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Confessions of an Organic Gardener, or, Nothing but the Straight Poop

This article initially appeared in the November 1998 issue of the Maine Llama Association Newsletter. The article has been edited to reflect our experiences since 1998.

Introduction

Last year, when I scooped up my first pail of llama pellets I experienced the elation I felt three decades ago when I acquired my first barrels of chicken manure. The chicken manure was mixed with oak leaves to form a very hot compost heap, which ultimately converted builder’s soil, i.e., the residue left over when the top soil is removed to build a house, into fertile soil capable of supporting a healthy garden. For reasons that are hard to understand, Jeanne did not share my enthusiasm … perhaps it is because the neighborhood dogs would chase her car after one of my forays to the chicken farm … I forgot to mention, I drove a VW Rabbit at the time and it was too small to contain my barrels of chicken poop … Jeanne’s VW Vanagon, however, was an ideal transport vehicle.

Many people believe that organic gardening means gardening without chemical fertilizers and insecticides. However, it is much more than that. A basic premise is that good soil health will reduce disease and pest problems. Thus, the organic gardener will constantly work to improve the health of his soil. This is done through the addition of compost, manure and other organic materials. Our llamas do a good job at providing the necessary material.

The former owners of our farm had built some raised beds in their garden. Based upon the chemicals that we inherited when we moved in, it seemed fairly clear that they were not organic gardeners. The fertility of the beds ranged from poor to good. Our first two llamas arrived on April 15, 1997, and we started off the 1997 garden season with little time or material to enhance the beds. Our plantings did reasonably well at the beginning of the season and improved markedly over the summer as our herd and our supply of manure grew.

For the 1998 garden year I wanted to increase the garden area by two to three times. The available space was worn out pasture, which could support little more than scraggly grass and moss. It was difficult, almost impossible, to break through the hard pan. We were faced with a daunting challenge. We also had many competing uses for the llama manure, not the least of which were some flowerbeds which had been planted by the former owners.

Oh, Those Flowerbeds

I spread several inches of llama pellets over the flowerbeds late in the fall and during the winter. We were not prepared for the results. The difference between 1997 and 1998 was amazing. We saw flowers we did not know we had. What had been a weedy looking bed, which had been destined for complete renovation, turned into an attractive perennial bed destined only for a yearly application of llama manure.

We saw similar dramatic results with forsythia.

The Raised Beds

Over the winter I placed several inches of llama pellets on the raised beds. I also spread the wood ashes over the beds. Each of these beds is double cropped and I work in several inches of llama pellets between crops. The results were impressive.

One of our first crops was sugar snap peas. I planted a bush variety. Last year, the crop was bushy. This year, the crop was as tall as a climbing variety and the output increase matched the increase in vegetation.

Last year we had some problems with insect pests in our squash and cucumber plantings. This year we had no problems with insects in these crops, except as noted below in the section on the new garden beds.

Similarly, we had a virus problem with green beans last year. This year we had no virus problems.

I attribute these changes to the increased health of the soil.

Another sign of improved soil health is the return of earthworms to these beds.

The New Beds

The new garden areas are not raised beds. I may build raised beds after I build a good soil depth to at least six inches.

Our barn had been used to house horses. We took the sawdust from the stalls and placed it in the areas where we planned to build our new gar­dens. We put what leftover manure we had over the sawdust and let the mixture stew over the winter.

The hard pan under this mixture softened only to a depth of about two to three inches. The sawdust added substantial organic material to the mix, but depleted what little nitrogen was available.

Intellectually I was prepared for significant crop failures in the new garden beds, but when the seedlings came up spindly and yellow and were under heavy insect attack, my emotional self overrode the intellectual. I could not bear the thought of total crop failure.

Take Tea and See

Clearly applications of manure, while addressing the long term building of the soil, would not address the immediate needs of my seedlings. Llama tea came to the rescue. I started mixing up llama tea: 1/3 llama pellets, 2/3 water and letting sit for anywhere from 3 hours to overnight. Within 24 hours of the first application there was a noticeable change in the seedlings. By the end of the week, the insects had disappeared and my seedlings started to grow. The end result was a very productive garden, second only to the more established raised beds. Many of our visitors on Maine Open Farm Day commented about our gardens. One individual was adamant about buying some llama manure from me. I finally agreed to sell her some next spring.

I also used llama tea on the heavy feeding crops (broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage…) in my established garden.

Editor's Note, July 1999: In past years we did not have any problems with deer in our gardens until after the first killing frost. They would then feast on our kale. This year they started working on the garden in late June. Our swiss chard, beets, beans, broccoli and cauliflower were being decimated. Spreading llama pellets around the plants as a deterrent to the deer did not seem to accomplish much. I then tried sprinkling llama tea on the swiss chard, beets and beans each evening (the broccoli we harvested, the deer finished off the cauliflower). Within the week the beets and swiss chard sprouted new leaves which have remained intact and untouched by the deer. The bean plants also appear to be recovering. Conclusion: Llama tea appears to be an effective deer repellent.

Editor's Note, March 2010: Over the years both my gardens and the deer population expanded. While the llama tea was a deterrent for the deer, the expanded gardens required more tea and time than I was willing to commit. I finally gave in and put in deer fencing around my gardens.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While llama tea can work wonders, there can be too much of a good thing. June was a cold and rainy month, which delayed my planting of my eggplant seedlings. By the time I planted them they were spindly and pot bond. With the success of the llama tea on my other crops, I concluded that I should heavily dose the eggplants. My reward was the development of the tallest and bushiest eggplant bushes I have ever seen. All the energy went into growth of the bushes and none into the production of flowers. Only now are the bushes covered with flowers and season will be over by the time you read this.

None of my other crops were so affected. My pepper crop is the best ever. Our freezer is full with just enough space left for the winter squashes, chard and kale which will be harvested in the next few weeks.

How about that Hay

Other than the manure tea, we do not water our gardens. Once the soil warms we mulch the beds with hay that has ended up on the barn floor over the winter. Many gardeners avoid the use of hay as mulch because of the weed seeds that are contained in the hay. We have seen some very healthy weeds, but the heavy mulch of hay takes care of most of them.

Some of the hay that ends up on the floor is put into our compost pile. Our compost piles (and compost tumbler) get kitchen scraps (vegetable matter only), garden residue and llama pellets. The temperature within the compost tumbler reaches about 160°, killing any seeds and organisms. I attribute this, in part, to the llama pellets.

Editor's Note, March 2010: The amount of compostable materials we produce has long since outstripped the use of a compost tumbler. We now maintain a large compost pile and aerate it by turning it over with our tractor/front end loader.

 Love those Bees

Bee on thistle flowerAnother sign of good garden health is the hum of the honeybees and bumblebees as they go about their job of spreading good cheer amongst the blossoms. In an organic garden there are no insecticides or herbicides to adversely affect the bees. Our gardens were a constant hum all summer long.

Editor's Note, March 2010: When the honey bee colony collapse began we became quite concerned about the pollination of not only our gardens but also crops worldwide. We immediately noticed a sharp reduction in honey bees in our gardens. We were very fortunate that the vacuum created by the loss of the honey bees was filled by bumble bees and over the next few years the bumble bees continued their pollination of our gardens. In 2009 we were pleased to see a modest increase in the number of honey bees.

 Llove those Llamas

Our llamas have contributed much to our gardens this year and promise to keep on contributing. We are now using some of their pellets in a long term project to rehabilitate our small apple orchard. As a reward to the llamas we cut up some of the apples and give them to those llamas that llove them.

We have made an interesting observation about those llamas that are obsessed with apples and carrots … but that is another article, at another time.

More Confessions

In 1999 we published a sequel to this article: More Confessions of an Organic Gardener, or, Toujours Manure