I dug to the bottom of the compost heap today just to see what was lurking. The great thing about digging in them is getting an up close view of transience; a compost pile is a sort of microcosm of matter's entropic nature. Everything is in a state of decay. Nothing looks the same from week to week. I've watched whole pumpkins melt down and crumble in there. I have heard of everything from an old pair of jeans to roadkill deer virtually disappearing in a pile. It's a bit mysterious, especially when you can't even see the microbes that are responsible. Composting seems a bit magic. And, of course, there's the legendary steam that rises off the top of a good pile in the winter. It's amazing how hot the center of a well made compost pile can get; temps up to 140 degrees. Busy little microbes. And the heat is just their energy as they eat. The heat is such that, if properly made, it will sterilize diseased plant materials and even kill weed seeds.
Rosa's Secret Recipe
The secret of a good pile is the ratio of ingredients; about 3:1 carbon to nitrogen, with plenty of oxygen and just enough water to keep it moist. The nitrogenous material is usually the easiest to find, this is the kitchen scraps, the grass clippings, young weeds and soft green prunings. It's the 'brown' stuff, the carbon, that is often tougher to track down. Dead leaves, hay, newspaper shreddings (our fave) are all options. Most regular composters have a slight dumpster diver mentality, always on the lookout for a neighbor raking leaves or a coffee shop giving away coffee grounds. (Thank you, Coffee Cat!)
There is a horse stable nearby that actually sells buckets of it's manure. Horse manure, by the by, has fairly high nitrogen levels, but should only be used when well-rotted. Fresh manure is notoriously high in salts, so it needs to rot down before it is good for the garden. I remember making piles up at UCSC's Farm & Garden, when I was there for my Apprenticeship. We all lined up on Compost Row, pitchfork in hand and started in. I think the pile we built was all manure and alfalfa hay. That night, taking off my clothes, I spilled manure all over our bedroom floor from my upturned cuffs. B is such a good sport.........
Michael Stipe wants YOU.....to compost!
I used to think that making compost was just throwing some garbage in a hole and covering it with a tarp. I got a lot of stink, but no compost. I still remember my first attempt, in high school, after reading an article in Sassy magazine written, surprisingly enough, by Michael Stipe. There were photos of him looking very pious and crunchy in his green khaki shorts and black Docs, shoveling hay and kitchen scraps into a compost bin. (I think this was the Green era.) At the time I would have cheerfully sawn off my leg for Michael (I was a devout "Di-Stipe-le") so I tromped out into our back garden and started digging. It wasn't as easy as Michael made it seem. The kitchen scraps I used smelled like...well, garbage, there were flies, and besides, I was getting all dirty. Anyway, about all I achieved was finding green khaki shorts like his (I think I pinched them from my brother), and affecting the same pious expression. Which is all that I really wanted, anyway.
"The best place to look for God is in the garden, you can dig for Him there."
-George Bernard Shaw
Today when I turned my compost into my garden soil I uncovered pieces of egg shells, twigs, rubber gasket, pumpkin seeds and apricot pits. They lie there, now, in the moonlight, mingling with the sow bugs and seedlings. I picture them, continuing their decay, sinking deeper, nestled between the roots of the artichoke, the rosa rugosa and salvia elegans. I am amazed again by the complexity of the topsoil, a mere 18 inches of the earth's crust, yet somehow sustaining all the world's food supply. I remember God's edict to Adam "for dust you are, and to dust you will return." I dig my hands into the crumbly black grains, my fingers stretching out like roots. I am a seed sprouting, an earthworm burrowing, I have come home.