Kathleen Groll Connolly

There's Something Dark and Crumbly in Your Future


(If You Want to Garden Successfully During a Drought)

by Kathleen Groll Connolly

Finding a point of agreement among garden experts sometimes seems as likely as picking ripe strawberries in February. There is at least one topic, however, on which they all converge. That topic is the value of adding organic matter to the soil.

Pass the strawberries, please. And for all the gardening hopefuls out there, here’s a prediction: There’s something dark and crumbly in your future.

That "something" is compost. It’s at the bottom of disorderly leaf piles, full of earthworms. It's at the bottom of carefully turned compost piles. No matter where you find it, your lawn and garden need the dark and crumbly stuff. And in dry times, they need it more than ever.

Consider this: In a 12-year study on the value of compost, scientists at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station added one inch of leaf compost per year to a test plot of soil. It doubled its water-holding capacity after seven years. Who wouldn’t like to get by with less watering?

Furthermore, soil organic matter improves the chances of plants receiving the nutrients in soil and encourages nature’s own rototiller, the earthworm.

What a deal!

There are a few things to know about compost, if you’re going to make your own. Be sure it is “finished”. It should look nothing like its parent materials. It should be fine, dark and crumbly. Unfinished compost can actually rob the soil of nitrogen and compete with plants.

Apply compost in two basic ways. For new beds, simply remove the ground cover and turn the compost into the soil. If you’re working with established flower and shrub beds, place a ½” layer on top of the area. Put some mulch material, such as shredded straw or bark mulch, on top of the compost layer. Let nature do the rest. It’s that easy.

For lawns, you can spread a thin layer of finished compost right over the established grasses.

So let’s say you heed this sage advice, sling that shovel and plump up your gardens with the good stuff. Now what? Is it time to fertilize?

Slow down. First, take the time for a soil test. Only after a test will you really know your lawn and garden’s fertilizer needs. Pick up the phone or hook up your modem. Line up a soil test with one of the resources listed at the end of this article.

Test the soil and then … wait. You’re in no hurry. The report will tell you how much and when to fertilize. Assuming you need to fertilize, mid-April is a common time. In this dry year, however, fertilizing may be trickier than most years.

Spread on rain-dampened soil, the fertilizer can work into the root zone and become food for plants. If dry conditions continue, or restart, it may sit in the soil indefinitely. If enough fertilizer accumulates, it can burn roots. Poorly applied, fertilizer can even go through chemical changes that cause it to draw water away from the plants. If and when rain occurs, the sudden burst of nitrogen from unused fertilizer can lead to spindly, tender growth.

What’s a homeowner to do? According to Ed Marotte, horticulturalist at University of Connecticut’s Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, you can wait as late as May or even early June before making a decision to fertilize. “Homeowners may not even want to fertilize in a dry year,” he says. “If you do fertilize, wait until you’re sure it’s going to rain.”

Instead of fertilizer, suggests Sharon Douglas, Ph.D., plant pathologist at the Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, CT, homeowners might want to choose one of the many bio-stimulants or “mycorrhizal enhancers” sold at garden centers. “These help increase the health and volume of roots,” she says. “Root health is key to success.” More roots equal more capacity for nutrient and water uptake.

If you want to garden successfully in a drought, there’s definitely something dark and crumbly in your future. Call these resources for soil tests or visit the web sites:

Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven (203-974-8521) or www.caes.state.ct.us

University of Connecticut Home & Garden Education Center (877-486-6271)


March 22, 2002, Pictorial Gazette, Old Saybrook, CT

EditRegion2Red wiggler worms create dark compost from kitchen scraps

With the assistance of "red wiggler" composting worms, the contents of this compost bin quickly settled into fine black compost.