NEW YORK — In her Brooklyn apartment, Kate Zider holds up a pot of basil she has grown with the remains of her neighbors’ dinners.
“I can’t understand why anyone buys basil. You throw it in a pot with some soil and compost and it grows. You almost can’t stop it,” she says. She also shows off an avocado tree that grew from an avocado stone that refused to decompose.
“It was in our compost pile but it refused to break down and it began to sprout. So I put it in a pot and now its 5 feet tall,” she says.
Zider is a founder of the North Brooklyn Compost Project, one of a number of volunteer compost groups shooting up across the country in response to the demand for locally grown produce.
The group’s more than a hundred members take shopping bags and cardboard boxes full of their leftover lettuce, tomatoes, coffee grounds and potatoes to a compost heap in a park, and in exchange they get an unlimited amount of compost for their apartments or back gardens.
“We have one member who has a beautiful garden on his roof. Another had shelves full of lettuce growing on the side of his house this summer, and another member was using the compost to grow plants as artwork. Some people just give the compost to their favorite neighborhood tree,” says Zider, who also has an “all you can pick” rule on the worms that burrow through the group’s compost heap, in case people want to do their own composting at home.
“Personally, I recommend ordering the worms from a supplier, but if you want the worms for a home compost bin, you are more than welcome,” she says. “If you can catch them, you can keep them.”
Red wiggler worms have emerged as the heroes of the compost cooperatives after years of experimentation with various species. Wigglers quickly eat and break down the food, excreting it as valuable garden fertilizer and helping to convert vegetation into humus.
“Wigglers make great pets. They don’t rebel by climbing out. Also, they are good eaters and can move side to side in a container, which makes them idea for shallower containers,” says Zider. “As long as it’s not too hot or wet, they will stay in there.”
New York has become a center for compost coops, especially after cutbacks two years ago forced the city sanitation department to drastically cut back on a program that had offered the public free compost.
In its place, gardeners have come together to share each other’s decomposing waste.
“There is a huge demand from the public to grow their food,” said Barbara Finnin, executive director of City Slicker Farms in Oakland, Calif., which is given compost by the Oakland sanitation department and distributes it to families. “We’re lucky in Oakland, but if a city doesn’t help, more and more local groups jump up to take its place.”
Many compost co-op members have a separate bin or box at home for organic waste. Some store it in the freezer until it can be delivered to the compost heap, which might be in a vacant lot, a tucked-away corner of a park, or maybe a volunteer’s yard.
In the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, the Green Acres Community Garden has more than 50 members who pay $5 a year to get compost, rising to $10 a year for those who want to help grow crops in the garden, a formerly vacant lot where the composting takes place.
Member Theresa Frey keeps her vegetables in her apartment bathroom, “between the toilet and a surf board”.
Plants that require more light grow in her living room. “I live in a brownstone building, so it has deep-set windowsills. That’s ideal for growing, so I’m lucky. People use whatever space is available, it’s not hard work and it brings people together,” she says.
In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Compost Collective is only a year old and will not have its first bed of compost until October.
“The response has completely blown me away,” says organizer Melissa Tashijan. “We started sending out flyers around the neighborhood and people were coming from all over to drop off their waste. I’ve even had city aldermen call me because their voters were demanding somewhere they could compost.”
The group, which has a few dozen members, collected organic waste for compost at a festival two weeks ago in Milwaukee. “We collected all the waste in carts towed by bicycle. Some of the bikes were donated by the public, others were owned by members. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of compost,” says Tashijan.
By the spring planting season, she says, Milwaukee residents should have lots of compost.
“This is our first year, and we all have jobs outside of this, so we’re really rethinking things each day,” says Tashijan. “The important thing is that we’re learning and having fun at the same time.”