I had less than an hour, so this was not the kind of venue where you can do a hands-on composting demonstration. Over the months (they invited me to speak last summer) I worked on a Powerpoint-slide show that would give the what and the why of composting. It's a fascinating story, how humans for thousands of years were spreading compost and manure (the Greeks talk about making compost heaps) on their crops. Darwin was convinced that earth worms ruled the world (or at least the underworld). But then in the 19th century German scientists started pushing for an industrial process that would turn gaseous nitrogen into something that could be spread on farm crops to feed an exploding human population. It's only within the last few generations that we have come to believe that fertility is something we buy in the form of turquoise pellets, and that composting is only for hippies and tree huggers.
The sad truth is that chemical fertilizers are ruining our soils and choking our waterways. People are receptive to composting and gardening "naturally" or "organically." But especially in urban areas, they aren't sure how to make compost without investing tons of money in manufactured bins. There are rodent issues, neighbors to consider. It's a very thorny problem, and I'm just starting to get a grip on all the details. But that's what we need to be doing, especially in our cities: figuring out how we can recycle all that stuff we normally send to the landfill, or put at the curb in plastic bags.
On a more amusing note, I did a little hobnobbing with some community gardeners last week, courtesy of our local department of the environment. An environmental specialist is meeting with community gardeners to talk about Integrated Pest Management, or how to deal with unwanted bugs and plant diseases without using pesticides. Except the environmental specialist is not really a gardener. So I was told to expect questions. Sure enough, everyone wanted to know how to deal with cucumber beetles. They weren't very receptive to the idea of planting something other than cucumbers if they have a recurring infestation of cucumber beetles.
Somehow, we need to get the idea across that there isn't an organic spray to replace every chemical spray. Organic is a holistic approach that requires plant diversity, opening you mind to the needs of the environment, providing food and nesting places for wildlife, choosing the appropriate plants for local conditions, thinking globally instead of where can I get my hands on a good spray.
After my presentation last night, an elderly woman on crutches approached me to make this observation: "I started gardening 35 years ago and I had the worst soil. So I just took my leaves and spread them around the garden. I've been doing that every year, just spreading the leaves around. And you know what? I've got the most wonderful soil you've ever seen."
Go on with your bad leaf mulching self, girl.
To be continued...