At one time, my idea of composting was to put dead stuff into a pile and leave it out back. I have since come to see the compost bin more as a family pet–a living organism that offers pleasure, but which also needs care and attention, and the occasional scratch behind the ears. To reflect my current attitude, I moved the compost pile from its former place of shame next to the garbage can, to a prominent location in the front yard. And I built a bin for it, a spacious 2-holer, using waste cedar slabs from the local sawmill. The slabs are nailed on bark side out, and as they weather, the bark is peeling off gradually, hanging down in ropy and interesting patterns.  One of the bin’s corner posts is tall, and serves as one attachment point for a hammock. The other end of the hammock attaches to the lichen covered trunk of an apple tree.

With my formal bin, I’ve tried to move beyond haphazard additions. If I have a whole raft of grapevine clippings, for example, I don’t throw them all into the bin at once. Half gets set aside until a layer of something else can go in between. Nobody likes a monotonous diet, not even bacteria. So broccoli stem bases get mixed with straw from the floor of the rabbit’s cage, coffee grounds with fruit tree prunings, and so on. Such are the pleasant rituals of compost.

Woody stems, twigs and corncobs are my biggest challenge; they thumb their noses at the decomposing abilities of my highly skilled cadre of worms, bugs and microbes. When I realized I was seeing the same twigs and stems cycling from bin to garden and back to the bin again unscathed, I knew it was time for drastic action. I now cut these items into small pieces using a pair of sharp pruning shears. It is during these long cutting sessions in front of the compost bin that I contemplate the pleasant mysteries of shallow ecology.

I am very conscious of compost odors, which would simultaneously repel neighbors and attract local black bears. Whenever I put a bunch of wet, juicy kitchen stuff into the bin, I always mix dry, stemmy stuff in along with it, to maintain the sweet and subtle odor. Even in fall time, when a lot of unused fruit goes into my bin, the smell never goes septic.  A friend suggested that I consider wearing a lab coat when I work my compost. Now that would certainly be overkill, but I have become inordinately proud of the rich black stuff that we (the bugs and I) produce. One of my many summer garden pleasures is to sprawl in my hammock, doing nothing, while my compost bugs work their skinny little asses off.

I do look forward to the summer sweet corn season, partly because I love corn on the cob, and partly because of the husks, which I found to be wonderful compost material that breaks down almost immediately. Husks are just the opposite of cobs, which are as durable as mahogany. Shortly after my husk discovery the local grocery store set up a plastic garbage bin next to their sweet corn display, allowing customers to shuck their corn right on the spot, and allowing me to periodically trundle off with the contents of the bin.  Surely the gods of recycling had something to do with that delightful circumstance.

Gardening has now gone upscale to the point that you can now pay fifty dollars for a personalized weeding cushion, so I am surprised no one has started marketing boutique compost. The promotional material for such an upscale product might go something like this. “Sideyard, 1999. Redolent of herbs and humus, Sideyard is carefully aged in natural cedar and turned by hand, using cold-rolled, ungalvanized pitchforks. You will be satisfied by the calcium-rich mellowness, and agreeably surprised by the robustness of its red wigglers.”