Thursday, July 7, 2011

Report Card Composting

I have mentioned in the past that a lot of work goes in to the narrative-rich, error-free report cards my school sends out three times a year. I try to do my part for the trees and hold off on printing the reports until I have proofed the hell out of them on my computer screen, but plenty of teachers still print in order to do their proofreading. As we can't dump those confidential reports in the recycling, we have to shred them, and they fly all over the place in the recycling dumpster, so we have been instructed to put them in bags and then dispose of them in the regular trash dumpster. All that perfectly recyclable paper in a landfill? That just kills me.

I have done my very best to come up with creative and environmentally beneficial uses for the bags and bags of shredded paper our school produces each year. My favorite use for the paper is as bedding for the chicken coop, and the students love the poetic justice of my chickens shitting on their grades, but sadly, my chickens were slaughtered by a marauding weasel last winter. I can't use it in the rabbit tractor, because the rabbits eat the bedding. The thought of all that bleach and ink in their sensitive rabbit tummies freaks me out. I plan to raise a new batch of chicks next year, but until then, I am going to have to get creative and find other ways to keep all that shredded paper out of the school dumpster.

Today, I shredded a huge pile of old reports, confidential student evaluations, secondary school recommendations, and other sensitive papers. This summer, we are re-carpeting the middle school building, and that means the teachers have to clean up and clear out the mountains of "stuff to be filed" that piles up on our desks, floors, bookcases, and file cabinets. By the time I finished shredding, I had emptied the machine five times and had four enormous bags full of tightly packed shredded paper and managed to give myself three paper cuts. I may have also sent one paperclip through the machine, but kudos to Staples - despite the warning on the lid, it actually handled the paperclip quite nicely. I stuffed the four bulging bags into my car and headed home with my loot.

Now, in order to understand the nest part of the story, you must know that I take my gardens fairly seriously. I have tilled up most of the yard around my house, and grow a lot of what we eat, vegetable-wise. It's what I used to blog about, and was the subject of my first (unpublished) book. I have been known to use tractors to till up huge tracts of my front yard in favor of garden space, and I can talk endlessly about the virtues of rabbit versus goat versus cow manure as a garden amendement. I once asked for a dump truck full of cow manure as a birthday present, and once received a wheelbarrow full of it as a Mother's Day gift. I have promised my family that I will preserve yard space in front of the house for bocce and in the back for a soccer pitch, but any other sunny patch of yard is fair game.

That said, I found a perfect use for those bags of shredded paper. I selfishly convinced my younger son that he's grown out of the sandbox so I could re-purpose it for use as a new cold frame system. I lifted the frame off of the sand and moved it close to the house for easy access, even when there's a couple of feet of snow on the ground. I then raided the Lyme Country Store's cardboard and newspaper recycling bins and placed a thick layer of paper over the grass, weighted down with a thin layer of leftover sand. I then took those four bags of paper and dumped them into the frame, like so:

No, that yellow in the middle is not pee, it's a shredded yellow slip. At my school, we have a green (good), yellow (warning), and pink (you are in trouble, buddy) slip system, and one of the slips must have been in my pile of shredding. But it sure does look like the dog took advantage of the nice, white bedding in this shot.

As the wind was picking up, I freaked out and watered the shredded paper in order to keep it from flying all over the back yard. Crisis averted, I rolled the big compost barrel over to the box. I have been aging some rabbit manure and bedding along with the accumulated kitchen scraps from last winter. It was a little smelly, but as I was desperate to weigh that paper down, I went ahead and dumped the entire barrel on top of it. There will be at least five inches of dirt and composted cow manure on top of that, so it will have time to break down if I plant only shallow-rooting veggies in the box. Phew. Rabbit urine is stinky stuff because of all the nitrogen, so don't try this at home unless you are willing to risk burning your plants' roots.

That done, I hauled five garden carts' worth of topsoil and composted cow manure from the lower garden plot and dumped that into the 80" x 80" plot, along with a liberal dose of North Country Organics Pro-Gro 5-3-4. Once the box was marked off in quadrants, I sprinkled my favorite lettuce seeds on one quarter, arugula in another quarter, and then transplanted some ill-placed basil plants and two runty pepper plants. Yeah, yeah, root burn...I know what I said about limiting this to shallow-rooting plants. Whatever.


Before winter, I will surround the frame with bales of straw and install additional boards across the middle of the frame in order to accommodate the dimensions of of the storm windows I use over the cold frames. I grow corn salad, spinach, kale and some lettuces in the frames, and we have greens all winter long, even when it's well below zero. And in September, I must remember to let my students know that their all those comments, grades, and effort scores are serving as fodder for my family's winter greens.


  1. wow.

    just, wow.

    very impressive.

    (all i could think to do with the shreds would be to bag them up and use them for my napping station. your plan was much more productive.)

  2. I also put shredded paper into my garden but as a mulch, covered with normal brown mulch -- and I certainly had a bit less than you! However, this year we are overrun with chipmunks and they thought the new mulch just fine for making new homes and tunnels so now my carefully mulched garden bed looks like confetti with the brown mulch and white shredded paper. Oh well, it is colorful and gardens should be fun. :)

  3. God, how I long for our new life in Oregon. Having a garden like yours is one of the things I look forward to the most.

    (And how appropriate that the yellow slip looks like pee. That's what I always felt like doing when I got one as a child!)

  4. I'm exhausted just reading about all your efforts. But I love that all the work your students have done (as reflected in the report cards) is coming up roses (or arugula)

    Very timely (com)post as I just picked up Missie's report card today and The Boy's is available tomorrow after Speech Day. Summer holidays are upon us. . .

  5. My lord woman! Are you sure there's only one Jess, or do you have a few plowboys around? This is so so cool. And I must say, when I read the line, "I once asked for a dump truck full of cow manure as a birthday present, and once received a wheelbarrow full of it as a Mother's Day gift," I laughed. But not in a funny way. I laughed because OF COURSE that's what you would love to receive! Duh.

    I appreciated reading the details of this effort. While I know, somewhere under my brain, that this is some kinda work, seeing it all laid out in order made me appreciate each little bit.

  6. Ha! I'm a little bit hyperactive, Teri. I'm not good at the sitting. I've been recovering from foot surgery, so I'm not allowed to run, and me + inactivity = something you really don't want to be around. That's one of the reasons writing can be hard for me sometimes. I have to sit down to do it. I read that Dean Kanarzes writes his books while running, using a digital recorder. Now there's an idea....