It’s been an exciting month with lots of reading about composting, because our new garden beds have the most dreadful soil. Only one worm has made an appearance, which was just because of big rains (when there’s excessive water in the soil, worms escape to the surface, only to reach a terrible sunny purgatory). The lack is worrying because worms are like underground gas-chamber canaries, so the ground must be very tired. When I read worm books, I think of the data coursing through my brain like an information worm, reminiscent of those dreadful library posters showing the internet as a hypercolour tunnel.
Despite the worm drought, it’s been exciting to find some other bugs in the soil (sorry no pictures). M thought they were witchetty grubs (they are white with a red/brown head). However, my Mum thinks they are a root-eating grub – and back in the day, they were fed to pet dogs (I don’t want to think about that).
Composting is the only solution I can think of to fix the soil to make it a suitable venue for a wormy party – Peter Cundall calls them “…the underground movement.” (Murphy, 2005, p. xv). It could become The Place for dirty wormy raves, maybe I should play them the Worms song (Clark, 1953) to facilitate mad dancing.
I just finished helping a neighbour empty their above-ground compost – which was unfortunately full of rubbish (non-bio plastic wrappers, dog toys, buckets… it covered a large area). It made me feel better about the state of my own dirt-patch. Sir Albert Howard (founder of the organic farming movement) says that “Every compost heap has its own history.” (2009). But I wish it wasn’t a rubbish dump history. Haven’t people read that book in the Babysitter’s Club series where they realise a biscuit packet can’t decompose?
If a compost heap is a snapshot of history, it’s like an inverted family tree of earthworms. Van de Water wrote in a farm-nostalgia style about the origin of fishing bait, unearthing that first part of the catch: “The angler who purchases his lures from a languid sporting-goods clerk forgoes part of the adventure, misses the opening chapters of the romance, never hears the first movement of the symphony. The redolent manure heap behind the barn; the rusty potato fork plunged into the rich and quivering earth; the revelation of pink and brown, divinely ordained bait among the scattered clods; the ecstasy over the bluely glistening night crawler…” (1949, p. 66).
I’m not yet invested enough to puree vegie scraps to “pamper my worms”, but I do like the idea of a food-like end product: “Your compost should look and feel like rich chocolate cake – dark brown, moist and crumbly.” (2009, p. 11). Peter Cundall did always say that good soil was “so good you could eat it”. At the other end of food, I was excited to read about the Bhawalkar Earthworm Research Institute (Pune, India) creating a low-cost, waterless, worm-driven toilet. I don’t know much about the topic, but there is a composting toilet at Canberra’s Sustainable House – surely if there can be one at one residence in the ACT, there could be more, especially in new developments?
In terms of aesthetics, my compost piles haven’t ever really scored highly – when I wanted to use a tyre (but they do have a lot of chemicals), Mr. Sonja decried our garden as looking “too industrial”. So I did the cheapie thing and bought lid-bins (meant for rubbish) and cut holes in the base (if you end up doing this, you can put some holes in the sides, or put a pipe down the middle, if you’re not inclined to turn/stir it). To make a “normal” heap (i.e. one that isn’t in a container) a bit prettier, you can grow zucchini, pumpkin, cucumbers or melons on top – plant seeds about 3cm deep at the edge of the compost and water regularly (Cullen et al, 1992, p. 68). Green mulching would be fun as well, but I would feel sad to cut the plants down. Thompson et al (2008) suggest building a compost bin from stacked hay bales, the top of the which can be used for planting vegetables or flowers.
I aspire to growing comfrey (or borage) and making comfrey tea just for my compost, like we are just two girlfriends having a brew together (except one of us is rotting). But I enjoy this idea more than actually doing it, a bit like flossing – more about intention than practice. I could even become the sort of person that asks other Canberrans going to the coast, ‘could you bring me back some seaweed, for my garden?’. I’ve read different things about whether you need to rinse seaweed but Taylor et al (2010) say that the sea salt shouldn’t be concentrated or present because the nutrient elements are absorbed as separate entities. But you still might want to chop it into bits. For the impatient composter, Taylor et al has a recipe for “Fast-cooking 14-day compost”, which is tempting because the extreme heat means you can bake potatoes in the ground!
I’m also reading an awesome retro YA book (with a delightful cover), Worms in the night – I don’t know what kind of worms they are yet, but a character warns “Look out for the worms. They’ll get you,’” (Harewood, 1991, p. 23). I look forward to finishing it because the mystery of the worms is just so ominous. I would still like our garden to have more, though.
(2009). Composting : a down-to earth, water-wise guide. Camberwell, Vic : Penguin
Clark, Olive. (1953). Worms. http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-vn2054441
Cullen, Mark. & Johnson, Lorraine. & Aldous, David E. (1992). Backyard and balcony composting : the complete guidebook. Melbourne : Bookman
Harewood, Jocelyn. (1991). Worms in the night. Sydney : Pan Australia Horizons
Horsfall, Mary. (2011). The mulch book. Chatswood, N.S.W : New Holland
Murphy, David. (2005). Organic growing with worms : a handbook for a better environment. Camberwell, Vic : Penguin
Taylor, David. & Allsop, Rob. (2010). The compost book. Chatswood, N.S.W : New Holland Publishers (Australia)
Thompson, Ken. & Cosgrove, Laurie. & Gilbert, Alan. (2008). Compost. Camberwell, Vic : Dorling
van de Water, Frederic Franklyn. (1949). In defence of worms and other angling heresies. New York : Duell, Sloan and Pearce