Volume 13, Issue 41 ~ October 13 - October 19, 2005
The Bay Gardener

By Dr. Frank Gouin

The Science of Composting
Microorganisms beneath our feet return to the soil what came from the soil

I have conducted research in composting since 1972, and I am constantly amazed by its benefits. Composting is the ultimate in recycling, and compost is the best soil amendment there is. It returns to the soil what came from the soil.

Composting is constantly occurring in your landscape as well as in the forest. If it wasn’t for the microorganisms and worms feeding on the dead leaves, branches, twigs and roots, the litter on the forest floor would make it impossible to walk. However, if you take a walk in the forest, you will note that there are only a few inches of litter. The earth beneath it is dark and has an earthy smell.

The microorganisms that occur naturally in soils where plants are growing derive their energy from the carbon in the leaves and wood that fall to the ground. Because microorganisms are mostly made of ammino acids and proteins, they require nitrogen to build their bodies and reproduce. They get their nitrogen from the soil left behind by previous microorganisms. Yet wet-to-dry conditions and widely changing temperatures make the forest floor inefficient at composting.

To increase the efficiency, gardeners place organic waste in piles, thereby increasing the mass and maintaining more constant temperatures and moisture. We add water as necessary so that the microorganisms can operate more efficiently, and we provide a more ideal balance of carbon and nitrogen.

The ideal blend of carbon and nitrogen comes from equal parts by volume of brown waste, in the form of fall-harvested leaves, and green waste, in the form of grass clippings or green weeds. In the days ahead, when you can get neither weeds nor grass clippings, ammonium nitrate or urea fertilizer can be substituted.

Of Bees and Beans

I have had problems getting my vegetable flowers pollinated this summer because there are no bees. I had loads of zucchini flowers but not one squash. All my apple blossoms aborted. I had four-foot-high blue lake pole beans loaded with blossoms that produced only a handful of beans.

Is there some way I can get bees for next year? I am not interested in becoming a beekeeper per se. But is there someone who will bring a bee box next year in early spring and collect it around frost? I would be willing to pay a modest fee for the service. Or maybe the owner would just be happy to collect the honey from time to time.

If I don’t get some bees, I think my gardening will be limited to leaf and root vegetables.

—Joan Lehmann, Pasadena

A Importing bees for a family garden cannot be justified by a beekeeper. Furthermore, there is a liability problem when you have a bee hive in your back yard. Your pole beans did not produce well this year because of excess heat and not for lack of bees.

Next year, try growing a heat tolerant pole bean such as Gita or Luana, better known as yard-long beans. They are delicious, and I have stopped growing all other beans because one planting will produce all summer long.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at frgouin@erols.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

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