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"Your plants look so healthy. What do you feed them?" Two weekends ago several hundred visitors walked through our garden during our annual open garden weekend and many asked this question. The answer mixes science, art and mystery.

One morning after breakfast several years ago, I stood at the living room window watching Tim scoop soil, one shovelful at a time, from the path onto the garden bed, much like he cuts a spoon, methodically, across a plate of stiff custard. Grasping the top of the wooden handle with both hands, pouncing firmly with his right foot pushing the shovel into the soil, lifting the dirt from the path, his body rotates across to release the soil onto the garden bed, a synchronous flow of man, shovel and soil. This went on for two days.

He was working in the 40-by-50 foot area in the meadow designed to be our sun garden with beds of annual and perennial sunflowers. Right then it looked like an elephant burial ground with huge soil islands surrounded by two-foot-deep trenches winding around them. He then started filling the trench paths with a foot of horse manure all the while muttering, "Road base, we need more road base." Finally, to my relief, he covered the horse manure with four to six inches of pine bark mulch which he kept referring to as the garnish. I canceled his therapy appointment when he finally told me what he was doing. He had layered these two materials to create a comfortable path in the garden for walking while at the same time creating compost.

Our most powerful tool for building beautiful gardens is harnessing the cycle of life and death already occurring in our soils. Plants draw nutrients from the soil while growing and return those nutrients to the soil when they die and decay. This observation led to the development of many methods for using organic materials to enrich soils. Harnessing this natural cycle of growth and decay for soil enrichment made a lot of sense to us, but most invented methods seemed like a lot of work. Natural systems on the other hand looked much simpler: Lay the organic waste on the ground and wait. This observation led to our development of the path composting system.

Compost is rotted organic material. When you read about making compost, there is a great deal of discussion about the proper ratios of carbon to nitrogen (or brown matter to green matter), aeration, moisture content, pile geometry and so on. It can get very complex. I make compost the way I build a lasagna: Layer the ingredients in the garden path (green on the bottom, brown on top), then leave them to cook in their own juices for one or two years.

This path composting method has three guiding principles. Good topsoil is wasted if left in the garden paths; all organic stuff rots eventually when left laying on the ground; and it makes sense to make compost near the garden area where you'll need it.

After you have created your garden layout, move the good surface topsoil from the garden paths to build deep raised garden beds. Then, fill the paths with organic materials, in layers of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) with the brown stuff on top. Harvest compost from the paths in one to two years, spread on the adjacent garden beds, then rebuild the paths with fresh organic materials. There is no need to turn the pile, no need to transport the compost from any distance, and no concerns of drying piles since the composting paths are watered when the garden is watered.

To the question "What do you feed your plants to keep them so healthy?", I answer, "Compost." Whatever your soil pH, soil texture or composition, your climate or length of growing season, soil always benefits from regular additions of compost. Feed your soil with compost and your garden plants will radiate health and well-being. Composting involves channeling the natural recycling process of life and decay to create more life. And when you think about it, what could be more mysterious?

-- Laura Spear gardens in the Black Forest at ForestEdge. Her gardens will be open to the public Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 5 and 6, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 535-7457 for more information.

by Laura Spear

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