Friday, April 16, 2010

The Joy of Composting

Late on the night of the Great Vigil of Easter, my husband and I pulled into our garage, and Gary popped the trunk open. We had driven up together to Grand Island that evening; since I had wanted to be at the church well ahead of the beginning of the service, he had dropped me off and gone off to spend some time somewhere – he said he might go to Starbucks -- until it was time for the Vigil. Evidently that had all been a ruse, because in the trunk were two things for which I had been shopping this spring: a kit to make a raised garden bed, and another kit to make a composting bin.

The two gifts went together. Our house sits on two half lots, side by side; we have no back yard to speak of, and a small side yard is all the space we have for gardening. A couple of summers ago when our contractor finished using stacks of materials that he had used while working on our hail-damaged house, we suddenly had a couple of large rectangular areas where the grass had died – instant beds for vegetables! Last summer, we expanded one of the areas. The soil in these beds needs a lot of work; meanwhile, we have a trash bin full of yard waste hauled away from our house most weeks during the growing season. I began thinking that if I could figure out where we could put a compost pile, we could reduce our waste and have what we needed to improve the soil. When we started looking at making another bed with a raised bed kit – eliminating the problem of the lawn encroaching on the garden – we realized that a good compost bin or pile would give us something to mix with soil to help fill up the raised space. After seeing a couple of bins that seemed small and unobtrusive enough to sit in the back corner of our lot, a compost bin began looking very practical.

Last weekend I put together the kit for the bin and put in the initial layers per its instructions: a layer of dry leaves and twigs to provide carbon, and a layer of moist soil to provide micro-organisms to help get things started. (My bin is a Soilsaver; the instruction booklet is called “A Sense of Humus: Your Guide to Composting with the Classic Composter”.) After this, we are supposed to add alternating layers of browns (such as dried leaves and twigs) for carbon and greens (grass clippings, weeds that have not yet gone to seed, tea leaves and coffee grounds) for nitrogen. Things should start “cooking” when we get enough mass in the bin. I’m happily anticipating our first mowing of the lawn this weekend, when I can let some grass clippings dry for a day or so and then add them to the bin in alternate layers with the dried leaves from last fall that are in corners and under shrubs. Meanwhile, I’ve been adding a combination of dried leaves, a few early weeds, spent flowers from Easter lilies, and vegetable peels, tea leaves, and coffee grounds from the kitchen.

What’s been surprising is how much fun this is! The practical value has really been overshadowed for me by the sheer joy of composting. It’s stirred up pleasant childhood memories of playing outdoors using whatever was at hand – making mudpies, crunching dried leaves underfoot or crumbling them over soil, playing with flowers (weeds and garden flowers were equally fascinating and fun to use in various ways), and breaking up small sticks just to hear them snap and see what was inside.

There’s something very elemental about paying attention to the “waste” from the garden and the kitchen and using it to nourish new plants, some of which will produce food for us this summer. There’s a bit of Easter in seeing things that we would usually discard become the source of new life. Composting is a literally down-to-earth project, something that helps us connect to the Earth and to the basic functions and patterns of living things. The reminder of this connection several times a day as I set aside scraps and garden clippings for the compost pile ends up being a sort of prayer woven through the day, a sense of connectedness to God’s creation, a reminder of our role in caring for creation. Through these things, it’s a reminder of humility in its true sense: who we are and whose we are.

Hastings College has started its Earth Week activities (leading up to Earth Day next Thursday). At a roundtable discussion last night led by SEAC (the Student Environmental Action Coalition), there was some discussion of the possibility of composting on the campus, working with the food service to reduce the amount of waste hauled off to the landfill. It made my heart glad to be reminded that practices like composting that most people my age did not know about when we were younger are practices that will be a normal part of life for younger generations. There’s hope in this that adds to the joy of composting!