Story last updated at 11:29 a.m. Friday, August 2, 2002

Composting revisited, questions answered

The Kachemak Gardener

Rosemary Fitzpatrick
Yikes! Here I was, feeling smug as could be, thinking I had given you the clearest of all directions to make a compost pile and what happens? Questions. Rats. That was not supposed to happen. Here they are, in order: 1) Where do I get horse manure? 2) Do the bins have bottoms? 3) What about bears?

Manure: There are people in this town and the surrounding area that, unfathomable as it may seem, buy feed, put it in front of equus caballus, and then shovel it up from the other end, all to the benefit of those of us who garden. We are forever grateful. You can use bovine manure, too, but there are fewer of those. So all you really need to do is look around and find a horse, there are many, and ask for the manure, which the owners are, usually, more than happy to get rid of.

There are all kinds of animals you could use: llamas, rabbits, sheep. But there is nothing like a horse for quantity. Chicken manure is so very lovely but it is truly "hot." When we raised chickens we would pile the bedding and subsequent manure into a pile and leave it alone for a year, then we would put it into the vegetable plot and till it in the fall, giving it another winter to mellow. Seemed to work just excellent. There it is, the manure question addressed.

Is there a bottom to the compost bins?: In mine there is. We did it for structural integrity, and because I didn't want anything "good" to leach out. You don't even need an actual "bin"; you can just use piles on the ground. Bins are neat and efficient. They appeal to my inner sense of order.

Bears: I feel like as soon as I say there has never been a bear in my compost I will jinx myself. Never say never. But, in 25 years of composting, I haven't had a bear tear into a pile. While living out East for 20 years, we did have a black bear that spent summers 100 feet off the corner of the compost pile. I would never had known it was there if it weren't for my children sneaking into the woods for cigarettes and being chased home by the beast. Twice.

Please keep in mind that composting has been happening for centuries. Without bins. Without books. Without garden columnists. Just do it and you will be forever grateful.

Now, I really need to let you know that the two mock orange that I planted a year ago spring are fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. They made it through a winter that saw 15-year-old honeysuckles die to the ground. They are loaded with lightly fragrant, truly beautiful white blooms. I am in awe and would really like to see more of these in this town. I assume that they are not moose proof.

Mine is philadelphus lewisii "Blizzard." One of them is living outside our bedroom window, and the scent is heavenly. I have conflicting information on just what to expect in size of these lovelies. The tag that it came with says it will reach 4 to 6 feet in height and 4 feet in width. The American Horticultural Society "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants" says 10 feet for height and width. Which would be more than I bargained for.

"Landscape Plants for Alaska," that most excellent publication produced by the Alaska Cooperative Extension, does not list this variety at all. Great.

Whichever way you jump, this is a lovely plant, and you really need one or two or even three.

Truly, these mock orange are so lovely that they prompted yet another garden party for the Knit Night Ladies. The first was for the extravagant iris show. Goodness. But I needed to flaunt the mock orange.

While here, the Ladies decided that my amur chokecherry (prunus maackii) needs to be pruned. O Good Grief! Pruned! They were unanimous in their opinion. Apparently the flaws in this tree are obvious to all except me. There you have it. It will happen before the sap flows this spring, and they will all be present to witness the cutting. The prunus virginiana "Shubert" needs to be shaped up also. If you have deciduous trees take a good look at them and determine what needs to be done. Wait for dormancy to make your move.

Which brings me to plant placement. I have this really gorgeous rosa glauca, formerly known as rosa rubrifolia. It has navy blue stems with a hint of burgundy with the leaves echoing these colors. It is huge. I have it where I can't see it. There it will stay. But come fall, when plants go on sale, I will purchase at least one more, maybe two, and put them where I can see them whenever I want.

The delphiniums are having a good year. They are tall, lush, bloomy and staked, thankfully. Last year the aphids destroyed them, and this year was the first year I had ever seen a leaf roller. These were successfully hand-picked, and the plants are none the worse.

Peonies are also having a good year. This is the first time they have borne enough flowers for me to pick a bouquet. I am in heaven. If you haven't any of these, may I ask: what are you waiting for? They are hardy, easy and the most bloomy of all flowers. Choose those that bloom early, early-mid and mid (season), and avoid the late bloomers. Fall planting of roots is a really good idea, and keep in mind that the root only needs to be 1 inch below the surface.

Be researching peonies now so you will be ready to make a choice come fall.