Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rotting Flowers, Decomposition, Bacteria 101

I went outside to take a picture of my compost pile because I thought I would write about compost this morning, but the compost pile looked pretty blah on this typical, fall, overcast New England day, so I turned around and went back inside without a single photograph.  Compost piles aren't the most photogenic things on the planet, but when the sun lights up their slick, rotting lines and protrusions they can look good.  But it's not so much what the compost pile looks like that counts: it's what it smells like and what you find on the inside that count.  You should find earth worms any maybe a cricket or two, and as it ages it should start to smell like rich earth.  What you won't see are the millions of bacteria who are working feverishly in there to break down the organic matter, i.e. your yard waste.  Decay is a very complicated process, as old as life on Earth; and though I am not a microbiologist, I can tell you that this life, the one we know, would not be possible without bacteria.  Bacteria are the main agents in the decomposition of plant matter. They transform a heap of dead flowers into compost.  They take that which was once beautiful and turn it into nutrients for that which can be beautiful again, not to mention the thousands upon thousands of other vital functions that bacteria perform in our world. 

This zinnia has already started to rot.  No doubt there are some microorganisms already at work on it.  If they are not at work on it, they will be shortly.  There isn't much left to do in the garden.  We're pushing into late October, and all my transplanting is done.  I threw the tomato vines into the compost pile a couple weeks ago.  I left the zinnias because here and there they are still showing some nice color, color which is very welcome at this time of the year.  It can be difficult for the novice gardener to let go of the summer, to rip out the plants and toss them onto the compost heap, because this signals the onset of what is ultimately winter, and winter, for many people, means death.  Death for one thing but life for another.  Life for many others, in fact: there are hordes of bacteria who are itching to munch on all your yard waste.  They're not as pretty to look at as a flower, but they are just as pretty to think about.  Again, I'm not a microbiologist, but I promise you that all those things you find beautiful in this life would not be possible without bacteria.  Compost is solace for the gardener at the end of a season.  I now relish the end of the season, relish putting my garden to bed, relish tossing all the scraps onto the compost pile because I know that next year's garden will be so much richer for it.  

Not to gross you out or anything, but the process of turning yard waste into compost is very much like the process of turning a cucumber into a fermented cucumber pickle or some shredded cabbage into saur kraut.  Fermentation is just controlled decomposition.  The black tea you drink has been fermented.  In China, tea leaves are traditionally fermented in piles.  Bacteria colonize those piles and turn them from green to brown, curing the tea leaves and adding flavor in the process.  Essentially, black tea is compost, but in the culinary world we swap out the word "compost" for the word "fermented."  If the idea of eating something that has been subjected to controlled bacterial decomposition disgusts you, I encourage you to think again about bacteria.  You are not possible without them.  It is unfortunate that our war on pathogenic bacteria has spilled onto bacteria in general.  It is unfortunate because bacteria are vital to our life processes, both inside and outside our bodies.  For every cell in our bodies, there are ten single-celled bacteria, which is to say that there are trillions of live bacteria in us right now.  Our intimate relationship with them is something that our scientists do not fully understand, but if you believe that we indeed descended from bacteria—and you should believe this—you might stop to think before you purchase that next bottle of antibacterial cream.  What are you really trying to kill?  Most likely, it's only fear and a lack of knowledge that drive you into the health and beauty section of the grocery store to get that anti-bacterial soap.  Fear and the lack of knowledge are the tools they use to sell product.    


Anonymous said...

not to be weird or anything, but what makes you believe we descended from bacteria goo? fear and lack of knowledge maybe?

Jono Tosch said...

Dear Anonymous

No, fear and lack of knowledge do not make me believe that life on this planet descended from single-celled organisms. The hundred year old consensus of the entire scientific community does.