Friday, August 15, 2008

The Accidental Composter

One of the benefits of the Hobbits getting older is that I have the opportunity to do more independent stuff. Tool Guy has positively taken up residence in his workshop these days, having a laundry list of things to build this summer, and is locked in the throes of planing and routering. There's a built-in wardrobe at the end of his tunnel and he still has my chicken tractor yet to build. But since the Hobbits are needing less and less direct supervision, it's possible to leave them to their devices while Tool Guy is making enough noise in his shop to annoy the deer and I can go do "me" things.

One such Saturday involved a composting class with my gardening buddy. A local co-operative extension was offering the class, dangling an "Earth Machine" composter as the carrot. Tres chic, and my friend and I decided to bite, thinking that we'd get a free composter and maybe learn a few tips in the bargain. Our version of a Mother's Day Out. Hey, it beats spending money on a day spa, right?

We brought our folding chairs--Princess graciously loaned me her pink one that says, what else, "Princess"--to lounge in the warehouse of a local feed store, redolent of chicken feed and malathion, and prepared ourselves to be informed. The presenters were a couple who were interesting to listen to and well-informed on their topic...even had a PowerPoint presentation to go with it. One of the things that amused me during the lecture was when one of the presenters referred to herself as a "casual composter," by which she meant that she didn't vigorously attend her compost nor apply with scientific rigor the ratios and principles of feeding a compost bin, referencing her parents' habit of tossing all garden scraps and weeding onto a pile just outside the paling of the garden. But listening to her subsequent description how she manages her compost and its wormy inhabitants made me comment later to my friend, "If she's a casual composter, then I'm an accidental one!" Because I guess I'm a rule breaker...or at least a bender. I throw all manner of food scraps into my compost pile. The one that sits at least a half an acre away from the house, so smells and critters are of no moment. Everything including the bones from my soup broth goes into the mountain that sits on the edge of the woods. I'll admit that I pay little attention to ratios of greens and browns, though all of my leaves and yard clippings go there, too. It must all be good, because somehow it all reduces to dirt by the following spring and my worms are auditioning for "Tremors 2." Watch out, Kevin Bacon.

However, bending the rules or ignoring possibilities can come back to bite. This year's garden is a prime example of that. One of the most pertinent points in the lecture was "how to tell when your compost is ready." One of the ways to test compost is to sprout a seed in the stuff. If it doesn't sprout, not ready. Ding, ding, ding, ding. My currently-sluggish garden sprang to mind.

Last summer was the first summer of my huge greenhouse canopy. When I put the garden to bed last fall, I did as I'd always done and pile massive amounts of leaves and yard clippings along with the year's accumulated compost. This procedure has always worked wonderfully well, but I failed to take into consideration the sheltering effect of the greenhouse in diminishing the amount of moisture contributing to the composting process. In the spring, the layer of detritus still remained, bone dry and intact instead of crumbling into the soil over the winter. Despite enthusiastic...nay, desperate...tilling, it's taken quite a while to finish the decomp job. Lesson learned. I guess this is what they call "gardening dangerously."

I'm still managing to harvest a few things out of the garden. I have a half gallon of pickles with the promise of a bit more to come. We've gotten a few squash that volunteered themselves. When I realized that my garden wasn't going to be what I usually get, I decided that whatever showed enough spunk to stick its head up could grow whatever it wanted. I've gotten a yellow zucchini...and I'm trying to figure out where that came from...and a couple of crookneck squash. And a few tomatoes have ripened.

One of the culinary delights that was served to me during that celebratory luncheon with my gardening friend was gazpacho. In my mind, gazpacho has always been one of those exotic dishes that are classics on the gourmet litany of dishes, but I've never had before and never occurred to me to attempt. I was delighted when the first dish of the meal that appeared before me was gazpacho. And it was delicious. My friend confessed that her native informant had critiqued the gazpacho recipe as being "too chunky." Apparently, in this student's home, the gazpacho, after being blended, is sieved through a strainer to make it much smoother and finer. I agreed with my friend, however, that the texture of this gazpacho was much more interesting and satisfying. And refreshing on a warm July afternoon. Here's her version of this Spanish classic.


4 tomatoes
1/4 sweet onion
1 cucumber
1 sweet red bell pepper
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
olive oil, opt.

Blanch tomatoes, peel, and place in food processor with sweet onion quarter, minced garlic and deseeded bell pepper. Peel cucumber, reserving a portion to dice for garnish, and place in food processor. Add salt and puree to desired consistency. Garnish with diced cucumber and dash of olive oil, if desired. Serve cold.

There's an additional piquancy to this particular bowl of gazpacho. It contains some of the precious few tomatoes and cucumbers that my garden was able to squeeze out this year. It's a pity some lessons get learned the hard way. Ah, well. This fall, the yard clippings will reside in van-sized mountain at the edge of our woods and I'll wait until spring to haul it up and incorporate into the garden. Who knows maybe next year will be better than it would have been otherwise for this accidental vacation due to my accidental composting...

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