Winning the [Compost] Lottery

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If we saved all of the disgusting food scraps we scraped off our plates in our whole lifetimes, and placed them in a slimy, gooey line, they would reach all the way to the moon and back 27 times. That’s a rough guess anyway, but what a better use of time and space it would be to compost those food scraps instead.

Composting is a way to take the stuff that nobody wants to eat, the soggy French fries, moldy bread, wilted lettuce, wormy apples, and squishy tomatoes, and turn them into something really useful: rich, bountiful soil. It’s like getting something from nothing, like creating something beautiful from putrid decay, like turning destruction on it’s head, like winning the lottery. Well, maybe not like winning the lottery, but it’s still pretty amazing.

The key to composting is aerobic bacteria, tiny, oxygen-loving microorganisms that busily break down organic waste like the aforementioned wilted lettuce, and use some of the nutrients to thrive and multiply. To these bacteria, your disgusting table scraps are like an all-you-can-eat buffet of gastronomic delights. As the bacteria work their magic, the compost can heat up to 140 degrees, or hot enough to cause third degree burns. They don’t seem to mind, however, and the hotter it gets, the quicker the disgusting, smelly food scraps are destroyed and turned into lush, fertile soil.

Where do these amazing bacteria come from? They are just always there, waiting to be helpful. Actually, they’re just waiting to thrive and multiply, but if they are helpful to us in the process they deserve the credit. But beware gentle composters, there are also anaerobic bacteria always there, and they aren’t as apparently helpful. If your compost isn’t turned and mixed regularly, supplying the air that aerobic bacteria need to survive, it will instead be overrun by anaerobic bacteria that turn smelly food scraps into even smellier, partially decomposed food scraps.

So here’s how composting is NOT like winning the lottery: you are no more or less likely to win millions of dollars, but there IS a little work involved. But if you spend a little time turning your compost pile, and make sure that the balance of carbon and nitrogen-rich waste is maintained to keep your aerobic bacteria happily humming along, you will be amply repaid in rich soil.


Philip Johansson

Writer and Editor, author of Potash Phil (



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