Monthly Archives: February 2015

Making Compost is Simple? Not!

Making compost is simple: vegetable waste + water+ heat = rot and (eventually) soil. The tricky part comes when we realize that what we put into the compost doesn’t always rot into something that’s healthy. ( School compost programs should think carefully about how to compost: see for example for examples of ways that compost can become a problem.)

To share my own story: when I first started composting I didn’t realize that the bins let the rats and raccoons in. I fed them, made my neighbors mad, and didn’t get much compost for my garden. There are other issues with compost: it needs to be really hot to kill some kinds of the fungi and plant bacteria that ruin our plants. Many home compost systems are just too small to get that hot.

So whose advice to take? It’s important to find information that is about the area where you live. Information from a University that’s in your part of the country is a good way to start. There’s lots of resources on the web but evaluating them is pretty hard – look for articles written after measuring and recording observations. I also try to find advice from local resources and publications which report information from evidence, or the critical evaluation of information and experience. And I ask knowledgeable neighbors: master gardeners – thanks for your advice!

Here’s some Pacific Northwest resources that I found:

Backyard food composting:
Washington State University: such as (The WSU extension program looks objectively at the science behind the recommendation, and tests it to see how it works in the real world.)
Another link would be found at — search “backyard composting” and look for publication EB1784E

Several local groups teach composting in the Northwest. I’d check the credentials of the program before signing up. (A shout-out to school and after-school programs teaching gardening, composting, and research. Deb and Rachel, thanks for asking, and for sending an article to review.)

Where, Oh Where to plant the kale?

Planning Garden Beds: Oh, Where Oh, Where to Plant:

(Photo by Lindsey du Toit) Club Root: no wonder that poor plant won’t thrive!

(Photo by Lindsey du Toit) Club Root: no wonder that poor plant won’t thrive!

I like talking with neighbors about their plants — I like the sense of community, and it gives me a chance to prevent problems in my own garden. Recently, a neighbor was telling me about club root in her garden. Since I don’t want club root in my garden, her story reminds me to prevent it! Club root infects the brassicas: a long list of the plants we really like to grow here, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale, mustards, turnips, and radishes. (And the weedy herb shepherd’s purse harbors the disease—a good reason to closely manage its re-seeding!)

Club root dramatically decreases the productivity of the plant, which becomes mal-formed and susceptible to aphids and blights. You’ll notice that the plant wilts at midday and slightly recovers by morning and becomes increasingly stunted. Its leaves get big yellow spots and turn brown and in general: the plant will look just awful. Its roots are malformed and covered with a whitish growth. What has happened is that disease spores have become imbedded in the plant roots; as the roots and crown of the plant disintegrate the spores spread into the soil. These remain dormant in your soil for 3-5 years, waiting for a chance to infect other brassicas.

What to do?
Prevention: Rotate crops every year: if you had club root barely starting in one part of your garden, don’t give it brassica roots to feed on again the next year.

If you had club root: you cannot grow any of the brassicas in that spot for 3-5 years – not collards, kale, the mustards, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, or radishes! You’ll need to pull sheperd’s purse and stray mustards!! Seattle Tilth suggests dividing the garden into thirds, rotating the tomatoes, brassicas, and squashes into a different third each year. Don’t put affected plants into your home compost; isolate them in black bags and send them away.

We can’t do much about the rain that keeps our soils so moist in the winter: but we CAN improve the drainage of our plots. By using lime we can grow in soil that’s more towards the alkaline side rather than the acid side. King Conservation district test your soil for free or you can use a kit from a garden store.

The King Conservation District
Pacific Northwest Vegetable Extension Group (WSU website) accessed February 16, 2015
David Deardorff & Kathryn Wadsworth, What’s Wrong with my Vegetable Garden, Timber Press, Portland Oregon (2011) (available at the Seattle Public Library)
Kathryn True, editor, Carl Elliott and Robb Peterson, Seattle Tilth’s The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide, Seattle, Washington (2009) (available at the Seattle Public Library)