Gardener's Journal May 2001
Welcome to May! Steve is working on a consulting project so I'm doing this month's Gardener's Journal. For many gardeners May is the favorite time of year. There's so much blooming, everything is fresh and the heat of summer has yet to transform our treasures to crispy brown. This month I have two fascinating topics to share: how to replace a tree's "lost leader" and my ongoing project to utilize dog poop as a gardening resource. But first I want to tell you about what's a-bloom here in North Florida.
Among May's superstars is one of my favorite bloomers, the feijoa (above photo). This beautiful and tasty flower grows on a large evergreen shrub and is followed by also tasty fruit often called pineapple guava. I highly recommend this drought tolerant beauty. Up "on the hill" I've installed blue scabiosa, ageratum, white moss verbena, and purple and white petunias. It's very sunny and sandy there and they will probably burn up as soon as it gets hot but it's worth the effort and I'll enjoy them until then.
Back by the pond there's a mess of yellow cosmos that brilliantly reseed themselves each year among several kniphofias that have NEVER bloomed. I planted sunflowers behind them and edged with yellow Hungarian (and other) peppers. Not far, but within shouting distance, are some clumps of Salvia guaranitica whose blue is true and a perfect background for the salmon soap aloe blossoms. Of course the oleanders are in full glory and the thyme (regular, lemon, French and creeping) is a flowery carpet of delicate lavender.
Composting Dog Poop - An Emerging Art Form
I share my home and my life with five Great Danes and one great Beagle. As you might guess, a great deal of dog byproduct is produced. Even in Florida's moist warm environment it takes a while for nature to process this much poop. We have exercise runs where the Danes spend a portion of each day. Managing this accumulation is my primary leisure activity. Large quantities of this nitrogen source accumulate - which brings us to the topic at hand...
Unlike cows and horses who produce a lovely raw material for composting, dogs are carnivores (dogs eat meat, cows eat plants). Because of this, a dog's gift to the earth tends to be sludgy and loaded with aromatic compounds. These include fatty acids like butyric acid and caprylic acid which are famous for making goats smell like goats. They are also components of human body odor (or personal malodor as the consumer products people call it). These attributes - sludginess and stinkiness - must be addressed in order to pleasantly and efficiently compost dog raw materials into "black gold" for the garden.
If dog poop is simply thrown into a pile it will sit there and reek. And then it will reek some more as the aromatic compounds slowly vaporize into the air where your nose detects them as a nasty smell. Therefore the goal is to 1) break the sludgy poop into the smallest pieces possible and 2) eliminate the aromatic compounds as rapidly as possible for the purpose of creating composted dog manure in minimum time. I have developed two techniques for realizing this goal, they are called the "Dry Process" and the "Meltaway Method".
The Dry Process
In the dry process the poop is permitted to desiccate with the intent of it becoming as hard and brittle as possible. One then stomps upon or, alternately, bashes it with a shovel. This strategy renders it into a coarse granular powder. The poopoo powder is odorless and can be moistened and mixed with vegetative material where it will quickly decompose into black gold. This process is not recommended as: 1) drying dog poop smells bad and 2)the stomping and bashing interaction is unpleasant.
The Meltaway Method
This is the preferred technique as it requires less effort, is less messy, and generates fewer offensive odors over a shorter duration. It also encourages prompt pickup of the raw materials as crustiness is to be avoided whenever possible. So harvest fresh material, then stack it in layers with grass clippings, and other herbaceous off casts. Water with hose to break (melt!) the raw material into small aggregates that can sift down among herbaceous material. This increases the surface area of the raw material allowing quick release of malodorous volatile compounds while maintaining a well aerated pile of decomposing organic matter that is a Disney World for bacteria.
For those who plan to use either of these techniques I have two cautions. The first is that you provide ample time for decomposition to occur. Even if your pile is 98% "black gold" it is wise to remember that the remaining 2% is a wildly unpleasant surprise for the ungloved. The second is that you shouldn't use this stuff on vegetable gardens. I'm not sure if it's a health hazard or not, but it IS just plain gross - so don't do it...
I've only tested my dog manure on plants that like a lot of nitrogen (turf grass, ornamental grasses, bananas, bamboo, etc.). They all seem to like it. I'm going to try it on a bed of annuals next - hopefully they will like it too and I can reduce my fertilizer bill. I can't believe I just wrote a page on this topic but, damn, the stuff is everywhere here and you gotta do SOMETHING with it!
Replacing a Lost Leader
Other than the dog thing, my other major project this month was to correct a minor garden tragedy. We're entering the fourth year of drought here in North Florida. This has put a great deal of stress on our forest trees. The pines especially have been falling prey to borers, an insect which eats into trees, destroying tissue and eventually killing branches if not the whole tree. These evil creatures also attack ornamental evergreens and have been chewing up my cryptomerias, Leyland cypress and deodar cedars - especially the cedars.
I have a trio of deodars up on the 'dune. Last summer the upper portion of the the largest and most beautiful individual began to yellow. Sap was leaking from bore holes about 18" above the soil line so I immediately knew who the culprit was. The problem was I didn't know how to treat it. The only pesticide I know of that controls borers is lindane which was removed from the market at the beginning of the year. So I just watched as the top 90% of this beauty slowly die leaving just a few of the (still healthy) lower branches remaining.
Since the root system is intact the tree will survive but it will take a long time for it to regain an attractive shape. By replacing the tree's "lost leader" (main stem) we can coax the tree to recover its symmetrical cone shape more rapidly. So the first thing to do is to cut the tree off at a point on the trunk just below where the borer damage occurred. It's best to burn the remains to destroy the responsible varmints lurking within.
Next choose one of the remaining branches to be the new "leader" or main stem and trunk of the tree. Select one of the horizontal branches closest to the top - a smaller, supple branch is preferred. Carefully bend it into a vertical position. Use soft cloth strips to tie the new leader along its length to a stake inserted close to the tree's trunk.
Since this would obviously be a stressed out tree, plan to take especially good care of it while the branch assumes it's new role as leader. That means I'm going to water it when it doesn't rain (which is all the time around here) and give it an occasional shot of liquid fertilizer. Wish me luck with it - I'll let you know how it does in a couple of months.
I hope everyone is enjoying May as much as I am. Good luck with your projects and may all the deer in your neighborhood meet with unfortunate accidents! Be good and grow.
Jack Scheper 05/15/01