Arts and Entertainment

Gardeners love the "f" word

It's true that there are certain words in the English vocabulary that evoke a very predictable response. In the case of gardeners, it's the "F" word. Now don't panic. This is not going to be an "R" rated column and I have no intention of using the queen mother of cuss words throughout this text. But there is a four-letter word that starts with "F" that sends gardeners into a whirling fit of ecstasy. That word of course is FREE.

We love free stuff. We will go to the ends of the earth to get free compost, free plants, free bricks, or free anything that we think might be able to be used in our gardens. And we will spend hours of back breaking labor, gallons of gasoline, and even buy new tools and equipment to obtain and transport this free stuff to our gardens. Let me give you an example.

Back in the early 70's in my earth muffin days I lived on an Army base back in Virginia. (I actually played the trumpet in the Army for three years but that's another story.) I was very much into the organic gardening movement and after a little research discovered that they had an old tertiary treatment plant where the sewage sludge was pumped out into filter beds and allowed to dry. Oh boy, free natural fertilizer. After jumping through the appropriate hoops, I was given permission to "harvest" as much sludge as I liked, so I borrowed a trailer and gleefully drove up to the beds. The sludge had apparently been drying for several years and it was like trying to remove over cooked brownies from the bottom of a 9 x 15 pan. The sludge would have put a well-aged meadow-muffin to shame. But I managed to get the trailer full (or should I say overfull) and before I made it back home I had blown a tire and bent the axle. I'm sure you can figure out the rest of the story. The free poop wasn't so free after all but that didn't prevent me from future acts of stupidity.

Several years later when we had moved to California and I was still an avid organic gardener I found myself in need of some organic materials to amend some horrible clay soil. There was a horse stable down the road that offered FREE MANURE. Actually, it was rice hulls that been used for bedding in the stalls and it was saturated with urine and poop. Hot and stinky. I was much wiser now and knew better then to borrow a trailer so I drove on down to the stable with my 1966 VW Microbus with the seats removed, rolled back the canvas sunroof and told the tractor operator to "fill her up". By the time I got home I could hardly breathe and my eyes were watering so badly I could barely see the road. Six months later and 5 gallons of Lysol, the VW still smelled like horse puckey. I finally had to sell the car since no one would ride in it anymore.

Free wood is another cause for twitterpation amongst gardeners. Again, back in my gardening youth when I didn't know the difference between maples or poplars I was offered a huge pile of free cottonwood. Not knowing any better, I started sawing it up and bringing it home to split. Now splitting cottonwood is sort of like trying to split a giant sponge. You can bury several iron wedges into a block of cottonwood with little or no effect on the log. Furthermore, cottonwood has the uncanny ability to start growing again instead of drying out like any other self-respecting piece of wood. You can stack a pile of cottonwood in the spring and it will turn into a hedge by fall. And if by some act of God it does get dry enough to burn it will miraculously produce a pile of ash that exceeds the original mass of the log. But it was free and I got to buy some cool tools in the process so it wasn't a total loss. The ashes went into the garden and what wood didn't dry out turned into compost soon there after.

Gardeners will forever be lured by the "F" word. We are a gullible lot. So in parting I offer you this free advice. If you get free poop from a military base put it on your vegetable garden. The plants will stay in straight rows and always be in formation. If on the other hand you receive poop from a reformatory, use it in the flower beds where a little unruly behavior won't create an insurrection.

Steve Smith is owner of

Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, a retail garden center that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. You can reach Steve at 425-334-2002 or online at

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