Meantime, Out in the Compost


Most food scraps from our kitchen go out to a compost bin next to the back fence. The bin has been out there for years and it is populated by some sort of red earthworms — not sure what species, though I see Lumbricus rubellus and Eisenia fetida are candidates. There is lots of other life, seen and unseen, out in that bin, too. Armies of mites and other insects, the occasional millipede, and bacteria, fungi, and other unseen organisms by the millions or billions. Every day or two, I go back out there and throw whatever scraps we have to offer into the bin and stir things around with a garden fork. That was the prelude to the shot above.

Which reminds me: I got worms.

Compost Community News

compost062712.jpgWe have a compost bin in our backyard. It's had its ups and downs over the years. Sometimes it has actually supplied organic-fertilizer-type material that we have used here on our extensive North Berkeley estate. More often, it has been a way of dealing with food scraps that we and the rest of enlightened civilization are trying to keep out of the landfill.

The principal visible engine of decomposition in our compost is red worms. When there's a steady supply of food and water, they seem to thrive. At some times of year, I'll actually see balls of them working on some hors d'oeuvre we've dumped out there.

But other critters are at work, too. I recently came across a piece of compost literature that talked about "FBI" as the components of a healthy waste pile–fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates. I'll take it for granted that fungi and bacteria are doing their thing out there and are perfectly happy with their lot.

That leaves the invertebrates. I've mentioned the worms. We get a few flies out there, and close inspection discloses some in larval form (maggots by another name). Another population that seems to enjoy the decompositional milieu is what I believe is a form of mite. When I pull the cover off the bin in the daylight, you see them as a shiny mass shifting minutely over unidentifiable food bits and everything else. I don't know whether they're a sign that things are just fine in the compost community or a little off. They've never invited themselves inside, so they're welcome to just do what they do. (Above: the "mites" in question, feasting on a stale bread crust as nearby smallish potatoes look on. Click for larger versions of the image.)

Poet Laureate of Decomposition

Happy birthday to the only poet (I’m confident) to have a garden fertilizer named after him. Yes, it’s Walt Whitman‘s day; born 1819; and some time long after, honored by a former UC Berkeley English lit student who started a designer dirt business called American Soil Products (now located up the road in Richmond). One of the company’s offerings is Walt Whitman Compost. Years ago, when I had occasion to write a Sunday business feature on American Soil for the late, lamented (by me) Hearst Examiner, I asked the owner how the compost got its name. Simple. A poem from “Leaves of Grass” called “This Compost.” Whitman contemplates how the earth has disposed of the dead, all “those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations; Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?” Then he continues:

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form'd part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch'd eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.