As I was unloading some finished compost into a flowerbed the other day, I reflected on the one part of my house that all three of my hobbies have in common: the compost bin. Gardening, cooking, and woodworking all meet here:
Actually, I have three compost bins scattered around my yard. Usually I’m emptying one while the other two are rotting down. All my leaves, vegetable kitchen waste, and wood shavings get piled into chicken-wire enclosures until they won’t hold any more. Then they rot down over the course of a year. Occasionally I turn the contents with my digging fork, and eventually the contents look like light, loose soil, usually crawling with earthworms. At that point it is ready to be tilled into the garden, spread around mature plants as mulch, or sifted to make potting soil.
I have learned that waste need not be an economic liability, even though getting rid of our garbage is usually a complicated and costly endeavor. I can’t claim to have conquered the problem–I still send several bags of trash to the local landfill each week–but not so very long ago people knew how to both minimize waste and to put waste to use. In the 18th and 19th centuries, shavings from joiner’s shops would be collected and burned for heat, or be sold to others as fuel. (No doubt this contributed to the serious air pollution problems in large cities at the time.) When public sanitation was minimal, disposing of waste required some ingenuity, and I am trying to recover the healthier elements of that ethos.
My wood waste has become an economic asset. Sawdust, small chips, and shavings go in the compost bins. Larger scraps get burned in the charcoal grill. Bigger scraps get saved for later projects. And yes, I do actually use a lot of my scraps for small projects. Thus, I seldom need to drive to a lumber supplier for small amounts of wood, and I never buy commercial fertilizers or other soil amendments any more.
Composting wood waste is not difficult, but it does require patience. I recall reading that rotting wood absorbs nitrogen from the surrounding soil and holds it until decomposition is more or less complete. At that point, the nitrogen is again available for plants to use. So I have to ensure that the wood waste is completely rotted down before adding it to my garden soil. Most of my compost bins are about half wood waste and half leaves, not so much by design but because that’s what I have available. It rains enough here to keep the piles moist for most of the year. I add as much vegetable waste from the kitchen as I happen to produce. Even once I have stopped adding brown matter to a compost bin, I will continue to stir in vegetable waste until I am within weeks of using the finished compost.
I have used that compost to grow vegetables, and then stir-fried those vegetables using a spatula I carved, knowing that the wood waste from that carving project went into the compost that grew the vegetables.