Cooking the Compost, Fueling the Soil

I created my first compost pile in upstate New York in the 1970s when I started serious gardening – but the impulse to conserve and recycle has been with me much longer. After World War II, my mother and sister and I were poor; we scraped by, always having food on the table but knowing we had to make do with scrambled eggs and spaghetti several times a week for dinner. We recycled everything from bread wrappers to bacon fat, and the only paper product my mother ever bought was toilet paper. We never threw anything away without first considering what use it might still have. In the days when most containers were still made of paper, anything plastic was a treasure. It could be washed and reused. Imagine, then, my excitement when I first read about composting.

Perhaps it was Ruth Stout who introduced me to the idea. In the 1960s, an era of environmental reawakening, she discovered an enthusiastic constituency among young people who were eager to do-it-themselves and become reacquainted with the natural world. She persuaded people to compost their kitchen leftovers and yard waste instead of sending them to the landfill. Two of her books, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back (Exposition Press, 1955) and Gardening Without Work (The Devin-Adair Company, 1961), assert that compost on the vegetable garden cuts down on pests as well as produces large, healthy plants. Her books are now out of print but often can be found in second-hand bookstores and thrift shops. She is fun to read if you like folksy prose that offers wide-ranging advice on matters vegetable.

I started with one pile of compost tucked behind the garage in Syracuse and soon added a second, leaving the first to “cook.” Kitchen scraps, minus the meat, went in with leaves and yard waste, and periodically I tossed in some lime or fertilizer to hasten the process and enrich the pile. As each compost pile became rich, black soil, it was used as fertilizer on the garden. This process usually took about a year. If I had turned the pile over, allowing more air and moisture to penetrate into the center, it would have decomposed faster. However, since I was either going to school or teaching,
as well as caring for young children, the compost had to fend for itself.

At this time – when gardening became a permanent part of my life – I planted a red oak tree in our backyard to replace a scraggly old pine. The infant oak was barely a foot tall when a squirrel ate the leader. The next spring, it put out a new leader and from then on, there was no holding it back. In about ten years, it was producing enough acorns to satisfy all the neighborhood squirrels and enough leaves to fill one compost bin and many plastic bags. I discovered if I bagged the leaves and left them for a year, they would decompose enough inside the bags to be spread over my flowerbeds in the fall. There they would finish decomposing and nourish the soil for the next growing season. This use of black plastic bags allowed me to make quite a lot of soil in very little space.

After forty years in Syracuse, we moved full time to Martha’s Vineyard five years ago. We had owned our house in West Tisbury for ten years – using it largely as a summer rental. Because our soil was relatively poor, I had been composting to create a supply of good humus I could put around my few shrubs. Since our house was rented part of the year, I had tucked the two piles of compost into the woods where they would not offend any city renters unsympathetic to slowly decomposing vegetable matter.

Our first job after moving into our newly renovated house in West Tisbury was to create some beds and a lawn. This required a lot of digging, rock hauling, and enriching of the soil. A good friend and neighbor advised, helped dig, and arranged for loads of manure and seaweed to be delivered. We hired landscape workers to do the heavy work and to top the soil with my few years’ worth of compost. Now the soil is beginning to look dark and rich instead of yellow, and the older shrubs, as well as the few I moved from Syracuse, have become large and floriferous.

The three peonies I raised from seed had not bloomed since being moved to their new home in West Tisbury until the summer of 2005, when two of them produced pale pink and light red blossoms with single petals. They are both early bloomers, so I kept hoping the one with the pale green, deeply lobed leaves was a late bloomer. But it remained stubbornly non-compliant. Nevertheless, being a good mother and not playing favorites, last fall I moved all three to their new home: a carefully prepared bed on the east side of the house where they will get morning sun. They were joined by a tree peony and two new herbaceous ones. If they like their new bed, generously enriched with well-rotted compost, I know they will repay me with gorgeous blooms.

Our last addition to our yard was a vegetable garden, complete with its surrounding deer fence. Now, I thought, we would see if Ruth Stout’s faith in compost works. We had a rocky first two years due to some poor topsoil, but last summer things took a turn for the better with satisfying harvests of lettuce, peas, asparagus, beans, and garlic. The part of Ruth’s system I cannot bring myself to adopt is her “straight from kitchen to vegetable bed” philosophy. She would have you tuck your vegetable and kitchen scraps right into the beds. Call me a sissy if you like, but I am willing to do a little more work to avoid having to look at last week’s leftovers spread around the tomatoes. I like my compost in its piles making rich soil available for plantings and midseason feedings. I top-dress the beds several times during the summer and spread whatever is left in late fall or early spring.

One of the reasons for the slow start in the vegetable garden was the insect assault. It is hard to know whether compost repels pests (as Ruth Stout believes); it certainly contributes to strong, healthy plants, which produce more for us – and bugs. Some gardeners report they handle the insect problem by sharing the harvest. But we humans are selfish and competitive. Sooner or later, we usually figure out a way to defeat the enemy. With insects, this means some form of pesticide, be it organic or chemical. I started using insecticidal soap and then added BT (bacillus thuringiensis), a natural control. Occasionally, I resort to Sevin (a chemical). I have simply given up on certain vegetables. Corn, for instance, is not an option for the amateur gardener on this Island. Even the professionals find it a challenge to come out ahead of the bugs and the animals.

Besides the mold and rot produced by too much rain at the wrong time last summer, my “top” predator was the tomato hornworm. This gorgeous caterpillar of the Five-Spotted Hawk Moth can defoliate a plant in front of your eyes. It seems to prefer the leaves to the fruit and often destroys the plants before the fruit has ripened. The caterpillar can be controlled by the use of BT, but if there are not enough to warrant spraying, I handpick and stomp.

My recent gift to the compost in my life was to buy three commercially produced wire bins and set them up beside the vegetable garden instead of out in the woods. These bins have lids, which discourage the ravens, crows, rabbits, and raccoons from helping themselves to my kitchen scraps. Now I have one bin of ready-to-go compost (virtual humus), number two is the current work-in-progress, and number three is full of new leaves. As bin number one is added to the garden beds (one day I may have enough for the lawn as well), bin number two is moved over and declared “finished,” bin number three is moved into the central “working” bin, and bin number three is ready for the new fall leaves.

It gives me as much satisfaction to put my annual supply of humus onto the flower, shrub, and vegetable beds as it does to create a delicious dinner from leftovers or wash out my yogurt containers to use for freezing soup or chicken stock made from a well-picked carcass. I think this conservation impulse brings out the best in us as well as our gardens. Ruth Stout is still alive in my garden, and I hope to be as worthy of her and my vegetable children as of my human family.