Compost Happens

Every week now, I either begin or end the weekend by moving the compost pile behind my house from one place to another. I start by laying some sticks and bamboo shoots in a square about 3 feet by 3 feet –– that’s the minimum area you need to get a compost pile to “cook.” Then I lay down a bed of oak leaves provided by a neighbor who has a lawn care service. Onto that I scatter coffee grounds, carrot scrapings, onion ends and other assorted bits of fruits and vegetables. (Dead flowers and hair from the shedding dog are also fair game.) If my neighbor has brought me grass clippings, I load those onto this layer, as well. 

Now comes the aerobic part: moving the old pile onto the new one. I use a pitchfork, turning every forkful over as I lift it from the old pile onto the new one. The pile was originally built in equal layers –– a brown layer (the oak leaves, though you can also use newspapers) followed by a green layer (“green” includes coffee) and so on. My forkfuls give off steam and a surprising amount of heat, and that’s satisfying. By the time I reach the bottom layer, the eggshells and celery stalks deposited the previous week have disappeared into some undifferentiated mass of organic matter, and that’s satisfying, too.

I was not always so into dirt. I flirted with composting when I lived in Vermont and
even made pilgrimages to Gardener’s Supply to bring home sacks of compost, but it was decidedly a casual relationship. Now I’m married. I’m rooted to a house that’s rooted about 6 feet below sea level –– sea level being the level that the sea was at when it reached my front door –– and I need a solid foundation. Turning trash into dirt seems like a hopeful analogy for, well, lots of things. I don’t quite do it religiously, but I do it with fervent determination.

My property was swamp bottom long before 2005. A spade breaking dirt here sometimes turns up crumbly dark soil giddy with healthy earthworms. More often than not, though, it bites into greasy clay or a pile of submerged rubble. I’ve pulled bricks, old pavement and what looks like coal slag from potential beds. Forget what’s on the surface: The last person to seriously garden this lot left when Carter was in the White House, and his once-proud legacy has come down to rampant crabgrass and a single specimen plant, the Rangoon creeper lee of the front porch. Between buying the place in 2005 and moving here in 2006, our own amendments to the soil came in the form of roofing nails and sheetrock dust. By the time our own dust had started to settle, the soil was in need of help.

So I bought soil, first by the sackful, then by the dump-truckload. The trucked-in dirt was river sand mixed with bagasse and hay-covered horse pucky. The ultra-fine ash-colored soil was great filler, but it lacked texture and life. It lay where I put it like dark cement. Something more was needed.

I had begun dashing around as soon as I got those first sacks of dirt, buying worm poop and fish fertilizer to lend my new soils a little nutrition. It was a scattered approach at best. Then a lecture by Anne Baker at the Spring Garden Show at the New Orleans Botanical Garden spurred me into a more coherent plan of action. Baker laid out composting in no-nonsense, what’s-the-big-deal terms. She gave me the idea of turning the pile once a week to keep the new stuff cooking. Best of all, she gave me the promise of something that would add soul to my soil. Well-rotted compost adds beneficial bacteria and fungi that help plants access nitrogen. It adds texture and invites beneficial microbes to hang out around the roots of plants. It also has plenty of surface area to grab moisture without turning soggy.

A compost pile affords a concrete way to turn ruin into hope. I like that. After two months, I’m letting my initial pile cook for the last time. I’ll turn it twice or three times more to make sure all the good stuff is caught in the process and watch it to make sure it doesn’t dry out in the heat. The pile’s internal temperature should drop to around 104 degrees for the last phase of breaking down the most stubborn leaves and stalks. By mid-July, I’ll have a thigh-high pile of good dirt and a second pile well under way.

Rebuilding, they say, is a process. I’m rebuilding my garden one pile at a time. 

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