Going for the Gold in Your Vegetable Garden!

By Bill McCaleb VCE Southside Master Gardener Association Coordinator Oh, the wonders of spring and the eternal emerging of the flora and fauna around us. I was looking at a garden late last year, and the gardener had been using the same area for several years to grow tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in an area that 20 years ago had been host to tobacco crops year after year. Yes, he had been rotating his crops, but each year he was getting poorer production and more disease issues. Let me just say, a “healthy soil will produce healthy plants”. I’m sure that phrase has been used by many extension personnel across the country as it is true where ever you go. I will borrow this quote and modify it a bit from Cool Hand Luke; “what we have here, is a failure to communicate (build soils)”. You can’t keep taking away your basic elements from the soil and expect success in gardening or in your lawn, or for that matter, in your landscape. Much of the nutrients that a healthy happy garden wants had been reduced over the years for this landowner, especially calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron uptake was minimal. Needless to say, it became evident after he did a soil test in the area where his garden is and the results came back. Some people have the option of picking a new area, remove the turf by solarization (that is a whole other article to come) and start afresh in a healthier location. Or, in this case, this was the only place that he had full sun and fortunately had a slight slope, so standing water (poor drainage) wasn’t an enemy to our annual vegetables that we love to grow. Yes, there is a solution to this dilemma for this person and all of us who need to replace what we take away. Compost to the rescue!
Yard waste, especially leaves, make great compost. Kitchen scraps are also good things to add. Compost you say. There are so many places where you can go buy amendments, fertilizers, soil structure materials, etc. but why spend the money when you have what Mother Nature provides us. Composting is the natural way that nature keeps our forest lovely, our meadows in the mountains healthy and blooming spring, summer and fall. When I bought my first house, I remembered all of that compost my grandmothers used to amend those heavy clay soils of Georgia and Alabama. Yep, I got to do it on the farms and knew it worked, so I dug my first compost ‘hole’. Yes, I was in a sandy loamy soil so we didn’t have a drainage issue, as most of us have here in Halifax County. Into the hole went every leaf I raked up in the fall, the ones that my neighbors put out to go to the landfill, I would ask and get their bags of leaves adding that to the compost as well. At my office we had a 60-cup coffee urn that churned out lots of grounds, which went home to be composted. Tea bags also went home. I had learned early on in life that if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on fertilizer, you could use a mulching blade on your lawnmower and just leave the cuttings to dehydrate and eventually compost naturally back into the soil. All of the iron, calcium, potassium, and other nutrients stayed where it did the best for the lawn. Okay, in my backyard our dog, Lady, helped us with urea to green up certain spots more than others. After my compost pile became a mound and was as high as our 4’ anchor fence I figured out that I could take pallets that I would get in Alexandria and I made two bins, then eventually three. As I emptied one and worked on to the next one, the third would be composting. I will admit the first compost pile in that hole was more to get night crawlers and red wigglers for the bait box on the boat. But what a great job those worms did in breaking down organic matter. I learned the hard way that if you want to slow an active pile down, throw in citrus peelings like lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit peels. On the other hand, apple and banana peels were a blessing to all of the bacteria, fungi, insects, and yes my nice plump ‘wigglers and crawlers’. I hope you will start thinking about the free compost that is all around us landowners. It just takes a little of time and turning weekly to keep out nearby tree roots. I would recommend not to place your compost any closer than 50’ from any of our native red maples or oaks as you start seeing roots growing up into your mulch piles. If that happens, my answer is to move your operation to a new location and carry some starter composted soil from the old one to the new location so you have the ‘starter’ mix of beneficial, bacteria, fungi, amoebas, and those precious fertilizer building red wigglers and for the fishing boat, some of those plump nightcrawlers. If you have questions about composting, you can find detailed information by going to https://ext.vt.edu/ and through the search engine, just type ‘compost’ and see all that comes up. Two that you can access are “Backyard Composting” and Composting “What is it and What is it to You”. You can find other Extension publications on the internet, but I would recommend that you stick with those closer to the soil types, growing conditions as we have in the Piedmont. One more tip for you gardeners, especially those who also fish, never put a barrier between your compost pile/bin as the wigglers and nightcrawlers like a temperature of 55oF - 80oF and as winter comes on, they will go deeper to survive and will move back up into the composting bin as the air temperatures rise and the days get longer.