The Garden of Earthly Delights
Life of the garden ... how a compost bin can profoundly change your life.
I have a new love in my life. Tall, dark, handsome. A brooding presence, but this time, I just know it, as solid as a rock. I can’t tell you the excitement I feel; the hopes and dreams I have for our future together. Sure, I took some time to make my mind up. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to make the commitment. Didn’t know if I could make the changes necessary. Couldn’t even figure out whether I had room for him. I mean, It.
My new compost bin. I know I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket but I’ve been reassured that It will profoundly change my life. Or at least the life of my garden — a sad, barren thing indeed.
When I moved into my new apartment a year or so back I had visions of fecundity to make Costa Georgiadis’s whiskers twitch. Friends arriving for their first inspection of my new home listened in awe as I outlined my plans for my courtyard space. A citrus grove there, here a row of raised beds yielding a farmer’s market of produce — artichokes, aubergines and courgettes (I said in a posh voice), beans, peas, potatoes, asparagus and, in summer, great Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-like tomato plants sagging under the weight of heirloom tomato crops. I would be a wafting Abundantia, a goddess of fertility, raining vegetables and goodwill down on hungry grateful neighbours.
But my garden didn’t get it. The mandarin tree, planted by the previous owner, sent out glorious masses of blossoms that slowly turned into promising fingernail-sized fruit. I went away one weekend and came back to discover that all bar two of them had dropped to the ground. (Three months on those two precious little things are still barely bigger than marbles.) I gushed over the fragrant flowers on my dwarf lemon plant, only for them to tumble to earth hours later.
The silverbeet and radicchio and cos seedlings that I gaily planted in pots one Saturday afternoon were shredded by the time Insiders was starting on the Sunday. When the rocket seeds germinated and tiny leaves sprang forth, they quickly met the same fate. I’m a bit slow and it took me a while before I identified the culprit: the morning I came out and saw the snail-trails mocking me in their silent, silvery fashion I wanted to inflict pain on something, someone; I wanted to pluck Costa’s whiskers out, one by one, over many hours.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh on the snails and on Costa’s beard hairs. Perhaps I should find some hatred in my heart for the caterpillars that might well have done equal damage. Cabbage moths, someone said knowingly. Someone else with too much time on their hands told me they liked to pick the skinny green cabbage-moth caterpillars off their plants each morning while simultaneously sipping their English Breakfast.
A friend who had recently harvested potatoes in her suburban backyard — potatoes! — told me that I needed to get an ecosystem going. Something about harmony and working with nature. Try starting with composting, she suggested. But should it be worm farm or bin, I wondered. And how much time would it take and would it bring rats and would it smell and what would the neighbours think and where on earth would I put it?
I started to do my sums. Six punnets of cos seedlings equals about twenty bucks, give or take a few dollars. The return on six punnets of cos seedlings after factoring in snails and caterpillars? Nothing. Six cos lettuces, give or take a few dollars — about eighteen bucks. The return on six cos lettuces, give or take a few wilted leaves — several very fine salads. Have I got your attention? (To confirm my poor maths I put a call out on Twitter. Replied @onetui … “I bought a punnet of cavolo nero seedlings for $5. They're spindly and being eaten by bugs. How much would a big, lush bunch have cost?” Said @annabelcrabb … “YES!!!!!!! Was just looking at the single eggplant seedling I bought - nice and big now but no sign of actual eggplant.”)
But it was the day that I tasted the first of the three floury tomatoes my 12 tomato plants had yielded that I realised something had to change. I had to find some new optimism for my courtyard’s future fecundity.
I decided I needed to turn to the experts. I enrolled in a gardening course at a community garden. My spirits soared as I immersed myself in the first lesson in which we were instructed to take a sort of walking meditation through the garden. In silence. “Feeling” the garden, smelling it, noticing it. A bee here, a bud there. I wafted, wishing I’d worn cheesecloth. The second lesson was more challenging. Yes, I did let my mind wander when the teacher took to the whiteboard to explain the intricacies of nitrogen-fixing, but in week three I had a surging comeback.
Get to Know Your Compost Bin. Within minutes I knew I wanted to get to know my own compost bin. The teacher asked us to peer inside the bin’s murky depths, to take deep breaths. See, she said, it doesn’t smell at all. And then she lifted it from the bottom, letting the contents gently fall free. I was entranced. On the top, a decomposing mass of vegetable peelings, a fermenting watermelon quarter, straw, torn newspaper, some garden clippings, eggshells. At the bottom, dark, divine, sweet-smelling compost. Alchemy. I ran it through my hands, took deep, yogic breaths of it and knew that life would never be the same again.
It’s the most important thing in your garden, the teacher said, it’s the start of everything. I listened and nodded earnestly as she spoke and on the way home stopped at Bunnings.
My new love — the strong, silent type, distinguished in his dark green-grey plastic sort of way — seems happy in his courtyard corner. But I’m fretting like a new mother. Is he warm enough? Am I feeding him the right formula of carbon to nitrogen? Should I have indulged him with that orange peel? Yes, I may be checking his innards a bit too often. Miracles don’t happen overnight with these sort of things and it’s only week four, after all.
I’ve been counselled not to become too needy. Not to expect too much from my new love when he starts to excrete glorious handfuls of compost. Someone even dared to suggest that I was wasting my time with my vainglorious dreams of citrus orchards and bountiful raised beds of vegetable — that my courtyard simply doesn’t get enough sun.
But I’m a romantic. I believe in love and in happily-ever-after. And I just know that my compost bin is going to treat me right.