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Flash in the Pan

A new season begins as the compost pile turns



Don’t get me wrong, Earth Day is cool. It’s just that here in The Pan, every day is Earth Day because the earth is where food comes from! The earth is a breast of infinite nipples from which all life suckles. And although the earth is the source of so much, there is a deeper source, a process, not a thing.

Compost is the source: compost as a verb. Like Murphy’s Law with a happy ending, compost happens anywhere there is life. And life happens because of compost, assembled from the byproducts. And as a noun, we are compost as well, just as sure as we all inhale atoms exhaled by Jesus.

After a long winter of raw kitchen scraps and no microbial action, your compost pile probably looks and smells like regurgitated potluck dinner. Especially when you turn it for the first time. So the first turning of the compost pile of the year is not always an activity that elbows its way to the top of your springtime list of things to do. But now is the time to turn that pile inside out. And luckily, the second turning will be better than the first. And the third time is practically the home stretch to fertile soil.

With compost, as with some of the other fine things in life, hot and steamy is good. And smelly is bad. So do the following test: The day after you turn your compost pile, stick your hand in it. You should feel heat. If you don’t feel heat (or if the compost is so disgusting that you don’t even want to stick your hand in it), then your compost needs a tune-up.

Remember: You don’t make compost, you ranch microbes. Microbes don’t need a whole lot, but they need what they need: air, food, and water, all in the right proportions. Good compost will have the moisture content of a wrung-out sponge. If your compost is smelly, that’s because there is not enough air. Turning in some straw (NOT HAY! Hay contains grass seeds!) will absorb moisture, circulate air, and give the microbes some cellulose carbon chains to chew on. Same goes if your pile is too gooey. Mix in some straw. And chances are, if it’s gooey, it’s going to be smelly. And I guarantee that if it’s gooey and smelly, it ain’t hot and steamy.

Keep a shovel next to your compost pile. Every time you walk by, grab that shovel and stab the pile psychotically for a while. This circulates air and spreads the bacteria into contact with more as-of-yet undigested material. If it still isn’t heating up, it needs a jump start: Some good manure, mixed in, or some finished compost from another compost pile will do the trick. But don’t mix in animal products, such as meat, bones, cheese, or dog turds, in your compost pile. That will attract animals, and can get seriously disgusting.

Speaking of animals, last Saturday at the North Side Community Garden last Saturday, a brigade of shovels spent the afternoon disemboweling the mother of all compost piles—the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project compost pile—amidst gardeners from around the Garden City tending to their plots. A festive buzz permeated the scene, as a diversity of gardeners ushered in the new growing season by waking up their own personal patches of earth. A certain Belarusian babushka that I recognize from the farmer’s market, along with her husband, were tilling their soil in earnest. In hushed, awestruck whispers around The Garden, the overwhelming consensus was that those two grow the best potatoes in town.

Bronwyn Troutman, the MUD gardener, patrolled the garden with her three-week-old son Kale slung around her neck. According to Bronwyn, waking up the garden is easy if you put it to bed properly: with lots of mulch. Mulch is like a thermostat for the soil surface, keeping the soil from getting too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry. And the breakdown of mulch—NOT HAY!—keeps the soil surface biologically active, a must for healthy gardens. Says Troutman, “If the garden was well-mulched in the fall, then when you pull the mulch off in springtime, the soil is already fluffy and ready to go.” Another great way to liven up your dirt is by mixing in peat moss. “But if you do that,” warns Troutman, “make sure to add garden lime too, because peat moss is acidic.”

Troutman advises that now is the time to plant seeds for carrots, beets, radishes, spinach, and peas (soaked overnight for faster germination). And it’s also not too late to start some brassicas from seed on your window sill, such as kale, collard greens, and brussel sprouts. So c’mon Missoula, put your thumbs in the earth till they turn green!

E-mail Chef Boy Ari at: flash@

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