Old & New: Trash into Useful Stuff

 

One of my jobs, when I was a youth, was to take the “garbage” out and put it in the pig trough. The “garbage” was in one of those little bucket-type trash cans that had a step-on pedal causing the lid to pop up, and the container inside it could be lifted out by the handle. This was where my mom would put vegetable peelings, wilted lettuce leaves, apple cores, etc. Only food waste items went in there, and when it was filled (it only took a few days since she cooked all of the meals for our family of ten people) this bucket was taken from the screen porch to the pigpen out past the barn. There it was emptied into the wooden trough as a treat for our sows.

“Trash” on the other hand, went into the wastebasket. Anything put into this tall container had to be burnable. Each evening the wastebasket from the bathroom was added to this receptacle then carried out to the burning barrel in the barnyard where, yes, you dumped it into a large metal barrel, and then set it on fire. It burned quickly because anything that ended up in that trash container was flammable. Your job was to stand there and make sure it burned without anything floating out of it, and even in a light snowstorm it would burn and, frankly, was a really fun job for a 10-year-old. I got to set stuff on fire! With permission! The only non-fun part of this job was washing out the wastebasket because no plastic bags were involved.

I tell you about these disposal memories to explain how little waste actually left my parents’ home when I was growing up. I realize that 60 years ago, there were many fewer packages in our lives. If my mother bought some bologna at the grocery store, it was wrapped in brown paper after being cut from the giant chunk by the meat guy. And the grocery bags were paper, which were saved and reused over and over. Yes, we subscribed to a newspaper; it was carefully piled on a shelf in the back porch to be reused for any number of things. Occasionally, my mom bought a loaf of Wonder Bread. Those bags were reused (after being washed out and dried each time) to keep her homemade loaves fresh for the few days before they were consumed. If a sandwich was made to be packed for eating away from home (a rarity, usually only during elk hunting season) it was wrapped in waxed paper. We did not use paper towels, we had cleaning rags. Our “canned” fruit, jam, veggies, even chicken meat with broth, was all done, by my mom, in glass jars which were reused year after year. Our milk came into the house in a recycled gallon honey bucket, then poured into two-quart Mason jars to be stored in the refrigerator.

I won’t even go into the amazing cycle of life that our alfalfa went through each year… let’s just say that the piles of “recycled hay” that we shoveled all winter from the milking barn, and the cow sleeping sheds, were redistributed back out onto the fields each spring to nourish that summer’s hay crop as it grew. It was the original Reuse-Recycle, with the delicious Jersey and Guernsey milk and cream as a by-product.

Springtime on the farm! Everything is melted and waiting for us to scoop it up and spread it over the field where the new hay will grow. (1969)

That hay in those large stacks was grown in a field that was fertilized by the “recycled” hay you see all over the ground in that photo with the cows. (1970)

So…when I got married (1974) and started my own home, I was accustomed to the low-waste lifestyle. I taught my five children the thrifty ways I’d learned growing up. We lived in Southern California, where I could go to an orchard and buy misshapen oranges by the bagful very inexpensively. I could also grow my own veggies year-round. I had a few chickens, and I baked all of our bread. I also found that recycling paid in California at that time! I’d drive around my neighborhood on trash days, and pick up all the bundles of newspaper that were set out for the garbage trucks. We had a vintage panel truck, so the children and I would spend an hour filling up the back section with old newspapers, then drive down to the recycling center where they paid me by the pound. It was enough to pay for all the milk we drank each week.

Now that I’m old and only feed me and Mr. CowGirl, what is my “new” thrifty? I still love to garden, but since I live here in the Mojave Desert that takes some creativity. Just a few inches below the surface of the ground is caliche: a cement-like layer of calcium carbonate. It does not facilitate plant life. However, with a raised bed, I can grow something all year round! I have found that the best place to get my dirt is from my own kitchen.

The first year we lived here, my birthday present was a compost maker. This wonderful version is the latest iteration of it; the first one had a metal tumbler, and it finally rusted through and was taken to the metal recycler. Every day, I have a little something to add to this barrel, and 24/7 it is “cooking” my new dirt. I dump in the peelings, or dead salad fixings, then give it a few turns, and in a week or two, the forces of nature have turned it into this dark brown soil I have in my hand.

We need to make a new raised bed this year, the planks have cracked and broken on the old one. But when it’s finished, I have a whole tumbler full of fresh soil to fill it with. The old stuff has been made into new stuff, and my former garden will help me grow my new garden.

This is a bowl of veggie debris left after I made a delicious cauliflower soup for dinner. 

I put it into this container, and turn it a few times to mix.  Inside of the tumbler, all this food waste is turning into black dirt that will grow me some new vegetables in my garden. 

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  1. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    I’m familiar with this lifestyle in a limited way, as every other summer was spent on my grandfather’s small parcel of No Minnesota land, complete with log cabin.

    He didn’t even have electricity or running water until the late 1950’s or alter.

    I thought it was so exciting to help him feed the chickens with the leftovers from our large dinners and lunches. Five year old me would trundle after him in my rain boots, and of course, we always checked on the new litter of kittens on either our way into or out of the chicken coupe.

    These days to keep our garden healthy, we have a similar set up as you describe as far as wet waste ending up in compost.

    Also the lessons I learned from watching my much older cousins run their Wisconsin dairy farms have stayed with me. One such lesson means I avoid the vets’ dictates of “Only give your dog and cat kibble.”

    Really? My cousins had dogs and kitties that would line up daily for the last two gallons of milk pumped from the dairy cows. Those critters often lived to be over 15 years of age, with getting run down by car traffic the only thing that caused an earlier demise.

    For several years, my trips to the recycling center gave me my beer money for the month. This is no longer possible, as some part of Trump’s dealing with China means they no longer take our recyclables. So the closest recycling place has closed down.

    I’ll close with this photo of something entitled: The Happiest Dog. This does remind me of the dairy cow scene from my childhood:

    • #1
  2. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    My cousins had dogs and kitties that would line up daily for the last two gallons of milk pumped from the dairy cows.

    Our barn cats were so fussy that they would drink only warm, foamy milk–straight from the cows. Once their bowl of milk cooled off, they’d turn up their noses. That cold stuff was for dogs!

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  3. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    When I was a kid, we burned all combustible trash. That was my job.

    In those days, milk and cream and similar stuff was sold in wax-coated paper cartons. I made the job more interesting by arranging all those cartons like a little city in front of the burn can, and then torching the miniature skyscrapers.

     

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I remember those conservative days, too.  We didn’t live on a farm but I was in a lot of farm homes.  Some farm families had a slop bucket next to the stove for animal and plant waste that would be used to feed the pigs. And like you say, a lot of that accumulates quickly when you make everything, including roast chicken, from scratch.  But we, too, composted the kitchen garbage and burned the burnables, and there wasn’t a lot left after that. 

    I compost our kitchen garbage in the garden. A lot more accumulates at the time of year when we’re doing a lot of eating from our garden. We’re still doing that now, but some of the garden produce is running out. Onions will be used up in another month, and sweet potatoes will probably be used up by then, too.  We still have a lot of acorn squash, but some are going bad. And of course we have potatoes and stuff that we put in the freezer, but those don’t result in a lot of waste. 

    I’m trying something different this year.  Last fall I dug a lot of post holes in the garden, maybe 18 inches deep, and marked them with tall stakes so I could find them in case we get a lot of snow. We don’t have a lot of snow now, but enough that I need to use those stakes to find them.  If we get too much snow and it accumulates just right, they might not be usable, but in that case I’ll revert to the old compost bin. 

    Every 2-3 days, or maybe even more frequently depending on what waste we’ve been accumulating (such as Christmas turkey bones) I take it out to the garden and drop it in one of the holes. I rinse out our kitchen container and then throw the rinse water in the hole and then cover it all with maybe a quart of soil. At this time of year the soil is frozen, but I saved several 5-gallons pails worth in our garage where it won’t freeze.  Before the ground was frozen I just covered up the garbage with the soil that had been dug from the post hole. That was easier, but this is what I have to do now.

    What I’m burying now won’t decompose much until we have some warmer days, but I expect it will decompose earlier and better than it used to in my above-ground compost bin. (If it doesn’t, then this experiment may conclude as a failure.)  But it should be able to do a lot of decomposing when the ground is unfreezing but it’s still too early and wet to start work in the garden. Burying it this deep should keep it from being disturbed by varmints, which had got to be a problem with some of the above-ground compost bins I used to make out of wood years ago. Those would have been OK except for the varmint problem. The plastic ones I’ve used more recently don’t get enough oxygen and warmth to decompose well, and by the time I want to spread it out on the garden in the spring (before spading up my new rows) it’s not really ready for that, and besides, it’s hard to get it well distributed.  

    I don’t think the rotating compost bins that one can put in the garage would work for us, because we just don’t have the room in our garage for all the kitchen garbage and the other material that would need to be mixed in with it. And they seem like too much work for a lazy person like myself.

    • #4
  5. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

     

    I’m trying something different this year. Last fall I dug a lot of post holes in the garden, maybe 18 inches deep, and marked them with tall stakes so I could find them in case we get a lot of snow. We don’t have a lot of snow now, but enough that I need to use those stakes to find them. If we get too much snow and it accumulates just right, they might not be usable, but in that case I’ll revert to the old compost bin.

    This sounds like a genius idea to make little compost places all over the garden. There would be less work spreading it around that way, too. 

    • #5
  6. Bethany Mandel Editor
    Bethany Mandel
    @bethanymandel

    Do you have any rodent issues? I have another kind of compost and we’re having issues with rats getting in, and those rats are then attracted to the warmth of my van… which is potentially very expensive to deal with. 

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    This sounds like a genius idea to make little compost places all over the garden. There would be less work spreading it around that way, too. 

    I hope it works out and if so, that it’s something others can try, too. It seems good so far. It might not be suitable for a suburban garden. 

    My posthole digger is over 40 years old and has probably been left out in the rain a couple of times. The wooden handles could stand replacement, which I’ll be properly motivated to do if this system works out.

    • #7
  8. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Growing up in a gardening family, I learned early that there is “clean” kitchen garbage and then there is the rest. Never mind the recycling question with boxes and metal cans, “clean” meant no meat, fat, or oils. These would putrefy and attract rodents and other scavengers to the compost heap. 

    This post is part of our Group Writing Series under the January 2021 Group Writing Theme: “Old and New.” Stop by soon, our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

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    • #8
  9. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    Growing up in a gardening family, I learned early that there is “clean” kitchen garbage and then there is the rest. Never mind the recycling question with boxes and metal cans, “clean” meant no meat, fat, or oils. These would putrefy and attract rodents and other scavengers to the compost heap. 

    I’ve had to convince the others in our house that yes, we should compost meat garbage. There’s too much good protein and phosphorus there to let it go to waste. That’s why I’ve had to develop rodent- and varmint-proof techniques. The others (wife and son) are starting to come around and have been much more cooperative lately. 

    • #9