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Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Ort Report: Confessions of a Vermi-Composter

I composted food-waste the simple way when I lived in Brooklyn.

I purchased four window planter boxes made of plastic, filled them with topsoil, then buried my food waste, in mounds beneath the soil. Every day or two I put another load next to it, and so moved down through the four planters. By the time I returned to the first planter four weeks later I was able to dig up the earth and repeat the process. Banana and cucumber peels disappeared, albeit slowly. So did egg shells, apple cores, and the odd bit of lettuce that had gone off.

Within a few weeks I noticed my topsoil had earthworms in it. They were there eating partially composted material, speeding the process of organic breakdown.

When I returned permanently to live with to my family in Connecticut, we began dividing our trash between food and plant waste, and recyclables such as plastic, metal, glass, etc.

Aluminum foil become engine blocks again, and newsprint blossoms anew into fresh headlines.

Wet food waste renders almost everything next to it difficult to process, and fit for almost nothing other than a landfill, or incineration.

So we decided to re-cycle our 'ort' by vermi-composting it, to make fertilizer for plants. We brought in the heavy duty worms to work indoors at breaking down kitchen waste.

A funny word 'ort' - look it up. Ort became a character in our house, like Puck in Mid Summer Night's Dream.

Our 'Ort' tells us when when we've skipped dinner . . . or overdid on the eggs. It informs us when we're not getting enough green vegetables. It rewards us for our industry, and punishes us for our sloth.

“What shall I do with these eggshells?”

"Crush em with your hands, then put em in the Ort."

"How about this paper towel?"

"It's not soaked in soap?"

"No. Just cooking oil."


Ort becomes a command, an imperative:

"Honey eat up those beets today. If you don’t finish them, Ort them or they’ll go bad!"

Ort has became the fourth person in our house. There's my daughter, my wife, and myself . . . and now there's Ort. My son is off at college.

So we began speaking of our Ort, and to our Ort, and soon our Ort began this dialogue with me in my studio in West Haven where it became my job to transform yours truly Mr. Ort into Compost.

That was the other side of the composting equation - one I started on as a novice:

The whole thing had a Rumpelstiltskin-like quality . . .

My wife (the Queen) would say, "Don't forget the Ort!", meaning, "You're supposed to turn that Ort into Gold!"

So I took the Ort off every day to the studio where the objective was to turn this high value nitrogenous material into black gold somehow. I mixed this into bins, I rotted it, putrified it, and denied it’s existence. I put it behind stored industrial equipment, covered, hoping that a secretive process of nature would take over and transform it into something useful. I tried building various structures to accomplish this very end.

The story of all the composting devices I've built, and still plan to build over there. would fill too many dumpsters. West Haven lives, and breathes Ort.

So whilst composting in a somewhat artificial environment, my mind contemplated another ecological design, similar to a rotating cement truck, with air blown up and over the compostables and outside through a vent . . 'till everything was usable and evenly distributed. . . . then I thought not everyone can start building mechanical devices which turn and blow air.. . . this sounds more like a sculpture than something practical

Small scale composting machines are available, and one can buy them, but I was proud and persisted in my invention, as before, starting just about every new project with . . . a bin.

My son and I linked brains one Thanksgiving vacation, and built a mechanical composting machine which I was going to put inside a rotating harness so that it could turn all around, like a cement mixer, except it was made with two plastic bins bolted together. We got the container part done, it's full of decomposing ort right now, but it's not inside the outer contraption that I meant to weld up that would spin it. I realized, not every piece of the nitrogen 'cycle' had to be invented anew. There had to be some well established methods.

"You need to balance your carbon and nitrogen. For every pound or so of food waste you need some carbon, cellulose. Leaves, cuttings, twigs, bark, mulch, they all supply carbon."

I tried mixing autumn leaves purloined from curbside recycling bags during the night but the Ort continued to pile up in my studio storage room. As a kind of curse, instead of a blessing, my wife would hand me a heavy wet plastic bag with the words "Don't forget the Ort!"

It started to accumulate!

The process took on a ritual aspect. Like eating, or bathing, any removal of waste embeds into our life a ritualistic dimension. It becomes difficult to change. You tend to do it the same way every time. Habits are hard to break.

The key I was fumbling for, was informed by my belief that every ritual should in some way, be circular. The world is a mess today because we've not made circles of our rituals. Our use and disposal of material, matter, energy, food, and petroleum are all on a one-way track, destroying other life forms, and making the planet uninhabitable.

I was determined to learn how to manage what the Ort was trying to teach me!

My creative life is built around clay and paper and pencils and books and paintings. I write, I build forms of wet clay, but like my works dried-out in the end. .. . fired if possible. . . I sometimes get messy when working. . but I always clean up my workspace. My studio, compared to that of most ceramicists, is immaculate. Taking responsibility for all aspects of my life suddenly meant being willing to plunge my hands into a slimy mess of rotten garbage. It had some challenging moments.

Then suddenly the process went off. Not enough oxygen was reaching my Ort-pile! . . . It began to smell . . . I mean really smell, The Ort suddenly had become dangerous.

Composting without adequate ventilation leads to longer lasting putrid smells. In each of my experimental constructions hazardous bacteriological evolutions occurred which were fomenting fungal hyperbolic runaway processes, all beginning to take place in the unnaturally anaerobic atmosphere.

I soon learned that meat scraps, and chicken bones, or fish . . cheese and dairy too. . . these are the items that make garbage smell really rank. So awful that it hit you like a vile shock to the central nervous system! Indeed the bacteria from rotting meat are decidedly unhealthy. . . they have to fully consume the meat wastes, and then die and in turn be eaten by other bacteria, before the resulting waste can be considered compost.

I consulted my environmental biology majoring son:

"Dad you need nitrogenous waste, that's the Ort. You need Carbon, that's the leaves. But you also need Air!"

The smell of rotting flesh comes from two chemicals. . putrescine . . . which is a close cousin of another compound cadaverine, both aplenty in rotting flesh. Ughh!

It turns out that the same bacteria lives between the gums and the teeth of meat eaters, including humans, and thus accounts for bad breath. . .. rotting meat! Animal species such Indonesia's Komodo Dragon, have evolved this putrefaction process into a poison that is used to administer a mortal bite to their prey. After one bite it then follows its victims and waits for it to die, a slow and painful death.

I have always been a maniac as far as using dental floss, but since becoming a composter, I floss even more! I also have to confess that I eat less meat, and eat a heck of a lot more fruit afterwards! Direct experience with rotting food can change one's eating habits!

The Ort hit had a brick wall. . . ventilation was too expensive. Then my son suggested we begin composting with worms.

He found a vendor on-line who could ship us two pounds of red worms for fifty bucks. It sounded like a good deal. We ordered the worms.

Then we went to Lowe’s and bought a plastic storage bin. How many projects begin and end with a bin? We chose one of the blue ones that takes a big man to put his arms around or two people to carry if it is full of something heavy - like Ort!

We drilled holes in it, and pressed in small aluminum louvers, bought at one of the home superstores. . . little slats about 2" in diameter. We put them into holes cut around the side of the bin at six points, . . each about 2" off the bottom of the bin.

Our worms arrived in a box . . labelled “Perishable - Live Worms”. Sure enough, wrapped beautifully in shredded, wet newspaper were two pounds of wriggling red worms. Each one seemed to have a destiny . . . a purpose!

We lined our worm bin with wet and soft shredded soaked newspaper . . and then Arjun dumped our new friends onto their fresh bedding. . They immediately dove for the cover of darkness and were lost from sight. We covered them with some more wet shredded newspaper, which is in fact called ‘bedding’ by professional wormers . . and then placed piles of Ort all around them. The worms have a superior sense of smell, and will move later under the cover of darkness towards the rotting food.

Then more bedding, shredded wet newspaper, and then a piece of wet brown paper on top as a blanket. This sounds complicated but isn't. The idea is to not dump piles of wet stuff directly on top of the little guys. They need air and space to maneuver into an eating position!

The ort we feed our worms is mainly a mixture of banana peels, tea bags, coffee grounds, wet filters, celery trimmings, tomato, foul stuff from the fridge, dead lettuce, soup cuttings etc. etc. . . They eat just about everything we give them. . so long as we spare them the meaty bits. Our worms are vegetarian, but so is most my family, except me, but I don’t eat lots of meat. So now we divide our ort two ways. . The bones and meat scraps (rare in our mainly vegetarian household go outside to be mixed with a few pine needles and rotting leaves.

Plant clippings, food waste, vegetable peels, ends, rinds pits, apple cores, coffee grinds. . . . eggshells. . . burnt toast . . etc. all of this is ideal food for red worms.

The ritual aspect of casting something off has a different implication if in the casting off you know it will come a'casting back!

What was cast off, does now come back as castings. . . the castings of many hundreds of wriggly red worms. We’ve become worm composters. We watched our old friend Ort turned into rich compost, quickly, without smell, into rich black earth and nutrition for plants by our new friend the Worms.

My wife, who is a Brahmin from India, approved.

a) They are vegetarian like her.
b) they get sick at the thought of meat,
c) they are very neat, very tidy and don't smell!

The process now is very neat, takes place in an odorless container that makes pure fertilizer out of food waste.

I tell you it is odorless, virtually odorless, even when you open it up, because the worm moves towards any bit that smells right away and eats it. And if the task is to big for him alone, he propagates incredibly quickly to produce enough hungry offspring equal to the job at hand.

A small vermi-composter may be purchased or made, kept in a small kitchen and kept under a table and all of your food garbage may be put in it, except meat, dairy and too much citrus.

They are so very YOGIC in their diet these little worms! And they are truly learned as they digest many newspapers too. Soon all of this becomes little black granular worm castings which are truly black gold. They are an amazing fertilizer. Our lemon trees are now producing lemons aplenty, indoors!

So you may raise healthy plants and live off them. So now when we eat, the Worms also eat, and then they feed us again.

The Ort now has become less of a character. He’s more of a go-between, a Hermes, yes perhaps like Puck. . . but it's the Worms we listen to! and the Ort is our offering to the Temple of Worm.

I find myself feeding them like pets. I say hello when I open up their little house, I know when they're hungry, when they want a nice rain, or when they want a nice airing-out.

They hate the light and only show their faces for a few moments when I open their door. In time I carry away their 'rejects' . which includes,. . . . the outer part of the citrus rinds, the woody parts of corn cobs, avocado pits, or a bit of paper here and there that has a chemical they don't approve of.

We feed them twice a week. We give them a good home. We make sure birds don't snatch them away from an already short life, though I have been thinking of getting birds again and feeding them worms. The temptations of a God are great. But do I really need to take everything?

Perhaps I should just feed the plants . . . after all they first fed us.

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