I’m in sales, so I probably know more about shoveling poop than anyone in the whole world! That makes me uniquely qualified to contribute to this week’s gardening discussions. So let’s dig right in.
The secret to successful gardening is not site location, seed selection or weather patterns. All those things are important, but the most important thing, if you’re growing in the earth, is your soil. Lot’s of people think that in ground gardening is like hydroponic gardening with the earth as merely a growing medium. You stick the plants in the medium and dump lots of nutrients on it via some chemical fertilizer and voila, you get a miraculously grown harvest.
Frankly, that will work…for a while. Eventually, though, chemical and salt residues build up and your garden plot becomes a dead zone. The Zombie Apocalypse is bad enough, but a Zombie Garden Bed is a real disaster. And our goal is to avoid disasters, remember?
A better way to grow a garden, and a truly sustainable one, is to feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants. That’s how nature works. For example, in a forest trees shed their leaves in the fall. As the leaves decay, they release nutrients into the soil, enriching it and loaded up with vitamins and minerals that trees and shrubs just love. The minerals are made soluble and are taken up by the roots of the trees helping it grow and stay healthy. In the spring, new leaves sprout and the process repeats itself.
Along with the decaying leaves, deer, possums, raccoons and other forest creatures deposit their urine and feces adding to the nutrient base and assisting the decaying cycle. It’s all natural composting. It works marvelously, just as the Designer planned.
In gardening, we impersonate, and sometimes amplify the natural process by composting, but the principles are the same. We pile up organic scraps, allow it to decay, then spread the finished product, sometimes called Black Gold, on our garden beds. The results can be quite spectacular.
There are some very simple composting methods and there are some very sophisticated ones. You can purchase compost bins, tubs, tumblers and cans. You can turn your compost by hand or you can buy a tumbling one that you just spin once a week and walk away. You can use starter bacteria or simply let nature take it’s course. You can insert worms or let the worms find you. The options are almost endless. My wife and I have tried them all, and have found the the simpler you can keep the process, the more successful you can be.
Here are some things that work great, with few inputs:
First, when you rake your leaves in the fall, put them in black plastic bags instead of the paper ones you buy at the big box store. Instead of putting them out by the road for the trash man to pick up, put them in a sunny spot in the back yard. Alternatively, put them all in a big heap and cover the heap with black plastic. OR… if you use raised beds, pile the leaves up on the raised bed and cover it with black plastic. Then just like on the infomercials, “fix it and forget it.”
Over time, the sun will heat the inside of the bag, as will the natural decaying process. The heat will create anaerobic bacteria which will break down the leaves and turn it into compost. In a place like Georgia, where my wife and I live, the process will be pretty darned complete by the time we uncover the beds in March or April. Now just use a garden fork and turn the rotted material into bed and you’re ready.
If you have horses, mules, donkeys or cattle, you’re really in luck. We are among the fortunate, so allow me to elaborate. Equines and Bovines produce copious quantities of by-products, ie. manure. That manure will produce some outstanding compost and its renewable. It renews daily…by the truck load. I know what I’m talking about. Our mules are the big, draft size kind. Their mother was a Belgian draft horse, their father was a Giant Jack donkey. These girls weigh over a ton apiece. Let your mind wander with that one for a while.
Since we also have donkeys and cows, you can imagine that our manure pile is quite large. We actually have two different types of manure compost. The first comes from the barn and contains wood chips or straw. Those additives make great additions, but they take much longer to compost. Our other section is straight manure taken from the pastures. We have found that the mule and donkey manure that comes directly from the pasture, breaks down pretty quickly. We’ve also found that as soon as it starts to cool, meaning the anaerobic activity stops, the compost worms move in and convert it quickly. One sign of good soil or compost, is the presence of earth worms. The more worms you have, the better your soil is. Our manure pile looks like worm heaven. It is loaded with big, fat, well fed wigglers. And it smells great. Composted manure doesn’t smell like manure. It smells like the earth. If it still smells like what it started out as, it’s not done yet.
We just load the compost, worms and all into wheel barrows, buckets and the back of the truck and take it to the garden beds. The worms can only help improve the soil already in the beds. Ok, to be fair, a few of them end up as fish bait. There’s no way I’m going to miss an opportunity like that. Free bait!
So, if you can get your hands on some well composted horse manure, don’t be afraid to heap it on. If it’s not composted enough, make your own pile out of it, cover it with black plastic and let the summer sun help you out.
Ok, one more. I’m about to let you in on Mother Nature’s secret weapon for successful gardening. Move a little closer, we don’t want the neighbors to hear our secret. Ready? Write this down. It’s only two words and they could change your gardening forever? Rabbit poo. Shhh….. keep it down. You want everyone to hear this? Yep, rabbit poo. One of the greatest nutrient providers on the planet. What makes it so special is, it doesn’t even need to be composted. it’s not ‘hot’ like cow or chicken waste. Empty your bunnies tray into a pile, let it rest a day or two for the ammonia to burn off and put it in the garden. Use a garden fork to turn it in and away you go. You can also compost it and it works great that way. Our rabbit waste compost pile has almost as many worms as our mule manure. And you don’t need acres of land to keep rabbits. You can raise them anywhere.
When all is said and done, the poop on poop is, it’s all good. Unless it’s rabbit or goat manure, let it compost. Time is your friend. Heap it onto your garden beds. Turn it in or plant directly into it. If you want a real miracle in your garden, you’ll forget the chemical stuff and do what nature does. I guarantee you will have your best gardens ever.
Please feel free to write in with any questions you might have. Please share your own composting tips also. We love to learn.