by Connie Oswald Stofko
My photos, taken in harsh afternoon sunlight, don’t do justice to the landscape of Molly and Douglas Mailey, which I saw on the Hamburg Garden Walk in July.
Molly has lush and colorful garden beds. Just by looking, you may be able to pick up on some of the techniques she uses to add beauty to her landscape. She has shady areas, and chooses her plants well to fit the lighting conditions. Her garden beds curve and are allowed to flow into the yard instead of being forced to march in a straight line along the fence.
But there’s one thing that you wouldn’t notice by looking at Molly’s gardens. It’s the thing that she says not only makes her plants grow large, but cuts down on her labor in the gardens.
Her secret ingredient?
She puts six inches of compost on top of her garden beds every year.
That’s a lot of compost, and she makes the compost herself.
Molly was happy to allow me to go behind the scenes and see what she calls her compost factory. A gate conceals the entrance to the compost factory, which is situated in the space between her garage and the fence. She piles the space with plant material all the way up to the top of the fence, leaving room for a walkway.
While she tosses yard waste on the pile during the summer, the pile really grows when autumn leaves fall.
She uses a leaf grinder to break her leaves down into small pieces. Her grinder is like a leaf blower in reverse, sucking up the leaves and grinding them. There are different kinds of leaf grinders available.
She will also grind her neighbors’ leaves for them, and many of her neighbors kindly donate their leaves to her.
After Halloween, her neighbors bring her their jack-o’-lanterns to use in her compost factory. Some neighbors just toss their plant material over the fence for her.
But even that isn’t enough to fill the large compost factory. Molly is always prepared, carrying two bins in her car at all times in case she sees wilted mums or pumpkins set out to the curb.
The area of the compost factory gets plenty of sun and rain, so some of the seeds from the pumpkins sprout right there. Last year she harvested eight pumpkins. Some were orange and others white, which reflected the varieties of pumpkins that were contributed the previous year.
In the spring, Molly gives buckets of finished compost back to neighbors who want some.
Her enthusiasm for compost arose after reading the book The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet by Kristin Ohlson.
“It changed my whole way of gardening,” Molly said.
There’s a complicated give-and-take relationship going on in the soil between microbes and plants, Ohlson explains in the book.
To put it very simply, the microbes in the soil enable plants to take up nutrients the plants need. In return, the plants leak carbon sugars through their roots for the microbes to eat, ensuring that the microbes stay near the plant.
Did you catch that? The plants need the microbes. You could drop nutrients, such as cobalt or sulfur, near a plant’s roots, but without the microbes, those minerals wouldn’t help the plant.
“Only when the minerals are swallowed by bacteria, which are then swallowed by a protozoa or nematode or microarthropod out hunting near the plant’s roots, then excreted by those larger organisms in the vicinity of the plant’s roots–only then do the minerals assume a chemical form that the plant can use,” Ohlson said in her book.
It’s an amazing and complicated system!
Molly told me that every time we dig in the soil, we disturb this complex system that exists underground and is vital to plants. Compost nourishes this system, and Molly said she applies six inches of compost to the top of her garden beds every year.
But I was confused. Doesn’t she dig when she turns the compost into the soil?
“You don’t dig the compost in at all,” she explained. “That would be destroying everything under the soil that is happening naturally. The compost will mix itself into the soil underneath. The system will draw the compost down.”
It’s not just the addition of plant material that helps the soil, it’s the avoidance of digging, too. You may have heard of no-till farming or no-till gardening.
The Soil Will Save Us gives examples of farmers who don’t even use compost; they just leave plant material, such as dead corn stalks, in place to decompose. When it comes time to plant, the farmers cut small slits through the plant material and soil in order to insert a seed. The system works great for the crops, and it reduced labor for the farmers since they didn’t have to remove dead plants, then spread compost.
Plus the farmers didn’t have to use fertilizer, and Molly doesn’t fertilize, either. In fact, using chemical fertilizers would disrupt the system that is chugging along successfully under the soil.
And the plant material keeps weeds down on the farms and in Molly’s garden.
And the methods turns hard clay into soft soil, even without digging, though Molly didn’t have much of a clay problem.
Oh, and the plant material holds moisture in the soil better, so less watering is needed. That happens whether you use dry plant material or compost. Even with our hot, dry weather this summer, Molly said she didn’t have to water much.
Sharon M. Webber, CNLP, a local freelance horticultural consultant, shared a story with us in 2011 on how topical applications of compost saved an ailing landscape. After top dressing the landscape with high-quality compost twice a year for two years, the soil was so soft you could use your hand to dig a hole.
If you have used lasagna gardening, which we talked about in 2014, you’ll find much of what we’re talking about today is familiar.
But maybe you didn’t realize all the benefits that you can be providing when you top dress with compost and don’t till.
The interactions that happen in the soil go deep into the soil. The less we dig, the deeper the interactions go, according to The Soil Will Save Us. And the deeper the interactions go, the more carbon that becomes buried in the ground. Storing carbon in the ground keeps it out of the atmosphere, which could help with climate change.
All this from a bunch of autumn leaves, wilted mums and sagging pumpkins.