09 June 2013
Rani sauntered under the shade of the neem tree in the garden. Today a cool breeze blew through the town of Neloor, a small, ecologically friendly town in Tamil Nadu. In all probability Neloor was one of it’s kind town, though many smaller towns and villages were trying to follow its fine example.
“May be we will have some rains soon,” thought Rani smiling up at the darkening sky. A stronger breeze ruffled her hair and she scanned the skies again.
In the far end of the compound which surrounded the garden, stood a big blue bin, faded with time, the blue having turned paler. It had seen brighter days, when Yakov, Rani’s grandfather, had first bought it. It had stored water, then . Thenaar was then a river of sludge, unlike the sparkling flow meandering gaily today, nudging the Neloor shores.
Rani had never thought to wonder why the big blue bin was there, though it contained no water now. It was just there as though it were a part of the garden, and Rani remembered seeing it there as long back as she could recollect. And so the big blue plastic bin sat comfortably in the corner, lost to the world, and quite undisturbed.
She walked towards the bin, her curiosity aroused, and peered into it. It was empty but for some dry leaves that had fluttered in. She tapped the sides of the bin and heard a dull, hollow noise.
“I can put it to good use!” thought Rani as she walked back to the house, wondering how she could use it.
Strangely it was Deva who came up with the idea. He talked of a compost bin he had seen housewives in some of the Neloor houses use, to store the degradable garbage. It was becoming quite popular for the women to make good organic compost from the garbage they saved each day.
Rani’s curiosity was kindled. She wondered how it was done. She listened to everything Deva had to say, questioning him on the methods to be used.
She obtained more information from the internet. She was eager to start making her own compost, for she had many varieties of fruit and vegetable bearing plants and trees not only in the garden surrounding the house, but also in her terrace garden.
” Do visit one of the women with a compost bin, Rani,” said Meena, her mother. Meena sat stitching near the window where she could get a good light.
“May be I should, amma, then I will get some first hand knowledge as to how to go about setting it up!”
“Yes, indeed!” said Meena smiling at Rani.
Rani left for a walk to see some of her friends living a few streets away. She hoped they would accompany her to see the compost bins.
Reema, one of Rani’s friends since childhood and Bina her sister, were only too happy to join Rani in this new venture.
“Lets visit Kala aunty” said Reema, “She has a compost bin made of clay. You must see it, Rani.
Kala aunty was busy in the kitchen when the girls reached her home.
“Just a minute girls,” said she “I will be with you, but feel free to look around!”
“Rani , Reema and Bina moved through the kitchen to the utility room. Here a washing machine and an old grinding stone sat along one side of the wall. The grinding stone which is known as ammi in Tamil, though replaced by the table top grinder or mixie, was still used in many Indian households, occasionally for finer grinding purposes. Near the doorway leading to the backyard stood an earthern khamba.
Rani and her friends examined the three tiered clay pots, eagerly with curiosity. It was rather an ethnic and ornamental looking object with three pots made of clay, perforated on the sides. The three pots stood, one on top of each other, occupying minimum space. It had a lid with a knob which Rani lifted to see its contents.
Kala aunty came to the room wiping her hands dry on her saree pallu.
“Have you seen my khamba, girls?”
“Oh, yes, aunty. Do tell us how it works.”
“Well, sixty percent of the waste from our homes can be composted to become good organic compost for our home gardens! Did you know that?”
“Really?” said the girls in surprise.
“My mother yells at the garbage cleaners, to remove the garbage which they sometimes don’t do.” said Bina.
“Yes, but we really need to dispose of only the plastics and non degradable garbage.” said Kala aunty.
“What about our kitchen wastes, aunty?” queried Reema.
“Here they are, right in here!” said Kala aunty pointing to the Khamba which sat proudly in the corner.
“The kitchen wastes, girls, are precious to me, since they turn into good organic compost, in a matter of a month and a half. I save on fertilizers for my plants. And its a good thing too, since I hear most fertilizers have chemicals in them and do the soil more harm than good!”
“So what do you do with the kitchen wastes, aunty?” asked Rani.
“To start with , make sure the Khamba or any bin which you might choose to use, is kept away from water course; a shady or sunny area is just fine. This room gets partial sunlight in the afternoons and evenings, so its alright in here.”
” What really goes in to making of the compost are carbon and nitrogen.”
The three girls seemed a little dazed and looked at each other. Kala aunty was sounding like a chemistry teacher!
“Ha,ha,” said aunty, seeing the girls, and said,
“Its just green matter and brown matter, girls!”
“Green and brown matter aunty?” asked the girls still perplexed.
“Well, wastes like fruit and vegetable peels, tea bags, crushed egg shells, herbivores animal manure, and poultry manure are the green matter which produce nitrogen.”
“I see, that’s simple enough! “said the girls.
Nitrogen is essential for the compost organism, girls” explained aunty.
“And the brown matter?”
The brown matter produces the carbon needed for mixing with the nitrogen to start the decomposing.
The brown matter is easy to find too. Dry leaves from our garden, wood shavings, cardboard boxes and news paper, which has been well shredded, ash, saw dust, straw…..!”
“Oh, they are fairly easy to find around our homes!” said the girls together.
“The brown matter, being rich in carbon, is used as energy by the microbes present in the compost.
Usually I store them in the Khamba at the ratio of sixty percent carbon and forty percent nitrogen.”
Kala aunty wrinkled up her nose and said,
“If the nitrogen is more, I can’t bear the smell!”
And the girls laughed, and said,”Haha, we will remember that, for sure, aunty! We will feed in more carbon, then!”
“So how did you start, aunty?”
“Oh, I just sprinkled a thin layer of soil on which I placed some dry leaves and torn fragments of news paper and cardboard. Then I threw in the kitchen wastes, making sure there were no plastics, just in case, though I do have a separate dust bin for my plastics and non degradable stuff.”
“So does my amma!” said Rani.
“Ours, too!” said Reema and Bina.
“Great!” said Kala aunty, “segregation begins at home, doesn’t it?”
“Does the garbage in the Khamba need to be mixed, aunty?”
“Of course! Use a hard short stick or a small rake. Sometimes I use a rubber glove to protect my hands and stir it up well with my gloved hand!”
“Won’t it seem a bit dry, aunty? Asked Reema.
“Yes, indeed! Since we feed in more brown matter, it’s a must, to sprinkle water, after each layer. It should neither be dry nor wet…..hmm say, something like a wet sponge! Yes, that would be just right!”
“And should it rain?” asked Bina.
“If you plan on a compost bin outside in you garden, should it rain, then you have to cover it with a plastic sack or sheet. Did you see the holes on the sides of the Khamba? That’s for aeration. This will hasten the decomposing. ”
“Now for a Khamba like this one, once the top compartment of the is filled, place it at the bottom and bring the empty compartment to the top. Do this until all three are filled.By the time all three are filled the bottom compartment garbage would have degraded into good compost, which is ready for use!”
“Wow!” said the girls.
“Aunty, is it a fact that earth worms are used in compost bins? I remember reading about it somewhere.” said Reema.
“Yes, girls, earthworms help in breaking down of organic matters by constantly turning the compost, in the bin. This hastens decomposition!”
“Are there earthworms in here, aunty?”
“Well since I do all the mixing I haven’t thought of getting earthworms for my Khamba. But now that you have mentioned it , may be I should give it a try!”
“Could we have a look at what the compost looks like once its done?” asked Bina.
“Sure,” said Kala aunty, and carefully lifted the two top clay compartments of the Khamba.
The garbage had broken down well and a dark, rich soil, almost the colour of coffee powder lay in the third portion of the Khamba. There was absolutely no sign of the kitchen peels, saw dust, sand and dry leaves in the Khamba, which had gone into it. It had thoroughly disintegrated and was like good, dark, alluvial soil .
Kala aunty picked up a handful and let it run through her fingers and the compost fell through like sand.
“Feel it girls, is it smelly?”
The girls eagerly picked handfuls of compost and let it run through their fingers like Kala aunty did.
“What a lovely earthy smell!” said they and breathed in deeply.
“Yes, I love that smell,” said aunty and went on to say, ” I use all this fine rich compost in my own garden, girls, but you know, some of my friends having excess compost, sieve it, and decompose the grainy residue again. They packet the fine compost and gift it to friends with gardens or potted plants. Some of them even sell it for a good price at the seed store!”
The girls were really excited now, and asked, “How long did it take for the garbage to degrade into this fine soil like consistency, aunty?
A month and a half and some times sooner, girls. Its very important that you stir it up each day, and of course sprinkle water each time. Yes, in a month and a half, you will have the best compost!”
“Wonderful!” said Reema, “I’m going to get a Khamba right away!”
Rani remembered the big blue bin in her garden.
“I have a big plastic bin, already, aunty, do you think it can serve the purpose, instead of a Khamba?”
“Why not!” said Kala aunty, eager to help the girls all she could, to get them to start their own composting.
“We have a two foot plastic container, aunty,” said Bina, ” do you think we could start with that?”
“Of course, and you can store more garbage if the container is bigger. The only problem with big containers, is that stirring the compost as it fill up will be a task. But you can get help from the men folk in your homes, or your gardener.”
As they walked to Kala aunty’s dining room, they saw the lime tree filled with ripe yellow lemons. Kala aunty plucked the big, yellow ones.
The girls snacked on some hot vadais and chutney which Kala aunty served them after they went indoors, and thirstily drank big glasses of lemonade, made with freshly picked lime from the garden.
Three months went by after the girls’ visit to Kala aunty.
Rani filled the big blue bin from her garden for composting her kitchen garbage along with the pile of dry leaves swept each day from around the house in her garden. She had perforated the bin with Deva’s help by using a heated iron rod. This helped in the flow of air and the excess water to drain.
She found some useful tips online, too. She hastened the work of the microbes (which used the carbon energy from the dry leaves to decompose) by adding a mug of buttermilk which was made with curd gone too sour. Reema and Bina had used dry cow dung for the same purpose, which was just as good.
It had taken less than two months for the garbage to become good organic compost. Of course, Rani stirred it regularly, with a thin but strong stick . When the big blue bin was almost three quarter full, she found it quite a task turning the compost.
Reena and Bina had come visiting, and they tried to give Rani a hand with the stirring, but to no avail. Then Reema had a fine idea.
“Do you have a lid for the compost bin, Rani?” asked she.
“Yes, it’s somewhere in the garage. Why do you ask, Reema?
“Oh, do bring it here! I have an idea!” exclaimed Reema, quite excited.
Bina and Rani raced off to the garage to find the lid. It was black, and very dusty, leaning hidden behind an old wooden crate. They brought it to Reema, who dusted it well with a rag. She then closed the big blue bin with the lid and the three girls pressed it down tight, until it fit in snugly over the bin top. It was quite air tight now.
“Well?”said Rani and Bina, looking expectantly at Reema.
“Come on, give me a hand with this bin. I want to turn it over on it’s side and roll it so the content will mix thoroughly!”
The girls were thrilled with the idea, and soon they had the big blue bin lying on it’s side.
“Let’s roll it, now!” said Reema.
“One, two, three, push!” said they together, and began pushing the plastic bin that rolled slowly on the garden floor like a fat blue man!
They rolled it over up and down the garden path way floor and could feel the content turn inside the bin.
And they rolled the bin up and down at least ten more times until they were quite satisfied.
“Lets stand it again and have a look inside!” said Bina excitedly.
They open the lid with some effort and found the well decomposed garbage and mulch was thoroughly mixed! It was brown, and broken into tiny particles of compost.
“Maybe a week longer of this rolling will be a good way to mix in every thing!”said Rani.
Reema was happy her idea had worked and she beamed happily.
A week later Rani found her big blue bin contained the best earthy smelling compost!
How eager Rani was to use the compost in her garden! She called up Kala aunty.
“About half a bucket for trees, and two handfuls for smaller plants should do, Rani ” said Kala aunty. She was really pleased that Rani had made her own compost.
So the task of manuring her garden began. Deva gave her a hand and within a day they finished the job of manuring both the gardens -the one surrounding the house and the vegetable garden on the terrace.
A few months went by, and Ravi, Rani’s elder brother, came back from his studies abroad. He had been to Israel, a country with a rich history of transforming it’s arid deserts through forestation and desertification. Here he learnt methods of tapping solar energy and waste water treatment techniques.
He was taking after his father Inban, a farmer in Neloor. He not only wished to implement what he had learnt, but was also eager to teach neighbouring farmers these methods.
He was amazed at the changes that had taken place in Rani’s garden. The garden looked lush and much greener, and the vegetables seemed to be growing more in number. When Ravi munched a guava or chickoo, he knew was eating good, organic and really tasty fruits. He was happy his sister had learnt composting and had not resorted to harmful chemical fertilizers in the market.
“Yes anna, the compost seems to have improved the soil texture and aeration, considerably,” said Rani, for she had noticed these visible changes within a few weeks after mixing the compost into the soil.
“Hmmm, the soil’s water sustaining capacity, too, seems to have improved…..” said Ravi noting the light moistness.
“I have seen compost being used to help loosen clay soils; and sandy soils retain water.” said Ravi.
” Which will certainly helps stimulate healthy root development in plants!”
He then continued, “Did you know Rani, the organic matter provided in compost, provides food for the micro organisms which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition? In fact, the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous will be produced naturally by the feeding of micro organisms! Isn’t that wonderful!”
“Really?” exclaimed Rani, “so few, if any soil amendments will ever be needed? How fantastic!”
They chatted away thus, as they ate their dinner with Inban and Meena, who had cooked it with the hand picked tomatoes, sweet smelling coriander leaves and other vegetables from the terrace garden.
Listening to the flow of conversation, Inban felt happy he had sent his son abroad to study.
“These days, as waste disposal climbs towards a crisis level, understanding how to make and use compost should be of public interest!” he said at length.
“I know!” agreed Meena, ” composting makes a good alternative method of dealing with waste, doesn’t it? And profiting from it, too!”
They couldn’t agree with her more!