October 7, 2008

i believe in compost

The February morning that my water broke, signaling the two-week early arrival of my daughter, Lauren, I wasn’t resting on the couch as the delivery room nurse had suggested, or taking a moment to practice my breathing technique for the labor ahead. Rather, I was restless in my backyard tending to my original baby: my compost pile.

Really.

Sure you could call it a hormonal pregnant woman’s wild nesting instinct at work, but composting is a habit for me and on this day– the day I was to give birth– was no different.

I believe in compost, that organic wonder that makes a garden’s ecosystem sing by boosting the soil’s fertility, enriching it with needed nutrients, and helping it to retain the moisture for growing roots.

Sure, composting allows me and other green-minded gardening types to dispose of household biodegradable waste in an environmentally conscious way. But for me, my pile always has been so much more. Composting lets me create something out of seeming nothingness; something organic, sweet-smelling, and of the earth. It makes me feel productive. And in a way, it has always satisfied my need to nurture long before Lauren arrived.

My husband, Jim, naturally thought me crazy when I told him where he could find me awaiting my ride to the hospital. He laughed even harder when I threatened to deliver our daughter out at the compost bin if he didn’t hustle.

Now, fast forward three years, Lauren is my constant companion and my composting prodigy so to speak. Together we head out to the compost bin hand-in-hand for the weekly turning, a long handled shovel resting over my shoulder. My compost pile is housed simply in a black, bottomless, lidded plastic bin that keeps neighborhood critters out while allowing essential heat to build thereby speeding the decomposition process along. As always, when I open the bin’s lid, I am awed at the handiwork of the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of worms, bugs, nematodes, and microbes who have replaced last week’s scraps with the dark earth that will soon dress my garden. I am just the lowly servant that feeds, turns, and aerates the pile while trying to keep in happy balance the ratio of nitrogen to carbon.

“Yucky,” my princess-obsessed, tutu-wearing toddler proclaims but then lurches forward on tiptoes so that her head clears the bin’s highest tier for a better look. I dig in, incorporating my eggshells, coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, and yard leaves. When Lauren believes she spots Slimey, Oscar the Grouch’s earthworm companion, nose-diving deeper into the rich blackness, she gleefully giggles. It’s then that I know that the compost bug has bitten her too.

The pile lets me know instantly when things aren’t right. Too many green, nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps and an unmistakable sour smell emanates; too many brown carbon-rich leaves and pine needles and the pile composts glacially. Thankfully, the pile is forgiving, and with a little tweaking and an occasional squirt of water from the garden hose, the pile chugs along once more.

Now Lauren makes demands as she shoves into my hand the remnants of an afternoon snack — be it banana peel, apple core, or plastic mozzarella cheese stick wrapper. “Mom, compost this!” she says and I can’t help but smile. Lauren knows that it’s Mom’s compost that helped produce the sweetest cherry tomatoes that she plucked all summer long like candy. She gets that composting is a good thing. And she, like me, wants to do her part.

As I stand here with Lauren, does she realize that she was this close to being delivered at the compost pile? No matter. The compost pile is where I can pass along my love of gardening and my desire to replenish a better earth for my daughter with her at my side. It also serves as a valuable backyard lesson on the cycle of life and how living things eventually turn back to their essential properties. As I see everyday with my daughter, magic can happen with just a little caring and attention and it is the same in my backyard garden. One compost pile does and will make a difference.