Get to root of garden woes with some humus

May 11, 2002|By ROB KASPER

SOME FOLKS spend spring weekends honing their abs, hardening their derrieres or building up their biceps. As for me, lately I have been working on upping my humus.

Ever since my test results came back from the lab, I have been following the advice offered by the soil savants at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. After studying a dirt sample I sent them, they told me to add more organic matter to my garden plot, such as humus, the end product of decomposed organic matter.

Like a lot of advice I receive, this was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to be told that my ground was lacking some essential mineral, say calcium. I wanted an easily identifiable culprit to blame for peppers that had failed to make me proud, for eggplants that were puny and for a tomato harvest that had fallen short of expectations.

By my way of thinking, if my garden problems of prior seasons were caused by a simple mineral deficiency, then the solution was equally simple: Just give the soil a booster shot of whatever vital element it was lacking. But instead of giving my soil a "pill" to make it better, the missive from the garden masters said I had to start tilling organic matter into the soil. Instead of a quick fix, I had to rely on hard labor and hauling humus.

Humus is the dark chocolate of dirt. It has been described as looking either like a crumbed chocolate cake or ground coffee. I suppose that is true, if you stash your chocolate cake or coffee on the forest floor, underneath dead leaves. That is where humus likes to hang out, in the company of decomposing leaves. Humus is what is left when leaves and grass clippings and some other organic matter get together and decay.

According to authorities on dirt, humus is a virtual cure-all for sad soils. It fights compaction and enables plants to put down deep roots. It drains well yet helps retain water, which means the right amount of moisture will soak into the soil. It provides nutrients to plants and encourages the company of earthworms. Earthworms have been described as "nature's little farmers," plowing the soil and fertilizing at the same time.

With deep roots, ample water, plenty of food and surrounded by worms, plants lead happy, productive lives. There are two ways to get your hands on humus. You can make your own, or you can buy it, by the bags or truckload, from garden supply shops.

Making your own humus is another way of saying that you "compost." This means you toss dead plants and other organic matter into a pile, mix them together and occasionally add a "catalyst" to help the mixture "cook."

Just as there are various opinions on what constitutes a true vegetarian, so too, it seems, there are various views on what constitutes authentic compost. Some say only outdoor vegetation should be thrown in the pile. Others advocate tossing in table scraps, but never leftover "flesh": meat, fish or chicken.

The other day, while scanning the Internet, I came across a British group that advocated composting all manner of kitchen table leftovers - flora and fauna - in a sealed bucket, then later planting these former, fermented meals near vegetables in the garden.

At a basic level, a compost pile consists of shredded leaves, grass clippings (but never grass clippings treated with pesticides) and patience. According to experts in decay, it can take upward of three months for a compost pile to mature and yield finished humus.

Since I did not have a compost pile, I had to go the store-bought route.

There is an adage that in spring a young man's fancy turns to love. Maybe so. At the beginning of every gardening season, this not-so-young man gets a bad case of truck envy. Every May I remind myself that if I had a pickup, I could haul humus the way the big boys do, by the truckload.

Instead, last Saturday, I sheepishly sat in my station wagon at Hollins Organic Products Inc. in the 6200 block of Falls Road waiting to buy a few bags of Leafgro, while glorious gleaming trucks all around me were hauling it away by the cubic yard.

Leafgro is the homegrown, high-in-humus mixture of decomposed Maryland leaves and Maryland grass clippings. Ann Bleinberger of Maryland Environmental Service in Annapolis, the outfit that markets Leafgro, told me that leaves gathered in Montgomery, Prince George's, Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties are mixed with grass clippings, then allowed to ferment for a year.

The resulting organic mixture is then filtered through screens and sold in bags and in bulk as a soil enhancer. (She also told me about the latest organic, homegrown fertilizer, FertileGro. It is made from the sterilized and pasteurized chicken droppings collected from Eastern Shore chicken houses.)

I loaded my bags of Leafgro in the station wagon and headed to my rented plot in the community garden of Druid Hill Park. There, once again, I felt inadequate. Real men use roaring gas-powered tillers to mix the correct amount of humus (a layer 1 to 2 inches) into the soil.

I didn't have a mean machine. All I had was a shovel, a mind that was weak and a back that was strong. So I opened the bags of Leafgro, spread the contents on the ground and turned the soil with my shovel.

I have been told that upping my humus, along with proper mulching, will make the earthworms happy, give the soil good tilth, and produce plump vegetables.

But for now, the only results to show for my humus weekend are an aching back and lingering case of truck envy.

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