A few weeks ago, my husband and I decided it was time to turn the gigantic compost pile that amassed under the Yew tree. Our family has been composting since forever. A few years back, we decided to stop taking the compost to other sites and to keep the compost in our own yard. I always had good intentions to use the compost to fertilize our garden. Each year, time slipped away. It seemed easier just to get mushroom compost, because of our close proximity to Kennett Square, PA, the mushroom capital.
My husband had built a quite large compost bin out of recycled wood pallets. Although, I asked him to divide it into three sections, so that sorting the compost would be easier. He decided one big compost bin would suffice (side eye). It held up fine for many years. This year, when the sides started to collapse, became the impetus to finally turn, separate, and sift the compost. Everyone has their own technique for doing this. We argued whose way was better. In the end, we settled on a fusion of his and my techniques, lol. We purchased a roll of fine, wire mesh from the local big box hardware store. We layered the mesh over the wheel barrel and sifted the compost through it. He liked to hold the wire mesh and shake the compost through the fine holes. I liked to run my hands through the compost and press the compost through the holes. His way was much faster, mine more efficient. With shovels in hand, we had a rhythm going between us and the lovely compost.
I absolutely love the smell of fresh soil! As us Master Gardeners say, “Dirt is what is between your fingernails, soil is what makes your garden grow”. Fresh soil is so primal. I think this must be my Earth element speaking. It is no wonder when you smell fresh topsoil, why writers describe it as the fragrant earth. The cooling, grounding attributes of nutrient rich soil is so appealing to a society much in need.
Ok, you may be wondering, why is she going on and on about compost? Well, I see compost as a metaphor for what is going on in the world right now. Compost is good for what ails us. We are taking old ways and putting them in the ground to be decomposed. It takes a lot of energy for the Earth to do this. It is done through the circular interplay of decomposers and substrate.
As my husband and I separated larger pieces of organic matter to get to the decomposed organic matter, wonderful finds were made. Lost silverware miraculously was rediscovered. Old pieces of the children’s toys turned up and made us reminisce of days gone by too soon. No one owned up to tossing those pieces of nostalgia into the compost bin. Do you have fairies or sprites in your compost bin too? Big, fat, long, well fed earthworms were busy doing their work. There was so much activity going on under that seemingly inanimate pile of compost. In the midst of the compost pile was a sweet potato plant growing. We had done little to facilitate the actions, besides the occasional tossing of brown leaves. Nature just took her course, by offering showers of wet rain and snow, and the ever-warming sun.
As we worked our way through the compost, I kept stopping to pluck out those little annoying stickers that are put on produce in the grocery stores. How many times had I told the hubby and the children to remove them? A pet peeve of mine. I wanted neat and tidy compost. Just like some people want neat and tidy reform in this country. Well, we all know it doesn’t happen like that.
I have some friends, who refuse to put orange peels in their compost for fear of making it too acidic. If you are growing blueberries or hydrangeas you need the pH of the soil to be more acidic. Don’t be so judgmental of what people choose to compost!
I think how we are gauging the PH balance, parts of humanity, really has to do with what one sees as useful. When amending the soil to grow a vegetable garden, one needs to know what types of veggies need what type of soil. Organic and Biodynamic gardening principles such as crop rotation, amending the soil, companion planting, succession planting and pollinators all become important. Weeding, deadheading, singing and talking with your plants, planting and harvesting with the moon cycles are all practices that we can integrate within societal paradigms. Friends let’s tread softly on the Earth. Let’s make our carbon footprint one that will sustain the next seven generations.
As I write this blog post for Nettlejuice, I am reminded of a class I took with April. In this class she taught about Le Terrain vs. Germ Theory in the science of immunology. It so closely relates to composting vs. the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. We as gardeners know that a soil-based pathogen can wipe out our crops. So true also is that the stronger we make the terrain of the soil, the more resilient our crops become. The correlation is that the stronger we make the moral fiber of our society, the few pests will be outnumbered. It’s like contributing to a critical mass.
The most important aspect of composting to me is that we don’t discard or trash what we no longer see as useful. The apple with the flesh still intact is seen as nutritious. Whereas, just the core is seen fit for the garbage. When in fact, there are still parts of the core that is still have value, such as the seeds and the pectin in the core. We do to our elderly population the same thing. We discard them when deemed no longer useful. They are still integral parts of a society. They hold the memory for future generations.
My favorite, most profound composting example is that of the forest floor. Have you ever dug your hand down under the canopy of a pine tree? The layers of dark, rich earth that lay beneath is spectacular! The aroma, the tactile experience, the sight of unseen life, the stories of mycorrhiza. Nature in her infinite wisdom composts so beautifully, so organically!
We must stop with these foolish notions that humans are superior. We have to challenge our belief systems. Do they align with the good of all the planet? We need to amend our soil, build our terrain and nurture goodwill. Like the companion plants, we ought to be good neighbors. Prejudice has no place in our gardens; learn the usefulness of a weed. Here’s to compost!
Tiffany Robbins is a clinical herbalist in Pennsylvania and teaches at Wisdom of the Plants Seminary, and is a Penn State Master Gardener and Tree Tender. She has taught classes at the New England Women's Herbal Conference, the Mid-Atlantic Women's Herbal Conference, the Allies for Plants and People Conference and other venues. Tiffany is an alumnus of David Winston's Center for Herbal Studies and has studied with many other teachers as well, including Rosemary Gladstar Rocio Alarcón, and Pam Montgomery.
Tiffany is a dear plant sister to me and I am honored to thankful to share this journey with her.