Most of us take an interest in the other creatures with whom we share the planet in direct proportion to how nearly they approximate our own position in the food chain. Jon Rowley would like to change all that. In Rowley's ideal world, we would spend far less time goggling at the televised antics of African lion cubs and the curious sex lives of Costa Rican insects, and pay more attention to critters closer to home: inhabitants of the extravagant yet invisible ecosystems under our feet. "Put a teaspoon of soil from your garden under the microscope, and what you see will blow your mind. It's like you take a small room and fill it all at the same time with alligators, rhinos, snakes, lobsters—each one knowing exactly what it wants and how to go after it. You'll never look at soil the same way again."
Rowley's interest is far from abstractly zoological. For the better part of 20 years, he has made it his life's mission to seek out sources of good, healthy food—first as a supplier of ultra-fresh fish to top-end restaurateurs, then as an adviser to their kitchens and staffs in the proper purchasing, handling, and presentation of same, then as a consultant to food retailers desirous of offering their customers the very best and freshest of seafood, produce, and seasonal fruits. It was in pursuit of the latter—the radiant strawberry, the perfect peach—that he found himself exploring the very basics of flavor, and found them nestled in the warm dark heart of a compost pile.
Rowley's involvement with fish began early, cleaning sportfishermen's catches on the dock at Warrington, Oregon, for a dime an item. It was only after years of putting his experience as a trawl fisherman in Alaska at the service of restaurants like Robert Rosellini's legendary Other Place, Ray's Boathouse, and the Anthony's chain that he, more or less by chance, took his first steps off the dock and into the garden.
"It actually started with a friend who was getting married. I agreed to do the food for the reception, and since it was going to be in early June—and June is local strawberry season—I just went down to the Pike Place Market and started at one end and worked my way to the other, buying, tasting, smelling, talking to the people in the stalls, finding out where they got their local berries, what varieties they favored. The day of the party I bought several flats, absolutely fresh, with that shiny gleam on them strawberries have when they're perfectly ripe, and headed out to Port Townsend. All you saw when you walked in was a king salmon on a plank and this big shallow bowl of berries. People still talk about them, 'the strawberries at Mark's wedding.' "
Rowley put his extensive research on berries to work in a promotion for the Anthony's restaurants, one that's still going on. He then extended the expertise he gained to another fruit where ripeness is all, peaches, in a program for the Queen Anne Thriftway supermarkets last summer. What he learned convinced him that there was a common thread linking great flavor in such crops—and even more disparate ones like corn, potatoes, and green vegetables: the amount of organic nutrient in the soil they were grown in.
That may sound like an obvious enough conclusion, but in fact it involves a subtle distinction: between the gross amount of the nutrient elements essential for growth—mainly (but not only) carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus—and the form in which they're present in the soil. "It doesn't much matter how big the numbers on the side of a bag of fertilizer are," Rowley says, "because plants don't use but a tiny, tiny bit of each nutrient at a time, so most of the N and P and K you spread on your plants just washes right on through the next time it rains."
The big difference between compost and chemical fertilizers—or concentrated "organic" fertilizers, for that matter—is that the nutrients in it are part of a system of living things, constantly absorbed and rereleased as one organism feeds on another, and hence continuously available in small quantities as the plants around it need them.
Myriad factors contribute to the sensation we call "flavor," but Rowley discovered one, easily measured, which seems to serve as proxy for the whole: total dissolved sugar content, as measured by his trusty pocket Brixmeter. ("It works as well on greens as fruits," he says. "You can use it on grass and predict how nourishing for cows it will be.") And for whatever reason, soils enriched with naturally decaying organic matter—compost, for short—consistently produce plants with higher Brix readings than any others.
Rowley didn't learn all this from books. Last spring he enrolled himself in Seattle Solid Waste's pioneering Master Composter program, committing himself to two evening classes a week for six weeks and 20 hours of "community service" instructing others in what he'd been taught. Rowley chose to put in his hard time at the Interbay P-Patch, off Elliott Avenue west of Queen Anne Hill.
There he found a community ready to benefit from his newfound expertise. Managing the garden was (and is) Ray Shutte, in professional life one of the people who keep the computer systems functioning at Starbucks world headquarters. "He has unbelievable energy, especially for someone who had triple bypass surgery two years ago," says Rowley. "And what a gardener! All of his produce is not just higher Brix than everybody else's, but way higher." Next door to Ray's private patch is Friend of the P-Patch Susan Casey. Both were very supportive when Rowley came calling with his compost gospel.
"There were already a number of compost bins at Interbay when I got there," Rowley recalls, "but they were all pretty much full, so there was no way to turn them. But I managed to gin in with the people who ran one of the bins, and started promoting regular work parties to turn the bins and publicize composting. All this winter, even on the rainiest Saturdays, we had 10 or more people get together to turn compost and eat hot homemade soup afterward."
Rowley is an Interbay P-Patcher himself these days, tending a longtime resident's plot while she's away in Italy. (People are no more likely to give up title to a P-Patch plot than to a rent-controlled apartment in New York—the waiting period for a space at one of the more central patches is up to two years.) As a trusted resident, he's been able to do a lot of counseling and indoctrinating among active gardeners, as well as see to it that every plot at Interbay this spring is dressed in three inches of thick, ripe compost, ready to be cultivated into the hungry soil.
It doesn't seem likely that compost will turn out to be a source of gainful employment for Rowley, as his earlier obsessive pursuit of great fish, oysters, and fruit have, but that doesn't seem to bother him. If the relative proportions of gospel and gain are different this time, that's fine. The gospel element has always been what's mattered most to Rowley anyway. His greatest gift as a promoter—most recently of the annual end-of-March "Oyster Olympics" sponsored by Anthony's—is his own passionate belief in the life-enhancing benefits of good food, drink, and work.
Although he's already convinced of the central importance of composting for good gardening and good eating, Rowley professes to still be a beginner. He recently returned from Corvallis, Oregon, and a seminar with the woman he calls "the Galileo of composting," Elaine Ingham of the soil-chemistry firm Soil Foodweb Inc. It was there that he had the close encounter with the microscopic alligators and rhinos mentioned earlier, and the experience has given him a new charge of energy in spreading the compost dogma ever wider while still learning to "think like a compost pile."
This winter, with the help of a loader borrowed from P-Patch neighbor Family Golf, Rowley and his team converted 24 cubic yards of slimy grass clippings and a truckload of surplus Halloween pumpkins from the Admiral Thriftway into vegetable gold. People with only a backyard garden space may not be able to benefit from the full range of such enthusiasm, but they're still invited to drop by Interbay any weekend to watch—and wield a pitchfork—in the ritual compost toss, which aerates the rotting vegetable matter and keeps the critters who inhabit it lively.
If for nothing else, it's worth the trip just to see Rowley, dressed in gumboots and a floppy canvas hat that would make a cat laugh, preaching the good word between bouts of healthy sweating. There are a billion bacteria in a cubic centimeter of rich soil—an estimated 15,000 different species, of which only a third even have names. And that doesn't include the macro-microfauna described earlier, or the miles of fungal filaments that penetrate every cranny: food for some residents, feeding on others. Doesn't he ever get tired? "There is no such thing as too much compost," he says. And there's always something new to learn.
Roger Downey is a Senior Editor at 'Seattle Weekly.'