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Composting Before it Was Cool

The outline of my Grandma's personal garden. The compost heap was at the lowest point of the photo.

Growing up, I lived in a house with a huge (for Long Island) backyard. It was a stretched pentagon-shaped piece of property 60 feet across in the front but about 300 feet across in the back. It went back at its deepest 250 feet deep, and the house wasn’t big so there was a wide expanse to run and play and work in. Since there was so much room every spring my Italian grandma would come and plant three vegetable gardens along the back fence, which abutted a school yard. We’ have tomatoes, watermelon, lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, green peppers, eggplant, and herbs, among other items. She also planted a fourth garden along the common side fence that we shared with a neighbor — a perfect place to grow green beans, cucumbers, and other climbing plants.  Grandma was blessed with a proverbial green thumb. My father had one, too, despite the fact that he grew up in a Manhattan apartment building. They gardened together for years before he died.

While my father had good instincts, it was my Grandma who taught him that the best fertilizer is the natural stuff. During the planting phase he’d watch my grandmother drop egg shells, veggie scraps, and manure into the dug-out holes, lovingly ensconcing in the little seedling plants and covering them with what was essentially garbage. I don’t know if my grandmother had anything to do with it, but at some point he started making a huge compost pile in the backyard and it became the primary way to feed our garden. All the yard and grass clippings went there, of course, but so did coffee grinds and eggshells and apple peelings. Dry leaves were added in the fall. In the spring they would fill up a wheel barrow and dump piles of compost on top of the garden, covering up the withered vines and plants from the previous year. (No reason to pull them, after all, since the dry, brown vines and mushed tomatoes and eggplants would simply have gone into the compost bin anyway.)

Between April and April, I can remember him — every so often — turning over the pile with a pitchfork. What’s most vivid, though, is the memories of its smell and heat. In the spring, the pile would steam as he uncovered the decomposing bottom layers. In the summer, if you took a moment, you could smell the different components rising up. It was a good smell. I think I may have even sat in that heap once or twice. It was fairly close to our swingset, so it was often incorporated into our play — sometimes it was a home for ghosts; sometimes goblins lived in it.The smell and the process bring back wonderful memories of people who have been gone for years.

Anyway, tonight as I took a bowl of vegetable scraps out to my own pristine, antiseptic, black plastic compost bin I remembered the one from my childhood, and connected the two. I don’t know why it took me so long to do so. Here I thought I was doing something so modern and Earth-friendly, but in reality I was just following in my father’s footsteps. He and my grandmother were eco-friendly before I EVER was.

Feeling nostalgic, I came inside and told Big Girl about my childhood compost bin. (She loves hearing about when Mommy was a little girl.) I also made her a promise: Next year, we’re going to start a garden. After all, what’s the point of composting if you don’t use it for what it’s intended for: creating life.

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