Compost: Worth It?

After a week of sumptuous rain, the golden fall weather called our family out to the garden. You know how it goes, a casual stroll to observe what might be left of the harvest turns into an all out, put your gloves on, prepare your knees for mud, “wish I woulda changed my shoes first,” major garden clean up. “Should we compost those squash vines?” Mom innocently asked, “The rain makes them so nice to pull.” Before we knew it, every button weed was doomed and every naked tomato plant, blushing with over-ripened fruit, was on its way to recycling heaven.

After a couple of hours, we had hauled five wheelbarrows of garden detritus from our small garden through the back gate and onto the “to be composted” pile. Now, a venerable mound I like to call Mt. Detritus sits at the back of the garden a good six feet high. The woody materials need to be chipped, the sloppy squash and a summer’s worth of food scraps wait to be mixed in with the browns, and bags of leaves and rotting hay are not moving by themselves. A good helping of chicken manure (full of nitrogen) would be just the thing to heat it all up and transform it into an orderly pile of sweet decay. Just need a few hours, a couple of strong backs, and good hay forks. Compost piles are work! (Or good exercise, depending on your point of view.)

This time of year, when the days are shorter, the sap moves down, and the earth breathes in, I feel more contemplative. So, with the giant mound of garden material waiting to be physically dealt with, I have to ask the philosophical question. Is compost worth it? And, more heretical still, is compost even necessary (giant gasp)?

For our honeymoon, my husband and I traveled through Croatia along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. They grow grapes in a deep, brown-red, gritty soil full of loft. Each vineyard is bordered by limestone rock walls, keeping them small and accessible only to feet and tiny plows about half the size of a roto-tiller. I saw a lot of sheep, but no compost piles. There were no bags of lime, no ammonia smells, and no taste of sulfurs in the wine. Because this soil was built up for hundreds of years and remained small, chemical free, and only foot trodden, they rarely needed additives of any kind, even the composted kind. Sheep manure and fallen grape leaves were never taken away, but left to return to their native soil. No Mt. Detritus here.


Our entire country is younger than those vineyards, yet our soil is already showing signs of age and infertility. After WWII, industrial agriculture took hold and chemical technology moved from the military field to the crop field. The results were immediate and green. However, many years of increasing fertilizer and pesticide application results in tractor-compacted subsoil and heavy losses of trace minerals, micronutrients, fungi, bacteria, and other micro-organisms that give soil life. We are only just beginning to understand the importance of macrobiotics in farming.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, writes that “countless micronutrients are essential to plants. Chemicals that sterilize the soil destroy organisms that fight plant diseases, aerate, and manufacture fertility. Recent research has discovered that just adding phosphorous (the P in all NPK fertilizers) kills the tiny filaments of fungi that help plants absorb nutrients. The losses become most apparent in times of stress and drought (163).”

The fertility, water holding capacity, and tilth of soil comes from biological diversity. When biology is replaced with monocropping and chemical fertilizers, it is like replacing a soil’s earthy vocal chords with a human tape recording. Instead of singing its native song, a field can only say “corn, corn, corn” and this field only “wheat, wheat, wheat” with an occasional season of fallow silence. Pretty soon, a field is completely expressionless without chemical assistance.

For these chemically dependent U.S. soils, (and it is very much like an addiction, a cyclical disease) whether in a small garden or a thousand acre field, compost is not just exercise or hobby, but medicine. Compost piles, cover crops, leaves, and manure are the incubators of soil life. Fall leaves are vitamin pills, full of trace nutrients and minerals that trees bring up from deep within the earth. Cover crops add nitrogen and attract beneficial bugs to help with pest control. Rotational, intensive grazing can re-invigorate lifeless pasture in just one year if done correctly. Inside an active compost pile, millions of microorganisms grow and thrive, ready to quicken the soil’s pulse.

I do believe that, given time and various forms of compost, fields will begin to sing their native songs again. There is no use telling them what tune is acceptable. “Weeds” (many of which turn out to be important native plants) pop up like notes out of place and horribly out of tune with our idea of a field. At first, they seem an eyesore compared to the beautiful, chemically produced waves of grain we are so used to driving past. But the miracle is that soil, in partnership with farmers and gardeners who see the value in a living, singing soil, can heal with time and compost, and I am looking forward to the symphony.

For though we may be the earth’s gardeners, we are also its weeds. And we won’t get anywhere until we come to terms with this ambiguity—that we are at once the problem and its only possible solution.

“Weeds are Us” Michael Pollen

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