When I die, put my ashes straight on the heap.
Illustration by Cari Vander Yacht
An interest in plants, particularly the kinds you can eat, has a way of
inspiring a desire for dirt. Sterility is for operating theatres. I want
bareback gardening: the feel of cold stone, the scent of leaf mold, mud
up to my elbows. For an urban gardener, it’s difficult to feel at one
with nature when you’re dependent on tiny sacks of commercial soil:
expensive, impractical, and bearing the faintest whiff of Marie
Antoinette bogusness—the appalling suspicion that one is merely playing
at the Good Life. Wouldn’t it be far more satisfying to have a supply of
the sticky, rich, worm-studded authentic stuff?
In this, as in most things, it is wise to follow the guidance of the
gloriously outspoken and increasingly environmentalist Bette Midler: “My
whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of
God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets
you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my
first [compost] heap.” Admittedly, you may feel that you don’t have
space for even a modest pile of carrot peelings, let alone a
Hollywood-style, custom-built, triple-chambered rotating hot composter.
You might suspect that, faced with global warming, your banana skins and
paper bags have little value. You’d be right.
But picture producing something from nothing, or, better still, from
refuse: the slimy salad, worn-out jeans, and crumpled newspaper that
even the most ardent upcycler must set aside. Imagine if, with a minimum
of effort, one could obtain the most delicious plant food and, even
better, nauseating amounts of self-satisfaction, merely by shoving
vegetable remnants into a dark place, lightly watering them, and
waiting. Within a few months, they will have magically combined to form
clots of chocolaty, sweet-smelling, wildly nutritious soil. I am no fan
of mold, yet this black gold is a joy to handle; I distribute it among
my pots like a loving mother spooning vitamins into her young. It’s like
cooking, but smugger. Trust me. If I have room for a single plastic
compost bin, so do you.
Ah, yes; the single bin. The problem is that composting is, like other
gardener’s habits, rampantly addictive. It’s all very well gathering
melon rinds and soggy basil; what about minor weeds, coffee grounds,
toilet-paper rolls? Used tissues? Fluff from the tumble dryer?
Increasingly, the world becomes merely a source of compost. Here, I’ll
take your moth-nibbled sweater. Please don’t feel you have to finish, or
even start, your salad. Would it be strange to bring home this used tea
bag? The streets of London aren’t exactly strewn with decomposing
seaweed, wood ash, hedge clippings, and pond silt, so one must get
creative; I’m not too proud to eye police-horse dung. When I die, put my
ashes straight on the heap.
An added benefit: Who needs farm animals, or even household pets, when
you have a herd of compost worms? I haven’t reached the point of giving
them names, but when I find a new family nestling in a peanut shell, I
beam with protective pride. Like a Victorian matriarch, I rest my
forearms on the edge of the bin and watch my merry workers toil; they’re
warm, well fed, sexually active—what more could anyone want?
That’s why I had to buy a second compost bin: humanitarian reasons.
Composting soothes so many of my oddities and neuroses: my immigrant
insecurity, the terror of foodlessness; my guilt that, because I was too
excited by my strawberry harvest to actually pick the fruit, I let them
grow moldy on the vine. Thanks to the compost bin, they will not have
died in vain. If there’s something faintly depraved about growing plants
to chuck them straight on the heap, so be it. I’m past caring. Besides,