Almost exactly one year ago, when winter was coming to an end and spring was still soggy and cold, I discovered a lone organic* potato in my kitchen. [*It is important to specify organic here because conventionally grown potatoes are much less likely to root and generate offspring.] It was dried out and wrinkled, way past edible. At least six baby roots were beginning to form on the skin. I decided to try an experiment. I cut up that potato into six pieces, each containing a rootlet. I dug a trench in the garden on the far side of my backyard, and dropped in the pieces about 1 foot apart. I covered them with dirt and waited. A few weeks later, when potato buds began to push up through the mud, I covered them with more dirt and waited again. I kept covering the buds until I got busy with more urgent projects, at which point I forgot about the potatoes. Then, later that summer, I discovered a group of straggly potato plants in my backyard. When I finally got around to digging up those potato plants to see what was hiding below, I found many beautiful, golden-skinned, new potatoes, perfect in every way.
I know I shouldn’t have been surprised, but to be honest, I was. It’s not that I never did anything like this before. Yet it still created a sense of wonder. All that stood between me and those new little potatoes was a bit of effort. I already had the potato (such as it was) and, despite the fact that it was no longer edible, it still contained all the raw materials necessary to create new food, sustenance, satisfaction and joy. The whole experience reminded me of the children’s folktale, “Something from Nothing,” about a little boy whose tailor grandfather continues to craft for him progressively smaller articles of clothing from the remains of other, cast-off pieces.
Our family has an exquisite Passover seder plate, a treasured gift of blue-and-white porcelain. After seder, I don’t clear it from the table; it stays as a sort of centerpiece for days afterward. It’s obviously not its appearance that keeps it there, but rather what it means to us. And so it remains, in fading glory, long after the parsley, horseradish and charoset [a mixture of apples & walnuts] become dehydrated and unappealing. A few years ago, when I finally removed the plate to the kitchen sink to be cleaned, I got the idea to plant the dry chunk of horseradish in the backyard garden. I really had no idea what I was doing, but I remembered that friends where we once lived in Athens, Ohio, would always arrive days before Passover with a large jar of homemade horseradish, the most fiery I ever tasted, and prepared from horseradish that they themselves had grown. Well, if they could do it…
Sure enough, a few years later, by which time that undisturbed horseradish root had given rise to dozens of 2-foot long leaves, I dug up a huge clump of root, cleaned it well, tossed it into the food processor with vinegar and salt, and stood back. Suffice to say the horseradish stimulated penetrating conversation that year, and every year since.
Like my mother, I have maintained a compost pile wherever I have lived. All the coffee grounds, egg shells, corn husks, apple cores, leftover green beans, nut shells, used tea bags, fruit pits and seeds, carrot peels, old refrigerator-drawer oranges, and other food waste go into it. Leaves and grass would be okay, too, but I happen to put those in a different place. Because the pile contains absolutely no meat, dairy or egg products (other than calcium-rich egg shells), there is never a problem with pests or rodents. It is located out back, behind a particularly lucky spruce, in a spot initially demarcated by shiny chicken wire wrapped around four 4-ft-tall metal posts, each sticking a couple of feet out of the ground. After 14 years, the rusty chicken wire is sagging and disappearing, and the spot is identified mainly by habit.
A few words about that spruce: When we arrived at our new home late in the summer of 1996, it did not look well. It appeared to be fading, and I made a mental note to have it taken down the following spring. Much to my delight and amazement, the new growth on each branch the following spring registered more than a foot. It wasn’t dying; it was hungry! The compost pile saved it.
In the spring, and at other times when I am planting, I push my shovel down deep into the pile to pull up a shovelful of rich, black dirt. This is as fertile as soil can be. I’ll toss some in a hole before I add a new bulb, or seed, or planting. I’ll spread it around on the surface of my herb garden and dig it into the top few inches to enrich the soil and increase its organic content. Then, as happens every year, nature takes over and the magic begins. Some forgotten seed, lying dormant in the compost, germinates and begins to grow. Two years ago, we got grape tomatoes, green beans and gourds. This past year it was zucchini and roma tomatoes. Once a gorgeous broccoli plant grew. A few years ago, incredibly, a tiny date palm began to grow, oblivious to the fact that the weather in Cleveland, Ohio, would not be kind. I recently learned that there is a name for this annual experiment. My friend Amalia, newly the mother of twins, tells me that it is called “compost gardening.”
Life may be found hiding in all kinds of unexpected places: a wizened old potato, a dry piece of horseradish, a spadeful of soil from deep within the compost pile. You never know exactly what surprises are hiding within, but you can be guaranteee that, whatever they turn out to be, they will be flavorful and bountiful. Some sun, some rain, and a little effort. All free for the taking.