Do You Remember?

Do you remember subscribing to a gardening blog a few years ago? One that caters to the Mid-Atlantic gardening region? Yeah me, too. And I even remember spending hours every day writing the blog posts.

Well, life happens and I happened to skip a few months (or years). I’ve been thinking that I may write smaller posts that involve more discussion from the readers…after all, none of us are as smart as all of us, right? Soooo…

MULCH

Sounds pretty mundane, huh? But what kind should you use? Pine bark nuggets? Double shredded hardwood? Dyed mulch? Cypress? It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of the choices out there. I’ll give you my two cents if you promise to give me yours…

What mulch do I use? Double shredded hardwood mulch. Why? Earthworms.

Photo by EcoWatch

Earthworms are the entire reason that I garden. I love digging a hole and seeing them squirming all around with their little wet, shiny selves. I love to know that they love eating my soil. And turning it into poop. That the plants love. That I love. Sound weird? Probably.

One thing that my co-workers and I noticed after using brown dyed mulch was the lack of earthworm activity. Like none. Zip. Nada. Areas that were full of earthworms the season before were void of them now. Did we happen to catch all of the earthworms on a bad day? Perhaps. But we decided to go back to plain old double shredded hardwood mulch. And guess what happened? Earthworms, that’s what happened.

So tell me…what has your experience been with the mulch you use?

 

February 4, 2017Permalink 10 Comments

Friday Free For All: Veteran Compost Interview

 

veteran compostToday’s post is a first for Mid-Atlantic Gardening. Justen Garrity from Veteran Compost has agreed to be interviewed about his composting business. It is based in Maryland and provides a wonderful resource for veterans and gardeners alike. Veteran Compost’s tagline is “From Combat to Compost”…how awesome is that! Let’s learn more about Veteran Compost, shall we?

Q. What is the mission of your business?

A. Veteran Compost is a veteran-owned business focused on turning organic waste into high quality soil amendments, and hiring military veterans to staff our ranks.

Q. Who do you see as your ideal customer?

A. We work with two main groups of customers: commercial foodservice operations and compost users. All of our food waste comes from restaurants, schools, hospitals and hotels around the Baltimore Metro Area. We are always recruiting and adding new food waste customers. It’s amazing the amount of material that we collect, tons of food waste that would otherwise go to the landfill or incinerator. The other side of our business is compost sales. We produce compost, vermicompost, compost worms, and compost teabags. We sell directly to farmers, landscapers, and homeowners. Our products are available bagged or in bulk. Our customers tend to be people who understand the value of improving their soil and the benefits of compost.

Q. How does your compost differ from what’s available in big box stores?

A. Our compost is an all-natural, locally made product that is sourced from recycled material.  We also do not use any yard waste. This has become a big deal recently, since herbicides like Imprelis and Milestone (which are used on grass) can end up in yard waste compost facilities and contaminate the finished compost. We test all of our products in the greenhouse and in the laboratory. Quality is extremely important to us. You can see pictures of our process on our website and where our compost comes from. I don’t know that the big brands can claim that.

Q. How is your compost made?

A. Everyday we collect tons of food waste from local customers. That food waste is brought back to our farm in Aberdeen, MD and mixed with wood chips. It is placed in large piles that have perforated pipes underneath. Those pipes are tied into electric fans which are controlled by timers. By blowing air into the pile we are able to keep the material aerobic and compost it very rapidly. We constantly check the temperature and moisture levels within the piles, and adjust our airflow as needed. We compost our material at 140ºF initially in order to destroy any potential pathogens. After that, we work the material through several temperature ranges. At different temperatures, different microbes are active. So, by composting at different temperature ranges, we can coax out more microbes and create a better compost. We screen our compost to 3/8” or 1/2” and cure it before it is ready for sale. We go from raw material to finished compost in 90 days. This is without any odors or run-off and with minimal moving of the material so there is a lower carbon footprint.

Q. Describe your customers and the goods that they purchase. Do they pickup or do you deliver?

A. We offer pick-up on the farm of bagged or bulk compost and can also deliver material. While farmers and landscapers make up part of our customer base, our largest group is the homeowner or gardener. So, we are more than happy to arrange small orders and give soil and compost advice.  We also have several pick-up locations for bagged products, and thanks to the internet, we now ship compost worms and vermicompost throughout the United States. It is unbelievable the places that our worms have gone in the past two years.

Q. How can my readers become more involved with what you are doing?

A. Feel free to check out our website, Facebook page, or Twitter feed.  We are always adding information on new food waste customers, farm happenings, and general soil and garden      information. Picking up at the farm is a great chance to look around and see what is going on. If you don’t live near Aberdeen, MD you can use our pickup locations in Media, PA; Columbia, MD; and Annapolis, MD or we can mail you compost worms, vermicompost, and compost tea bags.  Compost worms do surprisingly well being shipped via Priority Mail!

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your business?

veteran compostA. I guess I should explain a little bit about our worm compost operation. We gutted our horse barn a few years ago and filled it with long continuous flow worm bins. Periodically we feed our worms some of our finished compost.  Since compost worms tend to live near the surface, they move upwards to the new material. Meanwhile, we run a bar along the bottom of the bin, which drops finished vermicompost onto tarps. This vermicompost is screened to ¼” and is awesome for starting seeds, boosting houseplants, or making compost tea. The screening process also separates the compost worms out. Red Wigglers (compost worms) are great in a worm bin or a backyard compost pile.

Wow, what a great business model Justen is using for his business. He’s helping gardeners, commercial landscapers, farmers, foodservice companies, veterans and the environment. That’s a green business that is really making a difference. If you live in the Maryland area, stop by and see Justen and the folks at Veteran Compost. If you’re further away, consider ordering some of his vermicompost, compost worms or compost tea bags. Your plants will thank you for it! Let me know if you’ve used any of Veteran Compost’s products by leaving me a comment below or e-mailing me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

February 17, 2012Permalink Leave a comment

Friday Free For All: Wood Chips vs. Hardwood Mulch

 

What a great Friday at Mid-Atlantic Gardening! I was able to give seeds to one of our readers, Elizabeth, from New Jersey. The seeds are Tomatoes Mortgage Lifter, Amish Paste and Golden Sunrise, Eggplant Casper, Cilantro Slo-Bolting and Cucumber Mandurian Round. It feels so great to give back to the readers that inspire me to keep writing posts. I have to admit that there are days when I say to myself “I’ll skip writing today’s post” but then I’ll receive feedback from you all and that keeps me moving. To all of my readers, I feel compelled to say “Thank you. You all are awesome!” OK, on to the post for today…

wood chipsA co-worker approached me Monday and asked a question that I feel is very important to answer. He wanted to know if applying wood chips instead of conventional hardwood mulch was OK for plants. My answer was a resounding yes. While double shredded hardwood mulch may be more pleasing to the eye, the soil and its organisms don’t care what you put down, so long as you put down something. Remember, as a gardener, you want to grow beautiful healthy soil that will feed your plants with much less effort than it takes to feed the plants and not the soil. Does that make sense? If your focus is on feeding the plants with synthetic fertilizers, you are not feeding the soil. If you instead feed the soil, you are rewarded with plants that derive their nutrition from what the soil provides for them.

Some people fear that mulching with fresh wood chips will rob the soil of nitrogen and that is a legitimate concern. What those same people fail to realize (and I was one of those people for a long time by the way) is that the nitrogen the microorganisms consume to break down the organic matter is still there, it’s just tied up. At a later time, the nitrogen will be available to the plants and it will be in a form that is naturally occurring. And it’s free too. No more applying fertilizer every spring…instead you can apply organic matter and grow your soil. If your plants become too chlorotic for your liking in the time that it takes your nitrogen to become available to the plant again, you can apply blood meal which is around 12% nitrogen. It will be a quick shot of nitrogen that will green up your plants.

Like I said earlier, it doesn’t matter what you have to mulch with…just mulch. If all you have available are leaves from the woods, use them. It would be nice if you could shred them up before using them…they’ll stay in place better and won’t pack down and form a matted layer. If it’s good enough for millions of acres of forests, it’s good enough for me. If you live near a farmer and he has straw that has spoiled, offer him a few dollars and he’ll probably accept your offer. Just make sure that it’s straw and not hay as hay is full of weed seeds. If you have trees removed from your garden, take the wood chips and use them…your tree guy will thank you too since he now doesn’t have to dispose of them. Just about any type of organic matter that you can think of will benefit your garden. I tend to be a little thrifty so I’m always on the lookout for cheap or free sources of organic matter…whether it be wood chips, leaves, manure or straw, I’ll take it! I love hearing how resourceful other gardeners are…leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

 

Reader Question: Compost for the Veggie Garden

 

Today’s reader question is from Veronica in Virginia Beach, Virginia:

I am working on planning my vegetable garden and I’ve been thinking about what kind of compost to add to the garden. I have a small compost pile that I’ve made from kitchen scraps but I’ll need more for the garden. I’ve used horse manure in the past but ended up with a garden full of weeds as a result. I’m also wondering if I need to add compost at all since I added it last spring. Thanks for any suggestions.

Well Veronica, let’s address the issue of whether you need to add compost…the answer is positively yes. With rare exception, you can never add enough especially in a veggie garden. The plants in the garden are sucking so many nutrients out of the soil that they have to be replenished, preferably through compost instead of synthetic fertilizers. Compost will undoubtedly improve the structure of your soil, which in turn will allow the soil microbes and earthworms to do their jobs better. It also makes it wickedly easy to plant when the time comes!

Compost for the veggie garden

Photo courtesy of Red Worm Composting

As for the type of compost to apply, it is really up to you and what is locally available. Perhaps you can add your kitchen scrap compost as a topdressing to the plants, depending on how much you have available. I recommend finding a good source of horse manure for large applications. It is vitally important that the manure be well aged otherwise you will end up with weeds as you did in the past and there is also a chance that the manure will be too “hot” and could burn your plants. Aged manure that is blended with sawdust or wood shavings is ideal as it contains a better ratio of carbon to nitrogen.

If you are lucky enough to have a rabbit or neighbors with a few bunnies, try to scrounge all of the poo you can get. Rabbit manure is the only animal manure that can go straight from the animal to the garden with no ill side effects. I like to use it as a topdressing for plants or to add to the planting hole.

Adding compost to the garden every chance you get is your best defense against pest problems too. Pests have an innate ability to tell which plants are stressed and they hone right in on the ones that are lacking water or nutrition. By living in Virginia Beach, I assume that you have very sandy soil and compost will do wonders to add to the water retention capabilities of your soil. If in doubt about any problems in the garden, add compost! Let me know what types of compost you regularly add to your garden by leaving a comment below or sending me an e-mail at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? The Myth of Synthetic Fertilizers

 

In today’s Did You Know? post, I thought that we should look at synthetic fertilizers. In the next few weeks, people will be buying 10-10-10 and other fertilizers by the bags at home improvement centers and garden stores. While conventional wisdom dictates that a lawn or garden needs to be fertilized every year, you may be surprised to learn that you can save money and time by not applying them.

Let’s investigate a 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer and see what it is really comprised of. 10-10-10 refers to the nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), or N-P-K for short, content. A 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 is made up of 5 pounds of N (10% of the 50-pounds), 5 pounds of P and 5 pounds of K. The other 35 pounds are inert ingredients that allow the fertilizer to be applied evenly.

Nitrogen in fertilizer is usually made from ammonium nitrate or urea. Either way, most of the nitrogen is readily available when it is applied and is therefore either quickly taken up by the plant or washed away with heavy rains. A good rule of thumb to remember is that the nitrogen is usually gone within a couple of weeks of being applied.

Phosphorus in fertilizer is generally made from phosphoric acid which is the end result of treating rocks containing phosphorus with sulfuric acid. Of course, there is much more to this process than I can explain here, but suffice it to say that it’s a chemical process that produces phosphorus that is in a bag of fertilizer.

Potassium in fertilizer is comprised of potash, which is a generic term that describes water soluble potassium in various salts. Again, I’m not attempting to give a chemistry lesson here…my main objective is to show you that all of these nutrients that we put down with the best of intentions aren’t naturally occurring in the form that they are applied.

If you’ve read any of my posts about soil building, you may have heard me say that we need to feed the SOIL not the plants. And that is my point here. By applying synthetic versions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium we are feeding the plants…it is the plants that need these nutrients, not the soil. The soil needs organic matter to feed the microbes and earthworms that in turn release these nutrients in their natural form. By applying chemical fertilizers, we are acidifying the soil and turning an environment that would otherwise foster the growth of our little friends into a barren, almost lifeless area of dirt. That feeds into the vicious cycle of having to apply more and more fertilizers to achieve the same result in subsequent years.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO TO BREAK YOUR DEPENDENCE ON SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS?

  1. Add compost, compost and more compost. While it’s true that you don’t want to apply a thick layer to an existing lawn, but in the vegetable garden I can’t imagine that you could ever apply too much. Just make sure if it is manure based, that it is well-composted. The only exception to this rule is rabbit poo. It can go straight from the rabbit to the garden without composting.
  2. Aerate the soil. I don’t really think that tilling is a good idea (I’ll do a post about that soon) but it is vitally important to make sure that there is enough air in the soil to sustain plant roots and soil organisms. If you are encouraging earthworms, they will do all of the aerating that you will ever need…remember, Ma Nature knows what she is doing.
  3. Don’t leave the soil barren. You can avoid crusting of the soil and erosion by making sure that there is always something actively growing on the land. Cover cropping is a popular technique in veggie gardens for the winter but even mulching with straw or leaves is far better than allowing the rain to beat the topsoil into a crust.

 

I hope that I’ve given you a little insight into synthetic fertilizers and more importantly, how to think of them differently. If you take the time to compost your scraps and look for other sources of compost like horse barns, you will be rewarded with the most beautiful plants and healthy soil. I’d love to hear what you have done to reduce your use of synthetic fertilizers. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

January 23, 2012Permalink 1 Comment

Healthy Soil

 

When you hear the word soil, you may be thinking of the red clay in your backyard or perhaps your sandy soil that drains water as quickly as you apply it. While both of these describe soil by its very definition, healthy soil is a vibrant dance of microorganisms, organic matter, small bits of rocky material and sheer beauty.

Healthy soil is soil where plants flourish, earthworms eat and poop with reckless abandon and water and air are in almost perfect balance. This may be a far cry from where your soil is now but there is one magic bullet that can fix almost any soil…compost. Most gardeners are well aware of the benefits of compost; that it adds aeration to clay soils and helps bind sand particles together. But many people aren’t aware that even a small amount of compost, when measured by total soil volume, can yield huge results in soil quality.

Consider this for a moment: it is fairly common for disturbed soils (that includes the great majority of soils in subdivisions) to be comprised of only 1.5% to 2% organic matter. The other 98% to 98.5% is made up of soil particles like clay, silt and sand. If you increase the organic matter only a small percentage, the clay particles start to break apart to allow water to pass through and the sand particles start to stick together to keep water from moving so fast through the soil. The great Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia has increased his percentage of organic matter from 1.5% to 8% over the past 50 years by allowing the carbon cycle to occur without negative interference.

Let’s look at how nature does this without any assistance from us. In a deciduous forest, like the great majority of those on the East Coast, the trees produce an absolutely astounding amount of leaves each spring and summer. The leaves assimilate and process sunlight and at the end of the season, the trees drop all of these leaves around their feet. The leaves contain some of the nutrients that the far reaching root systems have mined throughout the year and now they are being placed exactly where they are needed…at the trees’ roots. These leaves are compressed by rain, snow and animals big and small who walk on and through the leaves, thereby speeding their decomposition. Each year these leaves are on the sliding scale of breaking down from oak leaves larger than your hand to pieces that are hardly even recognizable. All of this is adding organic matter, or nature’s compost, to the soil. The result is healthy soil that is loose and friable.

Contrast that to the typical neighborhood yard with a couple of trees. The leaves are collected in the fall and removed from the area completely, sometimes even bagged to be taken to the landfill. Then we apply mulch around the trees and wonder why our soil becomes poorer and poorer with each passing year. What we have essentially done is removed all of nature’s fertilizer and compost.

The first step to improving your soil is to begin adding that compost back to the soil. Start a simple compost pile in your backyard and/or shred the leaves and then apply them in a layer under the mulch you usually use…just be sure to keep the total depth of mulch in the 2″ to 3″ range. In the case of mulch, more is not better. See my mulch volcano article for more info on that. If you’d like to improve the appearance of your lawn, when you aerate in the fall, apply a 1/4″ to 1/2″ layer of compost and then overseed. If you keep this process going, you should be able to eliminate or drastically reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizer that you have to apply to cool-season turf in the fall.

If your tomatoes seemed stunted this year, add compost. If you are planting a new Camellia this fall, add compost. If your Astilbes seem a bit chlorotic, add compost. You get the point…compost is king. Without it, all you end up with is DIRT. And dirt won’t give you the results that you are capable of producing!

I’d love to hear your stories of growing great soil and the results of your hard work. E-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com or add it to the comment section below.

November 16, 2011Permalink Leave a comment

Did You Know? Healthy Soil

November 14, 2011

I’ve always been a sucker for useless bits of trivia…just ask my college roommates; I used to inundate them with factoids that I picked up from Readers Digest magazines. I thought that I would start a “Did You Know” segment here that will give you the leg up the next time you play a horticultural trivia game (but quite honestly, when was the last time you played?)

So here is today’s factoid:

Did you know that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria?

But lest you think that’s a bad thing…that is awesome! Bacteria are the life of the soil and are what transform all of the other wonderful things in soil to a form that plants can use.

Perhaps we’ll start to discuss soil in my next post. And don’t you dare utter the four letter “d” word (dirt). The two are on opposite ends of the spectrum and I’ll explain how next time! Don’t forget to leave me any comments or thoughts you may have…and if you think someone else would enjoy reading about what we’re discussing, please send them over!

November 14, 2011Permalink Leave a comment

Mulch Volcanoes…Oh the Horror of Them All

November 13, 2011

Since when did the Mid-Atlantic region consist of volcanoes? Perhaps many, many moons ago it did (or maybe not at all…I wasn’t a geology major). The volcanoes I’m speaking of are man-made and they appear every year when people are mulching their trees…that’s right, the mulch volcano. The picture below shows a typical sight in the Mid-Atlantic region: a Bradford Pear with a mulch volcano…in my opinion, they both need to go, but that’s a different story for a different day.

While they don’t spew forth lava, they do speak volumes about a belief among well-meaning gardeners that if the landscaper down the road is doing something, they should too. I need to insert a disclaimer here: while there are certainly folks in the landscaping industry that follow proper horticultural techniques, there appear to be far more that just do what the next guy is doing.

Not too many years ago, it was hard to convince landscapers to apply mulch at all. It was a hard sell to them and they couldn’t believe that people would be willing to pay them to put down mulch in their landscape beds. But then the dollar signs began to appear to them, much like they do in a cartoon. “Do you mean that people will pay me by the yard to put mulch around their plants? And they want it done twice per year? SOLD!” And so the mulch volcano was born.

A mulch volcano consists of a mountain (or volcano) of mulch that is applied around the base of a tree. It is usually piled up at least two feet high on the trunk of the stem. Unfortunately, after most people are finished, they sit back and think “wow…that tree is really happy now!” And there are some people who think that the mulch volcano will help keep the tree warm. Now if you are one of those people, don’t fret. It’s easy to believe such things when you are surrounded by them. Look around at the landscapes in any commercial setting; I’ll bet you that 9 out of 10 trees have mulch volcanoes. Now look in the woods and tell me what you see…no mulch volcanoes for sure!

 

I can’t blame money-hungry landscapers entirely for the epidemic of mulch volcanoes; laziness is a factor too. You’re probably thinking “laziness? It’s a lot of hard work to haul in all of that mulch for the volcanoes”. And you are right; it is a lot of hard work. But it’s far easier to mulch the tree than to plant it correctly. You see, most of the trees that are mulched like a volcano were never fully planted in the ground. A shallow area for the root ball to sit in was excavated but that was it…the top of the root ball is usually well above-grade (and that may not be a bad thing but we’ll discuss that in a later post). Mulch is added as a disguise to cover up the nonsense and the next tree is “installed”. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that if we took away the volcano in the picture below, you’d find that the tree hadn’t been planted at all…in fact if you look closely, you can see that there is bare soil under the layer of mulch. That’s either soil from the original rootball or soil from where the “hole” was dug. Either way, this tree is suffering from a severe case of “mulch volcano”.

So what can you do to fix the problem?

First, look at the trees in your yard…are there volcanoes that are ready to erupt? If so, pull back the mulch to a depth of 3″ or so and instead of mulching up, mulch out. Take the mulch and spread it out as far as you can stand it…the more mulched area there is, the less the tree has to complete with grass for water and nutrients. Congratulate yourself for unburying a tree that was otherwise suffocating under all of that mulch. Once the celebration is over, take a look at your neighbors’ yard, the common areas in your subdivision, your church, where you work or your local park. Chances are that there are mulch volcanoes there too. Let people know that you’ve been knocking down volcanoes all over your city and they can do it too!

I’d love to see some pictures of the mulch volcanoes that you’ve encountered. Send them to stacey@midatlanticgardening.com and we’ll start a photo gallery…a wall of shame if you will.

November 13, 2011Permalink Leave a comment