When we broke ground at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, the site was old grass and junipers. Not the nice kind of grass, but the scratchy stuff that kids won’t even romp on. Photographic records showed that the space had probably been grass and junipers for over 30 years. You can imagine what our garden soil was like at first. It was dull dead nothingness. There was next-to-nothing in the way of soil life.

Most areas of our city are in similar straits. The site at the new Emerson Avenue Community Garden that we’re building has been compacted by trucks. It has had industrial-sized school trash bins dumped on it. Its soil critters haven’t had any T.L.C. for more than a decade.

Many sites throughout South Orange County and other newer suburban developments had the topsoil mined out and sold when developers built the houses. The “garden soil” at my sister’s house in Thousand Oaks was basically crushed sandstone. In other places, a decade or more of petrochemical sprays has obliterated anything that used to be alive. In most cases, we can presume that we’re starting from scratch with respect to soil life.

How do we bring the soil critters back? Feed them. Water them. We can hasten the process by bringing in critters and spores and eggs. Where do we get those? From homemade compost, which I often call “black gold.”

Why would we, in our right mind, toss our kitchen scraps to the landfill, pile our garden clippings in the green waste bin, send them “away” using massive amounts of oil and greenhouse gas emissions, and then drive to the garden center to buy bagged compost? (Answer: we weren’t in our right minds.) We need those kitchen scraps, we need those garden clippings. These are the ingredients which can produce homemade compost which is far better than what money can buy!

Sure, you can go down to the garden center and buy a bag that says “organic compost” on it. But open it up – what’s the difference? The store-bought stuff is usually lighter colored. It usually has a finer texture (they sieve it). The crux of the matter is: my homemade compost is rich with life. It is chock full of critters and spores and eggs, all just waiting to repopulate our deadened city soils.

Yes, buy the garden center compost if you have to. And you will have to while you’re getting started, because at first you cannot possibly produce enough of the good stuff. For the first year or two at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we used perhaps half purchased garden center stuff and half live homemade. Right now as we build the Emerson Avenue Community Garden, all we have is sterile purchased stuff. Even before you break ground on your garden, start your composting system.

Compost is food for the soil life. The soil critters are the decomposers. They help break down your garden and kitchen scraps, from something recognizable to you into molecules which are recognizable to your plants. Their body secretions and the bacteria they carry are all part of a lively underground party. You enjoy a good party – so do your plants.

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