"Everything Rots," Thank God
in defense of half-assing it
Happy summer solstice, slugs. I find myself wilting in the heat. The ghost of my manic springtime energy is screaming at me to get up, to keep trying, to think about the list! So I do research for essays in a fog, and I try to grocery shop but just end up buying a bunch of sauces, and I drop things and break things and eventually crumple altogether.
It is hard to shake the feeling of lagging behind when the world keeps running farther ahead of you. I write about embracing the time of plants and slugs, but my nerves don’t always listen. I don’t ever want you to think that I have the answers, dear readers; I write because I don’t know, and the page is where I work it out.
I feel this way about dirt, too. I have officially been gardening for a year, and while I feel like it’s going to take ten more for me to really say I’m good at it, I have learned so much already by just digging around.
Benjamin, the English lavender I planted last summer and was convinced would not survive, has returned to us this year with the fluffiest purple flowers I have ever seen. Lavender needs sandy soil, they say, but I planted this one in clay,1 certain I had committed a mortal garden sin and killed him. But plants teach me all the time that they are stronger than that.
The gardenfluencers say you have to amend your soil with all kinds of things, that nothing less than soft, loamy earth will do. But after a year of playing in the clay and doing little more than tossing some compost and mulch on top of it, I’m realizing that there is a lot of bad advice on the internet.
The oregano I planted in the fall is growing faster than I can harvest and dry it, and I am happy to report that Daikon radishes and dinosaur kale are delicious. I have almost perfected my roasted broccoli rabe recipe, just in time for the heat to turn the plants too bitter,2 but I am absolutely flush with lettuce, from purple to green.
Not all of my best-laid plans have worked out, though. Leaf miners have been eating all the Swiss chard and spinach, and only two of my six pea plants lived to make peas. The turnips I planted too close together turned out hilariously small, like the tiny food in those hamster videos, and the jalapeños are mysteriously stunted.3
So much joyful failure for the compost pile, which is already writhing with fat worms and smells of musky earth. Last week when I went to add some food scraps, I peeled the dirt back and gasped, because there was steam. Lots of microbial activity makes compost piles hot, but there are certain conditions that are necessary for this to happen, conditions which I assumed required far more work than I had done.
I really cannot emphasize enough how little effort I’ve put into composting. It was actually the thing that intimidated me most about learning to garden, and it took six months for me to try it. What if the pile didn’t rot right? I envisioned a mess of putrid slop, horrible smells wafting across the fence to make all my neighbors hate me. Catastrophy, shame, rejection.
But something compost practitionerwrote made me brave.
“Everything rots,” she writes. “It will rot whether you put it in a pile or flat on the ground, it will rot whether you mix it up with other stuff or leave it alone, and it will rot whether you turn it every day or don’t touch it for a whole year.”
I was not going to find out unless I fucked around, so I piled up my dead leaves and weeds. Every couple weeks when the scrap bin I keep in the freezer fills up, I take it out back and bury everything in the middle of the pile. Sometimes I wet the whole thing down with the hose, but I don’t have the energy to turn it with a shovel at all.
I am a perpetually-distracted, low-energy chaos gardener, and the microbes are making compost despite me.
Creating anything is like this. I lie awake at night worrying about my work. Does it make sense? Does it fit together? Where is it going? But honestly, I don’t know. I show up here and I dig in my sticky clay soil; I throw my words on the pile with the regularity of ritual and I wait in faith.
A regular practice creates the conditions for transformation, but “the art makes itself, and sometimes it also makes me.” I wrote that two years ago, and you’d think I’d have learned it by now, but when the reliable tide of fatigue comes back in and pins me down, I still tend to despair at my utter lack of control.
So I write this for me, tired and flaring with ache, just as much as I write it for you:
We will never keep up, we will never finish, and we might never know what the hell we’re doing. But we have to keep doing it all anyway, because just like everything rots, everything grows if you keep showing up to tend it.
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For other fatigue and/or distraction-addled gardeners, grow rabe!! It’s fast, easy, and the more you pick, the more it gives. Splash a little rice vinegar before you roast it to cut the bitterness (acids make bitter things taste more sweet).
Lest you assume this is the clay’s fault — these are planted in bins full of potting soil? Honestly I suck so much harder at container gardening, the clay is my mother.