Composting for Beginners

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I purchased the worms with the best intentions.

A decade ago, determined to compost my kitchen scraps, I bought a pound of “red wriggler” earthworms from the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The writhing mass came in a sawed-off orange juice carton alongside a green plastic bin that would be their home and a brochure that breezily explained how to add shredded newspaper if things got too damp and to place fresh compost to one side of the bin so the worms would wriggle over, leaving fresh castings behind for me to reap like black gold. On the subway home I had visions of diverting my egg shells, melon rinds and coffee grinds from the landfill, transforming them into rich soil which I could use to grow more vegetables in pots. It was going to be beautiful.

Predictably, the problems began the minute I got home. The bin didn’t fit under the sink, took up the entire kitchen counter, and was just plain weird on the living room rug. Plus for some reason my housemates were reluctant to share our small space with a giant plastic box of rotting food.

And I must not have read the brochure closely enough. I fed the worms heaps of compost after dinner parties, then nothing when I was on a restaurant streak. A composting friend informed me icily that coffee grounds make worms jittery. Plus it turns out melon rinds can be too wet for worm bins and rotting egg shells smell an awful lot like rotting eggs. Before long the bin exuded dark bile and attracted a cloud of fruit flies.

In the end I admitted defeat and sadly gave the worms—which looked much less red and wriggly than when I’d met them—to a farmer who promised to give them a good life in a real compost heap upstate. I went back to putting my potato peels in the trash and tried to forget the whole episode.

Which is why I was so delighted, while editing this issue, to read about Rebecca Louie, aka the Compostess. A master composter and real-life eco-hero wielding a worm fork, she makes house-calls, troubleshoots worm bins, greens New York one kitchen at a time and generally renews my faith in a sustainable future.

She’s not alone. Looking around, I’m increasingly convinced that such start-ups, taken together, are doing as much good work as nonprofits. Take the Upstate Wine Company, which distributes the best local bottles from the Finger Lakes and beyond to restaurants and retailers all over town. Or the two dozen distillers crafting serious spirits in New York State. Or the chefs like Zak Pelaccio and Marc Meyer who take sourcing as seriously as seasoning. Or the small family farmers who nourish us in more ways than one.

I’d like to dedicate this issue to these eco-minded entrepreneurs. May they do well by doing good, and save us from our best intentions.

Gabrielle Langholtz is the editor of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn.

Betsy Bradley

Elizabeth L. Bradley writes about New York City history and culture. She hopes to find Tiffany blue dragees in her Christmas stocking this year.

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