Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Thumbs up for worms

Organic landscapers brew 'compost tea'


By DANA DUGAN
Express Staff Writer

Gunnar Whitehead and Josh Green dig deep in Whitehead's Landscaping's vermi-compost bin in Bellevue. Express photos by Dana DuGan

It's becoming a universal truth in many horticultural circles: Organic gardening beats reliance on chemical fertilizers. Chemicals, many organic farmers say, might accomplish growth spurts and higher crop yields, but when it comes to taste, smell, and health, organic is preferable.

Organic gardening usually starts with compost that is made from recycled food waste. We take out and we give back. Soil that is sprayed continually with chemical fertilizers, the farmers say, can become "dead." Dead soil, in which healthy microorganisms once lived, cannot produce much or subsist on its own, they maintain.

With that in mind, more and more farmers and homeowners are turning to organic "compost tea" as an effective and healthy alternative to chemical fertilizers. Many preach that organic composts and tea spray:

· Encourage plant health.

· Build up soil structure.

· Reduce compaction.

· Reduce leaching.

· Reduce water usage.

Here in the Wood River Valley, Whitehead's Landscaping began making compost tea and spraying it on their clients' lawns just two years ago. In 2005, the company bought an 80-square-foot vermi-compost bin for their Hailey base.

Each week, organic specialist Josh Green grinds up donated greens, coffee grounds and other non-animal food waste from Albertson's, Atkinsons' Markets, Shelley's Deli and Zaney's River Street Coffee House. He spreads the ground-up mess across the massive bin in layers. Also taking up residence in the bin are approximately 1 million to 2 million red wiggler worms.

These little critters consume three times their weight of food waste in a week, leaving behind their own personal waste, known as casts. Casts contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus, and 11 times more potassium than ordinary soil—the main minerals needed for plant growth. Casts are also rich in humic acids, which condition the soil, have a perfect pH balance, and contain plant growth factors similar to those found in seaweed.

This fertile, black substance is then converted into vats of compost tea, which can be sprayed onto lawns, crop fields and gardens.

Owner Gunnar Whitehead and Green are passionate about their product. Last year, Green went to Indianapolis to an Acres USA Conference and in February of this year attended an organic farming seminar in Hawaii.

They happily dig into the uncomposted crud to show a visitor the worms. They get down on the floor to run their fingers lovingly through the dirt that is silted through a long screen on the bottom of the bin. Grinning, Whitehead's 8-year old son, Reed, gets right down there and plays with the worms.

"Last year we worked on a stand of trees that were covered in aphids. After 10 days there were no aphids," Whitehead said. "It's amazing how much we'll have by the end of May."

Of course, adding bags of organic compost in the spring and fall to gardens is routine for many landscapers and gardeners. The practice enriches the soil and feeds the plants. All of the nurseries and landscapers in the area have access to organic materials and compost. Whitehead is planning to bag his product for sale in the near future.

Whitehead happily shows off the mounds of compost generated by the bin. The compost tea his company makes for spraying is an added benefit of the operation.

"Every batch of tea we make we look at under a microscope," Green said. "We look to make sure it's alive with micro-organisms in order to get more biology into the soil. We really are trying to make it a self-sustainable system."

In keeping with that aim, Whitehead's is not just creating compost and compost tea, it is promoting an organic life in every fashion.

"We're definitely here for the long haul," said Whitehead, who moved to the valley 12 years ago from New Hampshire, where his father owned a landscaping firm. "We're committed to the land. Our intention is to have all our trucks bio-diesel before too long."

Green said the benefits of using organic fertilizers increase over time.

"The basis of the whole program is to fix the soil with what's in the compost," he said. "Once we can break down the soil that weeds thrive in, where there are deficiencies, they won't be able to grow. They want compaction, mineral deficiencies. Once we can fix those things we'll see lawns with fewer and fewer weeds. It's a long process.

"We're starting to use a bio-herbicide this year that is organic—it smells like molasses—that has a high volume of nitrogen and a few other things that we're using for weed control. It's another soil amendment but you can see results within 24 hours. It's feed-grade, vegan and kosher."

Working with the Blaine County Recreation District, Whitehead's Landscaping sprayed a test plot with the bio-herbicide on the east side of the Wood River Valley bike path, next to the Hailey Cemetery. Green will be monitoring it as the summer continues.

"We also have another product similar to Roundup that kills every thing and is classified organic. We can backpack spray it. It's for gravel areas, places you want nothing to grow."

Interestingly, some cities around the country have banned all chemical spraying at parks and schools, including several communities in California, Ohio, Oregon and New York.

Here in the valley, the trend is gaining momentum, albeit at a slow pace.

Keith Pangborn, president of the Sawtooth Botanical Garden's board of directors, said, "Our mission is all organic. Occasionally we'll use some spray for insects but that's organic too. We create and use our own compost pile for mulch. I did some research on this and we may be one of the only organic botanical gardens left in the country, which kind of blew me away."




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