I spend an anxious week eagerly awaiting the results of my soil test samples sent off to the UConn lab. It’s like waiting on a pregnancy test. Am I fertile? What if something’s wrong with my pile?
Not that there’s anything I can do about it. I know all that’s gone into my pile, and know of its seemingly infinite capacity to absorb, transmute and transform the riot of raw materials into a finished product that is at itself not fully understood by scientists but invariably useful and productive to gardeners and farmers of every kind.
As the quote of the day on the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory website cites from Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
Today, a Saturday and the first day of August, dawns bright and clear after a week of hot, muggy weather that was finally broken by a gully washer of a thunderstorm.
The rains gave the yard and gardens and my pile a soaking down through the root zone and then back up until the low parts of the lawn were squishy under my shoes. I threw a tennis ball for the dog this morning, and his paws unleashed sprays of water; the tennis ball itself spun out its own galaxy of droplets.
The heat wave stifled the grass, and for the first weekend in a month or so I don’t have to mow. Still my soggy pile of nearly finished compost could use a good turning. I have a clutch of mildewing grass clippings dropped off by a neighbor a few days ago. And I have a bucket full of summer kitchen scraps to dispense with more urgency than normal. While making coffee few mornings ago I was buzzed by a small squadron of fruit flies, hovering above the kitchen sink.
Fruit flies are more an annoyance than a danger, but still a presence that no kitchen composter wants to tolerate. After clapping as many as I could mid-air, and squashing a few more with my thumb against the east-facing window above the sink, I check the Hooch bucket that sits on a glass-topped table to the side of the kitchen counter. No sign of an infestation, which after further inspection I realize comes from some spilled beer in the paper-lined bin I keep under the sink to stash my recyclable cans, jars and bottles.
Before I take the Hooch bucket outside, I open the fridge to make one last sweep through the vegetable bin. I find nothing past its due date, but spot the collection of vitamin and supplement bottles that have long resided in the tray on the inside of the door. There’s a bottle of multi vitamins and two of fish oil supplements, dating from a long-ago new year’s resolution. Each one is more than half-full. I check the expiration dates and and am shocked to see that they are years out of date. I debate whether they should go in the Hooch bucket or the trash can, then check online for advice. While I know certain prescription drugs are now creating all kinds of hazards, up and down the food chain when flushed down the toilet or sent to a landfill, I can find no authoritative counsel on whether vitamins pose the same risk.
I find some concern about the risk, especially to small children, of coming into contact with excessive amounts of iron, but after reading on one garden forum the comment, “hey, the pills contain minerals that are naturally occurring anyway,” I decide to chuck them into the Hooch bucket. The fish oil capsules will surely wash safely away, and I figure a handful of multivitamins ingested by a compost pile of my size, which will soon be spread across a third-acre of grass and garden, is an acceptable way of recycling such nutrients.
I take the Hooch bucket outside and place it next to a plastic bag of shredded paper from the office. What began several months ago around tax time as an impromptu gesture has now been added to my job description: Whenever the small bin of the finance department’s paper shredder fills up, “the compost guy” gets the call to empty it.
It’s a task that I am happy to have taken on. For one, the shredded strips of crinkled white paper have mixed well with the copious amounts of green grass clippings I’ve added to my pile’s crumbly brown heap of leaves and other rotting mixings. The dry, crinkly white shreds soak up the watery slop of kitchen waste — watermelon rinds and other fruit trimmings that are quick to putrify in the summer heat. For another, I see my recycling at the office as a fairly easy way to practice what I preach in my own backyard at the place where I spend most of my waking hours.
And there’s this: I spent more than 25 years as a practicing journalist and until recently was always an avid consumer of printed magazines and newspapers. Over my career, I am at least partially responsible for the destruction of a large forest’s worth of paper. To recycle even a tiny portion of that highly processed product in my backyard is a way to atone for being an ink-stained wretch for so long.
Here’s what the Cornell School of Horticulture has to say about it, on their Home Gardening website:
“Several paper products – especially newspaper and cardboard – are useful in the garden and landscape. While it provides no nutrients, paper is organic material, made primarily of wood fibers. It decomposes slowly but provides structure when used in a compost pile.
“Shredded newspapers or telephone books are good paper choices for composting or digging into soil directly. They decompose well when mixed with high nitrogen products such as manure. Shredded newspaper may also be used under other mulches in the landscape, where it is broken down by earthworms.
“Shredded computer or other office paper and glossy magazine-style paper decomposes slowly and may contain dioxins. There are enough concerns about the dioxin in bleached and glossy paper that it would be wise not to use them in the garden.”
Of course, I take the glossy ad inserts, junk mail and the like to the local recycling center, as well as the newspaper I don’t use as kindling to start my fireplace in the winters. Years and years ago, while living in New York City, I helped a buddy fill up his parents’ Volvo with a half-year’s supply of New York Times. Our orders, in exchange for spending a long weekend at his parents summer cottage on the North Fork of Long Island, was to spread the newspapers wholesale across a section of their garden. We carpeted the weedy ground with sections laid tight together, circling close around any perennials.
This was a practice they’d done for years, and worked well. In another part of the garden, “all the news that’s fit to print” had smothered the growth as it slowly degraded from newsprint to papier mache.
I grant the Cornell Horticultural experts their concerns about adding shredded office paper to a compost pile, given the potential risk of dioxins. But the consensus among avid composters is that adding shredded paper is on balance a good thing for the environment and backyard heaps, provided you have a good supply of greens to keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio in balance. Plus, I have to trust the earthworms and their microbial allies that inhabit my pile to digest trace amounts of toxins and render them more harmless. It’s a good feeling, mine and the worms’, and I’m going with it.
At this point in the summer, my pile is easy to work with, and through. I dig a trench along the back side that becomes a hole that allows me for the first time since last November to reach the core of my pile, the very bottom of the center.
Using the straight-tined pitchfork, I tease out some surprisingly whole leaves and turn them out onto the top of my pile. I cover with a few scraps of rotting grass leaves. Into the hole at the center of my pile go the kitchen scraps and the shredded paper, mixed with crusty leaves scraped from the sides and along the bottom edges of my pile.
My goal is to mix and bury the new material with as much of the undigested parts of my pile. With the calendar now turned to August and 10 months into this season’s batch of compost, I figure my pile is only about four or six weeks from being dispensed with. The shredded paper, evidently much loved by earthworms, has until now always disappeared without a trace.
By now my pile is mostly a uniform mix of almost finished compost, crumbly enough to begin parceling out piecemeal, first as a late-season covering in the vegetable garden, then across the lawn and garden beds.