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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Frugal Gardener: Compost 2 (Compost Wars)

Compost Wars

In my last post I wrote about the growing competition in my neighborhood for pre-bagged garden waste, especially the top-end stuff: leaves, grass, and pine needles. To most people all those plastic bags by the curb probably just look like more work for the waste management people, but to the frugal gardener each one holds the possibility of being pure compost gold. I mentioned that, in general, we’re a friendly bunch of competitors. I’m sure that if I’d hailed that elegant gentleman in his Lexus who was appropriating “my” leaves from the neighbor’s parkway he would have quietly withdrawn from my turf. No hard feelings.

Maybe there’s something about leaves, grass, and needles that inspires camaraderie rather than serious competition. Of course we’re being virtuous as well as frugal, and that creates a feeling of self-congratulatory solidarity.

But whatever it is about curbside compost that makes everyone soft and fuzzy doesn’t translate to coffee grounds (a great soil addition). Maybe it’s the residual caffeine, but in my experience coffee grounds are grounds for conflict. Let me explain.

Many years ago we had an office coffee machine, and since consumption was ferocious (this is Louisiana, after all) we would go through several pounds of Community Dark Roast with Chicory every week (with some CDM—CafĂ© du Monde—thrown in occasionally for variety). This, of course, produced a hefty amount of grounds, and as a frugal gardener I couldn’t stand to let it all go to waste. So one day I brought in a container and taped a note behind the coffee pot asking for drinkers please to dump the used grounds in the container.

This worked beautifully for a while, and I took home a plastic bucket of rich brown leftovers for my garden every week.

Then came the mutterings of discontent: Why should I get all the grounds? Shouldn’t everyone have a chance? After all, it isn’t every day, or every week, that one gets a chance to take home a nice big bucket of coffee grounds for the garden! It was clearly an issue of great importance. The wife of one colleague finally moved from muttering to action, and put another bucket next to mine, and another note behind the coffee pot, asking that drinkers distribute the grounds evenly between the two.

Until that point I had been pretty complacent. But even if this wasn’t war, it was a definite challenge, and I decided to outflank the competition. I went to the food services people and asked if I could collect their coffee grounds; I’d even supply the containers, I told them. I was sure I’d hit the mother lode.

I wish I could tell you that this was the beginning of a frugal composting empire, but it wasn’t. Bureaucracies make everything difficult—even recycling coffee grounds—and apparently there were health codes to take into account, and the problem of where to keep the bucket . . . and on and on. For a while I shared the grounds with my colleague’s wife, and then for some reason—I can’t recall now—the communal coffee pot disappeared, eliminating the occasion for further intradepartmental conflict.

There is a lesson here. The best way (as Tom Sawyer knew) to get others interested in something is to show (or feign) your interest in it first. If you want people to recycle leaves or coffee grounds, pretend they’re the most valuable commodity around. So even though I lost some compost, I feel that in some small way I may have helped inspire others to become frugal gardeners and environmentalists. I may have gone down a rung on the ladder of material gain, but have ascended several on the ladder of moral value, and I will not hesitate to claim credit for reducing landfills and energy consumption, improving general cardiovascular health (it’s hard work lifting those bags and tilling in those grounds), and promoting the great American values of entrepreneurship and competition

So go out there and collect those grounds. Just not on my turf.


E-bad said...

HA! That's amazing that other people around you actually WANT to compost! What a dream. I beg for scraps and reduce waste where ever I can but the only folks who also "compete" for such goods work with me at an ecology center. But for leaves here in Brooklyn one needs to travel down to the nearest park and pick stuff up like a crazy person. I love your blog.

Chance said...

Hysterical! Competition for the grounds and dire office politics...Actually, my local coffee shop has an real policy about grounds, you may bring a bucket early in the am, and pick it up by 5 PM. It must have your name and cell phone number on it. You may only collect coffee grounds two days a month, so that everyone gets a turn. But the competition isn't about compost, it is about getting grounds to grow oyster mushrooms on, go figure.

Frugal Scholar said...

Thanks for your comments! Yes, the way to get people to compost is to tap into that competitive spirit, and why not, if it's for a good cause? One neighbor offered me all her leaves, but neglected to tell me I'd have to rake and bag them myself. I politely declined. I'll check out my local coffee shop for the grounds, and the idea of growing oyster mushrooms is great! I'll have to check this out.

Chance said...

Fungi Perfecti sells an "espresso" kit for growing oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds. The bonus is that when the grounds are exhausted for mushrooms, they make a terrific compost addition. Heres a link if you are interested:

It is the third kit down on the page. Have fun!

Atlantic said...

My local Starbucks will happily save the days grounds for me to pick up near closing time. Big box. It includes the coffee filters but they decompose as well.

Dunkin Donuts was another story. Not that they were opposed but their baristas did not get the whole saving of grounds thing so each of the 3 times I tried, someone had tossed it out.