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New Adventures in Gardening: Urban Composting

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. It’s a gorgeous sunny spring day here in Point Lookout, New York, a beach hamlet where my husband typically takes a winter rental. I’ve been sequestered here since December, sheltering in place and minimizing most all social interaction, let alone mingling in crowds – even though I’ve been fully vaccinated since the end of March. Despite the CDC’s latest guidance that it’s safe to remove my mask, I think it too soon to throw it away. The CDC’s track record on masks has been woeful.  And I believe New York continues to maintain its mandatory mask policy – a decision I applaud, as The New York Times reports many corporations – including Costco,

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

It’s a gorgeous sunny spring day here in Point Lookout, New York, a beach hamlet where my husband typically takes a winter rental. I’ve been sequestered here since December, sheltering in place and minimizing most all social interaction, let alone mingling in crowds – even though I’ve been fully vaccinated since the end of March.

Despite the CDC’s latest guidance that it’s safe to remove my mask, I think it too soon to throw it away. The CDC’s track record on masks has been woeful.  And I believe New York continues to maintain its mandatory mask policy – a decision I applaud, as The New York Times reports many corporations – including Costco, Publix, Starbucks, and Walmart –  have opted to drop their storewide mask requirements for fully-vaccinated people.

My Brooklyn Garden

When we first moved into our Brooklyn home in the mid-90s, I was pleased it had a small backyard garden.  Each property in our street of town houses had what was originally intended as a laundry drying area, separated from each other by chain link fences. Our garden is shaded. Much of it then was dappled shade: the space centered on a three-trunked river birch tree,  and a neighbor’s huge maple tree loomed above. Our house cast its own shadows, which extended farther and farther into the garden from mid-morning on, Camille, the previous owner, had planted a pleasant woodland garden, with lots of native plants. Once I learned to respect the space I had rather than hope for the best with plants ill-suited to the location, most of the plants I added flourished. The maple tree died, and alas, we had to sacrifice the aged river birch, so that now, at least some of the garden is sunny for much of the day. The garden has suffered from my neglect, as during the last several years, I’ve spent much of the year outside the U.S. (including most of 2020).

As for the front yards on our block, there was not that much gardening taking place when we moved in. Now, our block is a perpetual contender in the annual Greenest Block in Brooklyn contest. In the most recent – 2019 –  we received an honourable mention; we’ve also won outright before. Much of my front yard was covered in concrete, save for a holly bush and a hedge, neither of which I touched. I wanted to add more plants without tearing up the concrete, so I started small and bought some terra cotta pots. The very day I set those out, one of my neighbors took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t expect the pots to last; they’d soon be smashed or stolen.

How could i prevent that from happening?  Well, my solution was to buy more pots and invite my younger neighbors to help me with my gardening.  I gave each of my helpers her/his own pot and some seeds, and the charge of watering and caring for the plant.  I filled other pots with plants purchased at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We didn’t have a car then and the garden is about a ten-minute walk away; I could pick out plants from the garden’s shop or at the annual plant sale and carry them home. An added benefit: the money I spent helped support the garden.

By the end of the summer, the front yard was very green, brightened by small shrubs and many flowers. One day, a smug adult neighbor buttonholed me to tell me how a bunch of kids had been sitting on my front steps, and when she confronted them, told her that they had my permission to enter my front yard. She laughed when she repeated what she thought to be such an obvious lie and told me how she’d chased them away. And then was aghast when I said, well actually, the kids did have my permission to hang out in my front yard to tend their plants.

Today, more than two decades later, I’ve yet to lose a pot to theft or vandalism.

Urban Composting

As I head back to Brooklyn tomorrow, I’ll port with me a wooden window box, recently planted with various herbs. These grow well in our sunny front yard. One year, I grew tomatoes in a couple of boxes, but when I worked out how much I spent on the dozen or so tomatoes I harvested, I realized buying tomatoes from the green market is much more sensible

For the last several years, I’ve neglected my gardening and I know all of my plants would benefit from improving the soil. In the past, as I learned more about the virtues of compost instead of chemicals, I purchased some and added it to my planting mix or occasionally replanted or top dressed existing plants.

Now I think I’m going to try to make my own compost, inspired by the example of my 85-year old mother. As regular readers might remember, Mom is keen gardener. She grows a variety of vegetables, and strawberries and blueberries as well (see Tend Your Own Garden: Personal Food Security During the Age of COVID-19 and Food Security in the Age of COVID-19: The First Harvest of the Season’s Bounty ). This year’s tomato plants are already in the ground in her North Carolina home and she’s already harvested some lettuce.

Mom recently purchased a small two-drum composter and started composting, following advice and recommendations of fellow gardeners.

I think I may do the same. Why don’t I just make a compost pile? I don’t really have the space. Part of my backyard is devoted to a stone patio, and the rest is planted. There’s also the problem of varmints. I’ve only seen one rat in during our time in our house and I don’t care to repeat that experience. And I well remember the event that caused my neighbor, Adrienne, to abandon hers. Another neighbor had watched a tribe of rats gallop through the common backyard space, on their way to feast on Adrienne’s compost set-up. Adrian decided to abandon her composting in the interests of neighborhood amity. Mom’s composter rests off the ground and appears well-insulated from hungry vermin – even snakes, I’m told.

Other than having a steady supply of fresh herbs, my gardening won’t improve my food security. Being able to create my own compost to nourish my plants is only one benefit of composting. Another is reducing the waste I dump into NYC’s garbage collection system. Unlike other U.S. cities, which have moved to adopt zero waste policies, the Big Apple currently collects only yard waste for composting, with no plans to tackle organic waste (as compared to Boston, which has recently launched plans to expand a pilot program, according to Waste Dive). I’ve become increasingly concerned about throwing my vegetable and fruit scraps into the rubbish bin, but in NYC, I’m on my own if I want to stop.

So, having decided, due to the COVID-19 situation to defer any near-term travel plans and shelter in place in Brooklyn at least for much of the summer, I’m ready to  devote more attention to tending my garden. Composting seems to be a logical next step. Readers?

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