He has a down-to-earth recipe for gardening success

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jon Rowley is the soil man of Seattle, a gardener with a great sense of humus and a terrific green thumb.

He's also the Pied Piper of collective soil-building efforts at his neighborhood P-Patch, which is part of the nation's largest muncipally run urban gardening program, with 42 sites, 5,000 gardeners, and hundreds on the waiting list.

Last year, under Mr. Rowley's leadership, the Interbay P-Patch garden donated more than 5,000 pounds of what he calls the best organic produce in the city to local food banks.

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More recently, Interbay gardeners went into action to salvage a floral memorial that honored victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Rather than let about a million flowers placed around the Seattle Center's international fountain be discarded, Rowley and his fellow P-Patchers arranged for them to be transported to the Interbay garden site.

The flowers will be turned into compost and then returned to the Seattle Center, where the compost will be used to create a memorial garden.

Rowley loves the life-giving properties of soil. When he digs his thick hand into the rich, blackish dirt, he points to innumerable white spots in the crumbly mass. These, he says, are blind springtails, tiny insects that are part of the soil's teeming ecosystem.

They are only the visible tip of a much larger population of decomposing critters and microbes.

"In a tablespoon of this stuff, you're going to find somewhere between a billion and 2 billion organisms, and something like 15,000 species," Rowley points out. "It's incredibly dynamic. It's so complex that there's no way we can understand the interrelationships of that many types of organisms and that number."

As fascinating as this microbial world is, Rowley's prime interest in it is simply that it makes for more fertile soil and better-tasting fruits and vegetables.

Rowley is a food-industry consultant, and his interest in gardening grew partly out of a search for superior-tasting peaches. He noticed that the fruit of chemically fertilized plants never had great flavor, and that the best flavor is a factor of soil dynamism.

Interbay-mulched soil is off the charts when it comes to the number of organisms in it. "In fact," he observes, "a lab that tested it said they'd never seen so much life in a soil sample."

It wasn't always so teeming.

The garden sits on top of a former city dump, alongside a busy street. The problem is that the site was buried under a blanket of virtually sterile soil.

Consequently, when Rowley took up P-Patch gardening five years ago, little would grow on his plot. The city of Seattle, however, had started a master composting program.

Given his peach search and newfound interest in soil composition, Rowley had enlisted and now was eager to spread the composting gospel.

Rowley is so enamored with the community atmosphere at the Interbay P-Patch that he was recently married there - with three compost attendants standing by with pitchforks.

Kate McDermott, his bride, wore a peasant dress, he a farmer's shirt, and the gifts, by request, were ingredients for a wedding compost. Among them was a banana peel from chef Julia Child. Other ingredients included rose petals, buffalo dung, and an IRS refund check. A chocolate raspberry cake had to be rescued at the last minute from becoming additional fodder.

Rowley and Ms. McDermott met on an Internet compost forum. "She'd just bought a house with a lawn, but didn't want a lawn; she wanted gardens," he says.

Rowley became intrigued and paid her a visit in Port Angeles, Wash., two hours away. "One thing led to another," he says. "We mulched her lawn on Thanksgiving two years ago. She planted a garden in May, and ended up with this enchanting cottage garden where her lawn was."

Rowley credits Interbay mulch with working wonders at the community garden as well.

"It has transformed this garden, and it has transformed other gardens here in Seattle, and it's starting to spread across the country," he says. "We're getting a lot of interest because of the Internet." (The website is www. interbayppatch.org).

Mulching, of course, is nothing new to organic gardeners, yet Rowley claims the Interbay P-Patchers have come up with "some techniques that are kind of unique, that are very simple and very effective, and can give anybody a green thumb."

The basic formula calls for mixing various "green" and "brown" organic materials, spreading them onto the soil, and covering this mulch with burlap.

The idea for this strategy grew out of courses he took in soil ecology at Oregon State University. In one, the lecturer explained that 90 percent of life in soil lives in the top inch or two. Another emphasized that successful plants depend on biological activity in the soil.

The more variety in the organic materials the better, Rowley says, with garden debris - such as chopped-up tomato and squash plants - considered main building blocks.

In order to make the collective work of soil-buidling as palatable as possible, Rowley has instituted regular "compost socials," and invites celebrities to pitch in.

Each Saturday morning, Rowley and his fellow gardeners meet and turn the compost piles before sitting down to enjoy a pot of homemade soup, featuring garden-grown vegetables.

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