A gardener is very much an editor.
That sensibility has played out over a career largely spent writing and editing for a mix of national magazines. It also might help explain my fascination with the pleasure and the process that is composting.
“The perpetual regeneration of forest parallels the timelessness of literature,” Richard Fortey writes in “The Wood for the Trees: One Man’s Long View of Nature.” A noted paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Fortey retired to a four-acre patch of woodland in Oxfordshire; his book is a closely drawn account of what he found in those ancient woods over the course of a year. “The wood is as old as, or even older than, the great Anglo-Saxon poem Beowolf, proving the endurance of art can be tracked by the life of trees.”
My pile begins as a load of raw if purposeful rubbish that over time and with some effort is refined into a finished product put to immediate use. As such, it is of incremental, temporary value, more ephemeral than lasting. A heap of fresh compost pales in comparison to a stately old beech tree that stands and delivers for generations; my pile is not literature; more like yesterday’s news in search of a better end than as bird-cage liner or a wrapper for Mr. Fortey’s fish ‘n’ chips.
There’s no exact recipe for making compost; it’s a creative, unscripted act, yet its production plays out in a time-honored format and fashion. My pile is very much a magazine; at its root, the word refers to a collection or storage location, like a gunpowder artillery magazine. My pile is the Guns & Ammo of gardening.
My vocation as an writer and editor and my avocation as a backyard gardener and composter go hand in hand. I often mull over writing projects while busying myself with the pruning and curating and transplanting that can keep a suburban backyard gardener preoccupied. I also sometimes plot out garden and landscaping projects while idling myself at work.
I’ve kept a backyard compost pile since my days as a writer/editor with a food magazine in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.
It was a wonderful job in many respects, chief among them the twice-daily tastings in the test kitchen. Every recipe that ran in the magazine, and then some, were prepared in-house by our chefs, with assists from other staffers and guest editors.
The tastings were held three days a week, the first at 10 am and the second at 2 pm. I was invited to attend not because I had much culinary expertise but because for much of my tenure at the magazine I was the designated male among an office-full of women. Maybe my boss figured that my taste buds, if not discriminating, were at least different enough to give me a seat at the table.
In truth, the dishes were almost always delicious because the chefs could turn even the sketchiest handwritten recipe from some homemaker in Omaha into something to savor.
I’d hang out in the test kitchen as much as I could, watching and listening and smelling all that went into their work while avoiding the stack of recipe transcripts and manuscripts in my inbox.
This was in the early days of modern comfort food, just as the artery-clogging, cholesterol-laden recipes of old were being replaced by Mediterranean menus, featuring lots of vegetables simply prepared and seasoned not with rich sauces but with fresh herbs and garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I ate amazingly well from 9 to 5, and couldn’t get a date for the better part of three years.
I don’t recall how the subject of me taking home all the trimmings the cooks threw out each day came up, but once they knew of the modest compost heap I’d started in the side yard of the duplex I rented, they happily and conscientiously loaded me up with all the kitchen scraps I could take home at the end of each day.
It was gourmet stuff – floppy green carrot tops and big bottoms of fennel bulbs. Pounds of flicked potato peels, whole volumes of papery onion skins. Lots of shrimp shells, as I recall — all in all, enough, usually, to fill two paper grocery bags every test-kitchen day.
Each issue of the magazine included about 100 recipes, which every month found its way into a million or more kitchens. Food-waste expert Jonathan Bloom, writing in his blog, wastedfood.com, continues the math by reporting that 95 percent of the food waste produced in the U.S. that could be composted actually ends up going into a landfill or incinerator.
Food waste accounts for some 28 percent of all this trash, though Bloom argues that the total amount of food wasted in the U.S. is actually closer to 40 percent when you take into account farm loss or waste between farm and retailer.
Even though a minuscule amount of food and other organic material ends up being composted, overall the recycling or composting of organic material, including paper products and yard trimmings, “prevented 87.2 million tons of material from being disposed in 2013, up from 15 million tons in 1980. Diverting these materials from landfills prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air in 2013—equivalent to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year,” according to an EPA report Bloom cites.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I suppose my LA compost pile offset its fair share of the smog I created driving back and forth to work each day, to help produce a magazine made of many acres of wood pulp.
“When we throw away food we don’t just throw away nutrients,” points out David Owen in The Conundrum, “We also throw away the energy we used in keeping it cold as we lost interest in it, as well as the energy that went into growing, harvesting, processing, transporting, and preparing it (assuming we got that far), along with its proportional share of our staggering national consumption of fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water, packaging, and landfill capacity. According to a 2009 study, more than a quarter of U.S. freshwater use goes into producing food that is later discarded. And rotting food is the main source of the methane — an especially worrisome greenhouse gas — that leaks from landfills.”
I lived in a Spanish-style duplex perched on a knoll at the base of the Hollywood Hills. On the edge of the back patio was a tall Ponderosa pine, its lower branches trimmed so the trunk branched upward and outward into a wide canopy sculpted like a statuespue standard poodle.
It was a gorgeous tree, especially in the evening when the setting sun over the Pacific and across the Los Angeles basin nearly lit it from underneath, making its orange-red bark glow and the waxy green needles sparkle. A patch of ivy covered the slope below it, and there, in the bottom corner of the yard, I carved out my first compost pile, digging steps into the terraced hillside to reach it.
Our landlord actually owned two properties on the narrow lot; our two-story unit and, behind it, a small bungalow that faced the next street over connected to our back patio by a pathway. The bungalow’s backyard was taken up by two old olive trees that shed copious amounts of long slender leaves and a rich rain of black olives.
Alongside the duplex was a sliver of grass bordered by a boxwood hedge beside the walkway to the street. The tiny lawn gave way to a small rose garden perched above the street, with an impenetrably huge hedge of brilliant magenta bougainvillea fronting the sidewalk and running alongside the downhill side of the property.
Though small and set on a hillside, the yard produced enough growth throughout the long California growing season to keep my compost pile in business. I especially liked scooping up piles of the day-glo petals of the bougainvillea to add to the heap, as thin as the breath strips you put on your tongue and just as fast to decompose.
Profoundly spoiled by the chefs in the test kitchen, at times my pile was more kitchen scraps than yard refuse. It was a turbocharged stew of vegetable matter, with just a few rakefuls of pine needles, scratchy live-oak leaves, a dose of grass clippings and a dollop of homegrown rotting olives for me to contribute.
My landlord was happy that I took ownership of the yard, and my downstairs neighbor was pleased, too, that she could clip flowers for her apartment as she wished, and happy to have me puttering about in the yard.
Being a monthly magazine, we worked off an editorial calendar set several months ahead of real time. In October we tested our Christmas menus, which meant that our fattest issues hit at the tail end of California’s dry season and just before the winter rains began. The test kitchen worked overtime in those months, producing turkey after turkey to taste, and more important, all the trimmings for me to take home.
Pound for pound, there wasn’t a more fecund compost pile in all of Los Angeles. I’d pitch my LA compost pile as two hours of a great movie, produced from miles of raw film.
Over the course of several years of magazine issues, my gourmet compost pile helped turn a rented patch of compacted, hardpan dirt into a lush backyard oasis. When the fall rains came, the garden soaked up every drop, and the roses and bougainvillea and rosemary thrived in the California sunshine. And I became a composter.
That all changed when my downstairs neighbor got a baby pot-bellied pig for Christmas…