How the Compost Pile Turned into a Thriving Rock Garden

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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.

I can’t say I’d never heard of compost: I had. I thought it was some thing you bought in garden stores. But I was running out of room, so I started putting clippings on the fruit pile, creating a compost pile. They promptly and conspicuously soured! That did it. The men were not about to try loading the smelly mess, even the kids were avoiding the back yard and I made it a point never to be outside when the neighbors were.

Desperation set in. I took the shovel and began to fling dirt. Sand from the sandpile, gravel from the driveway, soil and bark from out by the woodpile. I heaped it on until the air began to clear. I added a few big rocks–of which there were plenty–loaded up the youngsters and took off to my sister-in-law’s for a box of the plants she’d been offering me for years . . . and which I’d managed to avoid until then.

She gave me pansies, hen-and-chickens, and sedums. Lo and behold! I had a rock garden instead of a trash heap.

Years of strawberries, glade, vegetables and fruit trees later, I am a shovel-packing, manure-toting organic gardener who regards the death of anything from a marigold to a mouse as fair game for the compost heap. Like any enthusiast, I’m a missionary too, proselyting at the flip of a seed catalog. I realized just how far my message had gone the day I got an excited call from a non-gardening friend.

“Ruth, guess what!”

“This you, Velma? What?”

“Remember that rock garden you made out of your ash heap?”

“Ash heap. You mean trash heap?”

“Ash, trash. What’s the difference? I just planted two dozen pansies in the ash pile. . .”

Two years later, those same plants, set in about one inch of soil and two feet of ashes are flourishing and have multiplied into quite a flower bed. Proving, once more, that nature won’t waste anything if we won’t.

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