UW Farmers, keep making your compost. The compost crew just tested our product, so we can show you that it works.
When I sent an email to the UW Farm listserv to enlist help for starting tomatoes in October 2013, I received a couple of puzzled responses from our concerned veteran farmers:
“Kay, ya know it’s winter right?”
“Why are you starting tomatoes at this time of the year? Just curious.”
It was not because we were craving greenhouse-grown tomatoes, nor was it because we were in denial of winter’s arrival. It was because we were using tomato plants as our experimental “subjects”.
This experiment was dovetailing of my research question and interests with those of our farm manager Sarah Geurkink. I was interested in finding out whether the compost that farmers have always been making in our Back Forty actually helps improve soil fertility. At the same time, Sarah was concerned about the impoverished state of the soil at the UW Farm’s new Mercer site. Unlike the rich, dark and sweet-smelling soil we have at the Botany Greenhouse site, where compost has been added for years, the soil at Mercer looked mostly like a mixture of dry, grey sand and silt interspersed with jaggy little rocks.
Is it just the look of the soil that differs? Or is it functionally different for plant growth as well? The pictures here are worth a thousand words (although the thousand words follow for those of you interested in nitty-gritty ecological methods). Mercer soil made stunted tomato plants, but even 25% of that soil replaced with UW-grown compost helped them thrive!