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Front Page » April 12, 2007 » Senior focus » Make mine organic
Published 3,103 days ago

Make mine organic

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Burt Collins stands amongst the Elephant Garlic that is already growing in his garden this spring.

For over three decades Bert Collins mined coal full time.

Now he spends that time mining the soil around his house.

Collins is one of the growing number of Americans finding that produce they buy at the store is not what they want. And finding farmers markets where things are grown in an organic way is not only time consuming but costly to say the least.

For 30 years Collins and his wife, Mary, have been perfecting organic gardening at their home in west Price, and neighbors, friends, as well as the food back have been the beneficiaries of that work.

"My motto is to treat the soil in your garden like you treat your checkbook," said Collins as he spends time going through a gardening catalogue to show off all the natural kinds of ingredients it takes to raise a successful organic garden. "You never want to take out more than you put back in."

According to Collins, in his experience, the reason some gardeners fail to produce what they want is because of this principal. The former Plateau Mining employee, who retired from the underground work in 1995, says that many people just plant stuff in what appears to be good enough soil and expect it to produce great harvests just because they water it. It just doesn't work that way.

"There is a lot of difference between gardens as he spreads his arms out denoting the quarter acre he has in garden beds in front of his house. "This used to be just an old hay field when we bought this lot and put our house on it 30 years ago. The soil was alkaline, like much of the soil around here. In our garden we have changed that."

With that he said one other important thing for potential organic gardeners to take note of.

"Much of the top soil that people buy comes from someone elses basement being dug," he said. "You need to make your own top soil."

Most people wouldn't have an inkling of how to do that. They might know that adding some organics to a patch of soil and maybe some sand to it if it is clay is enough. But Collins has a process, and tests prove it.

The soil in the Collin's garden has been tested and the technician who did it told them that they had soil that equaled the soil in the central valley of California.

In 2004 Collins had A & L Western Agricultural Laboratories come to his home and test the soil. He wanted to know how successful his years of soil care and soil building had been. He thought if it wasn't right then he would find out what it would take to fix it.

"I was amazed," he said. "They told me that the soil I had in my garden looked like it came from the central valley of California (one of the richest areas for soil in the United States) and, that in fact I had the best soil for growing vegetables in Utah."

Best of all, in Collin's mindwas that the soil tested almost as good as dirt can test for a lack of pesticides and other additives.

For some the idea of organic gardening is that a plot of ground is tilled and then plants or seeds are placed in it and they are watered. No additives or extras of any kind. But Collins says that organic gardening is nothing like that.

"The difference is developing and then taking care of the soil once it has reached the proper level for getting good yields.

And it doesn't mean putting up with small yields or food that has been infested with bugs.

"There are so many natural ways to control pests in the garden and to still grow large yields without having to apply chemicals to the garden," said Collins. "That doesn't mean not applying anything though."

Collins got interested in organic gardening years ago when he realized he had two kids to feed and the budget didn't stretch as far as he would have like it to. He began reading everything he could on that type of gardening and realized it would be better for his family.

"It's a teamwork thing," he said. "I couldn't do it without my wife. We are both still learning each and every year."

Collins has a number of books about gardening, but there are a couple of catalogues he relies on each year to pick out the right things to get good results. Rather than sitting back, putting on water, and pulling some weeds, the activity that Collins puts into his garden is the reason results are great.

As he pulled out the list of things he uses on his garden and has used over the years, it was obvious the type of gardening he does is not simple, and it's certainly not cheap either.

Collins says an additive made from the Neem tree, a member of the mohogany family, which grows in India is one of the best he has in his growing arsenal. He also says it is pricey as well.

"Some of the things we use are expensive, but it still beats paying high prices for things we don't like to eat half as much.

The list of things he has put in the soil to build is long. And each year those things must be replenished.

To a certain extent Collins uses crop rotation to rebuild the soil. Rotation is a practice used by farmers for years, and gardeners should use it too. Plant a crop in one place one year and then rotate something else there the next year.

"What one plant pulls out of the ground, another will replace that substance the next year," he said. "Sometimes letting it lay fallow with some kind of neutral crop on it is helpful too."

While there are a number of kinds of non-vegetable crops to use for a year to help the soil recover, Collins says he likes to plant buckwheat.

"I plant it, let it grow, till it under, let it grow again and then till it under before I put that section back in service," he said. "The buckwheat is excellent for that because it has hollow stems that break up and decompose easily."

When it comes to natural additives, Collins spends a lot of time thinking about what he might do. And he has a lot of things to think about. His list can include all or some of dozens of natural minerals and substances that he can purchase locally.

Those include sulfur, gypsum, fish or fish oil, calcium sulfate, hubic acid, iron sulfate, rock dust (a Utah product), composted manure, and jersey green sand, along with many others.

"Then there is seaweed," he said. "Seaweed is the best fertilizer I have ever seen."

He also adds soybean meal, alfalfa pellets, as well as bone and blood meal.

"A lot of people like to use sewage sludge, but I hate that idea," he said. "It's not only distasteful to work with, but can have a lot of heavy metals in it. I just don't use it."

The additives, which are not all applied before plantings, but often during the season, are not all there is to building good, usable soil.

"Organics are very important," said Collins. "I see my lawn as a crop, not grass clippings I have to find a way to dispose of. And leaves are great for composting and mulching into the garden."

Bert Collins says a wide row measurement is an important aspect of planting and having a successful garden. Note the hose that he connects for his drip irrigation for that particular row of plants.

In a nutshell, waste not want not.

He also believes in earthworms, those slimy, slippery long critters that make lawns bumpy and many people use for fishing.

"A good population of earth worms in the dirt, denotes good soil," he says. "They help in many different ways including in aerating the soil."

In this area water is always of concern too. But Collins, who has no secondary water system and must rely on city water to raise his garden thinks that if the soil is right and gardeners make good plans, water is not near as much of an issue as it is if they do things the wrong way.

"I use drip irrigation on my entire garden and my water bill for the garden is never over $25 a month," he stated. As for what plants to raise, Collins says he has found some over the years he likes the best, but that it is, after all, a personal preference.

"If you have reputable suppliers, pick plants that are virus resistant and treat the soil right you can grow most anything that will survive in this climate," he said.

Over the years one of the things he said he has come to enjoy the most about his gardening tradition is how nature works.

"My garden, at different times, attracts lots of bees, many different kinds of birds and even bats," he said. "It can be just spectacular watching all the wildlife come and go at my place."

Last fall the Collins' had so much produce that they gave 1000 lbs. of it to the Carbon Food Bank.

"I give alot away and sell some, but it is more about producing it and seeing it come to maturity that is thrilling," he says. "This year I think I am going to try and grow one of those 1500 lb. pumpkins you are always seeing on the news."

So if you are driving around this fall and seen a house near the hospital with a big orange orb growing in the garden, that could well be the Collins home, where the tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and garlic grow in tremendous quantities.

"This is what I do, and I couldn't enjoy it more," he concluded.

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