Oh, for a Luscious Pile of Compost!

I DON'T know of a poet who has celebrated the fact, but one of the great things about a garden in winter (now that spring and summer are rushing at us like tidal waves) is that it is, like other sensible animals, soundly dormant. Naturally everyone delights in the surging delicacies of spring growth, but I'd like to put a word in for winter and its inspiring inactivity. The problem is that spring is so demanding. It is the time when, as poet Hopkins observed, "weeds" have an inconsiderate tendency to "shoot long and lovely and lush." Which is all very well for poets. But for gardeners who, like me, spend many a long, bemused hour touring their patches in the sanguine effort to rescue them from a mysteriously persistent state of neglect, lush weeds are an unnecessary, if not positively discouraging, distraction.

In the stringency and bareness of winter, as garden-design cognoscenti reliably inform us, the bold structure of one's garden can be appreciated at its best. (I also like my garden at night, particularly a starless night when the street lights are on the blink; then it looks wonderful.)

In winter, the majority of growing things, except the most sinewy shrubs and skeletonic woody affairs, put up a pretty good show of dead invisibility. This is restful. Better still, a thoroughly good fall of snow turns almost everything into smooth mounds of crystal whiteness, simplifying the "structure" even more, covering a multitude of unkempt details.

Few things are more satisfying to the dormant gardener than a snow-smothered garden in which everything but a few red dogwood twigs or orange willow branches are seen. Then one can dream complacently of secret gardens and even fantasize that below the snow one's own is such: a garden of immaculate tidiness, of consummate artistry, of sensitive plant relationships. No one can gainsay this because they can't see it either. It's a glorious season.

If the snow stays around longer than it should, marvelous little items of colorful intrepidity can occur. A violet-purple iris, its apparent fragility entirely misleading, may spear up through the woolly blanket and flower intensely. Witch hazel might sport small yellow spider-flowers on naked branches. But such gestures are like the odd lone voice raised to a whisper in a silent bedroom. They are noticeable but do little to disturb the garden's comfortable sleep.

After the immobility of winter, the spring splurge does come as the most reprehensible shock, as the unexpected arrival of a baby might in a retired bachelor's home. The most disgusting, reckless abandon hijacks the garden; the sun shines on it with unscrupulous brightness ("Busy old fool, unruly sun" as poet Donne knowingly put it); thousands of orange and purple crocuses bloom noisily; and all the weeds - the docks, dandelions, thistles, and willow herbs, plus the entire host of little annual weeds, b egin to lay claim to the ground as if they had immemorial land rights. Between them and me war is declared, a war I'm in little doubt I have hopelessly lost even before it is engaged in earnest. What is needed is some summer-substance which, like snow, simplifies matters by blanketing and generally swamping the weeds.

WHICH brings me to mulch. Mulch, theoretically, is exactly the thing I'm looking for. But though a lot of people swear by mulch, saying "mulch is a good way of feeding the soil." And, "mulch is a good way of smothering weeds." And "mulch holds the moisture." And "you could do with mulch," nevertheless - the ideal mulch has so far eluded me.

There are various conventional mulchy substances. People use straw, dead ferns, spent hops, peat, even pebbles. Peat is perhaps the most obvious. But peat has recently become antisocial. Green people don't use peat any more. The reason is that so much peat has been dug up, sold to garden centers, marked up 120 percent, and resold to gardeners that there is a serious threat to the ecology of places where peat used to be part of the landscape.

Peat - which I have used now and then - has another disadvantage, at least in the permanent monsoon conditions prevailing in western Scotland: It rapidly cultivates mosses of all sorts. These mosses spread and within a year can throttle the vigorous plant.

So many people, including me, are looking for alternatives to peat. Straw isn't bad, but it blows in the wind, and when it rots down it goes a rather repellent gooey black. For quite a long time now, "forest bark" has been one possible mulch. Some gardeners are taken with it. Foresters cut down trees, and their wastage - bark and wood chips - is bagged and sold to gardeners (after they have been marked up 120 percent of course). But "forest bark" anyone will tell you is inert. It sits on the top of the soil, and looks miserable. It gathers dust and doesn't encourage the plants it surrounds to grow. All in all, a rather unappealing mulch.

The most appealing mulch is home-made, rotted compost. But this takes a good year to prepare. Made up of any vegetable waste a household and garden might produce, it has to be well-rotted before it is useful. I make what I can, but I never have anywhere near enough.

And rarely does such compost become available from other sources - who would part with gold-dust? But to my astonishment, just a couple of days ago, I spotted an opulent cache of the most mellifluent, high-grade garden compost, tossed out into a dumpster outside a front gate - unwanted. I licked my lips. I couldn't believe that such horticultural ore, such wealth was being discarded as mere waste.

I walked on up the hill musing on the ironies of human behavior, and then, without thinking, I was walking down the hill again and ringing the front door bell of the house in question. A young lady answered. "I wondered if you would object if I bagged up some of the superlative and excessively beautiful and quite exceptional - errr - compost you have 201> thrown out?" She hadn't any objection at all. "Help yourself," she said.

So next morning found me at the dumpster grasping handfuls of the stuff and shoving it into bags with a relish that only a gardener would understand. Ten minutes into this a white van drove up and parked. Out got two men. "Scrappies," announced one, explaining their function by one neat Glasgow word. "So am I, I suppose," said I, as they began to delve in the dumpster for stainless steel sinks, cookers, refrigerators. Then under my breath I added smugly, "Only I asked." They pretended not to hear.

"I always say, dig deep and you will find," said one proverbially. "I always say," said the other, not to be outdone, "get what you can now or it won't be there later 201> . That's the best compost I ever saw. That'll make them grow!" Clearly he approved of my activity.

At last I had filled my 12th trash bag, and the supply was exhausted. "Aye," said one of my fellow scrappies, "you've got the majority of most of it."

Compost, like manure, though it may smother weeds for a while, is really a food for the soil, and is so good and rich that it sometimes introduces and grows a whole range of new weeds all of its own. It's better to dig it in and bury it under the ground.

So although I find the notion of mulch highly attractive, until now I hadn't actually found a mulch that seemed completely satisfactory. Now, however, there is "Sunshine of Africa."

Glasgow hasn't caught up with this yet, but I'm hopeful it soon will. "Sunshine of Africa" is the exotic trademark given by a family firm on the south coast of the Isle of Wight to chocolate bean shells. Derek Spice (not a bad name considering) has a background in cocoa processing, and his family has for years happily been using cocoa shells as mulch on its garden. Now he is marketing it nationwide, and "Sunshine of Africa" is catching on fast among mulchers. It looks far pleasanter than peat or forest bark - natural, light, and airy. Plants look very happy to have it around them - and weeds under it obligingly breathe their last. But not only that, it (I quote) "adds nutrient, 201> retains moisture, and repels slugs and snails." I was now eager for my first bag.

In answer to my telephone inquiry, an information pack and a free fine box of chocolates arrives by first class mail from the Isle of Wight. The candies, announced the green box cover, are "a by-product of Cocoa Shell 'Sunshine of Africa.' "

I like the wit of that. The chocolates weren't bad at all. And some day soon, I trust, there's going to be a poet writing a sonnet in praise of the best mulch in the world, "a healthy feast" for your garden that also happens to be a "renewable resource." Just so long as people go on eating chocolates.

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