your compost, and this in turn will be determined by what ingredients you use and how you tend the pile. “Hot,” by the way, is not a metaphor; a compost bin with the right mix of high-nitrogen and high-carbon materials can produce so much heat in the process of decay that you’ll need to hose it down daily in the summer to keep it from catching on fire. In that kind of heat, very little thrives except the thermophilic bacteria that drive the decay process, but they do thrive; a friend of mine still glows with pride when he recalls the compost pile he built in his 4-H days, which hit a peak temperature of 190°F and finished turning its carefully chosen layers of garden and kitchen waste into ripe compost in only fourteen days.

If you prefer a slower and lazier process, as I do, you can expect to get most of the major animal phyla in your compost bin, along with a bumper crop of fungus and an even larger population of microbes. Most of the critters you can see without magnification will be annelids and arthropods – that is, worms and bugs – and you’ll see a lot of them; a good magnifying glass will show you an even more diverse ecosystem; if you have a microscope handy, put a little of the compost in some distilled water, shake thoroughly, pipette a bit of the water into a well slide, and make the acquaintance of a giddy assortment of single-celled organisms who play their part in turning waste into a resource.

You also have the option of having a more limited fauna in your compost. People who live in apartments, condominiums, or houses subject to idiotic regulation by homeowner’s associations usually find it more functional to use a specialized form of composter called a worm bin. This is exactly what it sounds like, a bin full of dirt that’s also full of worms. You feed your vegetable scraps to the worms; they devour them, and excrete some of the best fertilizer you’ll find anywhere. Unlike compost bins, worm bins are easy to run indoors, are completely odorless, and can work well on a very small scale; I’ve known single people living alone who kept worm bins, and used the very modest output to keep their potted plants green and growing

One way or another, the livestock in your compost bin is essential to the composting process; without it, what you get isn’t compost but stinking goo. There’s a reason for this. What happens in a compost bin is exactly what happens in ordinary soil to the vegetable matter that falls onto it in the normal course of nature: decomposers – living things that feed on dead matter – eat it, cycle the nutrients in it through their own life processes, and then excrete those nutrients in forms that plants can use. What makes a compost bin different is that you, the green wizard, tinker with the conditions so that this natural process can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that you can put the results in your garden where you want it. This is where lesson number two for a sustainable society comes in: instead of wasting your time trying to fight nature, figure out what she wants to do anyway, and arrange things so that her actions work to your advantage.

Lesson number three requires a little more attention to the details of composting. To keep your livestock happy and healthy, the compost needs to be damp but not soggy, and it needs to get plenty of oxygen. You need to be careful not to overdo the nitrogen – for example, too much freshly cut grass from your lawn will turn your bin into a soggy mess that smells of ammonia, because grass that’s still moist and green has too much nitrogen in it. (Leave it lying for a couple of days before raking it up, so that it wilts and starts to turn brown, and then you can add it to your compost bin with good results.) Different styles of composting, fast or slow, have their own detailed requirements, and worm bins have slightly different requirements of their own.

All these requirements have some wiggle room built into them, but not all that much, and if you stray too far beyond the wiggle room, things won’t work right until you fix the problem. Nothing else will do the job. You can’t bully or wheedle a compost bin; if you give it what it needs, it will give you what you want, and if you don’t, it won’t. It really is as simple as that. This can be generalized into lesson number three for a sustainable society: nature doesn’t negotiate. If you want her to work with you, you have to give her whatever she wants in return. Oh, and by the way, she won’t tell you. You have to figure that part out for yourself, or learn from someone who’s already figured it out.

At this point those of my readers who don’t already have compost bins full of a couple of million good friends will have divided into two groups. The first group consists of those people who are eager to get to work making compost; the second consists of those people who are backing nervously away from the computer monitor, hoping that annelids, arthropods and thermophilic bacteria don’t crawl through the internet and follow them home. If you’re a member of the latter group, you’ve probably already come up with a hundred plausible explanations why you can’t possibly compost your kitchen scraps, or even tuck a worm bin in the utility closet where it will be odorless, harmless, and comfortably out of the way. Still, you know as well as I do that the hundred plausible explanations aren’t the real reason you don’t want to take up composting. The real reason you don’t want to take up composting is the Squick Factor.

The Squick Factor is the ingrained and unreasoning terror of biological existence that’s hardwired into the psyches of so many people nowadays. Composting, remember, is about decay. Things put into a compost pile rot, and they get eaten by worms and bugs. Even when you’ve got your compost in a nice expensive bin made of textured recycled black plastic that nobody but a homeowner’s association could find objectionable, and the only scent that comes off it reminds you of summer meadows from childhood and can’t be smelled at all more than six inches away from the bin, composting triggers the Squick Factor in many people.

There’s another name for the Squick Factor: biophobia. Compost is life – damp, oozing, crawling, slithering, breeding, dying and being reborn – and life in the raw scares the bejesus out of most people in the industrial world these days. It’s an old, old phobia, and weaves its way through the history of ideas from ancient times, showing up with particular clarity in apocalyptic fantasies; still, ours is the first civilization in history that has had, however temporarily, enough energy and resources to let its more privileged classes pursue the fantasy of an existence free from biological realities.

The squicky feeling many people get when they contemplate putting their overaged bean sprouts into a compost bin is one reflection of our culture’s traditional biophobia. If you’re going to become a green wizard, though, that attitude is one you’re going to have to learn to do without sooner rather than later, because most of what we’ll be doing involves getting elbow deep in life. If the thought of having a compost bin or a worm bin sets off your Squick Factor, it’s important to recognize that fact and accept it, but it’s also important to go ahead anyway, take the plunge, and discover that the worms in your worm bin are the cleanest, quietest, and least demanding pets you’ve ever owned.

Next week we’ll begin the process of weaving composting into the wider realm of intensive organic gardening, one of the core systems of green wizardry, and make a first pass through some of the ways that the different elements of appropriate tech integrate with one another. In the meantime, if you aren’t composting yet, seriously consider giving it a try; if you are, tell your annelids and arthropods that mine said hi.


Most books on organic gardening have a chapter on composting, and for most purposes the information in those chapters is as much as you need. If you want a book specifically on composting, the classic practical book is Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell, which includes a half dozen different designs for homebuilt compost bins. Green wizards who want to get into the fine details should look for J. Minnich’s The Rodale Guide to Composting and Daniel L. Dindal’s Ecology of Compost. For worm bins, the book to get is another classic, Mary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage, which covers everything you need to know about this apartment-sized form of composting.

Better than any number of books is a Master Composter program. These exist in some communities, and are worth their weight in fertile topsoil; if you can arrange to take the classes, do the volunteer work, and earn the certificate, you’ll finish the process knowing a heck of a lot more about the fine art of composting than I’ve had space to cover here, and you’ll be prepared to teach it to others, which is an important part of a green wizard’s work.

If you don’t have a lot of construction skills yet, or your spouse is willing to tolerate a nice textured recycled plastic composting bin in a quiet corner of the backyard but draws the line at chicken wire and recycled lumber, check with your local garden supply or go to any of the dozens of online garden stores. A good but not overpriced compost bin will set you back somewhere between $100 and $150. Don’t get the tumbler kind – those are for batch composting, which only makes sense if you generate large amounts of vegetable matter at a go. The kind you want has a hatch on the top to put in kitchen scraps and yard waste, and a hatch down below to take out finished compost.