Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Not-So-Magical Experience Of Composting

Bette Midler is quoted as saying, "My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God's presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap."

There comes a time in a gardener's life when she has an "Ah-HAH" moment. A light turns on and she discovers the wonders of compost. Though it is a revelation to her, composting is a great cycle that has continued since life first began: composing, decomposing, and back again. It's part of the plan that even the "Divine Miss M" may not fully know. "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust."

Compost happens, but intentional composting is a planned inducement of the natural process. The gardener collects organic material, stirs it occasionally, and lets native organisms do their work. From a heap of really nasty-looking stuff, nature works as if by magic to produce something wonderful.

But it's not as magical as it seems. Let's take a closer look.

The gathered materials may include grass clippings, shredded paper, discarded fruits and vegetables, egg shells, fallen leaves, shrub trimmings, sawdust, garden weeds, ashes, livestock and poultry manure, even pet poop. Given some water and air, micro-organisms attack the assemblage with voracious appetites. At the same time, chemical processes such as oxidation break down the materials, and the micro-organisms eat that stuff, too. With all this frenetic activity going on, the pile heats.

Like a big bash going on down the street, nearby residents and passersby take notice. Flies breeze by and drop off bacteria. Single-cell creeps with hardly half a brain between them arrive and begin to cling. Fun-guys (fungi) appear from nowhere and make themselves at home. Mites pick at this and that, including other guests. Millipedes stroll and stroll and stroll, sampling a bit of everything. Sowbugs eat stuff mashed on the floor. Snails and slugs, never socially adept, slime their way among the crowd munching left-overs. Spiders entrap and roll the unsuspecting. Centipedes and beetles knock over spiders and other party-goers. Earthworms work their way around, and somehow everything comes out right from their ends.

Books have been written on how to contain and manage this free-for-all. A lot of material is available in book stores, magazines and posted on the internet. Most advocate confining it to boxes or bins hidden from view. Many recommend barrels disguised as BBQ cookers that can be tumbled to mix it up. Still others suggest heaping it up and letting it go, agitating sometimes to keep the party going. It's all good.

A few gardeners, like amateur brew-masters, compost very carefully. They follow recipes, add a touch of this or shovel-full of that, include obscure ingredients, take temperature readings and samples until just the right moment. It's beyond the scope of this article to address all that.

In my opinion, composting is not a transcendent experience; it is, simply, a very good thing to do. Here's why:
  • Composting recycles organic materials for further use.
  • It reduces waste.
  • Composting takes advantage of readily available materials.
  • It is environmentally friendly.
  • It is economical and inexpensive.
  • It is healthy for you and for your garden.
  • Composting is educational.
  • It gives a sense of "the big picture."
There you have it. Let this be your, "Ah-HAH!" moment. GoGardenNow!

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