Composting Stories

by M.K. Hutchins

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that stories grow “like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”

With that in mind, “The End of Lunar Hens” [on sale now in our current issue] probably begins more than a decade ago.

My husband and I both graduated college in 2008, right into the Great Recession. Good times. For seven years, I dreamed about having a big garden while trying to keep a sad, potted mint plant alive in our various apartments. When we moved into our suburban house and became the proud owners of a fraction of an acre of dirt, it was mid July—well past the usually planting season. I immediately planted peas and radishes anyway for a quick fall crop. I then devoured every book I could find on gardening.

That quickly led to composting. I loved everything about composting: the science behind it, the earthy smell, making friends with wild worms. Turning trash into treasure has a deeply satisfying, alchemical magic to it.

I stumbled over chicken owners talking about how fantastic chicken manure was for their compost pile. So I read about keeping backyard chickens—feed ratios, butchering practices, egg production. I brought bolted lettuce from my garden to my friend’s chickens and returned home with bags of soiled straw litter for my compost pile. I flirted with the idea of getting my own hens over and over. I had to remind myself that I don’t actually love chickens. Then I had to remind my husband to remind me that I don’t love chickens.

That led to reading about rabbits. A few books cured me of the notion that I was up to the task of raising meat rabbits, but a pet rabbit was and is appealing. I enjoy being around them, and rabbit manure is also especially good for gardens. Maybe someday we’ll add a furry friend to the household.

Meanwhile, I was busy reading everything I could on how to make the most of our limited space for growing vegetables. Elliot Coleman’s detailed books on winter gardens got me experimenting with unheated low tunnels—a thin, arched layer of plastic sheeting over our raised beds. It still amazes me that so little protection can keep kale, spinach, mache, and other cold-hardy crops crisp and ready to harvest even while the outside world is covered in snow.

Later, I read “Chinese Greenhouses for Winter Gardening” (Mother Earth News, April/May 2017). Animals kept inside the greenhouses over the winter produce CO2, leading to better crop yields. Once again I considered keeping chickens, and once again, reminded myself that I don’t actually love them.

Growing mushrooms is often suggested as a great winter project for antsy gardeners. I’m very fond of eating mushrooms, and I already adored decomposers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to turn cardboard boxes into oyster mushrooms for dinner? I tried (very unsuccessfully) to propagate spawn from store-bought shrooms. That year for Christmas, my husband gifted me some mushroom-growing kits, along with Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms by Paul Stamets.

At the end of the chapter entitled “Maximizing the Substrate’s Potential through Species Sequencing,” the author leaves his readers this fascinating jewel: “By understanding the nuances within the mycosphere, I envision the creation of complex biospheres wherein fungi play determinant roles in supporting other life cycles. And I am not alone in believing that mushrooms can be instrumental in generating food for humans in the exploration of space.”

No more is said about the final frontier, but I couldn’t get that tantalizing idea out of my mind. The only thing better than growing mushrooms is, clearly, growing mushrooms in space. Which led, of course, to researching biospheres so I could write a story about space mushrooms saving the day.

After my first year of reading gardening books, I was actually worried there might not be more to read. Many gardening books repeat the same, basic information. But as I’ve fallen down various rabbit holes on this journey of growing delicious edibles in my backyard, I’ve realized there’s always more to learn. Plants, animals, microbes, and fungi all interact with each other in complicated and fascinating ways.

When not trying to grown oyster mushrooms under her sink, M.K. Hutchins writes stories, homeschools four kids, and plays board games. She’s the author of Drift and The Redwood Palace (forthcoming 2019), as well as numerous short stories appearing in IGMS, Diabolical Plots, and Strange Horizons. Find her at

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