The Practical Gardener

There are subtle hints that allow you to know when a person no longer worries about what others think about him. If you see a man walking casually through the mall wearing a pair of wingtips with white socks, striped Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt — chances are pretty good that he no longer worries about what others think.

Say what you will about that man, about tastes in clothing, and about common decency, but I believe he has reached a state of enlightenment. It’s the same sort of stand I’ve taken in the last few months with my family each time one of them has expressed concern, humiliation or embarrassment over my favorite ongoing experiment at Jardin Fou.

A couple years ago, I realized that the best soil in my garden was under the row of five compost bins constructed of wooden pallets. That September, I moved the bins to a new location and turned the original compost area into a fine raised bed. I set up the compost bins in a configuration that would provide two new garden rows after the compost cycle was complete. This would take, I figured, about eight months of collecting and composting raw materials.

But then I got a little sloppy. I kept piling the organic matter helter-skelter over the entire compost area. The bins filled to overflowing and kept filling. This went on long past the time when I should have converted the area into a pair of raised beds. And it didn’t stop.

My new neighbor Keith, a fine fellow not looking to create waves, started cautiously quizzing me about the messy experiment with half-decomposed wooden pallets jutting out of the jumbled tangle like the hand that emerges from the water in the last scene from Deliverance. I adopted a fixed stance of serenity as the pile increased with additions of rotted hay, leaves and assorted organic matter.

Things finally came to a head last weekend, when even I became weary of the eyesore. I gathered everything within a border of scavenged two-by-eight redwood boards, which came from my gardening pals Jeff and Lisa who had recently dismantled and replaced their decrepit deck. I started moving dried weeds and straw off the top of my compost heap and removing pieces of plastic bags (which had been dumped along with the veggie scraps from the kitchen), half-rotted wood, and empty Sharpes bottles. As I turned the organic matter, which was in various states of decay, low and behold I realized that something special was going on. The ground was alive with activity. Earthworms and centipedes wriggled, and the rich, earthy smell of composting-in-progress filled my nose.

The experiment is now heading into a new phase. Soon it will be transformed by a tidy mulch covering the whole area, which will allow me then to plant perennials, which will hopefully attract beneficial insects to this outside corner of my raised-bed garden.

What I noticed most during the clean-up process is that compost is always going on where there’s organic matter. Certainly, my method was not what one would choose for speedy processing of the stuff into compost. And it didn’t have that neat and organized look of my past compost experiments, which produced fine black gold in six-weeks’ time. But composting was continuing in spite of all the squalor.

Seeing the centipedes and bigger bugs at work got me to thinking about the biological activity that goes on in a healthy garden. It got me to thinking about what Dr. Elaine Ingham of Oregon State University calls the soil-food web. It is not just that earthworms and rolly-polly bugs we see that are a part of it; it’s the many layers of microscopic and nearly microscopic critters that live in every cubic inch of healthy soil.

The organic gardener’s mantra is that healthy soil makes healthy plants, and that gardeners’ greatest allies are the critters you can’t see. There is a tremendous alliance among critters in the soils of healthy gardens.

We’ll take up how it all works together to improve your garden, in the next installment of the Practical Gardener.

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