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A New Year, A New Compost Pile

  • Annie Spiegelman
  • Last spring my compost pile was a total bust. The decaying vegetable and plant matter was either too dry and clumpy or too damp and lumpy. The residing worms, fungi and other microbial tenants collectively and bitterly revolted, calling their agents and complaining about the atrocious working conditions. They wanted out and they snitched on me.

    Being a diva and an experienced Master Gardener, I knew this "situation" was unacceptable. I was paranoid that the president of our local Master Gardener chapter, if she found out, would rip my MG trowel-shaped name tag from my organic cotton T-shirt and accuse me of impersonating a real gardener.


    To preserve my dignity while advancing my own legacy, I signed up for the San Francisco Botanical Garden's dirt class, taught by Zen gardening master and author Wendy Johnson. I was determined, and convinced Johnson's scientific and sage advice would assure me the perfect, mother-of-all compost piles by the end of 2008.


    The soil class was taught at Green Gulch Farm and Buddhist Zen Center in Mill Valley. "At Green Gulch, we don't proselytize about Zen, but we certainly do preach the gospel of hot compost," Johnson says.

    At the farm, there are a number of large, steamy compost piles spread around the property. The compost mantra is simple yet precise: "Farm girls must sing: F is for food, G is for greens, M is for manure and S is for straw." Remember that and you've taken your first steps toward garden nirvana.


    Mix and match,
    turn and moisten, and you shall succeed, our teacher promised. Aim for layers of equal parts green and brown material.
    After three hours of working in the garden and taking notes on bat turds, worm poop, horse manure and friendly fungi and bacteria, Johnson reminded us of the importance of taking time to sit quietly in our gardens and do absolutely nothing. Nada. She was staring right at me when she said this. She must have sensed I'm from New York City.
    I'll show her, I thought. I know how to relax. So, on my way out of the class, I sat on a garden bench and soaked in the sun while meditating on the gratitude and connection I felt for compost queens the world over. My heart goes out to you if your inner dialogue sounds anything like mine:

    "This place is weird. Oh, look, crabapple trees. How fancy! Wait, I'm supposed to be observing my breath. And just why is it my best friends sometimes get on my nerves? Is it them or me? Them. Yikes, here comes a real, live monk right towards me. Are these voices in my head bothering him? OK, breathe and stop thinking. Focus, focus. Why do they shave their head, anyway? Non-judgment, compassion - I beckon you, now! Hurry up! Wouldn't it be hilarious to have a Starbucks here? There's definitely a conspiracy of silence spying on me right this minute. When does Oprah sleep?"


    And with that, I picked up my belongings and hit the road running.

    I went home and immediately started two new compost piles, one in a Smith & Hawken plastic bin and one in the open air. I went to the neighbor down the road, the one with the horses. She hugged me enthusiastically when I asked if I could take a load of her horse manure. I think she felt sorry for me.


    I went to my local Peet's coffee shop and asked them to bag up their coffee grounds for me. They wore the face of pity as well.
    I watered and turned the piles religiously. By September I had created the most fabulous homemade compost. I had tears in my eyes when I saw the dark crumbly soil-like material at the bottom of the pile.
    I quickly became the stage mother of one big, glitzy family and took this show on the road: "Fungi, Bacteria and Earthworms: The Musical." I traveled around giving out buckets loaded with decaying leftovers, wrapped in Christmas ribbons, as holiday gifts. The relatives were a bit surprised, although grateful, yet they, too, wore that face of pity.

    That's OK, I reminded them. We're all in this together. Recycling. Reusing. Re-gifting. It was the season of sharing, after all.


    Feel free to toss in the fruitcake, if you still have it. Add manure, straw and water. Stab with pitchfork.