Compost gains ground in Martha’s Vineyard gardens

Rebecca Gilbert with a bin of compost from Native Earth Teaching Farm, located on North Road in Chilmark. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

From environmentally friendly lawn care to gourmet cookery with foraged foods, the presentations at the Living Local Harvest Festival on Saturday, Oct. 1, were packed with information and inspiration, and none more so than the “Prize-Winning Compost” workshop.

“We learn the most from those who are closest to the ground and water,” said Tad Crawford of the Vineyard Conservation Society who organized the series. “We can’t get closer to the ground than those who we will hear from here today.”

Even the most discouraged and perennially unsuccessful home gardener could not have left without high hopes for next year’s growing season. Like good compost itself, the captivating presentation was a rich mix of facts and anecdotes, motivation, and education from diverse sources and experiences.

For this writer, whose compost bin holds an unsavory stew of decomposing kitchen scraps, routinely ravaged by burrowing vermin, that never makes it to the gardens, the panel talk was strong incentive to mend our ways and feed our soil right.

“I’ve been organic gardening for 50 years,” declared the legendary Paul Jackson of Edgartown, who has gained local fame for the awe-inspiring bounty of his land. Even listeners who had never been able to grow a decent radish couldn’t help but start fantasizing about better days.

Mr. Jackson told how he had reclaimed the sandy, unusable soil at the home he bought years ago using an unorthodox mixture of easy-to-come-by organic matter — leaves, fish, seaweed, scallop shells, and, more recently, horse manure.

“A lot of people told me I didn’t know what I was doing and the gardens wouldn’t amount to anything,” he recalled.

But skeptics ate their words and doubts as the Jacksons feasted on an ever-increasing abundance of plump tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash, straight smooth carrots, potatoes, and beets, lush green vegetables, along with apples, pears, berries. “We very seldom go to the store,” Mr. Jackson remarked.

There are no accidents at the Jackson farm. Even the scallop shell driveway is located close enough to the garden that dust from the shells blows onto the soil, adding nutrients. Year after year, adding new elements to his compost, trying new things, his soil grows richer, his plants bigger and more lush. He has harvested 20-pound cabbages, and his pepper plants sometimes grow three feet tall. At this year’s Ag Fair, Mr. Jackson won second prize in the compost competition.

Slender and soft-spoken, Mr. Jackson sat at the speakers’ table with several robust, glowing red bell peppers that silently proclaimed the quality of his produce. “All the foliage in the garden is beautiful,” he said. “Only everything grows a little too fast.”

Mr. Jackson urges visitors who come to view the magical garden to return after a few days to see for themselves how fast the vegetables grow. After years of painstaking work, his soil is fluffy and rich, free of stones and sticks, but not without weeds. Luckily, he doesn’t mind pulling them. “That’s where I get my relaxation, enjoying the peace and quiet, the birds,” he said. “Just watching the things grow.”

“Compost is not a thing, compost is a community,” said Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark. “Like any social community in nature, diversity is strength.”

With her characteristic warm smile, Ms. Gilbert demystified the often daunting picture of compost, personifying it and bringing it to life. She compared successful compost to a “good strong neighborhood” where a multiplicity of individuals offer an array of skills and talents.

Ms. Gilbert said her off-Island sister laughed off her first-prize ribbon at the Ag Fair’s compost competition saying, “This is a joke, right?”

“Not everybody appreciates compost,” Ms. Gilbert admitted, “but every farmer and gardener appreciates it.”

Singing compost’s praises, Ms. Gilbert noted that its usefulness extends from building soil to helping clean up toxic waste. Compost contains active microscopic plants and animals, she explained. “It’s alive, it’s coherent, it’s full of nutrients and information the plants need,” she said. “We may think something too small to see that’s alive is a germ and scary. But in compost these invisible things are our allies and coworkers.”

With an eye to diversity, Native Earth Teaching Farm compost starts with seven types of manure from livestock and poultry. Next come carbon-rich woodchips to balance the nitrogen, “and just about anything else we produce on our farm that nobody else wants.”

She later stressed that most of the credit for the farm’s compost must go to her husband, Randy Ben David.

As a judge for the Fair’s competition, farmer/gardener Chris Riger offered some important facts. He reminded the audience that although experimentation is inevitable, there are basics of successful composting. “They really aren’t arguable,” he said. Topping that list is having the correct balance of carbon and nitrogen in order for the material to break down.

“Everything that lives on earth depends on green plants,” said Mr. Riger, who was emcee of the session. “Green plants depend on soil. Green plants eat soil. But what happens when the green plants eat up all the soil?” His image of voracious greenery clarified the need to build soil up through making compost, which he described as “humans assisting in the process of turning organic matter back into soil.”

Mr. Riger described the Island Alpaca Farm compost, which won third prize for Philippe Morin at the Ag Fair. The rich, nutritious product is unusual in using a single organic source — nitrogen-rich alpaca pellets, which Mr. Riger described as “little discreet packages of manure.” Because they are small and can dry out and harden, Mr. Morin ingeniously layers them with damp cardboard which adds necessary carbon and moisture and encourages earthworms. The farm sells bags of the manure as “Alpaca Gold,” and Mr. Morin’s prize-winning soil enhancer shows the name is well deserved.

After deluging the experts with questions and appreciatively running their fingers through the prize-winning composts, listeners reluctantly headed home, visions of dark, aromatic compost and happy green plants dancing through their heads.

Community composting?

Chris Riger and Phillippe Morin have launched the Island Cooperative Compost Project with the goal of increasing the quality and quantity of compost made here. The project aims to connect interested gardeners, provide education and information, and, more ambitiously, begin a large-scale community composting project making use of a variety of now-unused organic wastes. For information, visit