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Updated: Dec 8, 2018

Green Camino curbside composting service (greencaminocompost.com)

It’s a splendid Sunday morning of newly-arrived hummingbirds and blossoming trees, and two keen, green-jacketed women are wending their way through the residential streets of Bloomington on their weekly mission: to fill their truck bed with buckets of other peoples’ garbage.

They’ve invited me to ride along with them this morning. We pull over in a leafy downtown neighborhood, and as Kathy Gutowski jogs around the corner of Mayor Hamilton’s house to pick up his food scrap bucket, Randi Cox heads to the porch of a neighboring house to drop off a starter kit: 1- gallon countertop composting bucket, 5-gallon curbside bucket, instruction sheet, and lawn sign that reads I Compost: greencaminocompost.com.

Devoted to making compost happen, Kathy and Randi, who both have fulltime jobs during the week, lug heavy buckets of garbage around on a gorgeous Sunday morning. n clean, empty bucket has been left in the full one's place.

Kathy and Randi started Green Camino curbside composting service in November 2017 as a for-profit business known as a Benefit Corporation, a brand of conscientious capitalism that is legally required to put sustainability and care of the community and environment above profit. They now have forty subscribers (see their website to join).

The buckets themselves fit in to Green Camino’s objective of reuse and sustainability; all are former food containers that Randi collects from restaurants. As each full bucket is retrieved from a subscriber’s curb, it is hoisted on a luggage scale and the weight logged in to a spreadsheet on Randi’s phone. Compiling such data is required for the transparency and accountability of a Benefit Corporation, and also allows for reports to customers on both the business’ and individuals’ progress, such as milestone amounts of waste collected. It thrills Kathy and Randi to interact with their customers and make them part of the business in this way. Education is a primary goal of their work, and my ride-along is in anticipation of International Compost Awareness Week, May 6-12.

Conversation enroute reveals that Kathy and Randi are avid cyclists, and met years ago through the Bloomington cycling community. It was after volunteering at Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard that the two became passionate about compost. After a day of heavy compost-turning at the food pantry, they would go home exhausted but fundamentally happy. Both women have worked extensively with non-profits and community sustainability organizations, and Randi is president of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District, so it seemed natural to follow the clarion call of community composting.

Many curbside composting subscribers live in apartments, where they're unable to compost effectively.

Randi drops off another starter kit for a new customer who is dissatisfied with the progress of her own backyard compost, and the two discuss the best way to eventually transfer it all to Green Camino. Another pick-up is at the home of a teacher who invited Kathy to speak about sustainable start-ups at the Project School. Halfway through the route, we stop at Randi’s house to consolidate the waste into fewer buckets. A passerby who noticed her yard sign chats with Randi about subscribing to the service.

Consolidating buckets to make room for more pick-ups.

Katie Fledderman is planting an Arbor Day tulip tree as we pull up to collect her bucket. Katie is the Benefit Corporation’s director, holding the business accountable for accurate reports; she led the preliminary industry study and set up a composting pilot program. She is also a bucket-hauler. The reason Kathy and Randi are collecting waste on a gorgeous Sunday? They both have fulltime jobs during the week. Saturday mornings are also devoted to gathering compostables from a new drop-off program at Deep Roots Garden Center. Kathy and Randi don’t usually work together on weekends, but alternate, with either Katie or IU student Maggie Gates assisting.

At Fable Farms: Ryan Conway empties buckets into a wagon, which he will take to the large-scale composting site. Free-range chickens scratch through leaf mulch in the greenhouse. Crated quail, moved periodically along the rows, add their droppings to the beds. Randi, Andrea and Kathy scrub emptied compost buckets.

After the last pick-up, Kathy points the truck toward Fable Farms just east of Bloomington, where Andrea Avena and Ryan T. Conway (who are also president and secretary of the Center for Sustainable Living) make the compost happen. Here the buckets—ranging in weight from 3 to 30 pounds each today, are emptied into a utility wagon and are then taken to the far side of the greenhouse, where they are scrubbed, sterilized and readied for next weekend. Andrea and Ryan have recently obtained their permit for large- scale composting; on this day Green Camino will contribute 409 pounds of organic waste to their operation.

Randi shreds a compostable biobag into future compost.

Kathy and Randi once fancied that an El Camino would make a groovy corporate car, but they’ve far outgrown the capacity of such a vehicle, and a winter of collecting buckets convinced them that a rugged pick-up is essential; perhaps they’ll purchase a used green one someday, they muse, even an electric model. The name Camino still fits the purpose of their Beneficial Corporation; it is Spanish for “way.” Kathy and Randi are indeed following the Green Way, and are working enthusiastically to bring all of Bloomington along with them. In the short time they’ve been picking up and dropping off buckets of what they fondly call-- not garbage, but “compostable goodness,” they’ve already diverted 3.8 tons of organic waste from the landfill.

With the recent opening of the new Deep Roots Garden Center, blooms are back at Bloomingfoods East—and so are vegetable and herb starts; berry bushes; native perennials, trees and shrubs; and seeds, tools, and garden accessories.

As I chatted with founders Ramsay Harik and Andy Marrs, busily readying the garden center for its grand opening, a solitary bee poked around the “sales-shed” porch and soon-to-be-filled plant shelves. I fancied that she sought what we two-legged Bloomingtonians had been missing ever since the cooperative grocery bowed out of the gardening business, and that we would all be grateful to have locally-sourced organic and native plants available here once again.

Getting the garden center ready, with native oak saplings waiting for their forever home.

photo: Gillian Harris

The shelves at Deep Roots are now full and green with starter plants from local growers, many of whom are familiar to anyone who frequents our Community Farmer’s Market. Vegetables, herbs and annuals are supplied by Stranger’s Hill Organics and the permaculture nursery Bread and Roses; organic blueberries, raspberries and other edibles come from Brown County’s Backyard Berry Plants; and indoor plants are provided by Linnea Good’s greenhouse.

Organic edibles: veg and herbs

photo: Gillian Harris

In addition to organic edibles, Deep Roots provides a much-needed Eastside retail source for native landscaping plants. Ramsay and Andy named their garden center for the extensive root systems of plants indigenous to the Midwest--particularly prairie plants. These roots condition the soil, filter rainwater, carry plants through times of drought, and nourish the above-ground flowers that bring us such pleasure. The two gardeners would also emphasize that native plants are vital to a functioning ecosystem: not only do they provide food for our imperiled pollinators, but also for caterpillars, who efficiently convert the leaves they eat into fat- and protein-rich food (in the form of themselves) essential for migrating birds and nestlings. As the link between plants and animals, caterpillars are key to a healthy ecosystem, and they rely almost exclusively on leaves of the native plants with which they’ve co-evolved.

Inside the garden shop: Ramsay and Andy were both influenced by entomologist

Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home:

How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.

photo: Gillian Harris

Luckily for the caterpillars, birds, and us, Deep Roots features a diverse array of native perennials--all from Bloomington’s Ecologic Native Plant Nursery. Native trees, shrubs and vines are sourced from Woody Warehouse near Indianapolis and from American Beauties of Ohio. Most of these woody plants are straight, wild-type species, well-adapted to our soils (clay!) and possessing greater genetic diversity and more natural habits than cultivars. What you won’t find here are the devastatingly invasive burning bush and Callery pears, still inexplicably sold by many nurseries.

While I talked with Ramsay and Andy in the shed, amongst just-open cartons of soil knives and stacks of tubtrugs, passers-by stopped in to seek advice from them on seeds and pruning. The two have a lot of guidance to offer: they are both Master Gardeners and Native Plant Stewards, and Andy is a Master Naturalist and Backyard Habitat Steward. He also works as a gardener and landscaper, and it was through this work that Andy became aware of the importance of native plants. His enthusiasm infected Ramsay, who proceeded to tear out all the invasives in his yard and replace them with plants that fit the local ecosystem and function well within it.

Both men now serve on the Bloomington Environmental Commission, and are working to create a habitat network plan for the city. The plan’s aim is to identify the green spaces in the city with the greatest biodiversity and to link these zones through corridors of native plantings, increasing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Realizing that creating a continuous habitat out of our patchwork landscape involves not only public spaces, but also private gardens and landscapes, Ramsay and Andy saw the community’s need for a visible and accessible native plant garden center with regular retail hours.

Beyond the retail center--the plants, the soils, the garden towers; composting and cold-frame accessories, colorful children’s’ gardening gear, lustrous ceramic pots made in Ohio; and an exclusive line of high-quality hand tools that made this reporter downright giddy--Deep Roots is also committed to social responsibility. This underlying principle is expressed in their support of the local economy and fair wages, sustainable growing practices, and the unending process of education.

Ramsay Harik, Natalie Marinova of Eco Logic Native Plant Nursery, and Andy Marrs.

Photo by an unidentified passer-by with Andy's phone.

Ramsay and Andy both attended the recent Bloomington conference “Understanding Native Pollinators and Their Needs,” sponsored by Eco Logic and northern Indiana’s Spence Restoration Nursery. Our aforementioned reconnoitering bee, one of some 400+ native bee species in the state, will benefit from their desire to learn and to share their knowledge and experience with the community; and so shall we all—Deep Roots plans to host a series of onsite presentations that bring together local experts with those keen to know more about organic gardening, landscaping with natives, and tubtrugs full of other topics related to creating a healthy, sustainable and beautiful environment, in Bloomington and beyond.

For more information go to https://www.deeprootsgc.com/.

Early autumn at Eco Logic’s native plant nursery brings with it--not pots of symmetrical domed mums, but a riot of pink-purple blazing stars, purplish-blue lobelias, yellow-orange sunflowers, and those fall classics, goldenrods and asters.

Vibrant false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides),

backed by Eco Logic’s green-built headquarters.

Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera); Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)

A few cardinal flowers and red royal catchflies—both hummingbird-pollinated—lingered on when I visited the nursery earlier this month. The milkweed blooms had faded, but everywhere I looked in the swamp milkweed and butterfly-weed was a monarch caterpillar, assiduously masticating milkweed leaves. The previous week Nursery Manager Natalie Marinova had pointed out a celadon-green chrysalis, where a caterpillar had moved over to the neighboring flat of mistflowers and set itself up to pupate. This morning Office Manager Mary Hallinan showed me another chrysalis in an adjacent flat of prairie clover. We both marveled at the dew that clung to it, reflecting in each drop the countryside of western Monroe County.

A monarch chrysalis, adorned with metallic gold,

hangs from purple prairie clover. Reflected in the morning dew is the western

Monroe County countryside surrounding Eco Logic.

Eco Logic, started in 1999 by Executive Director Spencer Goehl, is an ecological restoration company that works with a multitude of organizations and municipalities in invasive plant control, storm water management, prairie and wetland restoration, and reforestation. The relatively new retail nursery has been long in the planning, realized in judicious increments. Currently there are on-site sales on weekends in May and for a shorter period in fall, and visits by appointment. Deep Roots Garden Center at Bloomingfoods Coop Grocery on the east side of Bloomington also carries Eco Logic bedding plants. Plans for future expansion to a full-time nursery include a dedicated building at the Vernal Pike site, with gardens and additional propagation areas.

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

At the heart of the retail nursery is the building-up of a seed bank. Not content to source plants from simply anywhere, Eco Logic has sought to collect seed from local wild plant populations, with the goal of establishing a nursery of southern Indiana ecotypes.

What does this mean, and why should gardeners who wish to plant for the benefit of pollinators and other wildlife care about it?

Great Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica).

Native plants sold in conventional garden centers or used in the landscape industry are often cultivars or hybrids, bred for traits that appeal to humans, but that may not be optimal for wildlife. Selecting for unusual flower colors or double blooms, for instance, may have an effect on whether a flower is attractive to pollinators, whether pollinators can access pollen and nectar, and the quantity and quality of that pollen and nectar. Breeding for purple or variegated leaves on a normally green-leaved plant may alter the way in which it functions as a host plant for caterpillars. And cultivating woody plants for more compact growth habits make them less useful as nesting sites for birds.

Moreover, native cultivars are replicated by asexual means—they are virtual clones, sometimes of one individual plant. Eco Logic’s Assistant Director Phillip Oser emphasizes this as a major impetus for growing native plants from seeds gathered in the wild: wild plant populations that reproduce sexually, cross-pollinated by insects, have a greater genetic diversity. They are thus more resilient—and better able to cope with stresses such as drought, disease or climate change. Furthermore, plants brought in from other parts of the country—even other parts of the Midwest—can have different genetic make-ups, or genotypes, and may not perform as well as those adapted to local conditions.

Framed by the greenery of forbes and sedges, nursery worker Maggie Sullivan assembles a customer’s plant order. The propagation greenhouse is in the background.

Natalie Marinova walked me through the Eco Logic greenhouse and the propagation process: as the growing season comes to an end, Eco Logic employees collect seed from southern Indiana roadside right-of-ways and private property where landowners have given them permission. Supplementing these are surplus seeds from Indiana’s Spence Restoration Nursery.

Seeds are scarified in the nursery refrigerator, as most wild seeds require a cold period in order to break dormancy in spring. To get a jump on the spring growing season, they are then winter-sown in the greenhouse, where night temperatures are kept at 40 degrees. Seedlings are later transplanted into pots and eventually moved to the outdoor growing pads, where visitors to the nursery can wander through.

A unicorn caterpillar, mimicking both living and dead leaf tissue, eats a black cherry leaf. In all but a few cases, native caterpillars can only eat leaves of the native plants, such as this Prunus, with which they've co-evolved. In turn, caterpillars are a vital food source for migrating songbirds and nestlings.

Bees hummed in the flowers as I further explored the plants on these pads. Amongst the native trees (which are not yet propagated by the nursery itself), I discovered another butterfly chrysalis, a red-spotted purple’s. This one had been breached by tiny wasps, which hung out by a miniscule hole in the chrysalis wall. On a black cherry I found two foraging unicorn caterpillars, less renowned than the monarchs, but remarkable for their intricate dead-leaf camouflage. If their subterfuge worked, they would morph into small gray moths—not as charismatic as the monarch butterfly, but just as essential to our native landscape.


From here these locally wild-sourced native plants find their way into southern Indiana gardens and landscapes, for the benefit of pollinators, caterpillars, birds and other wildlife—and people, happily working to restore their own small part of our natural ecosystem.

For more information on ordering plants from Eco Logic, or the spring and fall plant sales, visit their website: ecologicindiana.com/nursery