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Hamptons Life

Staying On The Top Of The Gardening Heap

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Andrew Messinger   Sep 18, 2011 11:10 AM
Sep 18, 2011 5:29 PM

This week I’m getting on my soapbox. But before I step up and begin my spiel, a little background.

While I have gardened on the East End for 30 years, I have a second home and it’s up in the mountains. Like many of you, I get to my second home only on weekends and vacations.

Up north, my growing season is very, very short. In an average winter we get 12 feet of snow, and by the time you read this we will have already had our first killing frost. And while your garden is probably plagued (or blessed) with sand, my mountain garden is nothing but rock. But that’s where we actually have a commonality.

Ah, you are perplexed? The common factor is that here, as is the case there, too, if you want to grow anything that’s not native or from a similar growing area where the soil is porous and nutrient-poor, you have no choice but to add organic matter to your plantings—be it your lawn, your perennial garden, your orchard or your vegetable garden—you need organic matter in your soil to make it live, to hold moisture, and to provide a base for the nutrients and microbes that nurture your plants.

Luckily for Hamptons gardeners, all you have to do is work the organic matter into the soil and mix it with the sand. When I’m up north, I have to dig the rocks out first, then put organic matter deep into the void where the rocks lived for eons.

Ah, but where does this organic matter come from? If you’re fortunate enough to have some cows or horses, then you’re in organic heaven. You simply collect the manure, let it age, mix in a few other key ingredients (or not) and you’ve got some of the greatest soil amendments known to man. But for the vast majority of us, the days of the horses and cows in the back lot are long gone; though I do have to admit that I’ve managed several properties that had both cattle and horses and the gardens were just magnificent.

Well, there’s always that ad in the paper where someone is selling topsoil and will deliver a load right to your home and dump it just where you don’t need it. That of course says nothing of what’s in that topsoil and where it actually came from.

There’s peat moss, but the truth is that peat moss is really of little use, adds very little organic matter and there’s a brewing controversy about harvesting the stuff up in Canada and its renewability. And let’s not forget that you can always go down to the big orange box and buy bags and bags of stuff claiming to be topsoil, or peat humus or bovine/equine manna from heaven that will make your garden plants and veggies grow as high as an elephant’s eye. But that all gets very, very expensive and every time you want to plant a tree, a rose, a tomato or a patio planter, it’s yet another plastic bag full of who knows what.

I don’t do any of that. And the secret be told, you probably don’t have to either.

To get my organic matter, I just walk down behind my 140-year-old barn with a shovel and a pail or a wheelbarrow and dig into my pile of gold—my compost pile. And every time I do, I have this silly grin on my face as I marvel at the stuff that comes out of that pile. It’s amazing and especially remarkable considering that all that goes into it is weekend kitchen waste (remember it’s a weekend home), leaves from the trees on my just-shy-of-an-acre plot, grass clippings and everything that I pull out of the garden in the fall. That’s it.

Yes, there is some work involved in turning the pile from time to time but right now it’s steamy hot and teeming with worms and other creatures I’d rather not describe. But those critters all end up in my gardens and each and every one of them continues to work for me and my plants at absolutely no cost.

Of course you can get very scientific about it and I’ll give you a link in a bit that will go into much more detail than I care to iterate, but it’s really incredibly simple. No smells, no rodents, well maybe a curious raccoon now and again, and I’ve got one problem up there that you won’t have here: bears.

In our kitchen, we have a small 1-gallon garbage pail that gets all the kitchen scraps with the exception of meat and bones. Pieces and shreds of everything go into the compost bucket. After two days, it’s full.

Just before we leave the house to go back to civilization, I grab a small pitchfork, take the stuff down to the pile and dig it in. My son will have already dumped the weekend’s lawn clippings on the pile, and two or three turns with the fork and my work is done.

The only secret is to mix in green with brown—nitrogen in the way of grass clippings and kitchen waste, with carbon in the form of leaves, twigs and garden waste, which can also be green. Keep it moist (not wet) and don’t freak out if it gets steamy hot and you’re on your way.

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