Hillside owner tackles clay with compost

Posted: Sunday, June 03, 2001

Take a tour of Marion Simpson's hillside garden on Fritz Cove Road, and she is likely to talk more about her soil than her plants.

The waves of hostas, delphinium, peonies and other perennials that flourish in the slope's black loam belie the garden's dubious beginnings. When Simpson and her husband, Bob, moved to the waterfront lot in the early 1970s, the property was an inhospitable slope of clay muck.

"You'd buy a plant and stick it in the soil and it would more than likely die," Simpson said.

But 10 years ago the couple got serious about dirt, and today Simpson spends almost as much time improving the soil as she does tending the plants. The star in her garden is a large plywood bin where organic materials break down into crumbly black compost - a garden ambrosia, called "black gold" by some, that adds nutrients and texture to the soil.

Nearly everything but the cat is tossed into the bin: chopped kitchen scraps, crushed shells gathered from island beaches, seaweed, grass clippings and most plant debris. The Simpsons do not toss weeds into the composter for fear the seeds will sprout in the garden.

The couple also mixes in brewery mash -- crushed, wet grain from the Alaskan Brewing Co., which donates the beer byproduct to gardeners who collect it at the community garden. The mash is high in nitrogen, so it helps break down the compost material, she said. Bob Simpson mixes the pile with a small rototiller, then turns it periodically. Within three months, the compost is ready for the garden.

"Every time I plant a plant, I have a shovel of compost," said Simpson, who also has two smaller compost bins. "I can even garden under Sitka spruce, which are considered very hard to garden under because they take so much from the soil."

The soil doctoring doesn't end there. Simpson also makes garden "tea" by soaking seaweed in a bucket of water for a day until it makes a "slimy mess," she said. Then she pours about four cups of the liquid plus fresh water into a watering can and sprinkles it on transplants. Seaweed is a balanced fertilizer with a growth hormone that helps plants, she said.

"I've used it on my lettuce when I planted it and on my beets and carrots. I got a new climbing clematis, and when I plant that I'll water it with the seaweed tea because of the growth hormone," said Simpson, who uses a similar technique to make compost tea.

She also keeps a garbage can full of bonemeal, rock phosphate and green sand, which she puts around her 12 peonies and other plants every year. Simpson, an organic gardener who steers clear of chemicals, likes the mixture because it's all natural.

"It's not going to burn like a strong chemical would," she said.

Simpson said she tamed her slope by terracing it into "rooms," using wooden shingles to hold the earth at bay. Today primroses, delphinium and wild geraniums spill from the beds, while carrots, beets, broccoli, zucchini and nine types of lettuce grow in raised boxes.

Although the couple's yard has drawn raves from fellow gardeners and even caught the attention of celebrity Martha Stewart, who considered profiling the garden last year on her television show, Simpson is humble about her surroundings.

"I guess you'd call it landscaping," she said. "But I'm not sure I would think of our yard as landscaped."

Kathy Dye may be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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