Keep it natural and nutrient-rich
By Treena Shapiro
Assistant Features Editor
If you started the new year resolving to live greener and healthier through organic gardening, you might be starting to wonder why the dark leafy greens you envisioned are looking a little yellow and might even be burnt brown at the tips.
Before you do anything else, pat yourself on the back if you're using compost, because you are helping to reduce waste and save the environment.
As it turns out, however, you might also be inadvertently robbing your fledgling garden of some essential nutrients, too, because when it comes to compost, it's possible to be too green.
Compost that's heavy in green waste — as is often the case with store-bought compost — is very carbon-based, notes Al Santoro of Poamoho Produce in Waialua.
"When it degrades into the soil, it robs the plants and the soil of the nitrogen they need to grow," he explained.
Once it completely degrades, it will replace the nitrogen it depleted and start attracting the beneficial bacteria, fungi and insects that contribute to a rich, fertile soil.
That won't happen overnight, though, so you might need to experiment with amendments to balance your soil while you're waiting.
Remember that you want an organic garden when you consider some possible sources of nitrogen. These include urine, chicken manure, worm juice or blood meal.
If those seem a little too screamingly organic, you can buy assorted varieties of composted, sterilized and still nitrogen-rich animal byproducts in most gardening departments.
Kimberly Clark, who distributes local organic produce with Just Add Water and teaches workshops on organic gardening, says composting is important to deal with household waste — but it's also important to make sure the compost is balanced before you apply it to your soil.
Clark recommends using a calcium source like oyster shell lime or ag lime to reduce soil acidity or supplementing the compost with rock powders to add trace minerals.
Once the compost is added to the soil, Clark said gardeners can introduce store-bought microbial or soil innoculants to feed the soil, but that shouldn't become a regular way of dealing with sickly plants.
"You don't want to keep adding life to the soil, you want to keep the soil alive and feeding itself," she said.
DO IT YOURSELF
If you're in it for the long haul and willing to put in more effort, Gary Maunakea-Forth of MA'O Organic Farms suggests making your compost at home, using a worm bin and mulching everything whenever you plant.
"Your own compost is going to be alive with lots of biological energy in it — earthworms, frogs, all sorts of living activity going on," he said. "The biological activity in soil is the key to farming."
If you create the right environment, such as one that is earthworm-friendly, the microbes will eventually appear naturally.
However, if you're jumpstarting your garden with microbial innoculant from a bag, Clark suggests stimulating microbes by spraying the soil and plants with a sugar, such as molasses.
Grains — white rice in particular — can help innoculate your compost, as well as make it burn, or heat up and decompose, quickly. Just make sure it doesn't burn so fast that it burns off all the good bacteria, she warns.
"You want earthworms, bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects," she said.
In terms of pest control, she suggests just going after ants and slugs.
Gardeners can get rid of ants with soap, chili pepper water or boric acid and water, while slugs can be controlled by mixing Hawaiian salt into a bucket of water and dousing your garden right after a rain.