Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Year of Composting Dangerously - A post by Jenny Sullivan

There was a time during 42 years of teaching literature that spring meant lines of poetry would soon be spilling out of my mouth from Hopkins or Housman: “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring/ when reeds in wheels shoots long and lovely and lush” or “Loveliest of tree, the Cherry now/ Is hung with bloom along the bough."

But then I retired and took a Master Gardeners course! Talk about being a lonely little petunia in an onion patch—or more accurately-- a wild, invasive onion in a cultivated petunia patch. While my teachers talked of monocots, calyxes, endocarps, and bracts, my fellow students carried on about their compost piles. Carbon/nitrogen ratios are very important. Huh? Bulking agents, leachate, and worm castings were the topics of many a lively conversation among my supposed peers. I sat and remembered that year I grew zinnias from seed…and was ashamed.

So, predictably, I did not make it through the internship. Trust me, no one should ask me how to avoid blossom end rot on their tomatoes just because I am at a Master Gardeners’ table at a Farmer’s Market wearing an official  name tag. My best advice would be, “Look around you, fool. A dozen people are selling beautiful tomatoes today.

Buy what you need, then go home and watch Jordan Spieth and Jason Day duke it out on the back nine.”

Still, all that talk of compost got to me. The thought of making my own dirt was not only intriguing but absolutely empowering. What could be more creative? But the more I read about composting, the more confused I became.

So I watched gardening shows where men took 20 hours and $300 to build large wooden composting bins, enough bins to have one for “mature” compost and one for the new pile being formed, and one bin in the middle. What that bin in the middle was for was never clear to me. Other TV guys suggested a far corner of the property (I have a yard, not a “property.”) where bins would not be needed, only real compost piles,  and where any raccoons attracted to the piles would not find themselves at the edge of the patio terrifying guests and their children.
Scary? Moi?

One rotating bin in a catalogue looked great. It was like a giant bingo barrel with a handle to crank it. But that bin would have necessitated a second mortgage and would have been the dominant design element in the back yard.

Then one day, I saw a little, unassuming garbage can with holes all over it sitting out back at the Variety Store: a Behrens RS 20 gallon steel rubbish burner/composter sitting up on little triangular legs (good for the leachate) and priced at only $30. I could do this. My pulse quickened. I fantasized where I would place it, on the cement slab where the air-conditioning unit sits. I scooped that baby up and carried it inside the store, using it as my shopping basket, tossing in the socks, the jigsaw puzzle, the wrapping paper, and the embroidery floss I had come for and proudly presenting it and its contents to the cashier. “I don’t need a bag,” I told her. She applied my senior discount, and I walked out of there swelling with the thrill of anticipation. 

We had lots of scratch cooking from that June day forward. All summer long I made vegetable soup so that I could have potato skins and carrots peels. I was happy when the green parts of scallions were not good enough for the salad.

I ripped open used Keurig cups to get those grounds. Everything destined for my compost bin I collected in a little yellow plastic tub and happily carried out to the Behrens RS 20, dumping everything on top of the leaves that the guys neglected to collect from under the shrubs when they were supposed to be blowing them all down to the curb the previous fall. But no matter, I crawled under the bushes and dragged that “brown material,” as they call it at Master Gardeners, out from under its shelter to add it to the “green material” from my kitchen. I needed that carbon/nitrogen ratio, don’t you know.

My Behrens was not on a platform constructed for rotation, so moving the green and brown around in order to introduce a little air into the mix (which all the articles, websites, and TV shows say you must do) was going to be a problem-- or so I thought. Then I remembered the “garden weasel” that I had bought 10 years earlier and that stood abandoned in a dusty corner of the garage. Although it had proved useless for cultivating the clay in my yard, it was perfect for weaseling my compost pile. The cement pad that the RS 20 sat on was even near the outdoor faucet, so adding water, a must to speed decomposition, was a breeze. The universe seemed to be lining up for me to have a great batch of compost, magnificent handmade dirt for spring 2017.

Over the winter, it hurt me not to be able to add new organic matter from the kitchen since it would not decompose in time to be dirt in the spring. Now I appreciated the value of having more than one bin. Every time I threw away a pear that had gone mushy or potatoes that had shriveled away in the dark of the cupboard or onion skins, banana peels, bruised apple slices, garlic papers, I kissed them goodbye. Were I a smarter gardener, they would be on their way to becoming precious compost rather than putrefying in plastic bags at Mt. Trashmore.

Finally the time came. Winter broke. The spring day was warm, the plants were emerging, and everything in the compost bin was black and beautiful, rich and luscious, full of vigor, ready to get the season going. I weaseled everything one more time, fluffed it, gave it oxygen.

The gesture served no practical purpose at this point but was a token of my sentimental affection: we had spent so much time together. I tipped the mix into my wheelbarrow and headed off to my rose bed.  I had almost enough compost to dress all eight rose bushes, almost. That’s pretty good, right? Then I went to Home Depot to buy three more bags of compost for $21 and finished the job.

Jenny N. Sullivan is a gardener, author and garden club member in Northern Virginia. Her first novel, From My Father's House., was published in 2015. Sullivan grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, enjoyed a long teaching career in the Virginia Community College System in the Tidewater area and in Northern Virginia.



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