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The Perennial Buzz: Composting keeps that good Minnesota soil healthy

The Perennial Buzz by Shelley Pederson

Shelley Pederson is a perennially busy master gardener, lover of nature and student of life.

“If I’m ever reborn, I want to be a gardener — there’s too much to do for one lifetime.” — Karl Foerster

I have been, and I always will tend to the earth in some way. We are extremely blessed to have rich soil in Minnesota. As November draws in I thought it would be a good time to talk about composting and keeping our soil healthy. I come from a long line of gardeners — my great-grandmother, my grandparents and my parents.

Shelley Pederson

In addition, I worked at Horn Seed Co. in Oklahoma City under the wings of two angels named Dorothy and Herschel. They oversaw the bulk seeds that were shipped all over the world. The two of them were walking encyclopedias of seed and soil knowledge. Another garden master teacher was Kathleen. I am sure many of you know Kathleen who for years was the gardening guru at Albert Lea Seed.

Kathleen was a master organic gardener and once went to visit a worm farm in Iowa. She came back with a bowl of worm castings. I was, as always, skeptical about some of her ideas, although always spot on. I thought worm poop? I looked at it. Black. About the texture of coarse table salt. No smell. Umm. I touched it and I knew. I knew this stuff was black gold. Kathleen gives us all the spiel about it. A worm farm that uses restaurant waste with no meat to feed the worms and then they sift out the poo. That’s a recycling win.

Not knowing the dose to use on the plants and seeing that its NPK was only 1-1-1; I figured the more the better. I arm myself with three 40-pound bags and put a half bag in each of my raised beds.

That year was a wet summer. Many people didn’t have much of a crop of tomatoes. My tomatoes in my raised beds were on steroids. I picked five-gallon buckets of tomatoes repeatedly. I had tomatoes for friends, relatives and neighbors. It was incredible.

That fall, the Seed House did some restructuring of the front and there is this little bed surrounded by concrete. The soil in it was about one step below concrete. There were some tulip bulbs that didn’t sell, and a couple broken bags of worm castings. I chiseled in the two bags of worm poo and planted a couple bags of tulips. I know some of you will remember the tulips that next spring had blooms 6 to 8 inches. They were ginormous.

What I want you to take from this, is that even though the NPK is only a 1-1-1, it is organic matter slowly releasing nutrients for years and is helping improve the soil condition by softening the soil. Adding organic matter breaks up heavy clay soils, allowing water and nutrients to get to the roots. For sandy soils, it builds up the soil to keep nutrients from leaching away. I had prolific crops from this addition for years. Chemical fertilizers break down quickly and can burn your plants. Remember: chemical equals Snickers and organic equals turkey and mashed potatoes. Worm castings do not burn and are safe for seeds and seedlings.

Do I recommend putting 20 pounds on a 4-foot-by-8-foot bed? Heavens, no. About 5 pounds would suffice. I also like to put a small handful in with the seedlings to help them establish. I use a couple cups when I plant a tree or shrub. I also side dress my perennials on occasion and most definitely plant it in with bone meal for my on-sale fall bulbs. I add about a cup to my hanging baskets, planters and even my houseplants. The stuff simply works and that’s my scoop on worm poop.