Home & Garden Columns

Gardener’s Gold

By Shirley Barker
Tuesday November 06, 2007

Every now and then I see a teenager in one of my trees. From a window I thought at first it might be a small UC student locationally adrift, in a striped shirt. A closer look showed it to be a young Cooper’s hawk, glaring down at me in comparably dauntless fashion. Thanks to Joe Eaton’s bi-weekly column, I can guess that it is drawn to the sparrows and finches at the thistle feeder, though the ducks keep an eye skywards when it appears, and my female cat skedaddles into the house. Smaller than the ducks, she is I hope still too large for the crow-sized Cooper’s. 

Predators are not the only problems to beset the gardener. Having finally fenced my vegetables and arranged paths around the raised beds for excellent access, I noticed the turnips behaving oddly, as though they were trying to get out of the ground. Instead of doing what I usually do, hope that time will cure all ills, I did what I recommend to others, dug around the turnips to see what was going on beneath them. 

To my horror, this vegetable bed was choked with fine feeder roots surely put out by the closest tree, a willow, although at a distance of 15 feet and with a pond between tree and vegetables, this seemed unlikely. Could the roots belong to a plum tree, fifteen feet away in the other direction? Indeed, when I finally plucked up courage to look around dispassionately, I realized that trees that a moment ago, it seemed, were mere saplings, had now grown tall enough to cast significant shadows for several hours each day. 

One of the best things about gardening is that in spite of the obstacles that constantly impede efforts, hope springs eternal in the gardener’s breast. For I knew that although I could dig out these intrusive fibrous roots and in their stead place a deep box with a fine wire mesh nailed across the bottom, although I might have to change the location of the vegetable plot, although I might as well re-design the whole garden while I’m at it—although I realized all those things, I knew that the timing was perfect: October. 

October is the start of the year for California plants. The seeds of native flowers that bloom so early in the year are poised to sprout at the first hint of rain. With a new vegetable-growing area of sun-baked clay, autumn is the time for requesting a sack or two of manure from local stables and covering the clay with a nice thick layer of it. Get a truck load if necessary, the stable owners will be thrilled. Top the layer with hay, leaves, grass trimmings and by next March, given a rainy season worthy of the name, the ground beneath will be in superb condition for spring growing. 

It is possible to sheet or trench compost directly in the vegetable bed as a way of increasing the workability of the soil and its nutritional value. For trench composting, a channel is dug along the middle of the bed, vegetable trimmings from the kitchen are placed in it, the earth dug out goes back in, and a layer of mulch is placed on top of that. If dogs or racoons are a problem, put a board over everything, weighted down with bricks. Sheet composting is identical, except that everything is on the surface rather than in a trench. 

When vegetables are grown in the same area year after year, close attention must be paid not just to maintaining an adequate balance of nutrients, but also to the earth’s texture, its tilth. Allowing a vegetable bed to lie fallow for a season, feeding it with manure for nitrogen and organic matter for texture, will help it to catch its breath, so to speak. For related reasons, those of diseases, it is necessary to rotate crops, especially those in the brassicaceae, or cabbage family, and in the solanaceae, in which family are tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and peppers. A fallow season can be part of a rotation plan. 

Having created a beautifully nourished and textured bed, it will still need overall maintenance, and this is where composting comes into its own. Much has been written about composting, most of it needlessly complex. It is not necessary, for example, to turn compost. Left alone for a year or less (depending on climate zone), microbes, earthworms and insects will do the job of converting kitchen trimmings, leaves, hay and so forth into that brown crumbly stuff sometimes called gardener’s gold. 

Quicker and easier is to use a container with a lid and a few air holes and introduce some red wriggly worms. These consume vast amounts of kitchen and garden material in a short time as they work or should I say worm their way up through it, leaving behind dense, friable, nutrient-rich compost. 

Some foods are unacceptable to worms, such as citrus and tomatoes (too acid). Toothless, they need a little grit, readily supplied by spent potting soil. Delicate rather than leathery leaves, no branches or pungent herbs, but plenty of other organic stuff is necessary to keep worms and kitchen trimmings well covered and at a moderate temperature. Water very lightly if all seems dry. 

Because it is so valuable, I use worm compost sparingly. After all, in theory my planting area has been well prepared. Just before setting out baby vegetables, I dig a little of this rich compost just under the surface of the bed, water it, and let it sit for a day. After setting in the seedlings, I side dress them with a little more. Then I water the plants, or puddle them in, as we rustics say. 

Compost provides balanced nutrition that plants can draw from according to their needs. It is a far cry from the forced feeding of liquid inorganic fertilizers such as superphosphate which, while producing sudden, even spectacular growth, does nothing for the texture of the soil. In no time at all, the earth will revert to clay. 

“Organic material” is by definition anything that once had life. This does not mean that anything can go into the wormless compost pile, either. Even if I ate it, I would not compost meat. It deteriorates quickly and attracts rats. Nor bread, for the same reasons. Fish on the other hand breaks down fast if covered with earth. As American Indians know, a fish head buried in a bed of corn is a natural fertilizer. I cannot imagine composting oil or, as an organic gardener, paper products, which contain chemicals or other additives of unknown kind. Eggshells add calcium, banana skins potassium. Sawdust and wood shavings, so long as they do not derive from plywood, and with the addition of a bit of nitrogen from manure to help decomposition, will soon improve texture. 

If only my teenage tree sitter were a vegetarian! But then I suppose he or she would only create yet another problem in the vegetable garden.