Podcast

Compost – The Key to Success

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The key to creating a great garden is adding compost. Mark Weathington of the JC Raulston Arboretum says it’s the single best thing you can do to create a healthy garden.  We also talk to the ultimate recycler –a commercial sod producer who turns their grass clippings into valuable compost.
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Village Hearth CohousingThanks to Village Hearth Cohousing for making this episode possible.

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WEATHINGTON

We are in an ideal climate for growing just about everything —we really are one of the best gardening climates anywhere in the world.

JENKINS

While this may be the ideal climate for gardening I’m tackling a big challenge.  I’m Lise Jenkins and this is the Triangle Gardener show.  We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina.  Thanks to Village Hearth for making this story possible.

JENKINS

You can live large when you downsize at Village Hearth, a new 55-plus neighborhood coming to the Triangle. Village Hearth’s north Durham location on 15 beautiful acres offers easy access to recreation, entertainment, and health care.

Cohousing is a modern take on an old-fashioned village with big front porches and private backyards. You own your home and a share of extensive common facilities. You work together to take care of this land and each other. A gardener’s delight, Village Hearth will have over 10 natural acres to nurture. The possibilities are endless —gardening that you enjoy.

On July 18 Village Hearth will host a public reception to unveil their plans. To find out more visit their website, www.VillageHearthCohousing.com.

WEATHINGTON

We are in an ideal climate for growing just about everything —we really are one of the best gardening climates anywhere in the world.

JENKINS

While this may be the ideal climate for gardening I’m tackling a big challenge.

The land under our house was once a pine forest, then it was cleared for tobacco, then cattle grazed on it, then vegetable crops were grown, and then back to forest. The wood was eventually cut and sold and the cycle started again. Then town expanded and this location ultimately was considered “in town”.

This land was worth more with houses on it than crops so the owners sold to developers. Bulldozers shaped the land and now houses sit where crops once grew.  During the construction process the top soil was removed and our house now sits on rock-hard clay subsoils.

So for the past four years I’ve been on a quest to build up the soil in my planting beds and I’ve quizzed any expert who will stand still long enough to talk to me about what I can do to improve my soil.

One of those experts was Mark Weathington author of the new book, Gardening in the South

WEATHINGTON

I’m Mark Weathington. I’m director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University.

JENKINS

You write about some of the challenges we face in this region.  What are some of the highlights, what are the biggest problems people struggle with, if they are new to gardening or new to the region?

WEATHINGTON

It doesn’t matter where you’re from, the most important thing is always the soil.  The Triangle region, the Piedmont, we have a lot of clay soils. Which everybody complains about —that’s red clay. But I remind people that red clay is so full of nutrients. It’s wonderful stuff if it isn’t like concrete when it drys out.  So the key is to add organic matter.  If you’re lucky enough to live someplace with sandy soil, add organic matter.  If you have wonderful, humassay soil add organic matter.  It never hurts to add organic matter to the soil.  But that’s the biggest key.  I’ve been guilty of it, most gardeners have at one time or another when you have a new garden space, whether it’s a new house and you want to get gardening so you start putting things in the ground.  You’re putting them in that awful clay in the spring so it isn’t that awful or you’re doing it in the fall and there’s moisture in the ground so you’re putting them in and what you really need to do is to just wait and get some good compost and work it into your soil.  Take the time to really do the soil prep before you start planting and the rest of the time you garden it will be that much easier.

JENKINS

A couple of streets over they are putting the landscaping in at new houses. Huge trucks roll up delivering plants and pallets of sod.  I started noticing these big yellow bags —they’re about four feet square and full of beautiful, dark compost.  The workers dig it into the clay soil as they plant.

I was intrigued to learn that those big yellow bags of compost are produced by the same folks who grow the sod being installed. So I talked to Shannon Hathaway of Super Sod and she explained how Super Sod, one of the largest producers of sod in the southeast, got into composting while trying to grow better grass.

HATHAWAY

What we found —it’s challenging to grow sod.  Improving the soil is key to growing it successfully.  Our VP, Ben Copeland, Jr., he started experimenting with different topsoil mixes, compost mixes, trying to find something that was the best growing medium for our sod and he came up with the Soil3 and started using it on the farms and it was doing so well he started marketing it to some of the landscapers who were buying from us. Saying, “Hey I’m having really good success with this product, you might want to give it a try.”  And they came back and said yes, its fantastic, we’re interested.  At that point it took off and he opened it up to homeowners purchasing it too. In our signature big yellow bag.

What our Soil3 compost is, it’s a combination of grass clippings from our sod farms, wheat straw from our sod farms and cow manure.  We inoculate it with microsiza and other beneficial organisms and those are basically decomposers that are in there eating all the organic material and then excreting pure compost.

JENKINS

Sounds like you all are recycling what would otherwise be waste

HATHAWAY

Absolutely.  Yes, and that was part of it.  He was looking at these giant piles of grass clippings cause we’ve got to mow that grass on the sod farms.  Looking at the neighboring farm’s cow manure and thinking, we can put these two together.  We didn’t invent compost, we just perfected our compost.

JENKINS

At first Super Sod used their compost just on their sod farms, but as Shannon explained they soon realized homeowners had similar problems with their soil.

HATHAWAY

Our soil, some people are fortunate to have real good soil when they buy their home.  But if you have a newer home the soil is compacted, most of the top soil is gone and it’s very hard for anything to grow in that.

JENKINS

Shannon didn’t know it, but she was describing my situation —newer home, no top soil, hard to grow anything. Just red clay. Clay soil is comprised of small particles which can only be seen with an electron microscope. These particles tend to be flat and they lay close together preventing water or air from circulating through it.  That inability of water to easily flow through clay soil means it can become waterlogged or alternatively a rock-hard surface which water runs across rather than infiltrating.

Adding compost improves the physical characteristics of your soil. It opens up the space between the individual soil particles allowing water and plant roots to move through it more easily. Adding compost to clay soil can help achieve that goldilocks moment when everything is just right —nutrient-rich soil which retains moisture but drains. Achieving the soil of my dreams takes effort, but around here there’s lots of resources for learning more. Which takes me back to my conversation with Mark.

JENKINS

Raulston does a really good job of offering classes about composting and soil. We continue to talk about it, so obviously it’s hard to get people excited about their soil. How do you get your homeowner started to be excited about soil?

WEATHINGTON

That’s always a tough one.  I tell people that the only people who have green thumbs have killed enough plants that they have their own compost.  It really is trying to beat it in people’s heads it’s the single best way to be successful in the garden. Make it easier on yourself.  You have less weed problems, you don’t have to water as much. Everything about it will make gardening that much easier for you. The real problem is most people come into established gardens or they have done what I said and they have started planting things and it’s too late to dig everything out and start over.  And that’s the tough part —how do you deal with your soils then.  We’ve found that it takes long but if you apply compost every year and mix it into the top couple of inches of soil and the earthworms and insects that live in the ground will start moving it down. It’s a slower process but over the course of several years of putting on a couple of inches of compost every year and working it into the top little bit of your soil you can really significantly improve your soil.

JENKINS

Mark seriously over estimates my patience. While our builder had amended the soil under our larger plants they were basically sitting in clay pots.  So when we moved in I purchased topsoil and got to work.  My mistake is topsoil can be almost anything and I what I had envisioned is not what arrived. So I still have a long way to go to improve our beds. I wish I had talked to Shannon before I first started this process.

HATHAWAY

There are no industry standards for what qualifies as top soil so you may get a really good nutritious soil and you may not.  There are industry standards for what qualifies as compost.  Our Soil3 compost is 100% organic humus compost.  It’s certified organic by OMRI — the Organic Materials Review Institute.

JENKINS

I’m not a strict organic grower but I shy away from adding chemicals to my garden so I try to buy certified organic products when possible.  Super Sod has also made the job of adding compost to my garden a little easier.  Rather than having to make a bunch of trips to pick up bags of compost with my car Super Sod will deliver their compost to me.

HATHAWAY

So our Soil3 comes in the big yellow bag. It’s a trademark.  It’s a big tarp bag with reinforced seams and straps so it’s easy to deliver and it keeps it all contained. You can lash it closed if you’re not finishing up a whole bag in one day, you can close up the top, keep it dry and it won’t make a mess of the driveway. I like that convenience and that neatness. It appeals to me.  It keeps it all contained.  It doesn’t run down your driveway and down the street and your product is gone.  Like what happens when you get soil delivered and dumped on the driveway.

JENKINS

Now if only Super Sod could have drones scoop up the compost and dig it into my planting beds. That would be really, well super.

I love building a new garden but there’s not anyone to blame for mistakes.  The successes, and the failures, are mine.  But around here there are lots of places I can learn more and people willing to share their expertise. You can find classes at Super Sod and the JC Raulston Arboretum on how you can improve you soil.  It’s the best first step to take in creating a great garden.

I’m Lise Jenkins and this is the Triangle Gardener show. We’re your guide to enjoyable gardening in North Carolina.  You can find this and other episodes of our podcast on iTunes or our website TriangleGardener.com   Thanks for listening.