From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Composter, But Not an Organic Gardener

The Rural Life... More About Trees and Plants...



Last fall, I raked some of the fallen leaves in our yard onto a big sheet of plastic and drug them to the garden. There, I dumped them into a cage made from welded-wire fencing and steel fence posts. On top of each load of leaves, I sprinkled a small coffee-can of high-nitrogen granular fertilizer to help accelerate the breakdown of the leaves into compost.

I used fertilizer because I didn't feel like hauling a load of manure. Leaves composted with manure make a great compost. The manure provides nitrogen to accelerate the breakdown of the carbon compounds in the leaves, as well as microorganisms to set the process in motion. (Don't be surprised if some seeds in the manure survive and sprout in the garden.)

When winter set in, I had a daily tray of ashes from the wood stove, so I started dumping them on the leaf pile too. I tried to be careful to let the ashes cool for at least 24 hours, but I did accidentally throw out some live coals one day. Before long, a little column of smoke was rising from the leaves, so I had to get out the hose and water it down. Lesson: be careful with ashes!

I should have tossed the leaves around during the winter to aerate them, but I didn't. By spring, a big pile of ashes had built up, and the ash and leaf combination was a heavy, hard-to-shovel mass. My shoulder was giving me problems at the time, so I had to get Isaac to mix them up. We tossed in some more fertilizer and soaked the pile thoroughly with the garden hose a few times.

I don't know if it was a good idea or not to put the ashes in the compost. Wood ashes contain acid-neutralizing chemicals just as lime does. However, those chemicals leach out rapidly when the ashes are wet, so I don't know how much nutrient the compost has retained from the ashes.

In addition, I recently read that ashes can raise the pH of the compost pile so much that it inhibits the microorganisms that cause decomposition. Maybe that's why the leaves didn't break down much through a long wet winter, despite being laced with granular fertilizer.

The leaves have been composting in their cage for about eight months now. I planted my tomatoes and peppers around the outside edge of the cage, and they are flourishing. I've been using some of the leaf compost as a mulch in the garden, over sheets of newspaper. It keeps the weeds down very well, and of course the leaves don't have any seeds in them to sprout.

GardeningUnfortunately, our yard has a lot of Bermuda grass in it. It's an African grass that spreads aggressively by seed, by casting out long runners, and by sending up sprouts from a tangled mass of wiry roots. It can be eradicated organically by digging out the roots, but every scrap of root must be removed or it will grow back.

After years of trying to keep it out of the garden by hand, I have finally started using a herbicide around the perimeters. Then I dig out by hand any that dares to grow within my declared BFZ (Bermuda-free Zone).

I'm going to spray around the outside edges of the garden this week with an all-season herbicide. I'll do it on a day when the air is still, and I'll use a large piece of cardboard to help keep the spray from drifting into the garden. I plant flowers around the garden edge, so the vegetables have a little buffer zone between them and the herbicide.

Bermuda grass takes much of the joy out of having beds of perennial flowers and plants. I desperately need to get the Bermuda out of my iris beds, for example. I'm going to clip the grass as close to the ground as possible with grass shears, and then spray with Grass-B-Gone, which is an Ortho herbicide that kills grass only.

I used to be a dedicated organic gardener, but Bermuda grass has changed my attitude. I still try to stay mostly organic within the garden, but around the edges and in the flower beds, I don't mind using some chemicals. If the end of this post has started to sound a little like an Ortho commercial, it's because I've learned that their products work!

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1 comment:

KennethF said...

Hey Gene:

Your perspective usually coincides with mine in a mysterious manor...
chemicials seem helpful that work!

I don't like using chemicals on my "red thread" grass troubles but that may be the only answer, as things are looking much worse, & way to early?

I'm thinking that you will soon be discovered and become a published success... before June '07 if you submit proper samples, please!

Only takes one click, KennethF

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.