An Organic Theory of Composting

When William Butler Yeats was an old man, his physician grimly informed him that he suffered from arteriosclerosis. “Arteriosclerosis, arteriosclerosis,” the poet is said to have replied, lingering lovingly on the music of those awful syllables. “What a wonderful word! Why, I should rather have arteriosclerosis than be emperor of all Cathay.”

To those who garden, compost is such a word. Com-post. To speak it is to share in the poet’s linguistic intoxication. The very sound exudes fecundity and intimates the warm rewards of responsible husbandry. Here in Southern California, this is the season to consider compost--and what better? Now, at the turning of the year, what poet could contrive a more organic metaphor for the common hope to bring new life out of the decay of the old?

In fact, the rewards of composting are not only metaphysical, or simply horticultural, but also political. For--recent events in Eastern Europe notwithstanding--among the several things about which Karl Marx was right is the uncontestable fact that consciousness is determined by one’s relationship to the means of production. And what finer method to approach the consciousness of one’s garden than to partake in its death and regeneration.

In this, as in so many areas, as Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” In this case, that means: Pay attention to the architecture of your compost pile. However you contain it, the pile wants to be built thusly: Put down 6 inches of organic waste--say, a mixture of chopped vegetable kitchen waste, garden trimmings, leaves and grass in equal parts. Top with an inch or so of soil to introduce the bacteria common to your garden and an inch of manure to encourage decomposition. Repeat the layers in this fashion until the pile is complete.


The mechanism by which your compost reduces itself is aerobic decomposition, which means it needs to breathe, so turn it frequently. The microorganisms thus encouraged also require moisture. The conventional wisdom (which in this case happens to be right) is that your compost pile ought to be as damp as a well-squeezed sponge.

How do you know when your compost is done? Like any good intention, it has a sweet aroma and the rich, dark color of fertility.