There is something quite magical about compost. Real, home-made compost, that is, not the stuff that comes in plastic bags from a garden centre. You take all the detritus of daily life, well, almost all, mix it up in a heap, cover and leave – hey presto – in six months’ time it has transformed itself into valuable stuff that helps your garden grow strong and healthy. It must be the nearest thing to alchemy that ordinary folks can engage in. Marvellous!
During the process of transformation, a compost heap serves as a wildlife haven. Toads shelter in cool, damp corners, snakes bask in the warmth at the heart of the heap, even laying their eggs there on occasion. Field mice make their nests out of the warm, dry material they find there, and yes, even rats burrow in and out searching for a free snack. All kinds of minibeasts make the compost heap their home: scuttling millipedes and centipedes, the faithful woodlouse, black and brown beetles, golden-shelled snails and slithery slugs. All are helping to make the magic work. But the stars of the heap, the absolute top-notch, bees-knees, David and Victoria Beckhams of compost, are the brandling worms. Small, blood-red, not the prettiest of worms, they are indeed the sine qua non of compost! Arriving in their thousands, they make their way out of the soil, up into the heap, where they begin to munch. They are the true alchemists, converting our detritus into lovely crumbly compost with every mouthful.
Digging out my heap today puts me in touch with human friends too. It’s a kind of immediate archaeology, digging not through centuries or millenia, but through months. Here are the kernels of two mangoes, still almost intact, but now hollow, like those dried out seaweed purses you find on a beach. I bought those mangoes to make a fruit salad when Jim stayed overnight on his way from Newcastle to London. Here is a soft ball woven of hay and fur – a mouse nest made out of Domenica’s discarded rabbit bedding. I wonder how she is faring in her new life in Paris and whether her rabbits appreciate their new home in Wales.
So you see, a compost heap is actually far more than a way of recycling kitchen scraps and garden waste. It’s a way of recycling, revisiting and refreshing memories too, second time around. What magic!
© Jane Naylor