TO OUR READERS: This is the third piece in a monthly series on vegetable gardening for the beginner, featuring our very own novice gardener, reporter Dave Philipps. “Gardening with Dave” will be published the second Thursday of the month through the growing season, with continual updates at www. gazettegarden.blogspot.com.
Gardeners argue about compost the way Marxists argue about revolution: They may have different theories on how to cultivate it, but all agree it’s a good thing.
I am not a gardener. Any hint of a green thumb I’ve had is probably from poor personal hygiene. So in my quest to plant a small kitchen garden that would give me maximum fresh-vegetable pleasure with minimal down-in-the-dirt effort, I started asking around about the best way to add organic material and nutrients to my soil.
Horse manure is nothing compared with llama manure, a master gardener told me. Another swore by bat-guano tea. One gardener e-mailed to recommend mixing alfalfa pellets (rabbit food) into the soil, which inspired another to push for owl pellets (rabbit as food).
“My Grandfather used owl pellets exclusively and he was the annual winner of Ionia County, Michigan, ‘biggest pumpkin’ award for 16 years in a row,” Cameron Wilmot wrote in to say.
One thing they agreed on: A little compost now will save work and water later.
“Adding organic material allows the soil to hold more moisture, which will help plants survive, and means you won’t have to water ever hour when it gets hot and dry this summer,” said Gary Hall, director of the El Paso County branch of Colorado State University Extension.
The organic bits keep the soil loose and airy, boosting root growth and providing an ideal environment for earth- worms and other helpful soil critters. All this equals happy vegetables, and happy vegetables mean a season of less fretting and more feasting.
That sounded good to me. But where to get compost?
The one time I set up a compost pile in my backyard, the neighborhood squirrels and raccoons fought over the food scraps like the Sharks and the Jets. I stopped composting, fearing that the battle would lead to an unwholesome “West Side Story”-like squirrel/raccoon union that would produce the ultimate suburban pest.
That left me with a few options: buy ready-to-use bagged compost for about $5 a bag or seek out a free source.
As some of my sources pointed out, among the best free organic matter is animal dung. I was ready to look up the closest llama farm when a gardening neighbor warned me that fresh manure contains ammonia that can damage plants. It must be composted in a heap or aged in soil for a few months before it’s safe.
I didn’t have a few months, since I plan to plant my first seeds in early April. I was about to phone in an order for a load of commercial compost when an old source, Joyce Schaufenbuel — who once spent a morning taking me around town to hidden Van Briggle fireplaces — called.
“I’ve been reading your columns,” she said. “And I’m getting ready to move. I can’t take my compost with me, so I thought you might like it.”
Pay dirt. I pulled up in the alley with a shovel a few days later.
She not only gave me several pounds of dark, rich organic matter made from degraded kitchen scraps and grass clippings, but she also let me cart away her special locking compost bin, which would allow me to compost my own scraps without fear of breeding the dreaded squirrel-’coon hybrid.
I mixed the compost into my beds this weekend. Now I’m ready to plant frost-resistant veggies, such as beets and snow peas, in April.
How do you know if you need to add organic matter and other nutrients to your soil? Many chemical soil tests are available.
I sent a small bag of soil to Colorado State University. A few weeks later the numbers came back and a local master gardener helped me interpret the results.
To see how my soil did in a chemical analysis and learn more about composting, visit my garden blog, www.gazette garden.blogspot.com.
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