The passion to keep learning

Dressed in Carhartts and a pink scarf, Marion Owen turns her first compost pile during a snowstorm. (Photo courtesy of Marion Owen)

My, how time flies. To think that 15 years ago I phoned Nancy Freeman (then publisher of the Kodiak Daily Mirror) to discuss the notion of writing a weekly garden column.

“Sounds like a great idea, but what kind of things would you talk about?”

I’d already been gardening (or attempting to do so) for “two hands” worth of years, but when I tried to dig up specific topics at that very moment, my mind went blank.

“Oh, lots of things, Nancy. You know, gardening touches on many subjects, like uh … uh … how to make compost!” My sales pitch didn’t sound very convincing.

“You can make compost in Kodiak?”

I knew she was being polite. I also knew she wasn’t asking for a lesson in compost making. Still, she whole-heartedly embraced the idea of delivering a garden column every week and was quite tolerant when I highlighted obscure subjects like earthworms and talking to plants.

Now you might assume that the primary reason why I sit down at the keyboard every week (deadline always looming) is to share information about soil, plants, weather and everything in between. ’Tis true now, but in the beginning, crafting the column gave me the excuse to research topics I was interested in.

Take compost. In 1986, I quit my job with Foss Maritime, working as an able-bodied seaman and licensed mate, delivering fuel to Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and other coastal communities. At that point in my life, I was sure of three things: I was tired of being at sea and missing the changing of the seasons, I wanted to start a business selling my photographs, and I wanted to have a garden — Never mind that I didn’t even know what a head of lettuce connected to the ground looked like.

I am forever grateful to my parents for instilling in me the passion to keep learning and to test ideas and not just believe everything I read. So, with a desire to garden in Kodiak and realizing topsoil was at a premium, I figured I’d have to make my own. But the Cooperative Extension Service bulletins of the day stated that it could take five years for a compost pile to break down to the point where it was useable in the garden. My mind raced forward. “This can’t be right. Five years?” And off to the library I went.

I came across a reference to Sir Albert Howard, a government agronomist, who developed the so-called Indore method of composting, named after a city in southern India. His method calls for three parts garden clippings to one part manure or kitchen waste arranged in layers and mixed periodically. The process only took 12 weeks. Howard published his ideas on organic gardening in the 1940 book, “ An Agricultural Testament” (available through Amazon).

The first cheerleader of Howard’s method in the United States was none other than J.I. Rodale (1898-1971), founder of Organic Gardening magazine. These two men made composting popular with gardeners who prefer not to use synthetic fertilizers.

Charged with a mission, I started collecting materials: seaweed, horse manure, dried grass, leaves and fishmeal. All the while, a nagging, inner voice kept whispering, “Howard made compost in tropical India; this is wintertime Alaska, Marion.”

While my compost fixation was to solve the lack-of-soil problem (no soil, no garden), people are attracted to composting for a variety of reasons. Many wish to improve their soil or help the environment. Compost mixed with soil makes it darker, allowing it to warm up faster in the spring. Compost adds numerous naturally occurring nutrients to the soil. It improves soil quality by making the structure granular and fluffy, so that oxygen is retained between the granules. (Healthy soil contains 50 percent air and water.)

In addition, compost holds moisture — not too much and not too little. This is good for plants, of course, but it is also good for the environment because it produces a soil into which rain easily soaks. When water cannot soak directly into soil, it runs across the surface, carrying away soil granules and thus eroding the soil. In addition, the use of compost limits the use of natural gas, petrochemicals and other nonrenewable resources that are used in making synthetic fertilizers. Best of all, composting recycles organic materials that might otherwise be sent to landfills.

I remember how, with childlike elation, I turned my inaugural compost pile for the first time. It was snowing, hard. I donned insulated coveralls, boots and a pink scarf, grabbed the pitchfork and headed out to the corner of the garden. The compost heap was wedged between the fence on two sides and a wooden pallet (from one of the canneries) on the third.

I stabbed the pitchfork into the middle of the pile and lifted the handle just enough to send a plume of steam into the air. Wonders of wonders, I grinned from cheek to cheek. You’d think I was standing on the summit of Mt. Everest.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few more things. For example:

• Plants are non-judgmental: They don’t care if you’re having a bad hair day.

• Given the choice, I prefer a small house and a large garden.

• Onions are the most cold-hardy garden vegetable.

• There is no gardening without humility. As Alfred Austin once said, “Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class for some egregious blunder.”

• God is the doer, not I.

• A bumblebee, caught in a rainstorm, is not a pretty sight.

• You can never have too much compost.

Marion Owen is currently teaching an Organic Gardening class at Kodiak College. She can be reached at mygarden@alaska.net.

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