Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Part 1: Haste in the Garden

Japanese maple "Shadow's Select"
It all started in mid-April with the craving for a Japanese maple. Never mind the old vow that I would not plant trees and shrubs in the spring. In our hot summers, new transplants need life support, and even with regular watering, they often die. It was almost Easter – what better to celebrate resurrection (and the grace of my husband’s survival of nearly a year since a major heart attack) than a new tree?

In my mind, I could see the heat coming. We were about to leave for a vacation in Florida. This tree must be found and planted. Now. So I visited a local nursery that specializes in Japanese maples and picked out a specimen. In talking with the nursery employee about growing conditions for Japanese maples, I admitted that the site I had in mind wasn’t ideal– hard clay under the canopy of a huge pine tree. If lucky, I would be able to dig four to six inches into the clay without hitting tree roots.  

No problem. I would build a “volcano” of rich, loose soil on top of the clay hardpan. Never mind my typical scorn of the proliferation of city trees planted on such volcanoes as installations, not gardening. The craving for the Japanese maple was overwhelming.

The nursery employee recommended the compost at the city landfill. He said it was made by a reputable contractor whom I had heard composted food scraps from restaurants and cafeterias. It was raining hard when I arrived at the landfill, so I didn’t bother to get out of the truck and inspect the compost.

The next day, filled with anticipation of a ceremonial tree-planting, I began shoveling the compost out of the truck. I picked up a handful of compost and inhaled. It smelled like an ashtray. Sharp, bitter, and not at all earthy. I inspected the compost more closely. It was black and loose, but drier and lighter than usual. Then I saw shreds of the kind of orange mulch popular with gas stations. As my plan was to put most of the compost on the vegetable garden after planting the Japanese maple, I was disturbed.  Just what had I bought?

What to do with a truck full of bad compost?
Now I had a pickup truck full of sour-smelling compost that I was not too eager to add to my garden. As a dedicated organic gardener, I am convinced that a healthy garden starts with healthy soil.  In an agony of indecision, I delayed the tree planting. 

I love soil. I love touching the earth with my hands. I often garden without gloves, just because I like the feel of the soil. I like to see worms squirming in the soil when I pick up a clump. This compost was lifeless. Every day I smelled it, hoping that the cigarette butt odor would have dissipated and been replaced, magically, with the smell of sweet earth.  Meanwhile, I drove around town for a week with a pickup truck full of compost, mentally kicking myself to giving in to the desire for instant gratification. 

It’s not a bad thing to want a Japanese maple. But why was I in such a rush? I’ve been trying hard to live a simpler life and get away from the consumer mentality that is so destructive to the earth. I try to slow down, to evaluate whether I really need something before I purchase it. I seek to live by nature’s rhythms and not be ruled by desire. If I had waited to plant the tree in the fall, our composted kitchen scraps would have been ready to amend the soil. As punishment, I ended up stuck with a truck full of suspect compost.  

P.S. The tree is doing beautifully. 

Tomorrow: Part 2 - I learn some disturbing things about commercial compost. 


Carolyn ♥ said...

Your story is delightful... I'll be back for part 2.
So glad you discovered my blog... and now I've found yours!

Stacy said...

Sheila, I understand those sudden obsessions, where nothing will do but to have [x]. It seems like (for me) a time crunch always makes it completely irresistible. Really, though, the maple tree does sound like a lovely way to celebrate the grace of life. Even if the nature gods did smite thee with suspect compost as a result...

Donna said...

Can't wait for Part 2....I refuse to buy commercial compost and mine is a slow go...I need to get it going beyond the bin I have...it is too bad that we cannot trust what others think is good compost and think of the unknowing gardener...I am even suspect of the Farmer's Market since I can only find 1 or 2 growers who are organic which is why I decided to grow more of my own veggies and fruits...sometimes the lessons of haste are the best!!

Sheila said...

Thanks, Carolyn, Glad you liked it.

Stacy, I appreciate your reminding me about the purpose of the entire episode - which was a ritual to celebrate the grace of life, as you put it so well ...

Donna, I know, it makes me almost sick that we can't trust what's on the market these days. Products are moving too fast, to too many disparate places, and there's too many people trying to make a quick buck.

You've been wise to avoid commercial compost. I just pledged to use only my own (see Part II today).

It's a shame that the microbes don't work any faster in home compost piles! But hurry and nature, as well as hurry and gardening, don't go well together.