Marion Owen

Courtesy of MARION OWEN

Alders flourish along the south end of Potato Patch Lake, anchoring the soil and feeding it with nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots. 

When I go to the grocery store, what do I get? Food? Well, yes. And questions. This last week, I was corralled in the coffee and tea aisle with a couple good ones. So let’s dive in, shall we?


Q: Is it too late to plant bulbs?

A: No, but the weather clock might be ticking.


Q: Can you add shredded computer paper to the garden as a mulch or in the compost pile?

A: It’s a nice idea, re-using paper waste. And many studies have tested the safety and usefulness of shredded paper in the garden. But not all paper is created equal(ly). Newsprint, for example, gets a thumb’s up from almost everybody, because the inks are mostly, but not all not all, soy-based.

Slick paper, like the kind used in magazines, is another story. The bright inks on shiny paper inserts and magazines often contain dangerous components. And white paper bleached with dioxins may be of more concern than the inks used on it.

The main problem with paper mulches is that even then they’re deemed safe, they’re inert, which means they don’t have much going for them. Shredded paper works as a weed barrier, but as a soil improvers, forget it. Unless finely shredded, they don’t decompose, and if they DO decompose, they steal nitrogen from the soil while breaking down. All things being equal, it’s much better to take your paper to Threshold Recycling and use kelp, grass clippings, or leaves in the garden and compost pile.


Q: Which leaves are best for the garden?

A: In a recent column, I sang high praises for leaves. They’re packed with minerals and provide gourmet meals for earthworms and beneficial microbes. When added to the compost pile, they provide carbon and keep the pile fluffy and oxygenated. 

Rain and fog notwithstanding, don’t pass up a great opportunity to rake up some high-quality leaves to add to your compost pile, stacked into a bin unto themselves, or onto your garden beds. In addition to feeding your soil, a 2- or 3-inch mulch of leaves stabilizes the soil temperature, reducing the freeze-thaw fluctuations that tear plant roots. 

But what kind of leaves are best? The answer might surprise you. “Alder leaves have more nitrogen in them than any other type of tree leaf here in Kodiak,” says Lorne White of Strawberry Fields Nursery.”

Alders are more than scruffy trees that block views and trip up hikers navigating a trail. I’d like to offer that they deserve a second look, at least below the surface.

As a member of the birch family, alders carry on an important symbiotic relationship with a fibrous, nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Frankia alni. This bacterium performs a valuable function: Develop into fist-sized nodules or lumps on the Alder roots.

In the process, these bacterium quietly go about their business performing what I think is one of the most magical processes in nature: Absorbing nitrogen from the air and making it available to the tree. Alders, in turn, provides the bacterium with sugars, which it produces through photosynthesis. Through this amazing and mutually beneficial relationship, alders improve the fertility of the soil where it grows.

Another local source of leaves is from the cottonwood tree. Cottonwood leaves are alkaline, which helps balance the acidic quality of our native soils.


Q: Can coffee grounds go directly into the garden, or do they need to be composted first?

A: Yes, and that’s a good thing because there is a plethora of coffee establishments that serve cappuccinos and lattes. Add to that, restaurants and businesses that offer “regular” coffee on the menu, plus households (and let’s not forget galleys aboard fishing boats) that start each day with a mug up. It all adds up to bushels of coffee grounds. 

 Coffee grounds do not need to be composted before adding them the garden. They’re ground up plant seeds, right? Simply work the nitrogen-rich grounds into the soil. Keep in mind that coffee grounds are on the acidic side, so don’t add more than say, five pounds per 100 square feet unless you want to lower your soil’s pH.


Q: What is neem oil and how is it used as a pesticide?

A. Neem oil is often a great solution if you are having problems with insects, mites, or fungi bothering your plants. What organic gardeners love about neem is that it is safe to use: It will not harm you, your kids, or your pets. It is so safe because its insecticidal properties target specific pests that damage garden plants. 

Neem is an organic pesticide derived from the bark and fruit of a common Asian evergreen tree (Azadirachta indica). When applied to insects and the plants they are eating, neem oil causes many insects to feed less and grow more slowly. 

Neem is best used before pests become a serious problem. For example, if your hoophouse or greenhouse is usually plagued with aphids halfway through the summer, try spraying the environment early on, says Christy Mathews, who lives near Ouzinkie. “We spray a neem-water dilution on the soil and on overwintered plants and seedlings in later winter and we rarely have an aphid problem.”

To use neem, first shake it well to emulsify the oil. If using a ready-to-use commercial product, be sure to read the label. Some formulations are stronger than others.

To mix your own, use lukewarm water to get a good mix. A general dilution is to mix one teaspoon of neem oil with one quart of warm water. Add a teaspoon of organic dish soap to help the oil spread evenly. Spray your plants including the undersides of the leaves and soil.

With summer behind us and winter lurking around the corner, now is a good to look over your long-forgotten houseplants.

Meanwhile, I can hardly wait for my next grocery store adventure. 


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