Saturday, November 28, 2009

Food coma.

Wow. I have to admit--Thanksgiving dinner was delicious. Two days of prep work combined with weeks of obsessing about our local turkey resulted in a pretty darn scrumptious meal, if I do say so myself. Most importantly--no one ended up in the ER, although I did suffer one minor burn and almost impaled my foot with a carving knife...glad I still have some reflexes left in my aging body!

Here’s our star attraction...

...and our local apple pie...

...and our non-local, non-healthy Pilgrim hat cookies, just for fun.

I forgot to take a picture of the whole spread, but I think my sister hopefully I’ll post that later.

We spent Black Friday pursuing non-commercial activities...I slept in (thank you, Peter), took a long walk, and then battled leaves for the rest of the day, tossing the kids into the piles, which they loved.

I just can’t start the holiday season fighting mobs, and
honestly--I always feel sorry for the people who have to leave their families right after Thanksgiving dinner to work the midnight sales. Plus--I'm missing that “shopping-is-fun” gene. Thank God for the Internet.

Today, we’re planning to work on the foundation of the greenhouse...and I’m hoping to convince my darling hubby that it’s time to put up the outside Christmas decorations. We’ll see how persuasive I can be...

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving and are enjoying the long weekend with your family and friends!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Many Thanks.

For the past 12 hours, I’ve been in Thanksgiving Day prep mode. Honestly, with the exception of 15 minutes for lunch and about 45 minutes for dinner, this is the first time I’ve sat all day. I’m actually feeling pretty good about the amount of preparation accomplished today. Last year was the first Thanksgiving dinner that we hosted, and I was seriously stressed. My goal this year is to enjoy the process, and perhaps actually spend some time enjoying the day with my family. Please remind me of this goal tomorrow when I’m running around like a turkey sans head.

My goal of an entirely locally produced Thanksgiving meal isn’t going to be a reality, but I’m trying not to beat myself up about it. Here’s the menu for Thanksgiving dinner at Chez Adolf:

The Star:
20 pound organic, free range, drug-free, sustainably raised turkey from Live Oak Farms. I opted to try this brining thing that everyone recommends. The turkey is bathing in sea salt, rosemary (from our garden), thyme, and broth as I type, and here’s hoping it’s absorbing those spices and juices to create a yummy main dish. Please oh please don’t let me destroy the bird...

The Traditions:
Dressing, made to imitate my parents’ recipe, which they found on the back of a sage can. We still have the can, dated 1967. It’s a family heirloom. (No fear, I used fresh sage.) While not a local dish, it is delicious...toasted white bread, onions, celery, herbs galore...and the best part--giblets. I know you are now completely grossed out, but boy--they are good. You just can’t think about it when you eat them.

Cranberry sauce, Ocean Spray, canned. Sorry, but there are no local cranberries in South Carolina, plus canned cranberry sauce is Tyler’s favorite. Personally, I’m not a cranberry sauce girl...I just get it for everyone else.

Mashed potatoes...again, not local. These spuds hail from Idaho.

Sweet potato casserole. My sister, Becky, is bringing it. I know I could have found local sweet potatoes, but I’m embarrassed to admit--I’ve never cooked them before, except to microwave them to feed to the kids when they were toddlers.

Green bean casserole, courtesy of my sister, Marsha. Not local, but it’s always good. You know what I mean...can of soup, canned beans, water chestnuts, yum.

Waldorf salad. Whew--finally something with local ingredients. The apples come from Nivens Apple Orchard, which is about 10 minutes from our home. The grapes, walnuts, celery, and mayo...from Publix.

Garden salad. I’m hoping to harvest enough lettuce from our new potager in the backyard to serve a homegrown heirloom salad. We’ll see what the status is tomorrow.

Sweet Corn. Local corn from Beechwood Farms. I froze corn at the end of the summer, but I wish I had frozen more. Our supply is dwindling...but my dad always loved corn, so I’m planning to serve it in his memory.

Red cabbage with local apples. This is not a Thompson family tradition but a concession to Peter. He loves red cabbage. As a Swiss citizen,Thanksgiving is an acquired holiday for him...I started making something he really likes as a new family tradition.

Apple pie. Again, local apples, three varieties. Pie crust: Pillsbury. Shame on me. The egg white used on the pie crust for that shiny Martha Stewart look--local eggs from free range hens. The whipped cream is homemade but without local ingredients...I forgot to pick up cream at the farm.

Pecan pie, courtesy of Becky. Mom’s recipe. I looked for local pecans, but the two places I had time to visit didn’t have them. One farmer told me that every other year they have a good harvest--this wasn’t the year. Last year, they had 200 pounds of pecans.

Pilgrim hat cookies. OK, you serious locavores--you’ll probably hang me in effigy now as an hypocrite. Marshmallows dipped in melted chocolate, stuck on top of Keebler fudge striped cookies (striped side down), decorated with white Duncan Hines icing “buckles.” I know, I know...but my kids love them.

Wine. We have a couple varieties in bottles, but I did pick up a cask of the Black Box Merlot. It’s won lots of awards, and honestly--Peter and I sampled it last night. Pretty yummy. At least we have environmentally friendly wine!

So, although I wish we had incorporated more local ingredients and produce, at least we’ve maintained our traditions while still supporting local producers. Our experiment is about baby steps...trying to be a little better to the environment every day. I’m thankful my family is near so that we can celebrate together, and I’m thankful to our local farmers who worked so diligently to produce healthy, beautiful food...I just hope I don’t wreck it tomorrow!

Happy Thanksgiving to you all...may your turkey be tender, your potatoes without lumps, and your family healthy and well. I’ll let you know how everything turns out...please keep your fingers crossed that I don’t burn the bird!


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Green girl, interrupted.

Sometimes, in this little game called life, we have to put our goals on the back burner. Sometimes, we throw out rational thought and give in to gut feeling. Sometimes, doing what's right is more important than doing what's easy.

Meet the newest member of the Adolf zoo...Sophie. Peter found her in the parking lot of our company yesterday, starving. You can see every bone in this sweet girl's body. Honestly, by the time I got to the company with a bag of dog food, I thought I was too late. She didn't move when I approached her, until I started feeding her by hand. Then, wow--did that girl put away some serious kibble!

She's about four months old, according to our vet, and has a long road ahead of her until she's ready to run rampant with Chloe and Maxi (the dogs)...and Sammy and Oreo (the cats), but I think she hit the jackpot by wandering to Warptek.
So...I'm still committed to our greening endeavor, but I'm a little distracted today. I planned to write about making Thanksgiving desserts using local ingredients, but I think I'll wait until a little later...

I'm just thankful we found her in time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Talking turkey.

Two weeks. Can you believe it’s almost time for Thanksgiving? I love Thanksgiving...I love the traditions, the enforced watching of the entire Macy’s Day Parade until Santa arrives. (I’ve been known to tear-up on more than one occasion.) I love making pilgrim hat cookies for the kids from marshmallows dipped in chocolate and stuck onto a chocolate cookie brim. I love sneaking bites of cold dressing, salmonella be damned. I love the pomp and circumstances of presenting the turkey and everyone getting “piecy bites,” as my dad called them, as the turkey is carved. I even remember to count my blessings on Thanksgiving, and I hope we’re teaching our kids gratitude, too.

Last year, though, was the first time I cooked a turkey. My parents always hosted us for holiday meals, working together to ensure their herd was properly stuffed. But when my mom’s Alzheimer’s progressed, my dad became the solo chef, with my sisters and me contributing side dishes. Still, the turkey was his domain.

Although my dad’s efforts were wonderful, he began to take risks with food. Not intentionally, of course, but he was getting older and forgetful, worrying about my mom. He would begin preparing food for our family’s Saturday night gatherings on Wednesday or Thursday. We would find food in his refrigerator that was long expired. Potatoes in the pantry turned to liquid. We were nervous about his health...and honestly, about our health, too.

So, to take the pressure off my dad and to ensure the well-being of our family, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner last year. I know that seems like an oxymoron, and I’m sure a few of my family members probably worried for their stomaches with me as head chef. Still, it was time. I was a little embarrassed that I had never cooked a turkey and decided that I needed to step up to the plate. I must say, with the exception of a mashed potato fiasco (ironic, as I usually make pretty good mashed potatoes), I was pretty proud of myself.

This year, I’m sad to say that there’s no battling my dad for control of Thanksgiving dinner. He died in May. Maybe we should have sucked it up and let him cook last year. He was always a much happier host than guest.

Now, I’m in a bit of a quandry. While I would love to prepare a locavore Thanksgiving, traditions are important, particularly this year. I’m not sure that my family is ready to eat Carolina rice instead of mashed potatoes and gravy. Instead, I’m again deciphering the photocopied recipes my mom gave to my sister, Marsha, when she prepared her first Thanksgiving meal. The recipes are faded, and I wish I could ask my mom why she and dad felt the need to get up at 7 a.m. to get that bird in the oven...when we never ate until 6 p.m. While I won’t get an answer from my mom, I’m glad that she’s still here.

Our Thanksgiving meal won’t be a complete showcase of local producers, but I am trying to add some local, green elements without banishing traditions.
Today, we’ll focus on the star of the show:

The turkey.

In our effort to support our local farmers, I’ve ordered a local bird. He’s just down the road at Live Oak Farms (, awaiting his demise. I’m a little concerned, because we’ve always been a Butterball family. You should have seen my sisters’ faces when I told them that we’re eating an all natural, sustainable, pasture-raised turkey. I think Marsha’s afraid she’d be assigned to plucking duty. I can honestly say--if I needed to pluck a turkey, we’d be eating Butterball.

I’ve already had a nightmare about this turkey. I dreamed I forgot to pick it up and found myself racing through Publix, searching for a turkey on Thanksgiving Day at 4:30 p.m....and trying to thaw and cook it for a family dinner at 6. I think I’m getting a bit OCD about the turkey. Then, when talking with my friend Laura, who also ordered a local turkey (from Native, I felt a panic attack surfacing when she mentioned brining. Brining? What have I gotten myself into? Do I need a back-up bird?

Truly, though, why does my family--including me--have such a phobia about a local, all natural turkey? Why is there such pressure for the perfect bird? I know it’s the centerpiece of the meal, the proverbial star attraction...but it’s not like we’re going to starve if I screw it up.

It’s a tricky issue, talking about mass-produced poultry when the holidays are around the corner. I’ve seen and read enough about industrialized poultry to permanently change my purchasing habits, but I’m not going to share the (horrifying) details here. The reality is--plenty of people will buy factory farmed turkeys, and I’m not going to be responsible for ruining your appetite. If you want to know what I’m talking about, check out be warned.

The other issue is--I have no idea what kind of turkey I’ve reserved. I requested a 20+ pound turkey, and a turkey is a turkey is a turkey...right? Well, that’s true for the majority of turkeys--99 percent of turkeys raised in America are from a single breed--”Broadbreasted White.” These turkeys are produced because of their large, white, meaty breasts. Unfortunately, in our quest for lots of white meat, these poor birds are bred so top-heavy that they can’t fly nor reproduce naturally. Without the aid of humans performing artificial insemination, Broadbreasted White factory farmed turkeys would be extinct in one generation, according to the website

I ordered a happy turkey, one that actually lived a nice life outside, scratching around for grubs, bugs and grasses instead of ingesting only grains and antibiotics...but I had no idea the various turkeys that are available when I placed my order. So, to save you some headaches in buying your own happy bird, here’s a cheat sheet for purchasing a turkey:


Think of the masses of turkeys at your local supermarket. These birds are factory farmed, raised in a facility that provides protection from predators and bad weather. Because of the crammed living quarters, factory farmed turkeys receive antibiotics to control diseases.

Conventional turkeys don’t have much of a turkey life--they’re inside for the duration. I promised, though...I’m not getting into the nitty gritty of their sad lives. I’ve definitely eaten my share of conventionally raised turkeys.


USDA Certification is key for an organic turkey. The turkey must be raised on land that has been free of pesticides and other prohibited substances for three years. The food provided to the turkey must be pesticide free. For more information on organic rules and regulations, check out the

Unfortunately, it’s tough for small farmers to receive organic certification. The same individuals who raised organic produce or meats before it became trendy now must compete with lobbyists representing industrial food manufacturers--who also crave the “organic” label to attract today’s green-savvy customer. Organic certification, when run by bureaucrats, is expensive and time consuming. Plus, the factory farms put pressure on the government to relax standards so they can meet the organic certification criteria.

Many small, organic farmers, who actually exceed the USDA organic standards, refuse to invest in the organic certification process. Instead, they promote themselves as “sustainable.” Sustainable is good. I would definitely buy food from a local sustainable farmer, because I know that’s code for organic, humane, environmentally responsible farming.


You’ve heard of heirloom tomatoes...but heirloom turkeys? Heirloom turkeys’ ancestors pre-date the industrial food era and are important for genetic diversity. With the Broadbreasted White factory farmed turkeys, which are genetically identical, an illness could quickly spread through that breed and eliminate it. Heirloom turkeys’ diversity ensures the survival of the species.

The meat is also unique--firm texture, with light meat an “almond” color. These birds take longer to raise, and they are more expensive than conventionally raised turkeys. But--they also live a happy turkey life: they are raised outside, freely roam on pasture, reproduce naturally, and eat a varied, natural diet.
Most heritage breeds are near extinction. Slow Foods USA (, an organization committed to supporting “good, clean, fair food,” works to increase the awareness of heritage breeds among consumers. It’s Economics 101: by increasing demand for heritage breeds, farmers will increase production of heritage breeds, thus ensuring their survival. Check out to find sources in your area for heritage breeds.


Turkeys are raised outside, ensuring they eat a natural diet. Their meat may be richer in omega oils because of their grass diet.

Be careful with the free-range label. Poultry with a free-range label means that the birds are not confined to cages, and the USDA requires they have access to the outdoors. However, as long as one small door provides access to a small dirt or gravel yard, rather than a pasture, these birds qualify as “free-range.” Many producers exceed the limited requirements--but read the labels or talk to your local provider.

Confused yet?

Who knew there are so many turkey options?

I ordered our turkey before I really thought too much about it. My goal was to support a local farmer, and I’m feeling good about that, at least. I’ve e-mailed Allison at Live Oak Farms to find out exactly what I ordered. I’m sure she and her husband will have a good laugh at my turkey trauma. I already e-mailed her a few days ago to find out the specifics...when to pick it up, will it be fresh or frozen? I also shared with her the story of my turkey nightmare--at least I provided her with a good laugh!

Where do you buy your turkey? Have you ever purchased from a local provider and if so, where? For those of you foodies--please tell me, what is brining??? I think I’d better Google that ASAP.

So, my feasting friends...tomorrow I’ll tackle something a little easier...local desserts. I think I can pull off a local dessert without breaking tradition.

Until tomorrow...

Gobble gobble...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Peter's home...

...and I'm off tonight.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

One down, 11 to go...

It’s official--we’ve survived more than a month of our family’s eco-experiment! Here’s a quick review of the highs and lows from the month:

Our increased commitment to composting and recycling reduced our trash production enormously. Previously, our family produced a 13-gallon bag of trash per day--at least--even though we recycled the obvious items like newspaper, plastic bottles, and Diet Coke cans. On average, we now produce approximately two trash bags per WEEK. We could seriously eliminate one trash pick up day, if that option is available.

While our trash heading to the landfill significantly decreased, we still produce lots of waste that needs to be recycled. While I consider that a better alternative, I’d like us to reduce our amount of waste overall so that we’re not contributing so much energy consumption for recycling.

Eco-produce bags. Love them. Love the perplexed looks I get when the cashiers ring up my veggies and I can explain to anyone within ear shot about reducing plastic bags. I also feel less hypocritical when buying beautiful, organic produce at Farmer’s Market--we’ve basically eliminated plastic produce bags from our lives.

I’m consuming (i.e. produce bags, Sigg bottles) in order to become more environmentally friendly. Such an oxymoron...

I’m learning to cook...and actually enjoy it, most of the time. I’ve always cooked the basics, but I resented it. I’ve fought hard to avoid becoming the stereotypical suburban ‘50s housewife, since I always aspired to greater things. We’ve spent a lot of time and money eating out. Honestly, though, what’s more important than feeding my family healthy (most of the time) food?

Now, I’m beginning to change my relationship with cooking. There’s a fabulous quote from Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the story of her family’s quest to eat locally for a year. Kingsolver visits a Lebanese market and begins a conversation with a cheesemaker about the techniques to produce Middle Eastern cheeses. The cheesemaker is puzzled by her interest, until Kingsolver admits to making cheese at home.

“‘You make cheese yourself,’ she repeatedly reverently. ‘You are a real housewife.’
“It has taken me decades to get here, but I took that as a compliment,” writes Kingsolver. Like Kingsolver, I’m beginning to value my inner domestic goddess.

Trying to find local foods at Whole Foods. During the official No-Impact Week challenge, we blew the challenge to eat locally. Well, we ate LOCALLY at Fuddrucker’s...but I don’t think, somehow, that was the intention. The next day, I was determined to prepare all of our meals from local food and providers. Unfortunately, I had missed Farmer’s Market the week prior, so off I ventured to Whole Foods, certain I’d find plenty of local options. $187 later, the only truly local food I found was zucchini, squash, and cucumbers. The meat options included “regional” foods that had traveled at least 3+ hours. If I was only after organic food, I would have been set...but finding organic and local was impossible.

I made sure to visit Farmer’s Market the following Saturday.

I love supporting local growers and producers. Knowing the people who produce our food is a fabulous feeling. Plus, people who grow things, whether it’s cabbage, sunflowers, or sausage, are just nice people.

It takes planning to prepare a local meal. I’ve always been a convenience shopper. Out of lettuce? Run to Publix. Too tired to cook? Let’s go out. Now, I need to think about our meals. I can’t just run to the store for chicken. (Well, I CAN, I’m just trying not to.) I need to visit Native Meats at the Farmer’s Market or pre-order from them for delivery. (Which is an amazingly cool option they provide. Place an order for a certain dollar amount--I think about $45--and they’ll deliver your order to your home. Love it.

My other issue is--I’m seduced by the beautiful produce grown by Parson’s Produce. I’ll stock up on three different eggplant varieties...then have no idea how to prepare them. Produce moldering in the refrigerator is not eco-friendly nor respectful--toward the person who grew it, toward my family for wasting money, and especially not toward people who don’t have enough to eat.

So--I’ve once again made a purchase: Eating Well in Season, a beautiful cookbook with delicious seasonal recipes. I’m hoping it helps me turn into Julia Child of the locavore movement.

Great ideas for environmentally friendly Halloween treat bags.

Painting 35 recyclable paper bags orange. I don’t think I’ll pursue that fine idea next year.

We are raising little environmentalists. Kristen and Michael both identify the recycling symbol on the bottom of containers. They remember to use the compost bowl for food scraps that aren’t meat (the dogs get those), they know not to throw out paper but to put it in the recycling container, and I’m even beginning to win the battle to get them to turn off the lights when they leave a room. Granted, they knew all of this before...but because we’re pursuing our project together, as a family, it’s turn into a game instead of a nagging chore.

Isn’t that the goal of becoming more environmentally responsible? We’re working to preserve the environment so Kristen, Michael, and Tyler’s kids will have the chance to enjoy hiking and playing in nature as much as our kids do...

I’m willing to learn to cook and haul away recycling if it means my grandkids have a chance to play in clean oceans.

There is no low.

OK, back to work! Let’s see what surprises the next month will have for us...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Good dirt.

It’s beginning to feel like fall here in South Carolina. Last night, I covered my newly planted strawberries and lettuces in case we had a freeze. Leaves completely cover our yard...we must have a hundred trees, easily. The jack-o’-lanterns are moldering on the front steps. Don’t you just love when those gorgeous, orange works of art turn black and smooshy? It's not very festive. We so rarely use our front door that I often forget about the pumpkins until they become a very unwelcoming addition to our welcome mat.

I’ve always felt a little blue, tossing the pumpkins in the trash the week after Halloween. Maybe it’s because the kids worked so hard designing their jack-o’-lanterns. Maybe I feel guilty, since it’s wasteful to carve them for Halloween and throw them away a few days later. Maybe my angst is more psychologically driven--tossing the pumpkins signals winter coming--at least, to me. I’m not a happy winter person.

Until recently, I never really worried about throwing the pumpkins in the trash. Honestly, the pumpkins get nasty, the big plastic garbage bag comes out, I hold my breath and roll the disgusting decomposing orbs into the bag, pray
ing that the bag doesn’t break on the way to the trash can.

Think about it, though--why is it OK to throw pumpkins into the trash when yard debris isn’t allowed? In fact, some communities, such as Loveland, Colorado, offer recycling services for pumpkins. My community doesn’t offer standard recycl
ing pick up for newspaper or bottles, so I won’t hold my breath for them to pick up moldy pumpkins.

Still, you can recycle that pumpkin. Compost it.

We’ve been composting for a long time...unofficially. We’d ju
st pile up leaves and grass clippings in the forest, turn it occasionally, and end up with great compost after about a year. Now that we’ve begun our eco-experiment, I’ve become compulsive about composting to reduce our trash output. You know what? Between stepping up our composting and recycling efforts, we are producing only about two 13-gallon bags of trash per week. I’m pretty proud of our reduced trash!

Composting is a fantastic alternative for turning yard and kitchen waste--and even paper--into rich “black gold.” Tiny organisms--bacteria, fungi, and protozoa--break down kitchen and landscape waste into dark, rich, decomposed org
anic matter. Compost improves soil--add it to clay, it helps break up the heavy soil and enriches it with nutrients. Add compost to sandy soil, and it helps the soil retain water and nutrients. Improving soil is the best way to ensure healthy plants.

Take a look at the new garden I’m working on--a potager, aka French Kitchen Garden.

See the soil I’m dealing with? Can’t grow anything in that red clay. Now take a look at what we added:

We’ll be eating well with that rich soil.

I know that not everyone is as obsessive about gardening as I am...but even if you only plant pansies around your mailbox or marigolds in your window box, you can benefit from compost. If you don’t garden at all, you can still compost to reduce the amount of trash you contribute to the landfill--and offer your compost to your gardening neighbors or advertise it on Craigslist or Freecycle. Or send it to me, I always need compost!

I know what you’re thinking: composting is a huge project. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it stinks, we’ll have rats in our yard, the neighbors will complain...I know. I also thought those thoughts.

I was wrong.

Composting is as simple as collecting leaves, grass clippings, and food scraps in an open pile in your yard...or as complex as building a three-bin compost system, with a companion leaf-mold collector. You can invest hundreds of dollars on composters offered by companies that advertise “black gold in as little as two weeks!” Or you can pick up pallets free of charge and construct your own rustic composting bin. There are even composting systems available for apartmen
t or condo dwellers.

Our composting system evolved, from the open pile hidden in the forest, to a fabulous design of Swiss precision and engineering. When I mentioned to Peter that I wanted an official compost bin, thinking we’d use some spare pallets fr
om our company and slap it together in an hour...little did I imagine the result:

“Slapping together” is not really in Peter’s personality. He gets his perfectionism honestly: many years ago, right after Kristen was born, his parents were visiting. We had just remodeled our unfinished basement, and I mentioned that we needed a handrail for the stairs. I thought--go to Lowe’s, buy a piece of wood, slap some paint on it--voila!

You should see the handrail crafted by my’s a thing of beauty. I think he painted at least 10 coats of varnish on it.
Anyway, those Swiss men don’t do half-assed work. I wanted a compost bin, and by God--I got the premium version.

Your system needs to fit your personality, your needs, and your neighborhood. If you can shake hands with your next door neighbors from your bedroom window, then you might want an enclosed system located near the back of your property to preserve neighborly peace. If you live on a farm or have some acreage, an open pile might be fine for you. If you garden as much as I do, a three-bin system is perfect: one bin contains compost that’s ready for use; the second bin is compost that’s almost done cooking; and the third is the active pile where we deposit our scraps and such.

So, first of all...

What can go into the compost pile?

  • Leaves, pine needles, grass clipping, flowers and garden plants.
  • Kitchen scraps--fruit and vegetable peelings or cuttings, crushed eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds and filters.
  • Shredded woody yard trimmings, small amounts of sawdust--but add a pound of nitrogen per 100 pounds of sawdust.
  • Paper towels, shredded newspaper--although I often save my newspaper to layer as a weed barrier under mulch.
Composting no-nos:
  • Clippings treated with herbicides or pesticides should not be used in a vegetable garden.
  • Meat, bones and fatty foods--no oils, cheese, or cooking oil. Those will attract critters.
  • Pet waste or human waste. (Really? Don’t want to grow your tomatoes in Fido’s poop?) Although, if your pet is a herbivore, you can add its waste to the pile--and it enriches the compost.
  • Weeds that have gone to seed or plants that are diseased. Technically, a compost pile should get hot enough to kill those seeds or insect-infestations...but why risk it? It can be tough managing the temperature accurately enough to eliminate problems.
Green + Brown = Black Gold
Ready for biology class? No, me neither. Here’s the basic information that you need to make sure that your compost has the right levels of carbon and nitrogen to ensure those little microorganisms thrive and the scraps break down quickly:

  • Leaves, straw, and sawdust are high in carbon--”browns”
  • Grass clippings, manure, and vegetable scraps are higher in nitrogen--”greens”
  • For the organic materials to decompose easily, the microorganisms that do the work need about 1 part nitrogen for every 30 parts carbon.
  • If the carbon to nitrogen ratio is too high, it will take a long time for the matter to decompose.
There’s a great chart that shows the average carbon to nitrogen ratio in organic materials, plus extensive information about composting:

How big?

Bigger is a point. The larger the surface area, the faster the microorganisms can work to make matter decompose. Chopping or shredding yard waste, such as leaves, helps increase the surface area.

An ideal size for a compost pile is at least 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet. Piles smaller than this can’t hold in enough heat for decomposition, and piles larger than 5 cubic feet don’t allow enough air to reach the center of the pile and the microbes. It’s also hard to turn a pile that’s too large...and you’ll need to turn it more often. Stick with a manageable size.

Turn, turn, turn.

Turning the pile is essential to supply oxygen to the composting organisms. Without adequate oxygen, you’ll have a smelly pile of material that can be potentially toxic to plants. If your compost pile smells rotten--it might not be getting enough air.

Water, please.

Moisture management is also an important element in composting. Too much water and the microorganisms will drown. Too little moisture will result in slow decay, meaning you’ll be waiting a long time for rich soil. You’ll want the compost pile to feel about as moist as a wrung-out sponge, according to the Clemson Extension website. (Which, by the way, is fabulous. You’ll find answers to all sorts of gardening dilemmas.)

Hot enough?

The center of the compost pile will heat up as the material decomposes. The interior temperature should range between 90 and 140 degrees. Yes, there are special long-stemmed thermometers to measure the temp. Do I own one? Nope. We've still managed to make great compost without the gadgets.

Is it done yet?
Just like any recipe, the final product is the result of its ingredients. Depending on the coarseness of the materials, size of the pile, amount of air and moisture, your compost can be ready in as little as a month--or it might take as along as a year. Honestly, our compost--which is turned minimally and basically left on its own to decompose--is typically ready in about 4-6 months. It’s good stuff...loamy and full of worms. Yum.

Now what?

Use compost to amend your soil, top dress lawns, enrich soil around trees and shrubs, or--as we do--create new raised beds. You’ll want to separate any large chunks out of the compost. You can even use the chunky compost to make compost tea--a weak nutrient solution that can be used to fertilize young plants. Put the compost into a cloth bag and allow to soak in a 5 gallon bucket of water for approximately two to three days. The resulting liquid should smell sweet and earthy. If it smells sour or rotten--do not use on plants. Return it to the compost pile. Free, non-petroleum based fertilizer...don't you feel greener already?

Final advice:

When you collect your kitchen scraps, you’ll definitely want a container with a lid. You’ll also want to empty it. Often. I, unfortunately, learned the hard way that kitchen scraps, like skin from pears or over-ripe tomatoes, can quickly lead to a nasty fruit fly infestation. Seriously, get a can with a lid. You’ll thank me.

Better yet, keep your container outside if it’s convenient. I have a bowl that I use during food prep to collect scraps, which I immediately dump into the container on our porch. I usually empty the container into the compost pile at least three times per week. Just don't let an open container sit for too long. Fruit flies are a pain to get rid of.

Also, remind your husband/significant other that he/she shouldn't bring the large container into the kitchen after it's been sitting outside with scraps in it to, oh, make it easier to dispose of pumpkin guts. I couldn't figure out why we had a swarm of fruit flies in the kitchen--until someone confessed (after a few glasses of wine) what he did. Argh.

So get ready! Except for the fruit flies debacle, composting is an easy, non-smelly, non-rodent attracting, eco-rific way to reduce your trash output, build fabulous soil, and enrich the environment with your selfless efforts.