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Compost Tales


Compost Tales

I believe it was the Shakespearean actor and gardener Ralph Kean (second cousin of the even more Shakespearean Edmund Kean) who remarked, “Ya know, dying is easy. Composting is weird.” As far as I have been able to determine, Ralph didn’t work much on stage. Or in the garden, for that matter.

If the truth be known, my compost pile has never really been up to snuff. Oh, the stuff (not snuff) I throw into it breaks down well enough. Over time. Over a long, long, long, long time. Are you all familiar with how quickly a decade passes? It’s my fault, I’m sure. Whatever happens in the garden-mine or others-is always my fault and, given that mind-set, blaming myself for having slacker microbes is not all that unreasonable. Perhaps I’m not thinking enough positive compost-y thoughts.

My bin is what I assume to have been a discarded hamster cage that I found in the alley and pressed into service a few years ago. It has since pretty much rotted away, leaving odd chunks of wood and wire that occasionally mess with my composting mojo. I should probably dig out the remnants of hamster-haven and start over, but that’s a story for another century.

It’s easier to just throw stuff on top of my pile, then sit on my back porch and, for months at a time, watch the whole thing sink. I often wonder, where does it go? Compost heaven? A parallel compost universe? A complex series of vast, underground compost tunnels? Do compost fairies come in the night and haul it away in little wheelbarrows woven out of socks that they’ve stolen from the dryer, where they leave behind the unmatched mate? I’m sure I’ve piled several dump trucks’ worth of organic matter on that sucker over the years, but I’ve used the compost in my garden only once.

I had been reading for years about “black gold.” That’s what composting geeks call the finished product. I suspect that in the dead of night they roll in the stuff while doing chants to earthworms and arthropods and exotic varieties of fungi. Now, I like a good pagan ritual as much as the next fellow, but I draw the line at crawling around in dirt that other things are crawling around in at the same time.

Anyway, one bright, shiny morning I decided “This is the day” and I spread my compost pile over my garden. Actually, I spread it over about a fifth of my garden, until I ran out and had to buy more compost. A few days later, something disturbing happened. In the places where I had thrown my home-grown compost, things started sprouting. Lots of things. Annuals, perennials, weeds, vegetables, fruits, weeds, vines, shrubs, a telephone pole, weeds, a hamster (darn! knew I should have checked out that cage better)-pretty much anything that could germinate did. It gave a whole new meaning to the word fecund. Look it up. And then tell me what it means.

I learned an important lesson that year: DO compost your plant matter but DON’T spread it. Leave that to the compost fairies. They’re professionals; they know what they’re doing. And they have a surprisingly strong union.

Thus, last season, I was content to sit on the sidelines, so to speak, glass of merlot in hand, and watch my compost pile sink. Until something germinated (again) and shot out of the pile like a wayward bottle rocket. I had no idea what it was except that it was a vine and it was threatening to engulf most of my backyard, if not all of Logan Square. All I could figure is that it might be a pumpkin or a squash or a melon (yeah, I know, they’re same things-get off my back!).

But there were dark clouds on the horizon. You see-and I think this is one of the reasons why my compost pile doesn’t heat up as well as I would like-it’s basically in the shade, which is the only place I’m willing to devote the space. But the vine exploded out of the compost pile under the direct rays of the June sun. What happened next was sad, really, kind of like a “Flowers for Algernon” version of gardening, as this vine, so full of hope and promise at the start, got dumb and dumber as the shade encroached. It took forever to produce the most picture-perfect hard-as-a-rock acorn squashes. You were going to need an orthodontist if you tried to eat one but, like I said, they were picture perfect. So I took some pix and threw ‘em back in the pile.

This year I’ve returned to sitting with the merlot, watching the compost pile sink.

Someday I’ll tell you my story of vermicomposting in the basement. Working title: “That’s Funny, Those Worms Were Here Yesterday.”

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questions

I have two 20-year-old pine trees whose needles are turning brown on the west side of the plants. On the east side I have a compost pile.

I live in the St. Charles region and my soil is mostly clay. What is causing the browning? Should I get rid of the compost? How do I correct the damage?

I have some peonies that I want to transplant but cannot plant them in their permanent place until next spring when our new house will be built. Can I dig them now and transplant them again next spring?

My split-leaf Japanese maple tree is 15 to 20 years old, about 7 feet high and about 10 feet wide. It is overtaking the corner of the yard. Can I trim it, and at what time of the year?

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