Month: March 2012

A Poem

In celebration of our upcoming planting on Sunday, some eloquent words by New England local, Robert Frost:


You come to fetch me from my work to-night
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals fallen from the apple tree
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea);
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a Springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

“Of compost shall the Muse descend to sing”

To a gardener, compost is the stuff of dreams, but to those unfamiliar this pile of dirt holds many mysteries. In this post, I will try to break down compost (heh, get it?) into the basics.


What is compost?  For the purposes of gardening, it is a mixture of decayed and broken down household and yard organic wastes. This process mimics natural cycles of decomposition found in ecosystems of all types, but most visibly on forest floors.  These natural cycles depend on the beautiful co-mingling of microorganisms, moisture, oxygen, and darkness.

When these four factors are working in harmony, they create a well-oiled compost-making machine. The biological process they facilitate is called aerobic decomposition – the decomposition of bacteria that thrive in the presence of oxygen. When the balance is off, it can lead to anaerobic decomposition, which is the slow decomposition of bacteria that thrive in conditions without oxygen. This usually leads to a slimy, smelly, disgusting pile for gross, rather than rich, dark, earthy-smelling soil.

While compost does have some nutrient benefit, especially with micronutrients, the primary benefits concern soil structure and nutrient retention. Without too much detail, the addition of compost to soil works magic in all sorts of soil, creating porosity in dense, clay soils and improving water retention in soils that are too sandy. Further, they offer to the soil COLLOIDS! These magical structures help retain nutrients in the soils. When applying nutrients in colloid-free soil, a few good soakings could leach the nutrients down below the soil horizon where veggies roots could reach. However, colloids help keep the nutrients stationary in the soil, ready to be used at will!


Farmers have used compost for thousands of years, with some of the earlier written records dating back to Ancient Rome. Back then, they would pile all agricultural waste in a large pile and let it decompose over the course of the season (which works, but is tediously slow.) Today, we have a better understanding of the components that make a good, fast and productive compost pile. There are four primary chemical ingredients for a healthy compost (not to be confused with the other four important factors mentioned above:

Carbon – for energy; the microbial oxidation of carbon produces heat (crucial to adequate breakdown and extermination of weed seeds), if included at suggested levels. High carbon materials tend to be brown and dry.

Nitrogen – to grow and reproduce more organisms to oxidize the carbon. High nitrogen materials tend to be green (or colorful, such as fruits and vegetables) and wet.

Oxygen – for oxidizing the carbon, and supporting the organisms in the decomposition process.

Water – in the right amount; the proper moisture of a good compost pile should be about that of a wrung out sponge.


Proper piles construction and maintenance for best decomposition includes a few considerations. The smaller the surface area (read size of the pieces), the faster they can be broken down.  Thanks high school chemistry for that lesson!

It’s also important to aerate the piles semi-regularly (a couple times a week) to assure that enough oxygen is getting into the pile.

While aerating, notice the moisture of the pile – if it is looking a little dry, give it some water, and if it is looking a little wet, add some brown material to soak it up a bit!

Finally, we know things are cooking away properly if the internal temperature of the pile is 135-160 degree Fahrenheit. The breakdown releases heat, so if it is too low, it’s a sign that things are not working at optimal capacity, and if it is too high, it will kill all the wonderful soil organisms.  This optimal temperature helps kills soil pathogens and weed seeds! Hurray! Of course, few people have a thermometer to stick in their pile, but if you stick your hand in it should be really warm, or, if it’s a cool morning, it should be steaming when you stir it!

But what do you put this all in? At Tom Thumb’s Student Garden we have two black plastic composting barrels that are chugging away, but you can also make a mesh pen, or heap it into a pile (recommended by biology Prof. George Ellmore.) It’s really a matter of what suits your space and preference.


Phew! That’s a lot of information! One last thing to top it all off. How much green stuff vs. how much brown stuff is ideal? Well, it seems the popular ratio is 30:1, Brown:Green. Now, each plant has different green/brown ratios, so it’s sort of complicated, but since most waste in a garden is green, the moral of the story is that you can almost always add more brown (dead leaves, newspaper, egg cartons, that test that you failed…)


Hope this was helpful! Happy Gardening!


P.S. I tried to include more soil puns, but Googling “soil puns” really doesn’t yield a lot, which surprised me with the number of garden geeks that exist in the world!

Work day

Hey everybody! Ivan, Liam, and I went down to the garden today to clean up a little bit. We discovered tulips, cilantro, and spinach all growing in the garden!


We moved one of the cold frames onto one of the beds, so we should seed some things in it. We also moved some soil from a collapsing raised bed onto the other beds. We think we’re going to need to fill in some of the gaps in the taller raised beds so we stop leaking soil out of them, and we’re going to have a tool/shed cleaning day soon. Keep your eyes open for more chances to get in the garden!

Ivan and Liam

George Ellmore Shares Some Gardening Wisdom

Last Wednesday, Professor George Ellmore gave a wonderful talk about the life of plants, how and when to plant seeds, and his experiences as a gardener in Massachusetts.

Ellmore is a professor in the Biology Department at Tufts University. Not only is he an expert at gardening in New England, but he also does awesome experiments that take gardening where no man has gone before.

He started his talk by walking us through plant life history: the plant spends its first 10 days as a seed. It then takes 2 months for a plant to develop its roots and leaves and 3 months for the plant to flower. After 4 months, the flower is pollinated and the ovary of the flower makes fruits.

Planting in the greenhouse can begin as early as April 1st. The plant only needs warmth (70 degrees F) and humidity. Leafy plants (lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, and cabbage) make leaves in June and continue until November. Fruits (eggplants, okra, tomatoes, zucchinis, and peppers) are hardest to grow because they require the longest duration of care. Mild winters do not alter this timeline.

Plants in the greenhouse must be checked on at least twice a week. They can be checked by weighing the lightness of the box; if it’s light, the plant needs to be watered. It takes about a month for plants to outgrow their container and for the soil to be depleted of food if 4-6 seeds are planted per container, so plants should not stay more than one month in the greenhouse. Their growth slows down as plants run out of food and run into each other.

When plants are transferred, they should be dipped in water so that the dirt dissolves away, then picked up by their tops. The roots are delicate and will probably tear, especially at such a young stage.

According to Ellmore, June is an excellent month for gardens because the bugs are not out yet, but by August, the plants will look terrible. Don’t let appearance distract you; all that matters are the fruits, which contain all the sugar of the plant.

The latest to plant is September/October, which will result in a December harvest. The first frost occurs in October, which actually makes plants sweeter because they use their sugar as an antifreeze. If spinach is planted in Sept/Oct, it grows super fast because of the cold, then stops growing in November and sits, sweet and ready to eat.

Ellmore also discussed cold frames, which are simply plastic boxes that keep frost off of plants. Cold frames extend growing season from March to December. He experimented with them this winter and grew surprisingly sweet and delicious cabbages. He warns against glass, which can crack in extreme cold.

A neat tip he showed us was to use a calendar as a garden log.

In terms of plants, peas are traditionally planted on St. Patrick’s Day every 2 inches in rows 4 inches apart. Half of them are lost to rot in the cold, wet soil. However, the early planting means the peas will be ready in June. March is an excellent time to grow red beets because they taste sweeter when grown in cold weather. They’re ready in June – mid-July. Fast-growing vegetables include radishes, which love cold weather and grow in 3 weeks. Red beets need only one month in the greenhouse, then 2-4 weeks outdoors.

To plant seeds, Ellmore swears by commercial potting soil. It does not have fungi and bacteria that could kill seeds and it allows oxygen to filter through more easily. He also recommends planting in square or rectangular boxes to make it easier to plan out seeds and placing a paper towel on the bottom to prevent soil see seepage. Make sure to take time to place seeds and make holes evenly spaced so that each seed has a chance to grow.

Ellmore also shared anecdotes about gardening experiences in France and the consternation of his neighbors over his unbelievable garden, giving an informative yet entertaining talk. Thanks to his advice, we have high hopes that our garden will flourish this year!