Thursday, February 21, 2019

Composting Options: How to Build a "Wishing (the Earth) Well"

This post provides instructions for building a kind of home composter I designed. Called a "Wishing (the Earth) Well," it has a number of nice features, including being reasonably attractive while keeping animals from digging through your food scraps. Follow a few basics, and composting food scraps will be easy, odorless, and satisfying. Most any container on the kitchen counter will do, but we use a stainless steel bucket with lid. Every few days, there's a trip to the composter in the yard. Nature does the rest. 

With the suspension of the curbside collection of organics (food scraps and whatever other compostables would fit in the small rollcarts), about 800 Princeton residents who had discovered the satisfaction of keeping food scraps out of the trash are now wondering what to do.

One option for those with a yard is to compost at home. There are lots of composters out there. Those that you can rotate in order to mix the contents seem like a good idea, but I don't know anyone who has gotten them to work well. I've found that the ones that have direct connection to the ground are the most likely to succeed. Moisture, fungi, earthworms, and other decomposers all migrate upward to work their wonders on the composting material.

If you want to keep wild animals out of the compost (some areas of Princeton have rats), here's a design that keeps the food scraps contained in durable metal screening (hardware cloth), while using leaves to keep the foodscraps insulated from temperature extremes and hidden from view. It's called a Wishing (the Earth) Well because it looks like a wishing well but works in reverse, giving nutrients back to the earth rather than pulling water out. No turning or periodic remixing of contents is necessary.

When it's empty, it looks like this, with a circle 3 feet in diameter of green fencing, and a central cylinder of hardware cloth that holds the food scraps.

When packed with leaves around the outside, it looks like this. The leaves insulate and obscure the inner cylinder of foodscraps.

More often, it looks like this, as the composting leaves and food settle.

To get started, you'll need a roll of wire fencing, 3 feet high. See bottom of post for material details and purchase options.

Measure out 10 feet of the 3 foot high fencing. I use a long board to keep the roll of fencing stretched flat. Cut the stubs flush at each end so you don't have wire tips sticking out. Make a circle of the 10 foot length of fencing, overlap the ends a square or two, and use plastic zip ties to tie the ends together. Four should be sufficient. The corral portion is done.

Now for the inner cylinder where the food scraps go. You can see in the background some chicken wire, which is cheaper but not very strong, and not fine enough mesh to keep rodents out. In the foreground is a cylinder cut from a roll of hardware cloth three feet high and 3.5 feet long. I recommend cutting the ends flush so you don't have a bunch of the little metal stubs sticking out.

Make the shape of the cylinder and have the ends overlap an inch or two, then secure with zip ties (5 or so)

The cylinder should work out to be about a foot in diameter. If you have a particular top in mind, make the cylinder small enough in diameter that the lid will fit well and stay on top. Anything flat or bowl-shaped and sufficiently heavy to deter animals will be sufficient. I've used a piece of leftover bluestone, or an old metal bowl with a hole drilled in the bottom so it doesn't collect water, and weighted down with a brick.

For the bottom of the cylinder, cut a square of hardware cloth slightly larger than the circle and bend the corners down. Use a few plastic zip ties to keep it on. It will be pressing against the ground, so just a few zip ties should be sufficient.

The wire components should look like this when done, with whatever critter-proof top you want to use. (Note: In the photo, the top is an old aluminum bowl I happened to have around. It's slightly larger than the hardware cloth cylinder, so stays on top. I drilled a hole in the bottom of the bowl so water doesn't accumulate, and put a brick in it to discourage raccoons from lifting it off. Another top consists of a square piece of hardware cloth large enough to completely cover the top of the food scrap cylinder, upon which is placed a flat stone, e.g. a paver or small bluestone.)

All that's needed beyond this are 4-foot long stakes--one for the inner cylinder to keep it upright, and a minimum of two for the outer ring.

A hubcap can be put on top, looking surprisingly classy, like a symbol of the sun. It can serve as the top if you don't have animals trying to get in, or can perch atop any other, heavier top you use.

Wire fencing, plastic coated or galvanized, runs $30-40 for 50 feet.

Here are some possibilities:

The 3 foot high hardware cloth is also available in rolls.

The best prices for fencing and hardware cloth require buying more than you need. It's best, though, to have more than one Wishing (the Earth) Well, to provide more capacity in case the food scraps fill up the inner cylinder in the winter when not much composting and settling is going on. You can also prepare one for harvesting by letting its contents rot down into compost while adding the latest organics to the other composter.

Each fall, before accepting a new crop of autumn leaves, the Wishing (the earth) Well yields a wheel barrow full of rich compost, to be spread on the vegetable garden.

Though the leaf portion of the corral was topped off many times with additional leaves, all has decomposed down to what looks like 6 inches of leaves at the bottom. This outer crust of leaves disguises the rich compost underneath that is ready for use. The left tub shows the leaf mold; the right is decomposed kitchen scraps. The fall harvest of compost is ready to spread on the garden beds.

Here you can see that the rodents were not able to get into the foodscraps. Annual emptying is necessary so that tree roots don't have time to invade.

Reassemble and fill with this year's leaves that in turn will be effortlessly composted by next fall. The leaves nicely disguise the inner cylinder of food scraps.

 It's so convenient to have leaf corrals discretely integrated into the landscaping here and there, so that leaves don't have to be hauled or blown long distances. In a house, we have discrete containers for trash in nearly every room. Why not have similar convenience in the yard?

Here's a closeup of the compost, soft and spongy, dark and rich. Ah, the rewards of all that non-labor and non-burning of fossil fuels.

One novel way to insure that all the leaves in the leaf corral are moist enough to decompose is to use one of those root feeder rods to poke holes in the pile so the rain can seep in. Better yet, connect a hose to the root feeder and use it to inject some water into the pile.

Leaf corrals can be easily hidden in a backyard corner, but if integrated into the front yard landscaping, they show neighbors and the community that leaves should be treated as a gift to our yards, and not something to be hauled away.

Some tips for using the Wishing (the Earth) Well:
  • One thing to keep in mind is that animals such as raccoons may climb up the fencing to try to get to the inner column of food scraps. Though they don't succeed, they bend the wire fencing. More stakes would help, but stiff, springy wire woven around the top of the fencing is working well thus far. (Note: the wire I'm using is some leftover electric deer fencing wire a friend gave me.) Our composter in the front yard doesn't have this problem.
  • As mentioned above, make sure the leaves are moist enough to decompose.
  • Tree roots will invade from the bottom if the leaf corral is never emptied, which is fine, but if you want to use the compost elsewhere, remove the fencing some day in the fall, rake away the layer of leaves and shovel out the rich inner core of compost created over the summer. Put the fencing back in place and the corral is ready for a new fall harvest of leaves.
  • The outer ring of leaves will keep reducing in size. This is good--it shows that the leaves are decomposing--but it also means the inner column of foodwaste will become exposed if one doesn't keep adding leaves or garden clippings to the outer ring. 

A white plastic pumpkin found on the curb during a dogwalk served as substitute for the hubcap.

A larger corral, six feet wide and called the OK Leaf Corral, yielded five big tubs of compost ready for incorporation into the garden beds.

The melon plant sprouted from the central cylinder of food scraps, which gets surrounded and hidden by leaves later in the fall, and was able to produce a small melon during those days when summer spends its last heat.

Work with nature, and nature will do most of the work. That's my wish, that more people would discover what a great partner nature can be.

On of the signs on the leaf corral says "Add a leaf and make a wish." I treasure the times I've happened to glance out the window and seen someone stop, read the sign, pick up a nearby leaf and drop it in, then walk off with a new sense of satisfaction. Maybe their wish was personal, or global, or maybe they just simply wished the earth well. We have taken so much from the earth. This leaf corral is a quiet way of saying it can feel really good to start giving back, in small and very large and steady ways.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Trees in Winter at Herrontown Woods

At our Friends of Herrontown Woods website,, I've posted an account of "A Winter Walk in Herrontown Woods," with photos and descriptions of native persimmon, hazelnut, spicebush, musclewood, witch-hazel, beech, and the remarkable linear frozen sculpture that the stream became through the extended stretch of cold weather.

The walk follows the red trail up to the Veblen Cottage, then swings down the green/white and yellow trails back to the parking lot off Snowden.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Monarch Population: Up in the East, Down in the West

Monarchs seemed more common this past summer, but it's been a long wait for a status report on their numbers where they overwinter in the mountains of Mexico. This past week, Monarch Watch finally posted some data, confirming our impressions here in New Jersey. The population is two and a half times larger than a year ago. That's the good news in Mexico, as the time for them to begin migrating northward in March approaches.

West of the Rockies, however, the population with its traditional roosts in Pacific Grove and elsewhere is in jeopardy.

This monarch's perching on a swamp milkweed plant. You can tell the plant species by its leaves, which are softer and more narrow than the common and purple milkweeds. Though the monarch larvae require monarch foliage for food, the adults feed on a wide range of flowers, including the buttonbush in the first photo.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Free Performance of Climate Theater and Song

Update:  A full-length video of the show, which got a standing ovation, is now online. Get a bowl of popcorn, settle in and check it out.

Come on Friday, Jan. 18, to a free performance of Climate Cabaret's original theatrical sketches and climate-adapted songs at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. Gather at 7:00 for light refreshments. Show starts at 7:30pm.

Thanks to our generous Unitarian hosts for allowing us to use their Sophia Fahs Theater, a wonderful little theater which, among other things, long ago served as the birthplace of McCarter Theater's children's theater programming, under the leadership of John Lithgow's father. This will be Climate Cabaret's first performance in a space designed for theater.

The UUCP's Fahs Theater is located at 50 Cherry Hill Road in Princeton, just up from 206.

Joining me on stage are veteran actors Cheryl Anne Jones, Basha Parmet, and Fred Dennehy.

Placing climate change in a theatrical setting can lead to unexpected insights about nature and human nature. Gain fresh perspectives on Carbon (a seductive renaissance atom, but beware--not all carbons are the same!). Witness a man's tragicomic breakup with his car. Explore Earth Logic in Space. Shakespeare's Titania comes by to warn about a "distemperature" in which "we see the seasons alter," and King George VI finds the courage to read The King's Climate Speech. The Tense Family argues about whether the future is imperative or conditional. A couple in a car speeding towards a cliff debate whether it's enough just to slow down. Written and directed by Steve Hiltner, these theatrical sketches combine with climate-adapted songs that speak to a deep love for a world whose wonders are perilously taken for granted.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Patterns in a Pond

Within us are two competing urges with significant environmental and economic consequences. One urge is to purge, the other is to gather and retain. The purge reflex exports leaves and runoff from a property as expeditiously as possible. In so doing, it exports "problems", requiring the municipality to deal with the leaves, and downstream neighbors and communities to deal with increased flooding. The urge to gather and retain views leaves and runoff instead as gifts--a resource to be kept around, slowed down, and worked with. There's benefit in this perspective for plants and soil of course, but also for the municipality and those downstream.

There are aesthetic advantages to the "gather and retain" approach that sometimes become apparent, offering visual pleasure even through this winter's long spells of gray. Below are photos taken of patterns in the ice of two miniponds, dug years ago in backyard clay. Quite apart from any environmental benefits, to make room for water in one's landscape is to become a patron of the greatest artist of them all.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Yerkes Observatory: A Giant Eye in Need of a New Vision

One of the most distinctive and hallowed buildings in the world closed down this past fall. The original vision behind Yerkes Observatory, to understand the universe, carried it through one full century and well into the next.

Now, this extraordinary building perched high above Lake Geneva in Wisconsin is in need of a new vision and funding that will open the doors once again to its fabulous interior and history. We live in a time when great things that have long been taken for granted reveal themselves to be vulnerable, and Yerkes is yet another entity of extraordinary value and seeming permanence whose future is now in question.

I've taken an interest because  this "birthplace of astrophysics" is my birthplace as well. Not that I was born in the observatory--there was fortunately a hospital in the next town over--but while most kids grow up along streets lined with houses, I grew up with a world famous observatory standing just beyond our front yard. Though located in Wisconsin, it was built by the University of Chicago. Through most of 20th century, the university's astronomy faculty was located there, including Nobel Prize winner Chandreseckhar. Among the better known astronomers trained there is Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named. Carl Sagan was doing his graduate work there when I was preparing to launch into kindergarten. My father was director for awhile and designed a telescope in one of the domes. Most importantly for a kid, he had a set of keys that sometimes I could borrow, to explore the observatory's elaborate interior. Vast indoor spaces have populated my dreams ever since.

This fall I visited just before the observatory closed on October 1.

Yerkes' contribution to the goal of understanding the universe came from or through the eyes it pointed towards the heavens.The big dome still houses the largest refracting telescope in the world, with a lens 40" across. It was the largest telescope of any kind when it was built in 1897. What was impressive for a kid was the train-like wheels that carry the weight of the massive dome as it rotates, the elaborate system of cables that drive dome and floor, and the way my voice and footsteps would echo in that immense, resonant space.

The big dome still houses the world's largest elevator, a circular floor that rises or falls to meet the angle of the telescope. The founder and first director of the observatory was George E. Hale, and his father made a small fortune after developing and selling hydraulic elevators for use in the rebuilding of Chicago after the massive fire in 1871. Coincidence? I don't think so.

The two smaller domes were accessed by narrow spiral staircases. One small dome housed a 40" reflecting telescope,

and the other still has a special telescope my father, W.A. Hiltner, designed and used to study the polarization of light in space. Since the best skies for observing--"photometric", my father would call them--came on the coldest nights, and the domes could not be heated, my father would dress up in insulated underwear and spend the long cold nights collecting data.

A couple times, I ventured to help him, but didn't make it much past 10pm. I remember the mysterious dials, with labels like "declination", "universal time", or "sidereal time." There were red lights to provide just enough illumination for us to navigate, and a needle making squiggles on a scroll of paper, upon which he would write notes to signify which squiggle was which. This was the patient collecting of data--the often boring work that may or may not lead to fascinating insight.

Yerkes is a generous building, its facade packed with ornament and curious figures drawn from mythology.

Gargoyles perch on its sides, apparently having mistaken the edifice for a cathedral.

I call the building generous because it provides a rich visual experience without demanding that anyone take notice. It tells its stories only to those who have time to pause and explore and speculate on the meaning behind the many symbols and colorful characters molded into the walls and pillars of the entryway.

How many astronomers, preoccupied with their theories of the universe, scrutinizing the heavens by night, noticed that they, too, were being watched as they came and went. The observatory has many eyes carved into its facade, checking out the human mortals as they climb the steps seeking knowledge that will last beyond their lifetimes.

That particular steady gaze bears a resemblance to Yerkes himself, whose controversial wealth funded the building. He now sits as a bust in the rotunda, next to one of the building's many clocks.

While the Yerkes historian Richard Dreiser described the building during one of the last tours, I checked out the carvings that likely fed my imagination as a kid, even though I don't remember paying them any mind.

Some of the characters look surprised to find us there in the rotunda,

but the owls look like they've seen it all. Akin to astronomers with their powerful night vision, they show up in varied forms.

This owl serves as centerpiece for a collection of symbols, some of whose meanings have changed significantly since 1897. At the upper left is what for us is a highly disturbing symbol. It looks like a swastika, but is not. A little research shows that the swastika was an ancient symbol of good luck, before the Nazis appropriated it for much different purposes in the 1930s. The symbol at Yerkes, with lines pointed counter clockwise, is a "sauvastica", having nothing to do with the political aberrations of the 20th century. The Star of David design, too, likely had different meaning back in 1897, when it was just beginning to be formally associated with Zionism.

These owls look to be lovebirds.

There's some irony in the fact that a building with so many eyes was directed for many years by an astronomer who lost his sight at the age of 55. Undaunted, he continued as director for another ten years. Some of the story of Edwin Brant Frost, particularly how his love of nature influenced his leadership of the observatory and his reaction to blindness, is told in another post.

Down the marble-lined hallway is what I call "the stairway to the heavens," which astronomers would climb as they headed to the big dome for a night of observing.

The attic seems to belong more to a ship than an observatory,

with its small round windows. There were cots there for astronomers to sleep undisturbed through the day, and in the 1960s, a computer was installed, filling a whole room. I spent some time in there, converting my father's data into punch cards to run through the computer.

The attic also holds some sort of instrument to study the sun, seldom used, apparently.

The observatory made it into a movie or two. For twenty seconds, starting at 1:26 in this trailer for the movie Chain Reaction,  you can see an actor running up from my house towards the observatory, along with some chase scenes in the hallways and on this roof.

The reality was a bit less dramatic. Our community of astronomers and staff, clustered in a pastoral setting on the outskirts of little Williams Bay, would gather on the observatory grounds, sometimes to play volleyball or baseball, sometimes for picnics, which in this photo appear to be pretty sedate affairs. Maybe they were, with ice tea and sandwiches, those aluminum folding chairs and a croquet game set up nearby. The Chain Reaction movie would be much more realistic if it had had the actors running through one of our picnics, upsetting tables, tripping over croquet hoops.

More breathtaking than the picnics was the view from the catwalk of the big dome. Here's a picture of my father with George Van Biesbroeck, gazing out across the lawns and forest, some 75 acres of which remain a part of the observatory and will hopefully be preserved. Lake Geneva, a popular vacation destination for Chicagoans, is in the distance.

That was back when the observatory's value to the world was beyond question. Fast forward to the present, when a few valiant, dedicated individuals are working to give Yerkes a new mission for a new century. The University is in negotiation with the Yerkes Future Foundation, a nonprofit organized to create a vision, raise funds, and find present meaning in this remarkable piece of astronomical history.

And then there's Katya Gozman, a U of Chicago student who gave me a tour and who loves Yerkes at least as much as I do, and Kate Meredith of GLAS Education (Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM), who leads the education and outreach that, since the building's closing, has relocated offsite.

Their passion and dedication to the observatory's future gives hope that funding will ultimately come forth to match the love.