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Planting gardens of hope in winter

By DAVID WHITLOCK

Life Matters

Opening the composters near the fence line in our backyard, I feel winter’s chill stinging my face, announcing to me that he’s here to stay, at least for a while.

I also hear my grown children’s voices echoing in my head: “Dad, you haven’t had a garden for the past two years,” and then almost in unison, as they watched me clutching the bags filled with kitchen waste before beginning my short trek toward the compost piles, “Why do you still go out there and compost?”

I had paused to formulate an answer.

Shoulder surgery prevented me from getting a garden out last year, though by my own admission, had I been determined I might have gotten it planted, and my excuse for the year before that was the fact that it had been an unusually busy spring and summer, which came off sounding quite lame.

I caught them smiling to one another, as if to humor their “dear ‘ol dad” for his cute but nonsensical little hobby of composting.

“But there’s gold in that garbage,” I wanted to shout. “Nah, it’s just as well I not respond,” I thought, for I wouldn’t have been ready to answer their follow-up question: “Really, how?”

Had they and I had time, and the frigid wind not been nipping at us, I could have invited them to the compost piles for an explanation. “You see, once the vegetable waste, dead leaves and other debris has been rotting in there long enough; after I’ve turned it over and over, it becomes compost, very rich in nutrients.”

But truth is, they know that. They’ve watched me for years as I’ve collected kitchen scraps, coffee and tea grounds, and decaying plants from the garden. David Jr. even built his own compost containers when he had his own garden.

The real question was, why do I do it when I may not be gardening anyway?

I could say it helps the environment, which it does. Composting keeps that stuff out of landfills, which are rapidly filling up. Not only that, but plant waste in landfills produces methane gas, a harmful greenhouse gas.

And compost is good for the soil too, and consequently healthier for you, since the food grown in composted soil contains more nutrients.

I could have given those reasons and others for my composting, and that is very much a part of why I do it.

But, I must confess, beneath the noble effort to be eco-friendly, I compost for another, more selfish reason.

Hope.

Composting takes me back to the stuff that feeds the roots, the elements that give life to plants or at least life’s possibility, and that possibility begs for that intangible nutrient, hope.

There is something about picking up a handful of compost, breathing it in, letting it gently slip through my fingers and watching it as it softly falls to the ground that beckons me to join it down there, where the very basic elements of life are mixing together.

In the grittiness at ground level, I imagine tender plants there just beneath my feet, where there is only brown grass now. The dead turf that crunches under my boots, crying out for me to plow it under, empowering it to become a breeding ground of vibrancy where all is dormant now, as if the dirt itself aspires to be the womb for seeds so miniscule they will hide in the cover of the soil. Until of course, the time is right and the plants burst through the dirt, declaring to the watching world who they are: tomato plants, cabbage plants, pepper plants, lettuce plants — all clamoring to be heard, each singing their life song.

Taking a deep breath, and slowly exhaling, I gaze at the winter horizon’s setting sun, smiling to myself at how the transformation of waste into compost has somehow renewed my hope in planting a garden.

And much more.

In his book, “Soil and Sacrament,” Fred Bahnson wrote, “Soil is a portal to another world.”

Yes, it is. A world where the cycle of life turns the cycle of death, where hope planted in the dead of winter somehow blossoms in the heat of summer; where tasty fruit is birthed from kitchen scraps.

And where in the teeth of winter’s bite, a warm spring kiss stokes hope in the heart of “dear ‘ol Dad.”

Contact David Whitlock, Ph.D. at drdavid@davidwhitlock.org. or visit his website, davidwhitlock.org.