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When All Composts Are Not Created Equal

For gardeners, even the word ‘compost’ will cause people to wax poetically and almost enter a state of ecstasy. Compost is ‘brown gold’ – it is seen as being able to magically transform a garden. And to the extent that when it contains the optimal combination of carbon and nitrogenous materials and has been allowed to cook long enough to kill off seeds and so on, it is great stuff.

But not everything that is called ‘compost’ is equal to this standard. I remember once the DH top dressing a whole row of newly planted tomatoes with litter from our chicken house that he’d allowed to sit around. Within three days, the leaves on the plants turned white and started to drop off. Ayyyy! Too much ammonia in that ‘compost’ and actually, it had not really composted at all! We were able to save most of the plants by pulling the top dressing off and watering the plants to a fare-the-well. So – just leaving something around , especially if it’s under cover, is not going to cause the material to break down and become safer for plants. Another story, and more recent, is of a school organic garden project in California where the product they were being given to put on the beds, plant in, and come into contact with, were actually bags of stuff that contained ‘composted sewage sludge’ – which actually is not safe at all – that stuff contains things like cadmium, lead and arsenic. Treated sewage sludge really is not safe for growing vegetables at all (the plants will take up the heavy metals) and children should definitely not come into contact with it.

Here’s another example, from right now. We ended up with a few extra tomato plants and the DH already had plans for what we’d been composting in the bins since last year, so he ran off to the township landfill to get some of THEIR compost and potted up the plants. We went on a trip recently and when I got home, I got a good look at those plants. And compared then to the tomato plants we’d put into the garden, tucked into their well dug over, amended with compost out of our bins beds.

Wow. Those potted up tomatoes look nasty. They basically had not grown at all and the leaves had started to yellow or curl or cup, generally showing deformities and doing the plant version of sending out SOS all over the place. When I dug around in the pot, it hit me between the fingers that what the DH had planted them in was actually slightly composted wood chips. Just a lot of wood chips – and nothing else.

Not good. Not that you can’t use wood chips as part of the recipe for a compost pile, but to make that stuff cook up, you need literally a 50-50 mix of chips and high nitrogen materials like manure in order to get it to cook up and leave you with enough nitrogen to feed plants. Wood chips by themselves bind up nitrogen and minerals, which is what happened to these tomato plants. The yellowing and leaf deformities were caused by the fact that the plants could not access any nutrients. The wood had bound them all up.

So, I knocked them out of the pots, stole some of ‘the good stuff’ out of the bin of ‘our’ compost that the DH had put through a sieve, and repotted them. I’m hoping that the little buggers will take the opportunity to realize that they’ve got ready food and will take off and look like the picture of the tomato in the garden bed.

Close call.

For more information on how to make the sort of compost pile that will produce great compost, go here: Composting 101

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