Swashbuckling pirates were at work in our corn patch today. Corn season being over, my husband went out in the morning to chop the plants so they could be tilled under. With a sharp machete in one hand, he made vigorous back-and-forth strokes across every standing stalk, starting at the top and working his way down until each one had been cut into 6-inch sections.
Rambunctious swordplay is a fine activity for a crisp fall day, and before long neighbors were taking a stab at it. Safety precautions were explained: Keep the hand that is not swashing well away from the hand that is, and stay far from the rest of your merry little band. Loud, boastful cries make good warning signals.
Apart from being fun, the job serves two purposes. The machete cuts provide entry points for bacteria that will then penetrate and decompose those tough, fibrous stems, and the chopping-up makes the pieces small and easy to bury. Why not just haul them off to the compost pile? You could, but old-time studies have found corn to be the best preceding crop for the potatoes which we have planned for that spot next year. Letting the corn residues break down in the soil over winter will add lots of the organic matter that potatoes demand.
Meanwhile, the compost pile will not go hungry. Plenty of other spent crops from the garden have been deposited there, such as squash vines, tomato vines, broccoli plants that have started to flower — any plant whose useful season has passed. It’s satisfying to give them a second life, a second harvest of fertility for next year’s bounty.
Among them are several items that, like corn, are best chopped or smashed to open up more of the surface to plant-digesting microbes. The stout stems of cabbage, broccoli and kale are slow to break down, so we place them on the hard surface of an old stump and strike them with the back side of an ax head. Thanks to the ax’s weight, gravity does most of the work.
The fruits of winter squash need a little help, too. Though their flesh decomposes easily, their tough skins protect them from rot. If we are composting those that have not ripened before frost or have flaws that would keep them from storing well, we chop them up a bit first with a spade.
Once the compost has matured, there still may be a few remains of these tough customers after other organic materials have turned dark, fine, crumbly and ready to lend tilth to the garden. If we find an odd stem or corncob, we just toss it into a new compost pile we’ve started and let it have another go. It will land there with plenty of bacteria on board, ready and willing to go to work.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”