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Composting: An Alchemical Recipe for “Black Gold”

This article was written by Pam Ciampi
posted under Pagan

My interest in composting was born out of sheer desperation. Many years ago in Vermont, as I was making an attempt to seed a lawn and grow a garden on five shady acres of acid soil littered with rocks, I was desperate to find a way to enrich and amend the thin coating of topsoil I had to work with. I had heard of composting and decided to give it a try. My first attempts were blissfully ignorant, free of form, and not restricted by a container or a technique. My compost piles consisted of loosely build haystacks set at irregular intervals around the yard.

I would add leaves in fall (plenty of those in Vermont), kitchen scraps daily, lime when I had it, and manure once a year, whenever the farm down the road would agree to deliver. I watered the piles when they started to smoke and turned them when they got too clumpy. After a year went by, to my amazement the garbage and leaves magically began to morph into the most wonderful, porous black dirt. When one pile got too tall, I would start another haystack and eventually there were seven stacks working in different stages of development.  I loved those compost piles almost more than my gardens. They were amazing, alchemical experiments in my own backyard, working day and night to turn waste into “black gold.”

One day, when working the compost, it occurred to me that composting could be a metaphor for that part of the natural life cycle that causes breakdowns and death. As an astrologer, this sounded like a perfect description of the higher manifestation of Scorpio. In ancient mythology, the higher side of Scorpio is represented by the Phoenix. The story of this remarkable bird, which was said to resemble an eagle, was that after living for 500 years it met its death in a blazing fire. After it had died, the Phoenix was magically resurrected and rose up from the ashes to live forever in the heavens. If we take the resurrection concept into the personal realm, the compost then becomes a template for how to recycle and reuse our emotional “waste materials.” In this way, by creating an emotional compost pile, it might be possible to turn negative emotions like hate, regrets, and envy into a kind of psychological “gold.”


What’s Good for the Garden is Good for the Soul
If you are new to composting, it might be helpful to look at the process as a new recipe for a special dish you want to try out. The first step any good cook takes is to find out what ingredients the recipe calls for, and the next thing is to see if they are at hand. In our compost recipe there are only four basic ingredients that, interestingly, correspond to the four natural elements of fire, air, earth, and water. The first two ingredients are the yang and the yin of composting, and correspond to the elements of fire (dry and hot) and earth (wet and moist). These ingredients will be referred to as “browns” and “greens.”

Browns provide a carbon-rich base that is one of the key elements in the successful compost pile. The browns are yang in nature, and include dry materials such as dried lawn clippings and weeds, and kitchen scraps that have little or no moisture. The best example of browns are the dead leaves that fall off of deciduous trees in autumn, when the moisture has withdrawn into the tree roots in preparation for winter. Dead weeds, dry grass clippings, straw, and wood chips are other examples of browns.

Greens are waste materials that are yin in nature (wet and moist). Greens include any fresh garden waste, such as fresh grass clippings and garden weeds, and kitchen scraps that still hold plenty of water, such as coffee grounds and vegetable leavings.  (Tip: Never put fish, meat, or oils in the compost because they attract animals.) Well-cured farmyard manure also comes under this category. All greens provide a nitrogen-rich atmosphere that creates the heat that the compost pile needs to support the microorganisms that facilitate the process of decomposition.

Balance Matters
How much of the browns and greens do you put in? The lazy woman’s composting rule (highly recommended by the author) is to always try to keep it full. This rule is followed by dumping all wastes into the compost bin, while trying to maintain a standard ration of two-thirds brown to one-third green. This is easy to do by simply layering generous portions of browns on top of generous portions greens according to your whim and their availability. Remember that the more greens you have, the hotter the compost will get and the faster it will decompose.

For example, a pile made up of 25 to 50 percent greens will heat up in the shortest time. But you must also consider that more is not always better. If you see smoke coming out of your compost, you might be creating a dangerous fire hazard and making the pile too hot for the microorganisms to live. Using too much of the browns will cause the opposite effect. The pile will dry out. Try experimenting with different brown-to-green rations until you find the balance that works best for you.

Turning it On
The last two ingredients of the compost pile are available in the natural elements of air and water. A healthy compost pile needs frequent aeration and the right amount of moisture. A pitchfork or a long rod (a piece of rebar) is a handy tool that will help you to turn the compost pile. Turning the pile frequently helps to blend the minerals as well as to increase the oxygen flow. This will allow the microorganisms, earthworms, and insects to work more efficiently. If space is not a consideration, another method of aeration is to knock down the whole pile with a shovel, mix it up, and then build it up again.  Composters, like cooks, have their own special methods and part of the composting is finding out what works best for you.

Last but not least, a happy compost pile is a moist compost pile. The moisture content of your compost will depend on your weather zone. If you live in a hot, dry climate, your compost will need frequent sprinklings. On the other hand, if you live where the rainfall or snowfall is heavy, you may need to cover the compost pile to protect it from becoming too wet. But whatever your weather pattern, the goal is the same. You want to maintain a moisture level that is not too dry and not too wet. The aim is to create a friendly climate for those tiny but beneficial organisms that will work diligently to decompose the waste in your compost pile and transform “garbage” into “black gold” that you will use to enrich the soil in your lawn or garden. By adding nutrients and balancing the acid to alkaline rations, you can make sandy soil hold water and clay soil less dense. 

Composting by the Moon

The most favorable times for composting activities can be determined by observing the natural rhythms of the Moon. Each month the Moon signals the best times for various composting activities as it make its journey through its phases and the different signs of the zodiac.

Best Days to Start a Compost Pile
According to natural rhythms, there are good times in each month of every year to start a compost pile. These times occur at the time of the New Moon. It is recommended that you use the dates and times of the New Moons in conjunction with your local weather conditions.

The best New Moons for starting a new compost pile are the Pisces New Moon, the Cancer New Moon, and the Scorpio New Moon.

Best Days to Turn a Compost Pile
The best days to turn the compost pile are in the two weeks after the Full Moon, when the Moon is waning.

Best Days to Aerate a Compost Pile
The best days to aerate a compost pile occur when the Moon is waning and in an air sign (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius).

Best Days to Add Waste and to Water a Compost Pile

Adding wastes and watering the compost may be carried out on any day, as needed.

What Kind of Bin to Use

Compost bins, like gardeners, come in all shapes and sizes. There are many different types to choose from, including trashcan bins, block bins, wire bins, wood bins, plastic bins, and rotating bins. Contact your local recycling or garden center to find the one that is right for your needs. When I first started composting, I didn’t use any kind of bin. Although these days my needs are better served by a plastic shelf bin, those early compost piles produced a better quality of soil amendment than anything I’ve tried since.

Composting is satisfying, useful, and productive on many levels. It is my hope that this article has encouraged you to get in touch with your garbage and to participate in the simple process of turning garbage into gold. Composting has many benefits, but the greatest in the eyes of this author is that it helps to explain why decomposition (the Scorpio process) is integral to, and a necessary part of, the life cycle.

From Llewellyn's 2008 Moon Sign Book. Click here for current-year calendars and almanacs.


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