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The Power of Dirt Written by Laurie Benenson

When I happened upon the book Dirt, the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth about eight years ago, I was immediately intrigued by the notion that soil was something you could write a whole book about. Obviously, there were soil scientists, and whole textbooks were devoted to the subject, but here was a collection of philosophical and poetic essays which talked about its subject in ways that I had never imagined.

Dirt: The MovieMy husband, filmmaker Bill Benenson, decided that this rather obscure subject might make a fascinating documentary, and six years later he and his filmmaking partner, Gene Rosow, finished their film Dirt! the Movie, just in time for the Sundance Film Festival to select it for their 2009 lineup. In the years between discovering the book and finishing the film (of which I was Executive Producer), we became deeply interested in dirt, and all the subjects it relates to on this planet—which, as it turns out, are myriad. Farming. Climate change. The purity (or lack thereof) of our water and our air. The nutritive value of our food. The economic integrity of farmers and the communities they serve all over the world. Dirt is so fundamental a substance (the prima materia, in Latin) that it relates to every aspect of our environment. It’s not immediately obvious how the health of our soil relates to, say, the state of our oceans, but if you poke around a little, you discover that soil that has been heavily laden with excess nitrogen (from fertilizers added by large agricultural concerns) travels through our rivers and ends up in the bays into which those waterways empty, killing fish and marine life. There’s simply no getting around it. The condition of our soil is a barometer for the condition of the planet at large. 

Making the movie not only completely upended the way we regarded the place of dirt in our lives; it changed our behavior as well. We’d always been champions of environmental awareness, but understanding how it all came together in the dirt matrix caused us to reorganize our lives in a number of ways. Probably the most significant involved food: the shopping, the eating, the disposing of excess.  Farmers markets over grocery stores, organic and local over imported and conventional, and composting over tossing in the garbage.Dirt: The Movie Of all of these, I found composting to be the most challenging. I know it’s supposed to be easy, but I could never quite get the right mixture of wet and dry—there were always swarms of insects flying around my composting bin, and it was difficult for me to turn the stuff. (I’ve since purchased a better bin, and it’s become easier, but there is definitely a learning curve.) So when I met Denise and Randy Ritchie, the founders of Malibu Compost, at the Bioneers Conference a couple of years ago, I had my own personal reasons for finding out more about the benefits of biodynamic compost.

But it wasn’t until Denise and Randy came over to my house and gave me a two-hour seminar on the benefits of biodynamic (not to mention a biography of Bu the Rescue Cow) that I began to grasp how the stuff might actually leave other kinds of compost in the dust. So to speak. They were kind enough to leave a bag of Malibu Compost with me, and I was eager to use it.

Since we don’t grow our own food, the most obvious place for me to start was my sick rose bushes. The problem wasn’t the blooms—the bushes produced plenty of roses. It was the leaves, the poor, hole-infested, brown and curling leaves. They looked so sick, and I’d tried everything, including wiping each individual leaf off with soapy water. Nothing worked.

So I added about a cup of the stuff to each of my potted rose bushes. It was really strange—about ten days after adding this biodynamic magic to the soil, the leaves were PERFECT. I don’t mean better, I don’t mean “much improved”—I mean immaculate. The lacy texture was gone. The curling gone. The white spots, the brown spots, the black stuff, GONE!

I can’t say I know exactly why it worked so beautifully on my roses, as well as my (not very sustainable, I know) lawn. But if you’re going to have a lawn, biodynamic compost significantly reduces the amount of water needed to keep it green. I now buy several bags of it a month, and use it on all the plants in my backyard. I think it’s the nicest present you can give the gardeners in your life. Thank you, Denise, Randy, Bu, and Malibu Compost.