Several years ago my neighbor and I passed around a sourdough starter we named ''Herman.''
We named the starter because it was alive, a yeasty mixture of fermenting sugars that after a while we used as the base of many tasty baked goods. From Herman we made several things, from savory biscuits to the sweetest of cakes.
Most starters are passed around between friends, but you don't have to have a donation to create sourdough starter. Recipes are all over the Internet, not to mention in many cookbooks.
You might wonder what sourdough starter has to do with gardening, but when I think about it, making compost is a lot like making sourdough. You begin with a starter and before you know it, you have a product that can be used in many different, not to mention useful, ways.
Like Herman, compost has been around since the first plants began living and dying on the planet. And also like Herman, compost is alive. I wrote last week that compost is chock-full of living organisms that break down waste materials into organic matter. Compost is soil in its most nutrient-rich form.
From the time tree leaves stop making chlorophyll in the fall and begin to reveal their true colors, they are in the process of decomposition. They drop to the ground and over the winter, they rot. This is the beginning of another cycle of compost.
When most people think about compost, they think they need a huge space for an enormous pile, and if you have the space, by all means, make the largest pile you can. But even if you live in a small space or even an apartment, you can still make compost.
I don't drink coffee but my husband does, so when I first saw the large, plastic coffee containers with lids on grocery store shelves, I wasn't thinking how convenient this was for coffee. I was thinking how easy it would be to make compost on my kitchen counter.
The difference between a small container and a large pile is the size of the materials. Outside, I pull up entire plants and toss them onto the heap. If it takes them two years to decompose, that's OK with me. I turn the pile with a garden fork once in a while and when I want to use the compost, I sift it into a cart through a large screen.
But indoors is a little different. Instead, I make sure the ingredients are chopped fine, either by using a food chopper, food processor or by chopping them with a sharp knife. Just as with the large pile, the recipe for making compost must include both dry and wet materials. If the compost is too wet, it will smell. If it's too dry, it won't decompose.
I like to take the plastic container and drill or cut small holes near the top for air circulation and evaporation. Compost, like Herman, works better when it has a starter, so I start with a couple cups of compost or garden soil in the container.
As I cook, I'll add the chopped vegetable leftovers such as lettuce leaves, the base of a bunch of celery, potato peelings and even egg shells and coffee grounds, complete with the unbleached filter. And since I'm a tea drinker, I toss used tea bags in as well. For dry ingredients, I bring in crisp leaves from outdoors and chop them into small bits, but I've also been known to cut up used paper towels as well as the cardboard tubes the towels rolled off of. Nothing is safe from composting, except animal fat, bones, meat and manmade fabrics. Yes, 100 percent cotton can be composted. After all, it came from a plant.
The smaller the bits of waste material, the faster they will decompose. Another interesting thing about making compost on the kitchen counter is as these items begin to break down, they get smaller, so you can keep adding more and more to the mix.
Every few days or once a week, stir the pot, so to speak, to keep the ingredients well mixed. If it is too wet, add more dry material. If it's too dry, give it a few spritzes with the sink sprayer.
While you won't have enough compost to plant an entire garden, you can use it to top dress house plants or to start more seeds. You might even be surprised to to find you won't have as much trash to put out at the end of the week. You can take pride in knowing you did a little more to lessen the burden on landfills.