Garbage cans, kitchen sink disposals – are not where nutrients belong. Think of it!. Coffee from Tanzania, Avocados from Argentina. Bananas from Guatemala…
Waste organic material that could enrich our local soil.
I sifted finished rich black humus from the compost pile, remembering the German Christmas tree ornaments made of bread, over 50 years old and crumbly, that went into the beginnings of the pile with fall leaves from the cottonwood tree. My mother in law, Marcella Beatty, was legendary for her baking and candy making. After she passed away, cake mix gone mealy and really ancient fluffed sugar confections that had been at the back of the pantry for years couldn’t be kept. But the love that went into her holiday treats can be a lasting legacy that enriches the land with a welcoming landscape and abundant gardens.
We started with gravel and plastic landscaping typical of West Mesa Albuquerque when we moved in. Very suburban, this idea of controlling the desert to save time. To liberate several stressed pine trees and to enlarge the area that the roots could get water from looked easy. Yeah, right!
After the first layer of gravel and plastic, there were four inches of old cedar bark mulch, atop more plastic covering the ground. The trees, trying to locate water over two decades, made the effort to extricate roots from plastic feel like an archeological dig. It took weeks. Finally we were able to layer in compost; old leaves, manure, yard waste and the old dry rotted mulch were shoveled in a few feet deep. Local shrubs and ground covers now not only hold moisture, but create sustainable “curb appeal.”
Gravel and plastic groundcover seals the soil off from the atmosphere. Layer on the heat of the desert sun and gravel, and any plants in its rocky grip get baked. With no gas exchange, no microbial action and no nutrient buildup for over twenty years, the soil is really dead.
There is a balance to be struck. Gravel landscapes are xeric, but rough on nature. Creating small defined areas containing organic moistureretaining material which are deep enough to support soil ecology with practical amounts of watering, is a compromise to consider.
Among the more valuable things produced in the backyard compost pile are thoughts – an increasing comprehension about what we walk on, and about the interdependence we have, through food, in the miracle of life on Earth. Take worms, for example.
A few years ago, I broke into a just thawing compost pile to turn it under and found clods of partially frozen compost, sparkling in the sun with ice crystals, worms visible in the mix. As they moved in the icy clump in my hand. I was awestruck at the miracle we call life and what we call eating.
We think of the enjoyment of food, but not how connected we are to the way plant roots “cultivate” microbes in the soil to help them take up nitrogen and minerals, and the way worms work to build humus, that magical substance. We are unaware of the unseen symphony, with nutrients combining and re-combining like musical notes and phrases, through constellations of complex ecosystems. One bite connects us through past millennia, into hundreds of millions of years of organic life as it has evolved on Earth. This is the natural economy of the universe.
Fertilizer is another economy. We see all those sacks of soil additives at the garden supply center. Mostly, it enriches chemical companies. For the soil, it is really the equivalent of junk food. It’s one more way we’ve become short sighted in our consumer culture.
We see more butterflies and praying mantises without chemicals. The compost pile draws pill bugs, who belong there. We lived in Austin, Texas, which is much more humid and hotter than Albuquerque, and found that cockroaches were also more likely to find what they liked in a compost pile rather than in the house. In addition, backyard chickens make great pest control agents.
We were starting to worry about mice, but then we noticed a red tailed hawk taking up a sentry position in a tree over the compost pile. We haven’t seen any mice since. We have cats that like to hunt and they apparently haven’t either.
It will take several years to continue the process of building garden beds by removing gravel and plastic and working the soil into shape through composting. But, each day as the pot of kitchen waste goes out with its egg shells, coffee grounds, the fuzzy forgotten casserole from the back of the refrigerator and the cat’s hairballs, the worms in the pile work more of it into more humus.
Under happy (moist) conditions, the worm population expands. More nutrients needed! I started asking at grocery stores for trimmings from the produce department. At Smith’s they say they have to put it all in the regular trash cans out of concern that people would get sick from eating it. Dave Bickett, the manager at the Corrales Sunflower Market, however, said he felt like basic sense tells us not to eat rotten stuff labeled as compost, and besides, their clientele is into organic gardening. I started going in there to fill buckets with old corn shucks, watermelon rinds, and whatever else happened to be in the barrel in the work area in back. More people ought to do this and thank Dave as well.
Just before the weather turned cold, around Halloween, I built a new compost pile with fall leaves, buckets of Sunflower veggie waste, and some manure. I lifted out the mass of worms and dirt from the top of the old pile and put them down in the center of their new winter wonderland, piling leaves on top for insulation. The humus from last year, sifted out of the old pile to separate humus from the red wriggler worms that stay in the pile, gets spread on garden areas in the fall and spring. We look forward to a more abundant garden and yard this growing season, and to liberate more land from gravel and plastic.
Ag extension agent contacts by county
Agricultural extension agents are there to provide the public with free information through cooperation between US Agriculture Department and NMSU. College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. www.aces.nmsu.edu/county/
New Mexico Master Gardeners
New Mexico Environment Department
Greg Baker 505/ 827-2780, firstname.lastname@example.org
New Mexico Recycling Coalition
Check out their recycling directory for resources in communities across the state. www.nmrecycle.org
Bernalillo County Master Composters program www.bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/ Their goal is to increase the number of people around the state who can be resources in spreading knowledge about composting. Become a Master Composter! email@example.com
Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority
Compost del Rio Grande
Available from the Southside Water Reclamation Plant Tested according to highest standards for assuring against heavy metals pollution, this material is safe for horticultural use. Prices on the website are by the ton, but it can be calculated by the pound. Hours are 7am – 2:30pm. 505-833-6982 Soilutions – Compost Products & Landscaping A commercial recycler of organics that sells compost derived from cleared brush and manure to homeowners and landscapers. They also advise on water harvesting techniques.
A source for everything related to sustainable living, including recycling and composting information.
Santa Fe County Extension Agent Patrick Torres
Milagro Worms and Compost
Consulting on how-to, good website info.
Payne’s Organic Soil Yard
A source of composted material for garden and yard
Santa Fe Premium Compost
1923 San Ildefonso Rd., Santa Fe, NM 87505
Taos County Extension Agent Rey Torres
Blossoms Organic Garden Center
Stuart Heady is a freelance writer and political activist who lives in Albuquerque, having recently moved here with his wife, Victoria Beatty, from the Navajo Nation, Seattle, and Austin, Tx.