Casual Science and Backyard Gardening

In a previous post, I wrote about Kentucky Garden and how much fun I had meeting a whole new crop of urban farmers. Fifth grade science class had ended back in May, and now it was time to try some new experiments on my own.

Part of being a casual scientist is learning from others. So when one of the gardeners in Ohio City heard what I was up to, he suggested a great way to get started. “Maybe you could take four or five plants and put regular soil around them, like this. Then, get an equal number of plants, add the zebra mussel compost, and do the same thing, like that. Measure the height of each plant, then see how they grow.”

I knew it wouldn’t be an exact science, since my peppers would be taking up space in a community plot. I simply couldn’t watch their progress every single day, but I cordoned off a small section and placed each pepper in the ground. A handful of peppers received two cups of vegetable compost while the others received the zebra mussel shell mix. Each time I watered them, I was careful to give each plant the same amount. Twice, I amended the soil, giving each plant equal parts of compost.

I couldn’t control what others did while I wasn’t around, but over time, I found some interesting results. Each time I stopped by to water, the plants with the shells yielded peppers that were longer, stronger and wider. In addition, plants with the shells had multiple yields, so I was constantly picking mdplants1fresh peppers from the mussel-shell composted plants.

It seemed whenever I would visit the plot to check on them, the plants with the shells were just bursting to be picked. The other plants lagged and were slow to grow. Many of the peppers were small and shriveled.

Over in my backyard, I was babysitting some NWIS plants. These were started from seed with my fifth-grade students from Near West Intergenerational School in the spring. They seemed to be growing slowly, and I was afraid I might lose them. I wondered if these plants would need a lot more than the compost to start growing, and I wasn’t sure what to use. The soil in my garden hadn’t been amended, and I had only dug out a space for the plants a few days before.

Even though my backyard plants did grow, I noticed better results with the peppers over in Kentucky Garden. This excited my neighbor Ray, and he asked me if he could try some experiments on his own.

Ray had been gardening in his Old Brooklyn backyard plot for years, and he knew his soil was in really great shape. He begged me to give him some of the compost I started the previous year. My soil, he said, was lacking, because I had never really tended a backyard garden or worked with it previously.

Little did I know, this was all about to change.

I gave Ray buckets of the shells for his experiments. I also gave him two other compost mixes we had created last summer. One was created by Sara Moledor, a young college student, who was completing her studies in Beirut. Sara had added a commercial chicken manure to her compost, then mixed another batch of compost with Organics Best seaweed. This was a product created by my Akron friend, Tom Keith, who moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida, and had created a small composting business of his own.

I had hoped that Ray might be scientific about the process, knowing he had three mixes to work with. But I watched as he took the two mixes and the shells and added 40 pounds of Garden Magic Compost and Manure. Ray sprinkled it throughout his garden and shoveled ray2some around his tomato plants. He also offered to plant some of my NWIS starter plants to see if his garden might yield different results. This provided a huge boost for me.

Ray gave me some of the new mix to take home as well. I placed it around a few starter plants, which my sister had grown for me during the winter. At this point, my plot now had:

— A mixture of NWIS seedlings grown in various mussel shell compost mixes

— A mixture of tomato plants, amended with two other mixes.

These experiments were fun and made me think about how to make things even better. This final picture is a photo of Ray’s garden, in all its briliant splendor. I also have a bunch of other photos if you want to see what we accomplished over the summer.