Garden Notes

brush pile
brush pile
Now you see it...now you don't. The brush pile (top) was turned over and tamped down by a Bobcat revealing a dark mulch. Photos by Susan Safford

Wintertime reads

By Abigail Higgins - February 15, 2007

A little over a month to go until the spring equinox: catalogue perusal, seed ordering, and sowing loom on many gardeners' agendas. The Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society is planning a roundtable discussion, "Seeds, Seeds, Seeds!" on seeding, ordering, plant varieties, and suppliers for seeds Wednesday, Feb. 21 from 7 to 9 pm. Panelists include Roxanne Kapitan, Victoria Phillips, Thalia Scanlon, Susan Silva, and myself. Admission is free, refreshments will be served, and the public is invited. Bring your seed catalogues.

When books on compost come across my desk they deserve a look. Compost, a subject of endless discussion and mystical reverence among gardeners, is an interesting and relevant topic. "Compost: the natural way to make food for your garden" by Ken Thompson (DK Books, Dorling Kindersley, 2007, 192 ppg. $18) is visually and stylistically welcoming, in the signature DK style - words and pictures closely integrated to present information with unrivaled clarity. The author, Ken Thompson, is an ecologist and senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield (UK). He writes regularly for gardening magazines, promoting the science behind gardening for the general reader.

"Compost" is a primer for people who have always had questions and doubts about compost that they were too timid to mention. Like, when it is ready? Thompson's answer to those questions and doubts has been to write an engaging monograph with large type, uncomplicated lay-out and great photos and graphics, as one expects from any DK Book, and with an avuncular voice that sooths: "Even if you do everything wrong, you will still make decent compost eventually." The most important question is, of course, "why compost?" I quote Thompson's answer at length because I think it addresses this very well and sums up a current environmental situation affecting us all.

"It spares the environment the damage caused by burying or burning waste, reduces the need to destroy natural habitats by excavating peat, and saves you money.

"US household garbage adds up to more than 200 million tons a year, or roughly 5 pounds per person per day, of which about a quarter is recycled.... Most waste is incinerated or ends up in landfill, yet about half of household waste could be composted.

"At the same time every year gardeners around the world buy millions of tons of growing media, soil conditioners, and mulching materials, much of it based on peat. A high proportion of this could be replaced, free of charge, if gardeners started recycling what they now simply throw away.

"Incinerated waste is returned immediately to the air as carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases, causing air pollution and contributing to global warming. [We on the Vineyard hear persistent rumors that our carefully sorted recyclables are driven to SEMASS, upwind of us, and directly incinerated.] Organic matter in landfills also slowly decays, but the main product is methane, an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2, and 25 percent of US methane emissions come from biodegradable waste in landfill sites.

"The soil is the safest place for waste organic matter. Once returned to temperate soils as compost, some organic matter stays there, often for a long time. More widespread use of compost by farmers and gardeners could make a small but significant contribution to the commitments... to reduce CO2 emissions."

In five chapters, Thompson amusingly and lightly delivers all the information the insecure or perplexed composter needs to get on with it: understanding compost; "making compost"; "compost bins"; "using compost"; and lastly, "no piles? no problem" (green manures). The volume concludes with resources pages and an index. I am donating the review copy of "Compost" to the West Tisbury Free Public Library, where its information is accessible to the widest readership.

Quite different but equally useful is a book with a great title: "Let It Rot! The Gardener's Guide to Composting" by Stu Campbell (Down-to-Earth Guides series, Storey Publishing, 1998, 153 ppg, $12.95.) The Down-to-Earth series aims to publish practical information that encourages personal independence in harmony with the environment.

"Let It Rot!' is denser in technical and informational details than the previous book and a little more daunting: many more tables of facts and figures, and compost systems and bin designs, all to delight the competent backyard DIY handyperson. More specific information is offered: for example, tables on carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of individual compostables, composition of natural fertilizer materials, cover crops, to cite a few. The back of the book contains lists of resources and an index. This is the volume for gardeners or compost geeks looking for information to help them refine their techniques or tailor their compost for specific uses.

Compact or in-town properties sometimes lack the space for compost piles. More often, it is the owners, blind to the benefits of their own compost, who do not agree to let their property digest the waste it produces. The gardener or landscaper becomes responsible for disposing of it. We take a certain amount to Keene's pit or Morning Glory Farm, but also bring the lighter stuff, leaves and smaller pruned branches, back here. Ah, the pity of it all! (heh heh.)

The accompanying before-and-after photos show how one's own place can swallow up a great deal of waste organic matter. The brush pile was generated over the latter part of the summer and through the fall. Material was simply unloaded and piled up as well as possible, continuously drying out and packing down. A Bobcat was run over it about two weeks ago. A good amount has already turned into to-die-for brown humus/mulch.

After attending New England Grows last week I returned home lugging a briefcase stuffed with business cards, publicity handouts, and plant lists: so much information to attempt to integrate and fashion into usable bytes. Attendees I talked to were all pleased that the organizers had enlisted speakers representing alternative or organic practices. The educational conference produced informative speakers on mulch use, and conventional methods of control vs. organic ones. Some great plant geeks spoke: author and plantsman C. Colston Burrell, Todd Forrest of New York Botanical Garden, Dale Hendricks of North Creek Nurseries, and Cassian Schmidt, director of the Herrmanshof Garden of Germany.

Stay tuned next for the New England Spring Flower Show at the Bayside Expo Center, March 17-25, with a wonderful line-up of speakers, including Tim Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum.