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notable farming stories

May 28, 2012

We are very serious about compost around here.

The other day, I was both thinking about compost (for a magazine article I’d been asked to write) and plopping compost into holes, the new row houses into which greenhouse broccoli plants were moving.

My assistant mulching broccoli plants with chicken bedding.

The prize, 2011

I was thinking about what I wanted to write about compost, which to me is a miracle on par with say, Moses parting the Red Sea, when I found, in a shovel scoop of compost, a desiccated mango pit. I pried open the hollowed-out clam shell of a seed, and inside, a small green worm wriggled into the light of day.

And I thought, that’s exactly what I want to say about compost.  

Making compost is a practice of embracing surprises and being awed by the persistence and goodness of life. You can throw something that looks like waste scraps into a pile and it reinvents itself as free fertility. And it’s always a blessing to strive not for perfection but for completion.  (My finished compost has been known to contain shards of egg shell, curling wedges of lemon peel, and sprouting avocado seeds, one of which was rescued by a certain 7 year old and is now a robust plant in our greenhouse).

Col, caretaker of many things, doting over the squash plant he started from seed. (Bright lights chard glowing in background).

In gardening too, it’s the surprises that chime the bell of my heart: last year’s forgotten potatoes resurrected as young upstarts, the peach pit that sprouted in our compost pile, now a fruit-bearing tree; the self-sowing indigo larkspur whose seeds I swiped 8 years ago from a neighbor’s garden, now shooting up everywhere like blue firecrackers; how after 10 years of mediocre fruiting, the plum trees in the alleyway behind our house are loaded with green orbs.

Frost-pecked plums.

Sometimes the surprises are of a different nature. Like coming home from our camping trip last weekend to find that the hand of a freak frost knocked down all the tomatoes in the hoop house (yes, those tomatoes, including all of this year’s “Hal’s Plums,” already heavy with fruit). While I was sitting around the campfire, drinking wine and singing John Denver songs like a cliche of my own raised-in-the-70’s, Colorado-loving self, a crazy cold front was moving in. By the time we were back at the campfire drinking coffee the next morning, those 13 tomato plants were a pile of withered, blackened leaves.

That frost seems to have bounced around the yard, swiping at raspberries, grape vines, our baby pears, squashes, potato leaves and peas. Peas! I’ve never in the history of growing food heard of peas affected by frost.

I’ve cut away all the frost damage on the tomatoes (which for most of them was the entire plant) and am waiting to see if any will rebound. I can already feel this frost shuffling around in my mental files, slipping from “tragedies” to “notable farming stories.”

And I’m always grateful and humbled to take part in nurturing a plant, to be one of the many forces that transform a seed speck to a meal; to know that in gardening, like parenting, and in life, I can only set my intentions and do my best and see what surprises await.

And also, there’s still another 20 tomato plants in the greenhouse.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2012 10:02 pm

    Hi Rachel, I think of a memory often when I am working with my compost. It is many many years ago when we were in a woman’s meditation group together in the Smiley Bldg and we were ask to bring in something inspirational or…(I forget the exact criteria), but you brought in compost. Saying it was the first compost from your place and what a miracle it is. Thanks for sharing – I love that memory of passing your compost around and feeling it.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 30, 2012 1:48 pm

      aww, I totally remember that and am honored that you do too.

  2. Michele permalink
    May 29, 2012 10:36 pm

    Compost….something I know I should do as a responsible person but am so frightened to start because of odor and critters. With a family of 5, one of which practically a fruitarian, I know I need to get this going.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 30, 2012 1:50 pm

      Michele, you could get one of those cool composting contraptions that contain your compost in a metal cylinder which you turn; this should keep critters out and odors down. xo

  3. Melissa permalink
    May 30, 2012 12:04 am

    Your writing is just ridiculously lush! I would also love to know what your initial reaction was upon finding the frost-ravaged plants–swears? Didn’t seem to take you long to find grace with it all. I’m just wanting to know you are human (:

    Speaking of human, Avi and I finally tossed our seeds into the front yard tonight with a good old-fashioned baruchhatahadonai . . .and his plastic rake and shovel. Lilit hopped on the hopscotch squares and they squabbled over the rake. Then Avi had a meltdown because he wanted to plant more seeds and instead I made him come inside for dinner and a bath. So it looks like we need to garden more.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 30, 2012 1:52 pm

      Melissa, I came home elated from camping, spotted the ruined tomatoes (and squash, pears…) and walked around the rest of the night like I had a 100-pound turtle shell on my back.

      • Rachel Turiel permalink*
        May 30, 2012 2:37 pm

        Also, it’s easier to find some grace when there’s 20 tomato plants still in the greenhouse. Baruchhatadonai!

  4. May 30, 2012 7:26 am

    What a wonderful homage to compost.

    I like to think of gardening as a giant, ongoing experiment. You win some, you lose some. Glad you still have tomatoes in the greenhouse.

  5. May 30, 2012 7:35 am

    Oh, what beautiful plums! We have apples but its much too cold for peaches here unless they’re grown in a greenhouse. So far we’ve been lucky not to have any frost since we’ve started planting in the garden. One of these days (maybe next year) we’ll start tending our compost pile properly!

  6. May 30, 2012 9:12 am

    Oof-da. I heard about that frost, but was hoping you were unaffected at your slightly lower elevation. My current tragedy is the loss of two of my three heritage breed turkeys to a predator a few nights ago. I try not to get attached to animals, as we do eat them in the end, but these guys had stolen my heart, running across the field to greet me like I was their long lost love. The survivor roosted somewhere undisclosed to us last night, (he was already not to be found when we went out to lock up the ducks and chickens) but survived to greet me this morning. Fingers crossed. And I am SO glad you still have tomatoes in the greenhouse! Your hollyhocks are planted. XO

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 30, 2012 1:58 pm

      As hard as it is to eat your own animals, it’s harder when something else does, right? So sorry to hear of the gentlemanly turkeys.

  7. May 30, 2012 9:35 am

    That broccoli!

    When I was in high school, I noticed that on the first truly warm spring-ish day of any year, I’d go a little wild — dizzy with excitement in the outdoors. I get a bit of that feeling looking at these photos of your garden. I can’t imagine what it must be like actually to be in that garden.

  8. May 30, 2012 12:22 pm

    I love these posts. I feel like we’re sipping strong coffee or a good beer and you’re telling me stories. I sit in your garden pictures and dream of my own rescued peach pit trees and the change of a garden over the past decade. Someday my feet will be rooted deeply into a place I adore also, and I look forward to writing down some notable farming stories….

  9. May 31, 2012 1:50 pm

    Oh no! Those tomatoes! Hope they will bounce back for you guys.

    Btw, I received the seeds. Thank you! So lovely to receive mail that isn’t a bill :)

  10. May 31, 2012 3:08 pm

    oh man you had me hanging on the edge of my seat until that last sentence. i’m glad you have back ups!!! such a bummer about hal’s plums. i’m sure you still have some of last year’s seeds- and there is always next year. i love your thoughts about compost surprises. i keep finding new volunteers (cherry trees, apple trees, a squash-or-melon of some sort, lots of tomatoes) and it’s official that i do not compost hot enough to kill seeds. but what i want to know is whether you asked the larkspur neighbor before nabbing those seeds, or not. (i have SO thought about doing that!)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink*
      May 31, 2012 3:50 pm

      Apparently my compost has never heated up enough to kill seeds either. And, no, because that blue larkspur was so prolific in that neighbor’s yard, I didn’t ask. There’s a legendary story of Dan’s father, Hal, (of “Hal’s Plums”), who was a botanist and a plant-lover, strolling through a botanical garden in Florida and nabbing some of the seeds of black lillies. He just couldn’t resist.


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