Queen of the urban compost heap

Mihal Eliav knows just what to do with those kitchen scraps.

compost queen 88 298 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Rousso)
compost queen 88 298
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Rousso)
Lots of people look at cucumber peels, celery trimmings and melon rind and see garbage. But to passionate composters like Beersheba's Mihal Eliav, kitchen scraps and vegetable trimmings are more like gold than garbage. To Eliav, composting - collecting organic substances and allowing them to decompose, creating a rich organic soil amendment - is as easy and natural as breathing. "Compost happens," she says. "Instead of taking organic waste out to the big garbage dumpster, you put it in the compost pile instead. It's that easy." It's also as old as the Garden of Eden. "A tree is the perfect composter," she says. "Deciduous trees drop their leaves, which fall to the forest floor, pile up and compost themselves. Then they feed the tree again." Israel is prime territory for composting. "Most of Israel's soil isn't great," she says. "Very little of it has the high organic content that's best for growing things. We also have another problem - a lack of space and money for costly landfills. Why not use organic wastes to build up the soil, fertilize it, make it more productive, instead of hauling it to landfills? Compost is virtually free - and we need it so desperately." Composting offers lots of benefits. "I started my first compost pile back in the 1980s, in Pardes Hanna," Eliav says. "My landlady was an elderly woman who lived right next door and hardly ever went out of the house. After I got started, I realized I needed more kitchen scraps than I could generate alone, so I asked her if she'd save her vegetable trimmings for me. She agreed, and every day she'd put her scraps in a little lidded pail outside her door. I'd pick it up, dump it in the pile, rinse out the pail, and put it back by her door. It worked perfectly for a long time. When I was going to move I had to tell her I wouldn't be taking the scraps anymore. She was so disappointed. "But my garbage pail under the sink has never been so clean!" she said. Eliav's own fascination with composting began as a child in her native Chicago. "Our family used to go to Michigan to visit old family friends," she says. "These friends were maybe the last of the Bundists, a garin [settler group] who'd started an agricultural collective decades before. They were farmers, and I remember our trips to see them as wonderfully fun. They had an enormous garden, and I was crazy to be allowed to help. At the end of every day, we'd take all the day's scraps out to be composted. We'd carry this small box, walk out to a little ravine and just throw it in. Today's scraps rained down on yesterday's. That was it! For a city kid, it seemed like magic - imagine being able to make this rich, wonderful soil just by dumping garbage!" Today, Eliav lives in Beersheba's Bet neighborhood, in a small home completely surrounded by an enormous garden. Lush green plants, many in bloom, cover virtually every surface. Traditional garden vegetables grow in raised beds, while flowers sprout everywhere - roses, morning glories, tall hollyhocks and even succulents, show off huge blooms. Most unusual are several hundred tiny desert plants, seedlings and sprouts that Eliav is nurturing. In a one-woman city beautification scheme, she'll later plant them along public walkways. Everything is fed from her back-yard compost piles. Composting takes very little effort, she says. "I've always liked the no-work method, like they did in Michigan. You can make composting complicated or expensive, if you choose. You can build or buy bins, spend hours working with it, turning it. Or you can do it with no work and no equipment. That's what I do. I just pile it on the ground." First she creates a base. "I start with a 40-50 centimeter layer of branches on the ground, to provide air from underneath. I just start laying it on - whatever I have. I don't stick to a hard and fast formula - I'm an urban composter. I use what I have." The piles can be built as big as you like, she says. "I keep building the pile until it's maybe a meter tall. As time passes, it sinks and compacts so I keep adding things. When I think it's tall enough, I top it off with dried sticks or branches. Sometimes I put an old blanket or sack over it to keep the natural heat in, to help it compost faster. And then I just leave it alone, let compost happen. How long does it take? If you work it, turn it over, give it air, it will happen faster. With work and the right materials and conditions you could get compost in 12 days. But for me, I'm not in a hurry. In the summer, it's ready in a couple of months, in the winter, maybe five months, which is fine. I want it to be a very natural process, however long it takes." Composting also builds community. "Composting brings people together," she says. "I'm single and don't have a lot of scraps, so I went to my neighbors. I asked them to put kitchen scraps in bags, and just drop it off. Right now I have several families contributing. Some see it as a holy mission, some do it just as a favor if nothing else, it keeps their garbage pail clean, right?" What does it take to start a compost pile? "A little space, a minimum of four square meters or so. It can be anywhere under trees or bushes, in the shade. Lots of apartment buildings have communal land, so people living in apartments can compost as easily as in single family homes. The piles should be out of the way, but they don't need to look messy. If you build them right, they don't smell or attract animals." A human catalyst is also necessary. "You need one person to watch what goes in. The pile shouldn't have just kitchen scraps. It needs a rough balance of several different things." What can be composted? "Kitchen scraps of all kinds except meat - things like vegetable trimmings, leftovers, rice, bread, anything. If you have a bird, put a newspaper on the bottom of the bird cage and then to clean it, just roll up the newspaper and put the whole thing in the compost. Some paper or brown cardboard is needed too - newsprint is good, not the stiff, high gloss catalogue kind. Egg shells, egg cartons. Toilet paper centers. Pizza boxes. Vacuum cleaner bags. Floor sweepings. Animal fur and hair has a lot of nitrogen, that's great. Ash from wood burning - like the ash from Lag Ba'omer bonfires. Sawdust, if you have it. One of my favorite things to add is old flower bouquets - use them in compost and they offer beauty twice." What can't be composted? "No metal or plastic. No cat or dog poo." What proportions? "Ideally, you'd have a third dry waste like dry leaves or paper, a third fresh green garden waste like weeds and grass clippings, and a third kitchen scraps. It doesn't have to be exact. Just rough proportions. You pile it on, layer by layer, and keep it damp - not wet, just moist like a squeezed out sponge." In addition to all the other reasons to compost, Eliav says there's a spiritual element, too. "In Israel, we have a special reason to compost. Here, we have a special relationship with the earth - a unique connection to this land, this soil. We've been given this part of the earth to be our very own, and have a responsibility to care for it, make it fertile and bloom." Encouraging composting is one of Eliav's missions in life. She teaches, advises, speaks to groups and works with communities who want to begin communal compost projects. "Composting is a perfect summer project for kids - you can learn a lot of biology and chemistry, and it's fun. In the summer, you get results quickly. Everyone talks about loving the earth. It's something else to do something about it. Composting is the easiest way to show your love for the earth." Mihal Eliav welcomes the opportunity to talk about composting: mihale@actcom.net.il