A couple of springs ago, my compost pile was a total bust. The decaying vegetable and plant matter was either too dry and clumpy or too damp and lumpy. The residing worms, fungi and other microbial tenants collectively and bitterly revolted, calling their agents and complaining about the atrocious working conditions. They wanted out and they snitched on me.

Compost bin

This is my awesome compost pile.

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Compost in a bucket

Welcome to Green Gulch Farm (where the “dirt” class was taught). How can you not be inspired to build your soil after being here?

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Green Gulch Farm

Some can bake, some can sew and some can make dirt. (Compost in a bucket, anyone?)

Photo Credit: Annie Spiegelman

Being a diva and an experienced Master Gardener, I knew this “situation” was unacceptable. I was paranoid that the president of our local Master Gardener chapter, if she found out, would rip my MG trowel-shaped nametag from my organic cotton T-shirt and accuse me of impersonating a “real” gardener.

To preserve my dignity while advancing my own legacy, I decided to sign up for the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s latest “dirt” class, taught by Zen Gardening Master and author, Wendy Johnson. I was determined and convinced Wendy’s scientific and sagely advice would assure me the perfect, mother-of-all compost piles by the end of the year.

The class was taught at Green Gulch Farm, an organic farm and Buddhist Zen Center located in Mill Valley, CA. While we attendees were busy getting our hands dirty in the fields of greens, there were Buddhist monks in saffron robes passing nearby. Some were fulfilling their vows of silence, while others happily praised the new rooftop garden planted on top of the adobe toolshed.

“At Green Gulch, we don’t proselytize about Zen, but we certainly do preach the gospel of hot compost,” said Wendy.

At the farm, there are a number of large, steamy compost piles spread around the property. The compost mantra is simple, yet precise: “Farm Girls Must Sing.”

F is for food.
G is for greens.
M is for manure.
S is for straw.

Remember that, and you’ve taken your first steps toward garden nirvana. Mix and match, turn and moisten, and you shall succeed, our teacher promised.

After 3 hours of working in the garden and taking notes on bat turds, worm poop, horse manure and friendly fungi and bacteria, Wendy reminded us of the importance of taking time to sit quietly in our gardens and do absolutely nothing. Nada. She was staring right at me when she said this. (She must have sensed I’m from New York City.)

“I’ll show her,” I thought to myself!

Hey, I know how to go deep inside and relax. So on my way out of the class, I sat on a garden bench and soaked in the sun while meditating on the gratitude and connection I felt for compost queens the world over. My heart goes out to you if your inner dialogue sounds anything like mine…

This place is too WEIRD. Oh, look, crabapple trees. Wait, I’m supposed to be observing my breath. Breathe in, breathe out. And just why is it my best friends sometimes get on my nerves? Is it them or me? Them, I’m quite sure. Yikes, here comes a Zen monk right toward me. Are these voices in my head bothering him? Okay, breathe and STOP thinking already. Focus, focus. With all that mercury in tuna, I don’t know what to eat for lunch…

And with that, I picked up my few belongings and hit the road running.

So I went home and immediately started two new compost piles: one in a store-bought plastic bin and one out in the open air. I had a successful worm box already, which was doing fine, so I left that one alone and focused on the two new piles. I went to the neighbor down the road – the one with the horses. She hugged me for enthusiastically asking her if I could take a load of her horse manure. (I think she felt sorry for me.) Then I went to my local Peet’s coffee and asked them to bag up their coffee grounds every Sunday for me. (They wore the face of pity, as well.)

I watered, turned and pampered my two new piles, and by September I had created the most fabulous homemade compost I had ever crafted. I almost had tears in my eyes when I saw the dark, crumbly, soil-like material at the bottom of the pile. It was as if those microorganisms were hiding in the dark with their party hats on, waiting for me to come home from work so they could all yell, “Surprise!”

I quickly became the stage mother of one big, glitzy family and decided to take the show on the road, “Fungi, Bacteria and Earthworms – The Musical!” I traveled around the Bay Area, giving out buckets loaded with decaying leftovers, wrapped in Christmas ribbons, as holiday gifts. The relatives were a bit surprised and grateful, yet wore that face of pity and concern. That’s okay, I reminded them. We’re all in this together: Recycling. Reusing. Regifting. This is the season of sharing. Feel free to toss in the fruitcake. Add manure, straw and water. Stab with pitchfork…