While living in Seattle, Shantee Brown developed a habit. She couldn’t stop composting. Every week, the city’s municipal waste system collected her food scraps and took them to be turned into soil. “When I moved back home to Hawaiʻi,” I was still saving everything for the compost…but no one was coming to pick it up,” says Shantee, laughing. The experience got her thinking about how she could help build a home composting culture in Kona. This month, Shantee joins the Donkey Mill Art Center as one of the featured artists for the exhibit: Compost Culture: The Art of Regenerative Transformation, which opens November 5th, 2022. I sat down with her to get the dirt on her story, plus some tips on how you can start making your own “black gold”.

Home Soil

Shantee first became vaguely aware of composting by watching her mom as a kid growing up in Waikōloa. They had an open bin in the backyard where her mom would dump kitchen scraps, rabbit droppings, and yard waste. They didn’t call it composting, or anything really. Years later, Shantee remembers telling her mom, “you know, you were my first example of composting…you inspired me.” Her mom laughed and said, “wow, really? I had no idea what I was doing!” That is the essence of Shantee’s philosophy when it comes to composting. We are all just practicing, trying to get back to living in greater harmony with the land as humans. We don’t have to be perfect, but by making a beginning, we can inspire others.

Earth Lasagna

Shantee’s second experience with composting was in her early twenties. It was 2012, and she was working at a fancy farm-to-table restaurant at one of the resorts up north. The experience made her curious to learn more about growing her own food. She talked to the chef and asked him if he knew any farmers who might be willing to mentor her. The chef introduced her by email to Craig Elevitch, who introduced her to Margaret Krimm, a master gardener in Honaunau who passed away in 2016. 

Shantee began working with Krimm in her garden once a week. One day, Krimm showed her old pictures of the garden from the ‘90s. It was all lava rock! Over fifteen years, Krimm, who was originally from Bavaria, had built up a rich bed of soil herself through composting. Her rock garden had been transformed into a lush oasis of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. “I thought I was learning about gardening,” says Shantee, “but, in that short period of time, I was really learning about composting.” Krimm’s composting techniques were extremely refined. She combined many different ingredients using a layering method, kind of like making a giant earth lasagna, which, after cooking, produces an incredibly fertile soil amendment – black gold.  

Green + Brown = Gold

While Krimm’s methods were advanced, they were based on the simple foundation of composting, which is: green + brown. 

Green means wet, nitrogen rich ingredients like banana peels, coffee grounds, mango skins, vegetable peels, and fresh cut grass. 

Brown means dry, carbon rich ingredients like dried leaves, dried cut grass, shredded paper, and shredded cardboard (don’t forget to remove the packing tape!) 

The EPA has a helpful list of what to and what not to compost here.

“A common misconception about compost is that it stinks,” says Shantee. However, if you have a balanced mix of green and brown ingredients, your compost won’t stink. The stink happens when you have too much green, nitrogen rich ingredients and not enough brown, carbon rich ingredients. 

Ultimately, Shantee says, the holy grail of composting is to create an environment that microorganisms want to flock to and party in. These are the critters who do all the work of breaking down your waste into that black gold. You can tell that you’ve got lots of critters partying it up and breaking it down when your compost pile starts to heat up. Some piles, if they get big enough, will give off steam. Yeah baby!

Get Your Hands Dirty

“Composting is for everybody,” says Shantee, “because all humans create waste.” Here in Kona, where we are rich in rock and poor in topsoil, composting is a no-brainer. Plus, Hawaiʻi’s warm, humid climate makes the perfect environment for composting magic to happen. 

Her tip for people who want to get started composting at home is to keep it simple. First, think about what you have. What “green” waste are you currently throwing away each week? What “brown” waste do you have a supply of, or could you get your hands on from a neighbor or friend? 

Second, don’t go it alone. Shantee recommends composting with other people, kind of like a strange potluck. Maybe you bring the coffee grounds and banana peels, while your nextdoor neighbor has a plentiful supply of dried leaves from their yard, or an Amazon Prime habit which translates into tons of cardboard. Together, you have the beginnings of a pretty good compost pile. Composting builds community.

Also, “people are a lot like squirrels,” says Shantee, “we love to save stuff.” She recalls how she told her sister that she was starting a compost pile and needed eggshells, then promptly forgot about the conversation. A few weeks later, her sister presented her with a giant box of eggshells she’d been saving. If you tell your friends and family about your new composting practice, who knows, maybe they’ll save some stuff for you too! (Just make sure to tell them what you’re looking for, so you don’t end up with something crazy.)

Compost Therapy

Shantee first began using the term “compost therapy” back in 2015. At the time, she was living in Seattle and volunteering at a community garden called the Beacon Food Forest. Shantee and other volunteers would have work parties, talking story about their lives and ripping and breaking up waste for the compost pile. “It was therapeutic and also restorative,” says Shantee, “breaking things down so you can build something new.” They started calling their work parties “compost therapy” as an inside joke.

Shantee went on to earn a Master Composter Certificate from Seattle Tilth Alliance. They gave her a t-shirt at the end of the course that says “Master Composter”, but she doesn’t wear the shirt. “For me composting is all about learning and practicing,” Shantee says, “so how could I be a master?” Instead, she prefers the title “compost practitioner”. 

For now, Compost Therapy is not an official business or organization. Shantee prefers to keep things grassroots, connecting one on one with people in the community. In 2021, with the help of many community partners, she led a composting pilot program in collaboration with the organization Laʻiʻōpua 2020 and residents living in the Hawaiian Home Lands Village of Laʻi ʻŌpua in Kealakehe. 

Looking forward, Shantee says “I hope to inspire others to dream up their own compost systems. The aim of compost therapy is to lead by example, learn and problem solve together, provide a space for growing community, and healing through meaningful action. My goal is to create a community based closed-loop system for soil building and landfill reduction by capturing household waste and processing it into compost.”

Talk Compost with Shantee

Shantee will be part of a panel discussion at the Donkey Mill Art Center with other island composters, Let’s Break It Down! Talk Story + Potluck: Sunday, November 13 from 9:30am – 11:30am. Come join the conversation and check out her work in the current exhibition, Compost Culture: The Art of Regenerative Transformation, which will be on view at the Mill through December 17th. You can find her online @compost_therapy

About the Author: Emily Gleason is a writer, editor, and ceramic studio apprentice at the Donkey Mill Art Center. She has been based in Kona, Hawaiʻi since 2013. Learn more at: mthewriter.com.