Saturday, August 27, 2011

Killer compost

I suspect we have poisoned our garden.
Seemingly healthy pole bean vines plants entwined and climbed teepee poles, but there are no beans. Zucchini plants struggled to grow, produced a few flowers, but no zucchini.  Tomato plants are half the size we hoped for and some tomatoes are tinted yellow.  Successful grape tomatoes, usually planted as an afterthought for an occasional snack, are our most coveted tomato crop.
Last night I slit open a perfectly formed pepper. Inside I found tiny brown specks like coffee grounds where small white seeds usually embed in the flesh. Eggplants are few and small.  Cucumbers planted from seed never germinated. I fear what we may see when we dig up the sweet potatoes.

 Only basil and kale, plants whose leaves -- not fruits or roots --  we harvest, are robust, strong and thriving.
 Last year, our first garden in Virginia flourished despite a shortage of rain.  We missed the early spring crops because we were still constructing the garden – transforming  the sloped backyard by constructing a three-sided retaining wall, cutting down some trees to create optimum light, hauling in USDA approved soil and surrounding the whole structure with a  8-foot metal link fence to keep the overly friendly deer out.  We were ready to plant by mid May and started happily harvesting by early July. Drought made for small but abundant tomatoes.  They were so plentiful we gave buckets of them away and stored many more. We rolled a few dozen sweet potatoes in newspaper, and then periodically unwrapped the deep orange treasures through January.   I never knew from my gardening days in Maine that pepper plants could grow so big and produce more than a dozen peppers. We had bountiful potatoes, zucchini and basil, kale and Swiss chard.  As always, there were some crops that disappointed – squirrels got into the corn and the beans were tough and pulpy. There wasn’t enough water for the watermelon to thrive. But, we told ourselves, some crop failure is part of gardening. Heartened by an abundant harvest, we looked forward to this our second season.

We would learn to garden in Virginia. How hard could this be?
Here there was the promise of three seasons: early spring, summer and fall gardens. In Maine the last frost and the soil temperature dictated Memorial Day weekend as the time to plant.  Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants were most abundant in mid to late August and early September.   

The landscape in central Virginia models pastoral potential.  Horses and cows graze on picturesque fields that roll out green and straw yellow like expansive carpets.  We read about the bounty of Joel Salatin’s and Barbara Kingsolver’s Virginia farms. We saw beautiful local produce in numerous nearby Farmers’ Markets.  We took multiple trips to Thomas Jefferson’s gardens at nearby Monticello, where we ogled rows of perfect crops.
We would take part in Jefferson’s noble agrarian tradition. We had high hopes.

 That was before we ever heard of “voles” or did advance Google searches with the words “composted manure” and “herbicides.”
  In June holes started showing up throughout the garden along with lines of raised soil. These looked similar to, but not exactly like, mole runs that showed up most prominently in Maine as the snow receded.  Neighbors distinguished between moles – blind rodents that eat grubs, and voles -- otherwise known as country mice, that eat the roots of plants.  Sure enough tomato plants sagged, eggplants keeled over, and a clump of parsley flopped flat on the ground. I picked up each plant. Look Ma, No roots! Google searches led to sites with plant and soil images that looked exactly like what I was seeing. Prescriptions included elaborate vole setting traps with peanut butter and oatmeal.

  Each evening I’d set the traps. Each morning the traps were sprung, the peanut butter vanished.  No voles. I worried that something else may have snapped the traps so I dug holes at the ends of the tunneled earth and sank the traps beneath slate slabs. Traps sprung. Bait gone. I never saw a vole. Too small.  Too quick perhaps. The havoc continued. I read there could be dozens of voles. I imagined an infestation and was ready to give up.  Or get a cat. A friend suggested sonic noise emitters.  I bought a package. Now two battery- operated, strategically dug-in spikes beep every 30 seconds.  I imagine the sounds are the aural equivalent of Chinese water torture.  The tunnels and the holes disappeared.  No more falling down plants.
That problem seemed solved, but there was still something wrong.

 I woke in the middle of the night thinking about beans.  They hadn’t been affected by voles.  A master gardener I had questioned suggested that composted manure might be the problem. I thought about the truckload of composted horse manure we had bought at the end of last season. When it arrived it seemed perfect “black gold,” cool, dark and crumbly. I let it overwinter and dug it in this spring –  tossing ample shovelfuls  into the soil, adding extra for the hills of squash and cucumbers, the heavy feeders I had always nourished with manure in Maine. Maybe there was a problem with the compost.

The next morning I turned again to the internet. I found  a treatise from North Carolina’s Cooperative Extensive Agency out of North Carolina State titled “Herbicide Carryover in Manure and Hay: Caution  to Organic Farmers and Home Gardeners.  Posted in 2009, it said:

“This year there have been a number of reports from organic farmers and home gardeners of damage to vegetables following application of aged and composted horse and cattle manure to symptoms exhibited on the crops are twisted, cupped, and elongated leaves; the soil. The misshapen fruit; reduced yield; death of young plants; and poor seed germination. One possibility for the source of this crop injury is the presence of certain herbicides in manure and compost.”

Without getting too technical, here’s what happens. Farmers apply the herbicide to hay fields and pastures to control broadleaf weeds that can harm horses and cows. The animals eat the hay. The herbicide passes through them. The manure composts, but the herbicides don’t break it down. Fools like me use the compost for gardening and the result is poor production.

According the article “If these herbicides are used on a pasture or hayfield, they apparently don’t harm the animals grazing on the pasture or eating the hay.” I noted the unsourced use of the modifier “apparently.” The writer was hedging. That’s probably what the chemical company said.
 After reading the article, I was certain the garden was tainted.  Probably all our vegetables were too. No wonder no weeds had sprung up in the leftover manure/compost pile!

I felt angry and betrayed. Betrayed by the farmer who had sold us the horse manure, betrayed by the chemical company that had developed the product that ruined good manure everywhere, betrayed by the landscape so full of Jefferson’s agrarian promise, and finally, angry with myself that I had been so na├»ve, so seduced. I will never look at the Arcadian hayfields and pastures the same way again. Nothing, I told myself, is as it seems.

 Then I was reminded that farming and gardening are always rife with chance. Crops fail.  They also flourish. The herbicide was just another problem to solve.
On Virginia’s Cooperative Extension service website, a paper explained the problem what makes it go away.

These herbicides eventually break down due to heat, exposure to sunlight, moisture, and microbial action. However, the primary factor in their degradation is aerobic microbial action. Breakdown is particularly slow in manure and compost piles, due to lack of oxygen. These compounds may persist for as long as several years in certain situations.

  I started counting. The composted manure is likely already 1 ½ to 2 years old. Fully composted when it arrived, it sat for nearly a year next to the garden before we applied it.

 I started plotting. Next week after the rains pass, I will let the garden dry out, and I will clear it out and turn the soil over. I have some very stinky, soupy, rotting stuff  made from kitchen scraps that’s spawning lots of  crawly things in my compost container (hardly black gold, my compost is another one of this year’s failed crops.) I plan to pour it into the soil and dig it in hoping to create a little “microbial action.”  Then I will turn the soil a couple more times before planting a cover crop. I think the more I work – and get others (microbes, cover plants etc) to work the soil, the quicker the soil will respond.

 The voles and the manure have humbled me, but I still long to plant again. I am not, after all, a farmer, but only an amateur gardener. I do this for love, not money.

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful space for your garden-to-be. (Beautiful gardener, too!) So sorry this happened to you, Barbara. I remember your garden in Maine. So fruitful. This story reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful collection of essays, Small Wonder. For antidote, read Lily's Chickens there. This, too, shall pass, and you shall overcome! (That is, if the chemists don't get us first!) xo