compost 4Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

~ Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Removing the leaves and mess on top, I reached the gooey black layer. A millipede raced away from the light and red worms squirmed to bury themselves again. The compost was ripe and ready to be harvested.

I’m a lazy gardener (although I prefer ‘efficient’ rather than lazy). We’ve built raised garden beds to make it easier to plant and weed, and I set up an automatic watering system to avoid having to go water them. I don’t mess much with flowers there – it’s just for edibles. Tomatoes, chard, carrots peas, beans, lettuce, cukes, beets, squash, etc. I gave up on pumpkins after the squirrels figured out they could eat a hole in them and take the seeds. (I did consider harvesting squirrels, but realized that squirrels had already won the fight over the bird feeder, and that’s a battle I didn’t want to repeat.)

Over the forty years I’ve lived here, I’ve composted kitchen and yard waste. I’ve moved the vegetable garden’s location a couple of times and seen first-hand how the soil has improved where I applied the compost.

I built a cage using old wire fencing about four feet square. Metal posts left over from an earlier fence made the corners. Our large number of trees supply plenty of leaves for the pile in the Fall and I usually collect and add the mown grass during the Summer. We (and our next-door neighbors) collect kitchen wastes (not meat or dairy) and add it every few days, making sure to bury or cover it up to keep out most of the critters. Nonetheless, on occasion I find dead fruit, stale bread and other unrecognizable chunks scattered under the trees elsewhere in the yard, dropped by feasting squirrels.

On hikes in the mountains or foothills, and walks around town, I observe lots of natural composting. The duff under the pine trees is a layer of soft needles, gradually decomposing into dust, then merging with the soil. The Aspen trees create a yearly layer of leaves that rot and add nutrients into the fibrous soil that feeds the plants and other organisms.

I am envious of the trees’ easy access to mycelium, the subsurface fungi that create networks facilitating plant growth and decay of the detritus. And forest soils are rife with micro-organisms and small creatures that digest dead materials and convert them into plant-useable nutrients.

In the past I relied on natural precipitation to provide water for the pile, but more recently adjusted the sprinklers to spray the pile regularly. I don’t do the recommended turning of the pile weekly, in fact don’t turn it much at all. I let it sit for a couple of years, then when the pile is quite full, I dig out the rotted soil. Unrotten materials from a previous year become the base for the coming year, so the pile is never less than about a third full — which keeps the family of mice that live in there somewhat safe from the neighborhood cats.

The six inches of material on the top and sides of the pile are usually un-decomposed (composed?) dead leaves and grass, mixed in with whatever else remains. I pull that off to one side to reveal the rich, black core of the pile. It’s a moist, usually warm and gooey granular material, that I shovel onto the wheelbarrow and distribute across the garden beds. Any remaining materials go to flower beds.

I find the whole composting process almost spiritual, if not plain magical. You take all this waste, stuff that you have no use for, and dump it in a pile. You add water and time (stirring it occasionally if you want) and somehow you end up with very rich, very beneficial soil. Certainly the process mimics natural process of life, death, decay and resurrection, but in my garden I have a role in that process.

Everyone accumulates scraps and detritus in our daily lives. We either shed these or keep them inside, where they ferment and hopefully decay over time. They merge with the other scraps of our life, a place where your good and bad experiences meld together to create a fertile bed for life lessons and feed who you are becoming every day.

In my compost, I find avocado seeds and bits of things that don’t decompose readily. These either go back into the pile for more time to process or get tossed away. Our minds do the same thing — we occasionally find matters that have resisted decomposition, and either break them up into more manageable pieces, put them back to cook some more or choose to flush them out. The idea is to get the most benefit from them and not let them distract you from improving your mix.

Whether in your garden or spirit, composting creates a ripe, beneficial fertilizer that can enrich our own lives and the lives of those around us. Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates.” To me, life is like a pile of compost.

Sometimes, rotten is good.

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