Spoils from the Soil

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

—Walt Whitman, from “This Compost”

Most all food comes from the soil. The very foundation of a successful garden is, almost by definition, its soil. It is the secret to healthy plants, weed control and a prolific harvest. Funny thing is: it’s no secret at all. It is all around us. As the great organic guru Eliot Coleman teaches, “compost wants to happen.”

CompostThe miraculous mix of microorganisms, organic matter, air, moisture and time that creates compost is one of life’s truly teachable moments. It is here that one can recognize the completion of a full circle of life, death and birth happening simultaneously as the microbes feed themselves and leave behind nutrients that will eventually feed plants, and by extension, us.

Compost is what’s left following the decomposition or organic matter; and here I mean “organic” in the way that you learned it back in chemistry class, that is, carbon-based life forms. Everything that lives eventually rots, some things much faster than others, and some things are better for your garden’s compost than others.

The more varied the ingredients of your compost, the better the result. The most common items composted by the home gardener (as differentiated from the farmer), are common kitchen scraps, vegetable trimmings of all sorts, coffee grounds and eggshells. It is not a good idea to compost any meat products though, unless your compost is going to be very actively managed. Meat takes longer to decompose, smells bad, and attracts all sorts of vermin – both animal and insect.

In addition, various forms of yard waste are good for compost, such as grass clippings and leaves, all mulched if possible (it speeds the process). Sticks and wood chips take a long time to decompose and should be piled separately, if at all.

To build an effective compost heap, choose a location close to your garden so that it is readily at hand. If possible it should be uphill from the garden to make hauling it in a wheelbarrow easier. Ideally it would be under a deciduous tree, which would shelter it from excessive heat in the summer and allow sunshine in the early spring.

Next, layer you ingredients, adding a thin layer of soil between each layer of alternating types. For example, a layer of grass clippings (three to six inches), then about an inch of soil, followed by three inches of straw, then more soil and a couple inches of food scrap, and so on. This layering helps mix the microorganisms (from the soil) with the compostable materials. It also allows for aeration, which is important to reduce mold growth. You can also aerate by turning regularly (a must), and by introducing perforated PVC pipe (an option).

February is a time when your compost pile is busy. Despite the cold temperatures outside if you were to go and dig into your heap this time of year, deep down you would find it quite warm, even hot. If you used PVC pipes, you might even see steam coming out of them. That’s a good sign. It means last season you did it right!

Work your fresh compost into your garden each spring, and any time you plant. Your plants will be happier, and so will you come harvest time.