Humbled by Humus

Misadventures in Composting

It is difficult to imagine what an adventure in composting would look like, but when it comes to misadventures in composting, I speak from copious experience. On farms and fields, I have appreciated the windrows of good compost steaming in the cool mornings like well-worked horses. I have admired the fistfuls of rich, dark humus tumbling from the compost bins on Saturday morning garden TV shows. I have envied the tidy, gleaming countertop compost containers in my garden supply catalogs, but my own composting efforts are my secret shame.

Our bin for kitchen scraps is kept out of sight under the sink, its outside streaked in brown runnels, and its inside lined in creeping mats of mold with a fetid puddle at the bottom. I know balance is critical to good composting; brown, dry, carbon-rich ingredients must predominate the wet, green nitrogen-rich scraps 2-to-1. For a little while, I kept torn up newspaper under the sink ready to toss in with the food waste in just the right ratio. But while I do the gardening, my husband does the cooking, and my 7-year-old takes the scraps out to the pile, so I abdicated responsibility for the compost bin under the sink.

The pile itself is still my job. Over the years I have tried many iterations of the compost heap: a pit in the ground, a wire-sided pen, a big green plastic barrel that rotated on a metal spit. Our current pile is behind the shed, next to strata of brown Christmas trees and a moldering canoe. Beside these, a wicker chair left out to weather has finally, this spring, staggered onto its knees. Thorn bushes are always encroaching, and there are piles of rebar and plastic conduit and rusted metal. It’s the backstage, the untidy prop room of the garden.

© coulanges – Fotolia

The compost bin itself is wood-framed with wire walls on three sides so air can get into the pile so, ostensibly, it won’t ferment. But the open front means creatures can also get in. We have raccoons and skunks, and squirrels, and rats. This morning, when I walked back there, I found vegetable matter strewn all over as on most mornings. Streamers of zucchini skin fluttered in the breeze; a rubbery carrot was half pulled into a small burrow under a pallet; a massive woody turnip had rolled under the canoe. A cardboard container that once held strawberries was hanging from a corner of the bin like a lampshade askew. This setup is not ideal, drawing all these animals to a small open landfill in my yard, though the woods create their own balance; one day I watched a fisher standing in the trees just past the pile raise its grizzled head and stare back at me. No doubt he feasts upon those who feast at our pile.

The progress of our compost is slow. Without the right carbon-nitrogen balance, and because I neglect the pile and fail to turn it often enough, the material ferments and doesn’t heat up enough to kill any weed seeds in the mix. Using my finished compost means submitting to dandelions, and curly dock, and volunteer tomato plants wherever I spread it. Still, I get an inordinate satisfaction from this wheelbarrow and a half of fertilizer I make per year, and from the waste kept out of the trash. But above any other reward, the greatest gift the compost pile gives is the humbling that comes from knowing I routinely fail in even this most basic of aims: to just let vegetables rot right.

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