April 22 marks the 37th Annual International Earth Day, a chance to reflect on and renew our earthly commitments. It's a perfect day to spend in the garden, preparing the beds and planting organic spring crops of crunchy carrots, buttery lettuces, spicy arugula and sweet sugar snap peas. It's a perfect day to take care of the earth around us by following the lessons nature offers.
Compost is nature's way of renewing the earth's fertility. The forest floor is covered with compost created by the natural decay of all the leaves, trees, insects and wildlife that have fallen there. The resulting humus nourishes the soil and enriches the living plants - a beautiful example of the life cycle and sustainability.
Making your own compost can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. The object simply is to rescue the organic waste that goes into the garbage. It is piled outdoors and left for Mother Nature to perform the miracle of transforming it into nourishing soil.
All dead organic matter - for example, banana peels, weeds, autumn leaves - eventually turns into soil, whether we do anything about it or not, so we might as well collect it in one spot and have our own supply of nature's best.
Home gardens flourish with compost. It is called "gold" in the garden because of the high quality of food, texture and life it gives the soil, and the strong, healthful, pest-free plants that grow. Compost feeds the soil and feeds the plants. It also builds the soil and makes it richer and healthier each year because it becomes lighter with humus and fuller with living organisms.
This is sustainable gardening - we sustain the soil for next year's crops and for future generations. This is the organic way. As environmentalist Lester Brown said, "We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children."
Recipe for 'sweet' compost
A compost pile is a spot we select to toss and layer garden debris, kitchen scraps, manure, soil and leaves to decompose (rot) and make new soil. Like the sweet fragrance of the forest, so is the fragrance of rich, crumbly compost. Following is a good recipe for odorless and pest-free compost:
1/4 garden soil
1/4 grass clippings, straw, garden debris, autumn leaves
1/4 fresh manure (chicken, horse, etc.)
1/4 kitchen waste - fruit and vegetable peels, cores, tops and seeds, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, fish and chicken bones (they break down quickly) and leftover leftovers.
As you go, layer 1 to 3 inches of ingredients to generate efficient heat and decomposition. Water the compost pile to keep it moist but not soggy. Earthworms will come, thrive and multiply. They will eat the kitchen scraps, generate earthworm castings, mix and aerate the soil and help break down the organic matter. It will take 3 to 6 months for the pile to decompose completely to rich, beautiful, "forest fragrant" soil. You will know when it's ready.
• In choosing a spot for the compost, make it as handy as possible - a short walk from the kitchen or a path that keeps your shoes from getting muddy in the winter. It is best if the compost is in the sun or partial sun for efficient decomposition, but not necessary.
• Keep a pile of organic matter next to the compost for ease in covering the kitchen waste. This can be soil, a bale of straw, grass clippings, leaves and even compost itself. In the winter and spring, weeds (seedless, runnerless) are usually sprouting and available to pull and pile easily on as a layer.
• Keep an old digging tool by the compost pile so the kitchen waste can be easily covered each time you take it out.
• Keep a small pail or old milk carton on top of or underneath your sink for all your organic waste. Take it out daily.
• Many materials are readily available around the house: fireplace ashes, hair, washing machine lint and vacuum cleaner dirt all go in.
• There are many sources for additional materials that are free for the asking. Produce departments, fish markets and barbershops will give away their trimmings. Stables will let you pick up manure that is often mixed with wood shavings. The liberal use of manure speeds up decomposition, but be sure it is pesticide free.
Jody Main is a professional organic garden consultant and teacher at Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto. Her class, "Starting an Earth Day Herb Garden," is scheduled 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 21.
See "Earth Day salad" recipe on page 40