This is a cautionary tale, which may help someone else, and which may yet have a happy ending. There is so much to learn, and we, humbly, are still learning. So stay tuned…
This is a story that unfolded over a period of days, put in perspective by the horror unfolding with the Boston Marathon bombings, and the weeklong manhunt to catch the perpetrators. (Lesson 1: It’s only carrots, after all…)
Last week, we took delivery of about 20 yards of compost from a local facility where its made. With our hearts in Boston, and one ear tuned to the horrific news reports, we kept to our regular work routines and began applying the new compost. We used it to top dress the carrots in our two hoophouses. These, if you remember, are the carrots planted in February and March. The first plantings were coming along nicely, and had grown to about 3 inches.
Once I began working in the small greenhouse, I became concerned about a strong odor from the compost, which I described to Richie, doing the same thing in our larger greenhouse, as “animal,” of urine, or ammonia. Did we get the wrong stuff? I called the trucking company that had delivered it and was told they had already been in touch with the head of the compost company after a previous query about the same odor. He had reassured them that the compost was completely safe to use. The compost was still working, they had been told, but it was ok. Ok to use in an open field, and to be tilled under before planting, I now realize in hindsight. My application to tender baby carrots was another use entirely. (Lesson 2: The “experts” don’t always know everything. Go with your gut.)
However, allowing myself to be reassured, I covered the carrots with a layer of reemay cloth, and closed the greenhouse up tight for the night as we are still getting below freezing temps at night, and must still protect the beds.
Here is what the carrots looked like when I put them to bed:
Here is what they looked like the next day:
Severely burned carrot plants…Ouch! It looked like we had sprayed the crop with Agent Orange! And there was a definite line of demarcation of healthy plants remaining where I had left off the previous day. I immediately called the trucking company and they promised to follow up.
I don’t mean to indict compost with this story. In fact, the compost we were delivered IS perfectly fine and we will use it with great confidence on our fields. To gardeners, compost is “black gold” because of its many benefits in the garden. Compost is a great material for garden soil. Adding compost to clay soils makes them easier to work and plant. In sandy soils, the addition of compost improves the water holding capacity of the soil. By adding organic matter to the soil, compost can help improve plant growth and health. Composting is a most important tool for an organic gardener.
(Lesson 3: Compost is not compost, is not compost.) Too much green matter in relation to brown in a compost pile can result in excess nitrogen as the bacteria consumes the green matter, which results in the formation of ammonia gas when the compost is new. This eventually dissipates, harmlessly, into the air. The resulting compost is fine and safe to use. It is safe even to use while it has this smell, as long as it is being tilled into the ground. In fact, it may add some benefits in the short term. But it is not so good to use on tender plants in a closed environment. This I now understand in hindsight…
I definitely compounded my first mistake in using the unseasoned compost on beds which I then covered with cloth inside a tightly closed greenhouse. I inadvertently captured and concentrated ammonia fumes around the baby plants. Once this had been discovered, we began ventilating, and watered heavily, which stopped the ongoing damage.
In our big greenhouse, where we had also top dressed with the same stuff, the carrots are fine. Why? We have since come to the conclusion that there is more air circulation in the larger house, and the compost had been applied a little more thinly.
This really feels like a significant setback. Here we have a crop with potential worth of several thousand dollars. Part of that worth is centered around producing locally grown carrots weeks ahead of anyone planting them outside, and for which we can charge a premium price at the markets where we sell them.
This morning, we were paid a visit by the head of the compost facility, who I am pleased to say, came out here to see what I was talking about. I think he learned a few things from me. He was surprised to see carrots growing in an unheated greenhouse. He hadn’t heard of Eliot Coleman and was not familiar with the concept of moveable hoophouses. I told him: “You will soon be seeing more of this, hopefully, as more farmers learn how to extend the season using this method. I want you to be able to warn others so they don’t make the same mistake that I did.”
As for the carrots, “Wait and see,” he said. “You will probably be surprised. We see this when the compost is applied to broadgrass.” (Turf. I am not suprised that his biggest customers are landscapers applying this product to lawns.)
This morning, I am slightly encouraged about the carrots. There does seem to be vibrant healthy growth coming from the middle of each plant which survived. The smallest plants, however, did not make it, so there has been loss. But it is not the end of the world. This is farming. We will replant.
To repeat Lesson 1: Its only April. There will be carrots. And no carrot is important, really, when compared to what we lost in Boston last week.
Keep calm and plant on!