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The spring of 2014 may seem to some that it will never arrive but the garden centers that sell our products are constantly working to train and inspire their employees.
Recently I was invited to an employee-training day at Skillin’s Greenhouses. Skillin’s is a fifth generation family business with locations in Falmouth, Cumberland and Brunswick, Maine.
When I grew up in Falmouth, brothers John and David Skillin ran the business. Today John’s sons, Terry and Jeff, along with David’s children Mike and Melissa, run the business.
As family businesses transfer from generation to generation the complexity grows and I have always been amazed by the way the Skillin family has remained so close, worked so well together and continued to strive and look to the future of running a local business in todays economy.
Three years ago they started doing an employee training day. All the employees from all three locations attend and they make it a fun, informative and inspirational event with door prizes and plenty of food.
This year I videotaped the opening remarks of Sally Bolstridge, a longtime former employee of Skillin’s, who now runs the event for them. Her them was “The Power of One” and focused on how each person and their individual actions can truly have a big impact on the long-term growth. To connect with the employees she told some stories about John and David Skillin and how the used “The Power of One” in their lives every day. I think you’ll find the video interesting
The end product is a group of employees who are informed, appreciated and inspired to push Skillin’s to the next level in 2014.
Every local business would benefit by doing the same thing.Share on Facebook
The story behind how we make Quoddy Lobster Compost at Coast of Maine is truly fascinating! We don’t know of any other compost produced with such high quality residuals and careful attention to the composting process.
In this article, I share our special recipe and teach you a little about the steps for making great compost. Keep in mind that we work on a commercial scale and many of the techniques we use are not suitable or practical for home gardeners.
First, let’s talk about why we use lobster bodies to make compost: During the evolution of our company, we’ve composted many different residuals from the Maine agriculture, forestry and seafood industries. Early on, we started hearing back from our gardening customers about the amazing results they were getting when they amended their gardens with lobster compost. As we learned more, we discovered that the composted lobster shells imbue the end product with lots of calcium, which is a key plant nutrient, especially for vegetables. Basic soil testing revealed a pH averaging 6.8, which helps sweeten soils which tend to be acid. Then, microscopic analysis conducted by the Soil Food Web, showed that lobster compost is extremely high in biological diversity and activity……. It is basically energized with life!
So, we know we have the most unique and effective gardening compost on the market. Now I’m going to share with you how we make it.
First, the ingredients:
The lobsters: We receive our lobster shells by the truckload from local Maine processors who cook the shellfish and remove the meat for freezing and canning. These shells contain considerable nitrogen in the residual protein. The chitin-rich shells also provide food for microbes in the composting process.
Blueberry brush: We receive the leaves, twigs and culled blueberries from local Maine blueberry harvesters.
Wood fiber: We buy in very specific wood shavings and sawdust. It’s important that we use wood from the right trees and in the right blend of textures.
Second, setting up the row:
When the lobster shells arrive, they are promptly blended with the blueberry brush and wood fiber. The ratio of carbon (blueberry brush and wood fiber) to nitrogen (lobster shells and protein) is about 40:1. It takes a lot of carbon! We pay for our wood shavings and sawdust. We could use leaf and yard waste for free, but the end product could not be approved for organic growers because there is no way to effectively monitor contaminants. Buying clean shavings and sawdust assures a clean compost end product.
Then, once the start pile is large enough, it is moved and formed into a windrow, which is a straight pile about 12’ wide, 6’ tall and several hundred feet long.
Third, let the composting begin!
We own what is essentially a giant roto-tiller, called a Scarab, which is used to “turn” the windrow. The Scarab, chops, fluffs and aerates the pile as it passes through. After the first turn with the Scarab, the pile will start to heat up from all the biological activity of the microbes having a feast. Our composting guru monitors the pile on a daily basis with three foot long temperature probes that indicate how conditions are progressing in the pile. The temperature should be in the 131 – 150 F range when the pile is “cooking”. The high temperature is important for promoting the good microbes and killing any pathogens or weed seeds. The composting process is a relay race of microbes each working on their specific decomposition task. Once their food source is used up they go dormant or are eaten by the next microbe. Through time, the diversity of the pile increases and larger, more complex creatures start to appear and eat their food and do their decompostion work.
Dropping temperatures usually indicate the biology is short on oxygen. The temperature is how our chief composter determines when the pile should be turned with the Scarab. After 4 to 6 months, and when the temperature stays low and stable, the pile is considered finished. The windrow is then moved to a curing pile to rest for an additional 3 months or more before it is finally time to go into the beautiful green Quoddy Lobster Compost bag.
As you can see, we make our Lobster Compost using art, science and great Maine ingredients and ingenuity. The end product is dark, rich, has an earthy fragrance and is rich in plant available minerals and nutrients.
Pete BottomleyShare on Facebook
There’s a recent state by state trend to ban phosphorous in turf fertilizers. As is often the case with complicated legislative action, a combination of scientific misinformation, corporate gamesmanship and careless bureaucratic immediacy resulted in phosphorous becoming fertilizer nutrient enemy #1. Legislators were led to believe that phosphorous is bad for the environment and therefore voted in zero phosphorous policies because if a lot is bad, then none must be great…….. Next item on the agenda!
Unfortunately, banning phosphorous, which is one of the most abundant minerals on Earth, puts an impossible burden on the producers of natural and organically certified turf fertilizers. This is because all living things contain phosphorous. Plants are full of phosphorous. Flesh and bones are loaded with phosphorous. Manures contain phosphorous. So, how can a company make organic fertilizers with zero phosphorous? The answer is they can’t with the naturally occurring inputs available.
Although organic fertilizers cannot be made with zero phosphorous, chemical fertilizers can easily be concocted without it. Not only that, but the World-wide supply of rock phosphate is expected to run out within the next 100 years and the price has gone up rapidly with mining and shipping costs and the decreased availability. The whole phosphorous debate gave the chemical fertilizer folks a terrific opportunity to join in the slandering of phosphorous’ good name. Vilifying phosphorous was going to save the chemical blenders a fortune!
You might ask, “How are lawns surviving without the heavy doses of phosphorous?” There is usually enough phosphorous in the soil to support growth. The issue is whether or not it is available to plants. Its availability is dependent on many factors including, pH, temperature, organic matter content and biological activity. Many lawns are managed like intense agricultural fields where the crops are constantly removed (bagging the clippings) and high nitrogen chemical fertilizers damage the soil biology. Phosphorous is not going to be as available in this kind of situation, but whose fault is that?
Organic lawn fertilizers, which typically contain .5 – 2% phosphorous, are actually food for the soil biology. This means that most of the phosphorous becomes part of the living system as the fertilizer is “digested.” Studies have shown that the more organic matter, and associated biology, a soil has the less phosphorous leaches out. More phosphorous problems arise from lifeless bare soil and sand than from proper organic fertilizer applications on healthy soil. Again, the damage caused by modern chemically managed agricultural and turf maintenance practices is the biggest problem.
When you look at a fertilizer label, the middle number is the phosphorous percentage. If you choose to fertilize your lawn with a gentle acting organic 4-2-2 or 4-1-3, you are improving your soil with a full course meal compared to a salty quick fix of something with 22% nitrogen like a 22-0-10. Nitrogen is a REAL man-made problem in the environment, but there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to ban it. Look for fertilizers made with ingredients you can pronounce: Chicken manure, alfalfa, soy, corn gluten, bone meal, feather meal, lobster, kelp and fish.
Pete Bottomley AOLCP
Coast of Maine Organic Products
At Coast of Maine we come across occasional articles in regard to tainted compost. We asked our co-owner and resident compost expert, Pete Bottomley, to give us his thoughts. Enjoy the read!
Is your compost safe? To me, this is such a sad question.
The natural process of composting is a miracle of biological complexity where microscopic microbes, miniature crustaceans, insects and spiders work together to decompose vegetative or animal matter into stable and highly beneficial organic matter: Organic matter we can use to boost the productivity of our gardens. Compost is good. Compost is beyond reproach……. Except when human beings get involved! Leave it to us to sully compost’s reputation.
Composting organisms will do what they have to do to get the job done no matter the quality of the starting inputs. This is like our gastrointestinal microbes who are constantly deluged with the deadly man-made toxins toxins we eat on a daily basis….. They adapt and do their best without complaint. Just as the human body eventually degrades from the toxic load, there are contaminants in the feedstocks of some compost recipes which overwhelm the composting microbes.
Nature is diverse and tends to prefer entropy and a dispersed state. Humans, on the other hand, organize, standardize and concentrate materials. We concentrate metals, chemicals (including pesticides), hormones, food and waste. Human pollution is so ubiquitous that the soil in your backyard is contaminated with lead and mercury from decades of atmospheric deposition. Where did the pollution come from? It came from you and me!
The composting process reduces the materials which are used. Heat, carbon dioxide, water vapor and other gases are released. Some of the material converts into the living tissue of insects who move on to other places. In the end, if there was something man-made, and indigestible, in the compost, it will still be there. Compost containing grass clippings will harbor high concentrations of the pesticides people thoughtlessly put on their lawns. Compost from dairy cows has been found to contain herbicides used to control pasture weeds and persistent antibiotics. Compost from human sewage is chock full of heavy metals, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.
Depending on the intended use, a tainted compost may be fine. If you are growing vegetables for consumption, however, then you really want to know if your compost producer knows what is in all the feedstocks that are used.
At Coast of Maine, our feedstock ingredients are under our control. We work closely with our suppliers and monitor them. In turn, we are monitored by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) who approve our compost and soil blends for organic growers.
The bottom line: If you are looking for compost to grow plants for consumption, due diligence is important. If you want to use your local municipal compost, find out if they are using grass clippings, and, if they are, are they testing for pesticides.
Compost is valuable and highly beneficial for increasing vegetable production and quality. There are excellent compost products available, and there are options that may be polluted. If you have questions, give us a call and we will help you.
Imagine a typical American farm. What do you see? Plowed fields! All those millions of acres of professionally farmed lands can lead us to believe that tilling is the best practice. Unfortunately, this is an example of conventional wisdom misguiding us. Large scale commercial farms destroy the soil through tilling, fertilizing and applying pesticides. The now unstructured soil blows away in the wind or washes away in heavy rain. As home gardeners, we can do better…. We can work with Nature to improve the fertility and structure of our soil by understanding the prime directive, which is to leave the soil alone!
No till farming is simply the practice of planting the earth with the least disturbance. Keeping the soil structure intact is critically important because healthy soil is an amazingly complex community composed of many thousands of species of inter-related organisms. This “Soil Food Web” works in concert with plants in an ongoing trade of nutrient commodities – Plants synthesize and provide carbohydrates for the soil microbes and the little guys reciprocate by producing nitrogen compounds that plants need. It’s a beautiful system….. Until someone flips it upside down!
A rich garden soil takes many years to develop. At first, fungi and bacteria aggregate soil particles and create the texture and structure necessary for good moisture and air movement. Once this structure is in place, more organisms move in, which increases soil productivity. What drives soil productivity is something called “nutrient recycling” which is really just a “poop loop” generated by organisms eating plant stuff, each other or each other’s poop…… You don’t need to think about this when you pick your gorgeous veggies!
Envision the soil as a metropolis like New York City. At the lowest levels of the city, there are pipes, wires and cables all intertwined in a million miles of intelligent tangle that actually keeps the whole system running somewhat smoothly (the fungi). Then there are the layers of beings: They catch rides through tunnels, on the streets and even up and down through vertical tubes (the bacteria). Some beings stay low all the time while others get close to the sky because that’s where they make their living! All of the big moving parts of the city are totally dependent on the beings and the intelligent tangle (the protozoa, amoebae, nematodes, arthropods and worms). Flip this city upside down with a giant shovel, or worse, roto-till it, and the intricately organized system is destroyed and most of the life with it.
So, how do you garden without messing with the soil? Here are some simple practices:
• Fertilizing – Adding a food source for the soil microbes can improve the living energy and productivity of your soil. Natural granular fertilizers (manure, animal or feed based) can be applied to the soil surface prior to top-dressing with compost. It’s important to cover with compost. Late fall or early spring are the best times.
• Composting – Top dress with compost to add diversity to the Soil Food Web and provide food and habitat for larger organisms.
• Planting – This is the easiest part. Once you’ve determined the proper spacing for your specific varieties, simply plant your seeds or seedlings with the least amount of digging possible. Any soil you remove from a hole should be spread at the surface and it’s always a good idea to top dress again with compost in the disturbed area.
After several years of the no till approach with consistent composting your soil should be naturally loose and aerated enough to plant with your bare hands.
Pete Bottomley, AOLCP
Coast of Maine Organic Products
I get curious about the strangest things sometimes. Last summer, during a contemplative moment lying on my lawn, I rolled onto my stomach and parted the grass to sneak a peek at the soil surface. What I saw was a literal junkyard of refuse including seeds, grass clippings, shredded leaf parts, worm castings and, most interestingly, lots of insect exoskeleton pieces. I thought to myself, “All those bits of chitin-rich exoskeleton must be a valuable commodity to the Soil Food Web.”
For years, I’ve told gardeners that chitin serves as a rich food source for soil microbes, which, in turn, provide the soil ecosystem and plants with essential building blocks for healthy growth. The soil depends on a food pyramid similar to our own with carbohydrates, protein, fats and fiber. In fact, the most common food sources in nature are cellulose, starch and chitin.
Chitin’s molecular formula is (C8H13NO5):
The chitin molecule is essentially a series of modified sugar molecules hitched together. As a food source, it packs a lot caloric energy. That’s why lobster, crab and shrimp shells compost really well. Crustacean shells are composed of a matrix of this chitin and calcium and magnesium bearing molecules. The claws have much higher concentrations of the hard stuff whereas flexible body parts are higher in softer chitin.
We know chitin plays a critical nutritional role to the Soil Food Web and that a healthy soil system recycles the bodies of chitin-rich insects. Clearly, poisoning all the insect life in your lawn and garden disrupts Nature’s beautiful design! A lawn or garden with no insects is missing a key food source.
I believe a healthy natural Soil Food Web keeps predators, prey, parasites and diseases in balance. My 40 year old natural lawn, with all those expired insect bodies, does not get grub damage, insect infestations or fungus diseases. Anecdotally, I have used lobster compost on several grub infested lawns and found it deters grubs. A little research unearthed the hypothesis that adding chitin to the soil surface promotes the proliferation of chitin eating bacteria….. There are specific bacteria for eating everything! And, behold, grubs’ jaws are made of chitin! It is possible that the bacteria leach into the soil and irritate the grubs so they leave or stop eating. I don’t know the mechanism exactly, but have seen it work.
In conclusion, shellfish compost is a great choice when you want to boost the vigor of the Soil Food Web in your lawn or garden. The calcium and magnesium are critical plant nutrients and we are still learning about all the miraculous benefits of chitin.
Pete Bottomley, AOLCP
Coast of Maine Organic Products
In an effort to drive customers to your Facebook page and to your store we’d like to offer you a simple promotion.
Using your enewsletter, Facebook page and or your Twitter account, offer the chance for your customers to post a picture of their gardening success when using a Coast of Maine soil. If they post on your Facebook page we will give them a free bag of soil. We will credit your account and have them come back to you store to pick it up.
If you don’t have a Facebook page you can have them post on the Coast of Maine Facebook Page
and we will take care of everything.
If you don’t have a Facebook page we would be happy to build one for you.Share on Facebook