Monday, November 17, 2008

The beauty of a compost pile is that anything can happen

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 17, 2008)

About four months ago, my husband, Ralph, and I built a new compost pile. The cinder-block depository for our family's table scraps and yard waste is set into a hillside and, because I can see it from my office window, I didn't want the structure to be ugly.

After digging out a 16-square-foot section and stacking the blocks in a squared-off "U," I surrounded the gray edifice with colorful flowers. I planted a coral-colored hibiscus and tri-colored impatiens in the ground while pots of ivy, pink chrysanthemums and a jade plant were set strategically around the sides.

Thanks to the flowers, a few small statues and some solar lights, an area that could have been an eyesore became an attractive focal point instead. It's soothing to sit in my office and gaze up the hill at the cheerful blooms and garden art.

A few weeks ago when I went out to dump the day's kitchen waste, I noticed some young sprouts popping up amid the scattering of eggshells, apple cores and leafy remains of prior meals.

At first, I wasn't sure what kind of plants they were, but, a few days later, when the first pairs of leaves appeared, it was obvious that the pile was supporting a healthy crop of young papaya, impatiens and tomato plants.

I love volunteer plants. We humans think we're so essential, but plants that pop up unexpectedly put us in our place.

"We don't need your help," they seem to say. "We're doing just fine on our own."

Whether blown by the wind, carried on animal fur or sprouted out of food deposited in a compost pile, volunteer plants are the epitome of independence. Often more robust than their store-bought counterparts, these self-sown wonders of the plant kingdom stretch toward the sun with unbridled determination to live and thrive.

With so many seeds sprouting in my compost pile, I had some decisions to make. Should I leave them alone, move them to a real garden, bury them under a stinky slosh or pull the sprouts out?

I couldn't make up my mind, so for several days I did nothing at all. Well, not exactly nothing. When I took out the compost, I carefully avoided dumping the waste on the sprouts.

However, as more days passed and the young plants grew larger, less space was left to dump the compost. Then I realized one tomato plant had grown considerably larger than the rest.

"Ah-ha!" I thought. "Survival of the fittest." My decision was made.

Leaving the tall plant alone, I pulled out the small tomato sprouts and packed a heavy mulch of grass clippings around the big guy.

I pulled out the sprouting papayas but kept the impatiens. I can never have enough flowers but my need for more papaya trees is limited.

Another week has passed and my volunteer tomato looks better than ever. To support its leggy limbs, I've encircled the plant with four slender bamboo poles and supplemented the soil with a thicker layer of mulch. Someday soon I should be able to dump household scraps in the compost pile and walk back home with fresh-picked tomatoes.

Beauty and utility, practicality and whimsy -- who can say which belongs where? There's no rule book for creating a home landscape. It's up to each of us to decide how we want our yards to look.

After years with a purely functional compost pile, I'm delighted to finally have one that is pretty as well as practical.

Compost pile or garden? It's hard to tell the difference and sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world.

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