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February 25, 2008


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Noel Maurer

Americans do compost piles?

This country isn't Armenia, of course; we know what composting is. And I've done more than my share of lawnwork at friends' houses. But.

Will Baird

Americans do compost piles?

Uh, we did when I was a kid. Hard to do in an apt right now, but if we had a house, we would do it right now.

Noel Maurer

I wouldn't say it's common, considering your typical American suburban subdivision. Not that Doug is saying that it is; just that it's even less common than the post's phrasing implies.


I'd bet that compost heaps are more common than snowmobiles in the US. They might even be an order of magnitude more common.

Noel Maurer

Well, yeah.


I don't have a yard so I'm with Team Can't Compost (although I just saw an ad for an undersink composter.) I also live in a condo, and my guess is that there may be many people who might compost but can't due to their homeowners' association's T&Cs. (Not millions of people, but a few wannabe greenies like me.) That's already happening with clothesline-drying laundry.

Robert P.

I grew up with compost piles (NJ, and later MA). But out here in Colorado, it just doesn't happen. We've been trying to get our lawn grass trimmings, Corn husks, vegetable garden turnovers, etc. to compost for the past five years and it just does not happen - we end up with dessicated heaps.

Doug M.

Hi Robert,

If you're really interested, there are various simple devices for encouraging composting, even in dry climates.

One I've seen: a big wooden box with a Plexiglass lid with some air holes in it. You dump in the compost and, once in a while, pour in a few cups of water. The lid lets in oxygen and sunlight but keeps the water from evaporating; there's a mild greenhouse effect that heats the compost and accelerates decay. Simple, cheap, effective.

In Germany I've seen compost "machines", which are basically big rotating drums with a door and a handle. You open up the door and dump compost inside; once in a while, you turn the handle. No idea how well this works, but the Germans seem to like it.

Doug M.

Noel Maurer

Hi, Marcia!

Doug, Carlos, from what I've seen, composting is not particularly common in the 'burbs of Miami. Nor is it common on Long Island, or around New Haven.

Questions, then. Have I missed it? And if not, why isn't it common in such humid, compost-friendly environs?


I think you've just missed it, at least in the Northeast.

I wouldn't expect it to be common in south Florida: too wet and too many bugs (unless you're obsessive about it), and the soil is crap anyway, so why not just go to the garden supply store and pick some up with the rest of the things you'll need?

Robert P.

Thanks, Doug! I like the first option. We've had trouble hitting the sweet spot between dessication and really disgusting anaerobic decomposition - the box with airholes sounds like the right sort of balance.


If you're going to have a box with airholes anyway, get worms. They'll compost everything far, far more efficiently, being little bacterial compost factories with some muscle wrapped around them. The result is called "worm castings" and fetch a pretty penny at your garden store.

Worms. They're not just for breakfast any more.

Robert P.

I live in Colorado. What's a worm?

Doug M.

Noel, maybe you've missed it? Not sure. Certainly my relatives in rural Maine were enthusiastic and knowledgeable composters. (Still are, I guess.)

Step one is having a garden. Americans aren't compulsive gardeners the way the Germans or British are, that's for sure. (Something that's common in Germany: urban garden plots. Like, an empty lot that has a hundred little gardens on it, each one belonging to someone who lives in a nearby apartment.)

Doug M.


The worms are great. Robert, strange but true: You can order those worms by mail... I'm sure you can info on the Interwebs easily enough.

I'm by no means a specialist (but I know that my Mom's compost output enables her to grow very yummy and bountiful harvests of fruit and veggies even though our soil is originally dry and full of rocks). I just like the fact that my scrabs don't go to waste (as it were).

Also strange but true: Jacob's wet diapers compost very well (not the poopy ones, no). The urine adds valuable nitrogen to the soil. My Mom thinks this is really gross but again, it limits my trash output and I love it. They take about 50 days to break down. How cool is that.

I think part of why Americans don't compost much is that you guys have in-sink, eh, you know, those grinder things. (The word just fell out of my head...) You toss food scrabs down the sink, we toss them into the compost pile.

BTW, big German cities give you the option of having a green garbage bin for compost scraps, and it gets emptied just like regular trash -- by a different truck, of course. Some communities give you vouchers for the finished products, some just use the resulting soil for the city greenery.

I never thought of this as odd before. Whatever you're used to, I guess.


Robert, I think maybe I'm seeing where your composting problem is coming from.

Noel Maurer

Hi, Doug, Carlos. I don't think this is common in the U.S. Not that I think we're disagreeing in kind, but I do think that it's rather less common than you're implying.

Re missing the composting: certainly is possible. But I kinda doubt it. I've been to ... what? Fifty suburban houses in the last three years across three states? 200 in the last decade? No, more than that. And I've seen thousands, maybe tens-of-thousands more ... as you both know, American suburbs tend to be pretty open.

And I'm just not noticing the compost piles. Heck, as Doug implied, I'm not even noticing the /gardens/. Lawns and shrubbery, yes, gardens no.

Contrast with Britain. Where I've also been.

As you all know, I'll concede if I'm wrong. And you can't see people's backyards from driving around. But given that I've spent a lot of time out in suburbia, tooling through and visiting people in various subdivisions of various vintages, I do think that composting (and to a lesser extent, gardening) is just very uncommon in the U.S.

To put a number on it, if I had to guess, less than one household in fifty.

I'm talking mostly about inner-ring 'burbs, of course, but I think those are representative.

I'm not saying that composting is weird in America ... just, like, well, not common. It certainly wouldn't occur to me to bother; organic waste may in fact be the one sort of trash that I don't feel guilty about tossing away. It degrades!

Then again, I'm old enough to remember my cousin tossing beercans out the window as we tooled down the freeway. So like I said, I could be wrong.

Claudia: I have one of those in-sink grinder things, and we call it the in-sink grinder thing. I have no clue what it's supposed to be called. A sinkinator? Armeater? Ni idea.


Noel, retail nurseries and lawn and garden supply stores are a $40 billion dollar industry in the US, most of them small and necessarily local businesses, so I think you're probably missing something with regards to gardens.

They do seem to be more concentrated in the Midwest, where you can't throw a stone without hitting a greenhouse, but I've seen plenty from the road in New Jersey. And Rodale, the firm which first promoted composting in the U.S. over sixty years ago, is Pennsylvania-based.

The phrase I've always heard is "garbage disposal".

Robert P.

Sink garbage disposal: we call it the "electric pig."

WRT worms, my tongue was only partly in cheek. I spent the first half of my life on the east coast, and grew accustomed to seeing the earthworms come out to do their dance parties on the sidewalk after each rainstorm (as well as turning up a half dozen or so everytime I turned over a spadeful of dirt.) Out here in the Rocky Mountain piedmont, I do not recall seeing a single Annelid in the past 20 years. It's not just dry climate - our house is built on thick, dense, intractable clay (we grow our vegetables in raised beds. Something like 60+ bags of topsoil hauled in from Home Depot.)


It's SIC 5261, if you want to look for yourself. Doesn't include hardware or big box store sales.

Oh, and a 2005 National Gardening Association poll found that 5% of American gardeners are pure organic gardeners, while 35% more use some organic techniques -- which presumably would mainly be composting, it being easier to enrich the soil organically than to kill weeds and pests.


Also, as long as I'm ranting on the topic, I wish Brad Delong would research the industry a bit before blithering about the historical lack of decent tomatoes.

And it is blither, because he completely misses the role of the intermediate industry which supplied local farmers with tomato varieties. I mean, there are trade journals.

Anyway. Those companies promoted more tasteless, more easily handled varieties of tomato because the vast bulk of their sales went to the commercial tomato industry, the vast bulk of _that_ in California, where the University of California with private industry had figured out a way to mechanize tomato picking, eliminating the need for swarthy seasonal labor, at least for that vegetable.

(Same sort of thing with iceberg lettuce. It was the variety which packed best in ice from California. Awful stuff. On the other hand, the Hass avocado.)

Noel Maurer

Hmm. Carlos, I'm not so sure. You're using the numbers from the National Gardening Survey, right? With the caveat that the data itself cost $495 to peruse, here's the free blurb to the report:

"Homeowners spent a record $44.7 billion last year to hire lawn care and landscape maintenance services, landscape installation and construction services, tree care services, and landscape design services."

I don't know if that quite indicates gardening, as we're thinking about it.

But I'd like to know. I mean, who wouldn't want to know the breakdown between "Master Gardeners, Garden Enthusiasts, Casual Gardeners, Reluctant Gardeners, and 'Just Cut The Grass' households"?

There is this:

U.S. Households with a Yard or Garden, Millions:

Conventional gardeners 35
Hybrid gardeners 31
Organic gardeners 5
Do-nothing gardeners 12
Don't know 7

Problem is, the survey includes some dude who dumps the fertilizer in the green bag on his lawn as an "organic gardener." So no info there.

It's a mystery!

P.S. The in-sink thingummy is a subset of "garbage disposal," no?

P.P.S. This is a very inane conversation, which is probably why I'm enjoying it.

Noel Maurer

Whoops! Wrong data, SIC code, yes. Sorry.

But got Illinois data from 1997. (I am procrastinating.)


Haven't really looked at it, but it seems inconclusive, given as fertilizer makes up more than half of all sales. That'd kinda cut against composting being common, no?


Dude, you picked the state with the most companies under 52610201. They're fertilizer services with a sideline in consumer retail, due to state-specific tax breaks. Feed and farm stores, co-ops.

This is kind of fun: http://ftp.melissadata.com/lookups/sic.asp?sic=5261

The $40 billion figure comes from private garden industry analysts, so I'm not worried about that.

Dave MB

In my experience, composting extends beyond those who actually use the compost. During the last few years when we haven't been gardening much, we still throw vegetable waste on a compost heap rather than down the "garbage disposal". But we haven't either harvested the compost or done the proper procedures to keep it biologically active.

Noel, I agree anecdotally that the density of serious gardeners in the USA is much less than in England or Germany, but mightn't you have missed a lot of causal compost heaps in suburban homes? They don't tend to be in places you'd see unless you're offered a tour of the garden.

Lots of compost heaps hereabouts in WMass, though of course we are far from typically American in many ways.

Noel Maurer

Hi, Dave! Oh, I absolutely could be missing backyark gardens and the like. Not in South Florida --- that I'm sure on --- but certainly up here in New England.

I just refuse to accept that my drivers-side vision is inaccurate --- and that selection bias means that the houses I visit are not ones where the owners pile up smelly compost heaps in the backyeard --- until it is proven to me that it is. Why? Well, because it's fun.


Well, that means I'm out of this thread.

Noel Maurer

What, shrinking from the challenge? Progress has been made.

But real work beckons, I imagine.


I think you're setting a weirdly high burden of proof from the side I myself would consider the one which requires extraordinary evidence. The ratio of households with gardens in the US is only somewhat larger than one in fifty? Let's be generous: one in ten.

If $40 billion a year of sales from *specialty* garden stores -- which is $400 per household, rather higher for households with actual dirt -- doesn't convince you that you've been missing something in your observations (mostly likely through selection effect, as you've admitted), well. I'm not sure what could convince you otherwise. And at that point, I bow out.

(I also dislike using my skills just to amuse people. If there's not a dialogue, why bother? In extreme forms, I tend to get a little Joe Pesci about it.)

But you're right, I do have other things to do.

Noel Maurer

Uh, Carlos, seriously. You know me better than that.

Not that I think this is a debate worth having, but the SIC code you gave includes all lawn supply stores, including those selling motorized lawnmowers and sod. They also do, in fact, include big box stores --- 11 percent of them employ more than 500 people.

In other words, what you're calling "specialty garden stores" aren't. They include the "Builder's Square" shops attached to K-Marts.

It's straight-up plain-vanilla lawn care.



Now, the argument isn't worth having, because who cares if I'm wrong on how many Americans compost? But really, dude, I'm not that easily dismissed; given what I've been doing for a living, I'd find it emotionally difficult to set "a weirdly high burden of proof."

BTW, we're in for September, t's crossed, i's dotted. Celebration?


Woo! yes, celebration.

But let me beat this dead horse a bit more. In the SIC classification, the lawnmower (and tractor) stores are 11% of the total. In the NAICS classification -- power equipment, which includes garden tillers -- they're 20% of the total, but only 15% of sales.

From that SIC site, the garden and nursery specific categories, excluding the lawn and garden stores, make up 60% of the businesses. The lawn-specific categories -- sod, ornaments, lawnmowers -- and including lawn and garden stores, make up 28%. Without lawn and garden stores, it falls to 13%.

Big-box stores sales, such as inside Home Depot or Wal-Mart, not one of the chains of garden supply stores. There are plenty of those. (They're mostly regional, I suppose because seasonal climate prevents consolidation.)

And lawn care services fall under landscaping services in the NAICS: 561730. It is pretty huge.

Anyway. Now I'm tempted to get you a garden starter kit for a wedding gift. I think Cambridge is zone 6a? Philly is around zone 6b. Roses.

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