How staying at home and my compost bin introduced me to the gardening community

April 22, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC

This is an installment of Pandemic Purchases, a special series of personal essays about the items bought in the last year that brought the most value and joy to our lives and work while living in lockdown.

As the dough of my 32nd pandemic bread proofed (I’m gluten-free, by the way), and the 40th gallon of chicken stock simmered, the desire for a new hobby took hold. My freezer swelled with frozen food or fragments of food, and I needed something else to do with my time and hands.

On a mundane Monday or Tuesday evening, or perhaps it was a Thursday morning, I watched Kiss the Ground, a Netflix documentary about regenerative agriculture and soil health. In one segment, among many illuminating the importance of soil biodiversity, it shared the dangers of food waste in our landfills, which produce toxic methane. I’ve never tended to a live plant, let alone studied soil, so the lessons in that documentary—although practiced by Indigenous brothers and sisters for centuries—opened my mind and set me on an unexpected adventure through domestic botany.

As I no longer needed my scraps for more stock or radish leaf and beet green pesto, I heeded the documentary’s advice to compost. Why not? I literally had nothing else to do or freezer space. Researching bins, I found a Bubba Gump selection of shapes and sizes: petite bins for the countertop, outdoor tumblers that twirl like a bingo drum, and three-tiered worm bins too complex for my elementary understanding of compost. Sheepishly, I opted for a small biodegradable bamboo model that snugged next to my regular receptacle, an overpowering tower of household trash. Consciously collecting peels, tops, cores, shells, and juice pulp my aunt dropped off every day, the humble bin became a treasure chest, a scrap purgatory that would one day…that’s where things got weird.

I decided to make some dirt.

While watching every “composting for beginners” YouTube video (there’s a lot) that exists, I discovered microbes and soil’s striking resemblance to my microbiome. Both need proper nourishment and powerful bacteria to flourish. For a compost pile to thrive, a mixture of nitrogen-rich green (scraps and yard trimmings) and carbon-dense brown (dried leaves, twigs, newspaper) material is layered like lasagna. Then, every other day, it’s turned for oxygen and watered so when you pick up a handful and squeeze it, it maintains “a meatball shape,” according to my cousin who, unbeknownst to me, used to have an Everest-size compost mountain in his yard.

When my immediate trees didn’t yield enough dried foliage for the weekly pile contribution, I used afternoon walks as scavenger hunts to accrue matter accumulated in fence corners or gutters. Anytime I saw dead leaves or broken twigs, an elation rushed through me as if I’d seen an old friend. Even when my father’s budding avocado plant succumbed to a weekend of brutal winds, the dismembered branches turned into an inheritance for the compost, a cyclical tribute of life.

The Bamboozle Bamboo Compost Bin, sold by Food52.
Danielle Bernabe

On Saturdays, I dumped the contents of the bin into a blender to make confetti, which speeds up the composting process. I also shredded grocery bags and mail if my foraging walks deemed leafless. While feeding the pile, I talked to critters of every spectrum, and rather than squirming at worms—the nonbinary royalty of decomposition—I searched for them. That pile of rotting material became my pet that I constantly nurtured. My hands, accustomed to kneading baguettes I couldn’t eat, found themselves shaping the earth.

But what does one do with a massive, steeping pile of organic waste? Once again, I didn’t know. So, I consulted YouTube’s CaliKim Garden & Home DIY and The Rusted Garden and joined every Clubhouse room about homesteading I could find, like “Ya Grandma’s Garden & Houseplants” and “Food Growers Unite.” According to advice, I needed to use the soil and plant things. This required seeds and seed-starting supplies, and a new place to go every day: the local gardening centers where I navigated aisles for organic soils, repellents, and plant food; for gloves and a new hose head that supplied a softer, more gentle mist as to not disturb the precious topsoil of my seedlings.

During a particularly busy day at Lowe’s, a man stopped me near the fungicides and asked what I preferred. “My favorite YouTuber recommended this one,” I said holding up Dr. Earth’s disease control. He nodded and walked away. I had never used the word “YouTuber” before then, but there I was.

All the while, the tiny compost bin from Food52 welcomed my throwaways and inspired me to give back to the earth what it has given me.

My kitchen table—nestled under a south-facing window—transformed into a germination station housing trays of zucchini, chard, radish, basil, Thai basil, parsley, carrots, and onions from Native Seeds. Even the squirrels, birds, bunnies, and insects that mock me daily are great company. Although one of them (or all!) eventually nibbled away every leaf of every plant produced after months of tending.

With dirt and the biodiversity it needs, I’m continuously reminded of the connection from earth to sun, and everything in between, including the aphids and gnats. One day, I’ll eat a carrot I grew, nourished by the carrot tops of a carrot I used in a stock. And the earth will do its miraculous thing, and I will learn the methods of our Indigenous elders, of Farmer Ken on Instagram whose DMs are filled with my questions, and of millions of people who came before me who share their wisdom.

But for now, I’ll fill and empty the bamboo bin, churn the pile, and feel less alone.

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