Toronto Star column – published July 6, 2013
Untold suffering seldom is. ~Franklin P. Jones
I feel like a trained circus monkey. Every morning when I walk to the end of our lane to pick up the newspaper there is a large empty can of Red Bull waiting for me on the boulevard. Some moron that lives about 14 gulps north of our home must find this very convenient. The can, after all, magically disappears each morning as I pick it up and walk it back to the house to drop in the recycling bin in the garage.
This little rant reminds of all of the junk that we find in our gardens and on our lawns due to the indiscretions of others. Believe it or not, I think we can learn something from the short-sightedness of this minority. We can actually produce a better garden. Here is how.
Can newspaper be used as a flower bed foundation?
I am often asked on my website about the use of newspapers as a base for a new flower or vegetable bed. The idea has a lot of merit and uses up an enormous volume of newspaper: better that it rots under your roses than get trucked somewhere for who knows what.
When you dig a bed for a new garden, lay about a centimetre of newspaper at the bottom of the bed, overlapping the sections by a couple of centimetres as you go so that weed seeds will not germinate through the openings. Here in Southern Ontario we are blessed to live in the clay belt. That is why we produce such great bricks and why clay bricks have been the #1 building material for permanent buildings for a couple of centuries. This, unfortunately, is not a big help to gardeners. When digging a new garden bed, most of us need to remove the ‘soil’ (which is really clay) all the way down to the sub soil (which is usually heavier clay) – and truck it away.
Your clay is referred to as ‘clean fill’ in the building trade and actually can be useful for ‘skinning’ a landfill or for back filling to stabilize the foundation of a new home. I mention this in the event that you are feeling a little guilty about creating ‘waste’ for landfill.
Dig the bed 30 cm deep for vegetables, 50 cm for root vegetables like carrots and 60 cm for a shrub/rose bed and a perennial bed. When you plant a tree or large shrub you will obviously dig deeper still, removing the clay to accommodate the new roots. Back fill the bed with quality triple mix. Do not buy the cheap stuff – and Lord knows that it abounds! There are many suppliers of second rate ‘top soil’ who are willing to take your money in exchange for soil that will not grow much. ‘Quality’ soil contains at least 33% sharp sand, 33% finished compost [composted municipal waste/cattle/sheep or steer manure, well rotted down for a minimum of two years], and 33% clean top soil.
The price for the good stuff varies but here in the GTA good quality soil ranges in the $35 to $48 per cubic yard range. If someone offers you triple mix for less, either inspect it personally to be sure that it is what you want or take a pass on it.
Can I compost pet waste?
Dog and cat droppings contain heavy metals: bundle their waste up for your green bin. However rabbits, guinea pigs and all fowl, including chickens, produce a great, nitrogen- and microbe-rich compost additive. Save this ‘waste’ and put it in your compost bin or pile at the bottom of a layer of carbon, like fallen leaves or shredded newspapers [follow all of my advice here and never recycle another newspaper!] Alternate these layers with green waste-like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and soft plant clippings. The brown, or ‘carbon’, layers should be about twice as thick as the green, nitrogenous layers. There is no exact science to this but I generally like to create a layer of green about 15 to 30 cm thick alternating with brown layers 30 to 60 cm thick.
Can I use all of my kitchen scraps in a composter?
Almost, but not quite all. By kitchen scraps, I mean non-animal material like salad leftovers, broccoli stems, carrot tops, and egg shells: anything other than meat or fish by-products. No bones, animal fat, or meat belongs in your composter. This stuff smells bad as it rots, attracts vermin, and adds nothing helpful to the finished product. Again, another good use for your green bin.
Can I compost paper products?
Yes you can. Take a paper coffee cup for example. Perhaps the one that you retrieved from your boulevard from a caffeinated drive-by. Once the plastic top has been removed to the recycle bin, I stomp on the cup and place it near the bottom of a green layer in my compost. Give it a few months and it will be ready for incorporation into your garden soil.
Can I compost the maple leaves that attract ‘maple blotch each summer? How ’bout the leaves of my rhubarb and walnut tree [which are poisonous]? And the leaves of my oak tree, which are thick and slow to break down?
All good questions. The leaves from your Norway maple can go in the compost come autumn as the spores for maple leaf blotch are airborne. There is really no escaping them in any case. The leaves from rhubarb can be composted, when combined with generous quantities of other natural materials. The leaves of walnut can be a problem. Unless the quantities are managed very carefully, the toxin ‘juglone’ can cause problems down the road with garden plants when you spread your finished compost on your garden. Small quantities that are well-broken down over a couple of years and mixed with lots of other leaves can be ok.
Can I compost cigarette butts?
No. They are synthetic, with the exception of the tobacco and the paper that they contain. The filter almost never breaks down. I see that there is a campaign underway in many provinces to minimize the careless proliferation of cigarette butts and I am delighted. Flicking a cigarette butt out the car window or into a planter at the base of an office building is irresponsible and, as my late father would say, a dirty habit. Many potting soil mixes are flammable if they are allowed to dry out. Dropping a cigarette butt into a container plant can be a fire hazard.
Finally, what is ‘waste’ to one person is a valuable resource to another. We live in a time when options are greater than ever for the disposal of many products after we are finished with them. There is no point in being careless by throwing our trash ‘out the window’ assuming a trained circus monkey will pick up after us.
Question of the Week
Q/ How do I get rid of clover in my lawn?
A/ Killing clover is no longer an option. The focus is now on crowding out the weeds.
Overseed the lawn annually to thicken the lawn. Feed the lawn every 8 weeks with Golfgreen lawn fertilizer to promote healthy grass plants. Mow the lawn at 2 1/2″ high to promote deep grass roots. A thick and healthy lawn will crowd out many lawn weeds.