The Gifts of Compost

"There is one rule in the garden that is above all others. You must give to nature more than you take. Obey it, and the earth will provide you in glorious abundance."                                                                          -- Alan Chadwick

The compost yard at Delphi is one of my favorite places on the estate to be and to teach from. It is, afterall, the beginning and the end of the garden's gifts at the same time. Students new to sustainable gardening and composting are often as marveled by this as I continue to be. Composting is an activity that yields to the magic of transformation and does not cease to marvel despite routine and experience. It is an area that is in need of near constant attention, monitoring for it is an active process despite its passive-seeming nature. 

Our compost yard is protected by the forest, but is also accessible by the Gator when we need to haul large loads of material to it. It is where we compose (a word that shares the Latin roots, 'com' and 'poser/pausare' with "compost") a medley of horse and chicken manures, kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, and spent plants from the gardens with dried leaves, straw, and animal bedding. Horse hooves trimmed from the farrier's work plus dog and human hair are additions we greatly value, too. These layers, properly moistened and added in balance to the other (generally 70% carbonaceous materials to 30% nitrogenous), require us to dance along: there are filled burlap sheets and buckets to collect, dump, spread and berm, and a digging fork, to add air and pull the piles edges out, is an invaluable tool. We conduct the layers in order for them to play out their symphony, monitoring temperature and moisture and turning the piles only as necessary, if at all. We are overwhelmed with gratitude when the end product yields a mature, finished, dark brown humus-like compost...anywhere from 9 months to 1.5 years after a pile has been "prepped". 

We make a small 'nest' of soil to tuck about 1 teaspoon of one of the preps into. Then, using a stick, we drill diagonal holes into the pile where we reach in and deposit it, toward the center of the pile.

We add the Biodynamic preparations to each pile when we are completely through with composing it and after it enters a slight mellowing, or resting, stage. The preps work in subtle ways to ensure that the pile decomposes in a stable, consistent manner. Because the finished compost must provide balanced nutrition to the soil,  and therefore to the plants, as well as supply organic matter -- the preps ensure this smooth delivery. The vision and intention for the preparations came to us from insights delivered in Rudolf Steiner's 1924 Agriculture lectures, and we make them in regional community through the Biodynamic Association of Northern California. They have been referred to by skeptics as nonsensical, a waste of time, and by others -- mainly those who have worked with them -- as spiritual, medicinal, connective, and intriguing. While they are complex to explain, and often elicit more questions than they do answers, I ask only that our interns are open to the process, and willing to engage with it. Observable effects on the fermentation process of the compost pile include creating a finished compost with excellent humus structure. And, of course, the plants share the benefits of well-made compost with us year-round.  

One last quote from Alan Chadwick that has been particularly inspiring and, I think, relevant in the context of compost building, spreading, and the nourishment it provides us with: "We need to create the beauty and the quality first. The quantity will follow."

A compost pile entering its resting stage. 

A compost pile entering its resting stage.