Sustainable Kitchen Compost, No Antibiotics

Recently, as the terms “eco-friendly” and “green” become over-used and misused, “sustainable” is taking over where they left off, but I find the term even more amorphous. That’s because defining sustainable is peculiarly personal, and depends on one’s own evaluations of the information that’s out there. What one gardener determines to be a sustainable practice, another shuns. It’s all about what you think the earth can sustain for the long term — and that, I think, leaves a lot of room for practices that don’t improve the environmental situation at all. Using peat in the garden is one example.

We might agree that cultivating a self-sustaining garden is an admirable goal, and one that’s pretty elusive. And maybe we can all also agree that producing our own compost is a big piece of the equation. What we don’t eat (certain vegetable peels and stems, coffee grounds, eggshells), we throw onto the heap; a season or so of active gardening later, and we’re essentially eating food grown from everyday leftovers. Now with that, I feel sustained.
But, if you’re like me, and your compost heap is currently across town — or if you’re still debating the merits of hosting worms in your apartment or on your precious balcony space — you need every extra motivation. So here is another good reason to compost, compost, compost: there’s growing concern that vegetables fertilized with uncomposted animal manure can pick up trace amounts of antibiotics. The cumulative effect of ingesting this stuff — and of antibiotics pervading the foodstream, in general — is unknown, but to me it’s something I take measures to avoid, when I can. Researchers have already found, though, that composting fresh manure reduced the amounts of antibiotics by 99 percent.

The take-away: Put your own personal kitchen waste to work. For a balcony garden, this might just be enough to do ya. I’ve raised good-looking edibles with handfuls of home compost, made in a heap across town, the occasional precious bag of worm castings — precious because paying for poop seems a little extravagant, no matter what the bill — and a more-or-less judicious mix of the bagged soil and sand I happened to have on hand. If you have the right spot for it, consider vermicomposting. For inspiration, check out Flickr for what balcony wonders can be accomplished with a well-fed worm bin. And, when you do buy additives for your little garden, try to ensure that anything with livestock waste has been properly composted, or “aged.” If you’re not reasonably sure what you have, forgo it, freecycle it, or frow it on a home compost heap for good measure.

In all cases, let patience sustain you; if you’re growing in a small space, you’re battling fewer marauding deer and woodchucks, and you can reasonably put in a little extra effort in the early phases to grow a small batch of perfectly unmolested peas. They are a prize.

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