catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 10 :: 2007.05.18 — 2007.06.01


Black gold

Two buckets, a trowel, and my make-shift sifter from an old plant tray. I fill the small bucket five times from the pile of ancient eggshells and chunks of stuff, surrounded by the blackest of rich, crumbly compost. I empty each small bucket into the five-gallon one, then haul everything to the vegetable bed. Rake back the winter blanket of straw and loosen the soil.

My brother sent us a subscription to Organic Gardening in 1995, when he discovered I could “use” the kitchen garden of the historic home where Scott and I lived—I explained that my garden was merely thirty square feet, damaged by inorganic road salt and lead paint chips and neighbors’ cats, but I read the magazine enthusiastically. Inspired, I grew a curtain of green beans along the historic fence. I grew enough beans and peas to offer samples to admirers walking the downtown streets. I hid the tomatoes, the more precious commodity, behind the curtain of vines, though this did not stop determined passersby from picking them through my fence. I grew mint and parsley and lettuce and carrots, and it was probably all mighty contaminated stuff, but fresh and delicious, and beautiful. I often set up a tiny charcoal grill on the brick walkway, to munch burgers on the lawn with Scott and our single neighbor, Chris, and we would top the burgers with tomato slices and a leaf of lettuce or two, still warm from the sun. 

Organic Gardening magazine has a monthly column on composting—how do you talk about compost that much? Another favorite environmental magazine named composting the single best contribution an average person can offer to the planet. We tossed the idea around, at the historic home, but historic forms of composting promised to invite historic vermin to the neighborhood, so we looked forward to the time when we would own our own place.

When we purchased our condo in 1997, we were given a non-historic, ugly black compost unit, enclosed to stave off city creatures. We put it in the corner of the backyard. We threw our coffee grounds and vegetable scraps in and put on the lid. They looked disgusting. They rotted. The thing drew bugs and slugs and worms in excess. It took a little figuring to keep the mix dry enough— we have few leaves and very little yard waste, so “dry” is still the challenge. But regardless of slimy or smelly or buggy, it WORKS, and boy howdy, do we have compost! We produce a minimum of fifty gallons of compost per year, for a family of four.

When I shovel three trowels of rough compost into my sifter, I see that maybe thirty percent is eggshells. I tell myself I should crush them smaller before putting them into the canister every day, then I remind myself how unrealistic it is to add one more messy step to the morning breakfast routine. I shift the sifter from side to side, and lovely-smelling stuff layers into the garden. Tiny bits of eggshell are quite identifiable—they provide the soil with much-needed calcium, I hear. I scan the sifter for earthworms and gently place them in the garden after their shaking, poor things. Then I empty the big clumps into the small bucket, to return to the composter for another season. I see the stems of pumpkins and squash, stubborn old corncobs, avocado skins. There are also seeds and sprouts—last year Madeleine found a sprout of a peach tree growing from a pit, and if we had been more diligent about watering, it might be growing now! Coffee filters, still in process. I sort out the rocks and trash, break up the large chunks, and place three more trowels into the sifter. It takes less time to sift than it does to write about. My son takes his turns to sift, also, maybe fifteen minutes of vigorous, curious help, while my daughter talks sweetly to the earthworms about their work.

I should probably break here and tell you, if you haven’t figured it out already, that I am possibly the least self-disciplined person you will ever meet. I am not anal-retentive about almost anything (except knitting, perhaps, and a few tangible creative pursuits). I do not read the Bible every day, pray every day, or do anything beyond simple eating and sleeping and the most basic personal care, every day. Last year I plumb forgot to plant most of the vegetables until it was too late in the season. But I remembered the compost-filled window boxes, planted with mixes of lettuce and peas and pansies. Dozens of beautiful salads came out of there, and pints of strawberries from the tiny triangle-shaped patch by the walkway. Berries take care of themselves, as do herbs, so I do all right. I weed because my children will play in the backyard longer if I am there noodling with things.

As a haphazard gardener, I have only one religious commitment: I compost. It is deeply religious, you see: useless waste turned to goodness, tough broccoli stems, first softened by time and then turned to gold. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dead and alive goes the cycle of time. Great goodness from things broken, discarded, rotten. If it never grows anything but weeds, it is scrap that avoided the landfill. But it does grow.

Three five-gallon buckets of last fall’s compost are sifted. I open the bottom hatch of the Darth Vader-looking ugly black plastic thing, remove a layer of eggshells crowding the opening, and use a child’s blue garden shovel to scrape out another fifteen gallons of damp black compost. There is much more left inside the composter, caked around the edges—I’ve carved out a compost cavern but I can dig no further. There is already enough compost in my hair, and I’m not sticking my head in there! (There’s commitment, and then there’s commitment, you know?) I open the top lid again, where the contents seem ready to overflow, and I plunge the blue shovel into the center. This pile does not realize there is a big cave underneath it, yet. Three or four good blows later, the whole pile collapses, and I shovel around the edges to loosen and mix the whole shebang. Rotting apples, grapefruit skins, shells from hundreds of eggs, mixed like a giant cake batter. Now there is two feet of headroom in the top of the composter, ready for the next layers of coffee and onion peels and apple cores. My composting compatriot will be happy.

And I am happy. I have a memo to my brother from three years ago, in which I compared turning the compost pile to the effects of Prozac. I also have a photo from six years ago: my son in a bouncy seat on the kitchen table, and my daughter sitting on the newspaper-lined floor with a small sand-sifter and a variety of pots, and a cardboard box of to-be-sifted compost by her side.  I remember it was too cold and damp to be outside, but I was eager to start.

The weather was warm enough to play at the beach this past week, but my daughter is still recovering from the flu, and she wanted to be home. Had she been in school, I would have spent the time hiking, so this is fortuitous timing, on her part, at least for the garden’s sake. I parked her in a lawn chair in the sun, while I raked and cleaned the yard and sifted the compost. I showed her the garter snakes and bugs and snails I found. She climbed the pussy willow. Who is goofing off more, it’s hard to say. A few more inches of rich soil fill our garden, and we will plot the layout for seeds and seedlings, this weekend. Somewhere in there, I will sift the next fifteen gallons, still sitting in a mound next to the composter. I wish every chore were so satisfying.

May all your scraps come to good.

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