I was sitting in the orthodontist’s chair when I realized something – I was considered a master gardener (yes, I have adult braces — let’s ignore that and move on). The revelation smacked me as the assistant settled in to remove my rubber bands and explained, “Oh! I’ve been waiting for you to come in so I can ask you a question….what do you think of Zoo Doo? Is all the hoopla worth it? Should I sign up for the waiting list?”
Whoa there, when did I become a master gardener?
The title is emphatically undeserved. I’ve only had a real garden for two years. Yes, I’ve had a “potted” garden for years prior, devoured many soil and gardening books, even got my Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sciences with a focus on soil and land use, but does that make me the go-to gal for advice on manure?
Let’s rewind this a bit. In fact, quite a bit. My love for growing things came about when I was about eight. I meticulously prepped a bed for my vegetables. I weeded, tilled, and worked all day until I had the perfect fluffy bed. When I excitedly showed Dad the fruits of my labor, he said, “That’s great dear, but that spot doesn’t get enough sun to grow anything”. You see, in my ignorance I had only accounted for 2 of the 3 necessary requirements to grow plants (besides a few tenacious weeds, anyway). I’d thought of land (soil, check) and I had thought of water (watering can, check) but I had neglected to think of solar requirements. The spot I had chosen was basically smack in the middle of a grove of rhododendrons. Barely a ray of sunshine made its way through the gnarled branches and thick leaves. My dream of being a farmer was immediately shattered. But only temporarily.
Fast forward about 5 years and I found myself transplanted onto a small island outside of Seattle. My mother had decided that she wanted to garden, and I was determined that she would not have all the fun. But I had no knowledge, no understanding of how to grow things. I just possessed an unexplainable desire. With a bit of whining (as teenage girls are prone to do) she conceded a small plot of my own to grow herbs. Perhaps not as exciting as tomatoes and cucumbers, but still important! And most importantly, less fickle to grow. This is where I cut my teeth and quickly learned growing things wasn’t as simple as scattering a few seeds in the soil, crossing my fingers, and letting Mother Nature take her course – that is if I wanted to cultivate anything other than dandelions and creeping buttercup. I learned quickly that gardening was a series of constant little battles. Is the soil to dry? Oh, I better water it. Is the soil to wet? Then maybe I should mound the rows to keep the roots from drowning. Not getting enough sun? Well perhaps I should chop down those darn blackberries that are towering overhead. And the battle royale? The slugs. Oh those pernicious slugs! The garden turned into a mine field of tubs filled with Miller High Life in the hopes of luring the slimy monsters to their death with the champagne of beers.
If gardening doesn’t teach you anything else, it will teach you persistence. It took me years to unlock the secret to successfully growing plump, tasty tomatoes. And I’m still learning to properly thin the carrots (it just seems such a waste to pull any of them!). And I’ve discovered that it’s not a single-season endeavor to cultivate the perfect soil bed that’s rich with humus and teaming with microbes and mycorrizae. In fact, it can take many, many years.
Regardless of all the “little battles” and the patience it takes to garden, I’m hooked. I can’t imagine at this point in my life not having a garden. Where else can I get dark red, super-flavorful tomatoes that put those hot-house fruits to shame? How else could I pick candy-like sugar-snap peas right off the vine? And how would I fuel my love for cool cucumber drinks on hot summer days? Yes I’m hooked. And I’ll enthusiastically share my love for all things gardening if you dare to ask. But am I a master gardener at this point? I don’t think so. Though it is a title I hope to earn one day. Instead, I think I just happen to be the only person many of my co-workers and friends know that gardens at all. And because of this, I’ve become the de-facto pro.
So back to that question the orthodontist assistant asked me. What do I think of Zoo Doo? You may be surprised to learn that I’m not a fan. Why? Other than fundamentally not supporting the confinement of wild animals, I’m also not confident that manure from the zoo is free of antibiotics and other residue (sedatives, anyone?) that is left over from treating the animals. These left-overs can have a negative impact on the soil biota as well as be translocated (taken up) by the plants you grow to eat. While most of these medications would have broken down during digestion, some simply do not. Heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, sometimes used in animal supplements, persist. I’d rather not risk it. Instead, I choose to compost the nitrogen-rich manure from my chickens. Chickens are little poop-machines – so why waste it? And if you don’t have your own chickens, find a neighbor that does. If they are like me, they always have excess chicken poop. Otherwise, check out Craigslist or reach out to local farmer. It may take a little effort, but it’s well worth it.
Guest blog courtesy of Chelsie Johnson at Humble Bee Farms.