How the Compost Pile Turned into a Thriving Rock Garden

Organic gardener Ruth Hampton shares her early experiences converting her compost pile into a healthy rock garden.

| November/December 1970

Successful gardening like successful parenthood is one of those skills that some of us gain slowly and quite by accident. Although my mother was tiny, she was a determined wheelbarrow expert who single-handedly transformed an old creek bed into a lawn and garden. At that time I managed to avoid soiling my own hands by volunteering to cook, iron, or practice piano whenever I caught a horticultural gleam in her eye.

Nine years of temporary dwellings further delayed my own green-elbow era (I tried the thumb bit and found that what I really needed was elbow grease). Finally, when our family numbered eight—three of our own progeny plus my brother and his two motherless nestlings—we bought a big ramshackle house on an outsized lot, complete with no lawn and fourteen sprawling, back-to-nature fruit trees.

With two men and five under-seven children, I didn't have time to write and I couldn't go anywhere. So I began to turn my creative instincts toward the cultivation of food.

The fruit trees started it. All by themselves they began to produce. First leaves, then blossoms, and before we knew it, six-year-old Johnnie had his first stomachache from real homegrown fruit. That child must have been colorblind, no matter what the optometrist said. To Johnnie a cherry was a cherry as soon as it got round, and the same went for apples, plums and pears. When the fruit actually turned color and looked like the pictures, we were ecstatic. Even the demand for popsicles declined as our children scrambled through the branches, picking their own and magnanimously allowing favored friends and robins to join the harvest.

It was one of those years though and soon the pile of decomposing, surplus fruit was knee high and covered a substantial corner of the yard. It was a fly-infested, semi-liquid mass. You couldn't load it, burn it or escape it. I took the only way out. I hid it.

We had begun to water and mow the weed patch out front, more with the idea of keeping the kids in sight than with any grandiose plans for a lawn. Surprisingly (to us), the weed patch began to evolve into grass, which meant grass clippings.

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