How does your garden grow? Pretty well, if you’re one of the millions of Americans who’ve discovered—or rediscovered—gardening during the pandemic. “We’ve seen an increased desire to connect with the natural world,” says Lisa McDonald Hanes, co-owner of Redbud Native Plant Nursery in Media.
Modern gardeners want eco-friendly ways to tend their plots. That’s where composting comes in. Rescued from its ’70s hippie-dippie exile, composting has been newly embraced as “a way to heal and produce a better system,” Hanes says.
For the uninitiated, composting is the way organic matter—food scraps, leaves, even animal hair—naturally decomposes and becomes fertilizer. According to Mother Compost, the local company launched by Gwenn Nolan in 2018, the average American discards 30 pounds of garbage every week. At least 20 percent of that is organic material that could be composted. “The food scraps we eat still have nutritional value and essential nutrients that can be put back into the soil,” Nolan says.
Composting stops biodegradable organic waste from going to a landfill and unnaturally decaying, which produces greenhouse gases like methane. “We need to put the nutrients back into the ground,” says Nolan. “Soil health is so critical to our health.”
Nutrient-rich and chemical-free, compost is relatively simple to make. There are two kinds of composting—cold and hot—and the right ratio of ingredients is necessary to initiate the chemical process. Backyard composting is easily done with bins available at home-and-garden stores. Some local municipalities have composting centers with collection sites for organic material.
Many Main Liners are using Mother Compost, Nolan’s subscription-based service. Customers get a certain number of bins for their scraps. Every other week, Mother Compost trucks collect them and deliver clean empties. Those waste-filled bins have amounted to more than 430,000 pounds of scraps at last count. They’re transported to Linvilla Orchards in Media, where the compost is created. Each subscriber gets up to 60 pounds of compost in the spring, just in time for planting.
Its first two years in business, Mother Compost had 500 subscribers from Bala Cynwyd to Devon—and Nolan enjoyed a banner year in 2020. “Seeds were sold out almost everywhere, and [orders for] composts flew,” she says.
Composting has numerous benefits. “If you’re doing home gardening with your own composted soil, you’re less likely to use as many weed preventers and bug sprays,” says Melissa Mattingley, nursery manager and buyer at Main Line Gardens in Malvern.
Adds Nolan: “[Composting] means we don’t have to use as many synthetic chemicals and all those things that go into agriculture.”
When it comes to composting and gardening, many traditions are passed down from grandparents to grandchildren. “It can help keep you fit, flexible and in tune with the natural cycles of life,” says McDonald, adding that the combination of gardening and composting is a “natural health cycle.”
Gardening is oddly addictive, especially with compost as fertilizer. “You get bigger and better plants,” says Mattingley.
For Nolan, it’s a “grounding, therapeutic exercise—especially as we’re increasingly spending a lot of time on technology and feeling this disconnect from the natural world.”
“We need to put the nutrients back into the ground. Soil health is so critical to our health.” —Mother Compost’s Gwenn Nolan
McDonald advises novice green thumbs to start slowly. “Don’t be intimidated and think you need to overly research and know too much,” she says. “A park group or other gardening group is a great way to get started.”
Location is key. The amount of sun determines whether plants will thrive—and some require more work than others. “Gardening can be very high maintenance,” Mattingley says. “But there are low-maintenance plants, as well.”
The same goes for composting. “Where you put your compost bin effects how it works for you,” says Nolan.