Urban Composting and Farming

Review by Maggie Paquet

I knew Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator had potential for humour when I read the opening quote by Bette Midler, who said her first compost heap was an epiphany: “a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent…experience that lets you see your place in the big picture…” [Think about it.

The “compost crises” the author has dealt with in over a decade working at the City Farmer garden in Vancouver (www.cityfarmer.org) will have you chuckling earthily, and all the while you’ll be learning the rules of successful composting—and a lot more. 

Read about “The Recipe”—the proper ratio of green to brown stuff—and the “Rap Rules” of what NOT to put in your compost.Read about the mysterious Vancouver Christmas Tree Shredding Ceremony, worm bins, how to prevent rodent infestations, and how to avoid a smelly compost bin. 

Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator is more than a series of diary entries. It is rich, full evidence that city farming is a viable—and enjoyable—enterprise. The book is an excellent read, with many dimensions to appeal to a variety of readers. Whether you’re looking for information on how to successfully compost, alternatives to pesticides, how to grow healthful food, or how to put some space in your yard to good use, this book will meet your needs and entertain you to boot! 

The author admits urban farming has a political aspect: “…growing your own tomatoes in a pot…is a political act, as much a symbol of independence as Gandhi’s spinning wheel.”

A lot of interesting thoughts went through my mind while reading this book. Questions like: What does composting have to do with municipal governments? Social justice? Health? Air pollution? Environmental awareness? Or globalization, for that matter? 

I got my first good advice on how to properly grow a compost heap from Derek Mallard, way back about 30-odd years ago when I lived in Victoria. I’ve done urban gardening on and off ever since, but never realized it was so widespread. Nearly 45 percent of Vancouverites grow some of their own food in urban gardens. In Toronto, it’s about 40 percent. 

When you realize that most Canadians live in cities and that up to a third of all land in cities is available for growing plants, you can see the tremendous potential of urban farming to provide healthy, low-cost food for people. And because this food doesn’t rely on the oil industry or huge transportation networks to bring it to consumers, the environmental and non-food health benefits are significant. 

There’s a lot of controversy about the nutritional value of commercially produced food. It’s grown on artificially fertilized soil, has been doused with pesticides and preservatives, and is usually picked before it is ripe. Even the organically produced supermarket food (if you can afford it) spends days in shipping and storage before it gets to your kitchen. 

When we compost kitchen and garden wastes, not only are we recycling stuff that would otherwise end up in the local landfill, we are transforming waste into a product that contains valuable nutrients that end up in our daily diet. Plants, and ultimately people, thrive on the rich soil that is built up with compost. 

Municipalities across Canada are in dire need of reducing the amount of material that goes to landfills. The author says by recycling, we can cut our garbage by a third. When we compost kitchen and garden materials, we cut it by another third. When compost is used in city parks, plants are more resistant to bugs and diseases, making it possible to reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides. As well, many urban gardens are used for educational and food-sharing purposes, thus contributing to the growth of healthy communities. 

Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator is about sharing information. Maybe all you’re interested in is saving money or getting a bit of outdoor exercise, but if you’ve ever had a question about composting—whether on how to do it right to whether or not it’s worth your effort, this book is for you and your community. City councillors, planners, parks departments, residents can all benefit from the information and the chuckles—and some lip-smacking, juicy, homegrown tomatoes.

Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator: Edible Essays on City Farming by Spring Gillard © 2003 – 205 pages. ISBN 0-86571-492-4. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, 1-800-567- 6772 – www.newsociety.com

[From May/June 2004]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital