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Fertilizer & Compost FAQ
A number of people have written, called, and emailed asking about this “wonderful stuff” that we sell by the trailer, pick-up, or pail full here in the nursery. So, I decided to put the short story on the site.
As I understand the history, quite a few years ago, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) went through the Champion Stud Mill in Milford, Maine — just a bit north of Old Town — on an inspection tour. What they found alarmed them. Apparently, for decades, the mill had hauled a certain type of wood waste out into a field where it piled deeper. . .and deeper. . .and deeper. . . until, when the DEP found it, the material — now decomposed into dark, crumbly “compost” — covered 6.5 acres close to 40 feet deep!
You see, before raw logs can be sawn (it’s a lumber mill. . .not a paper mill) they are passed through what really amounts to a gigantic car wash where everything that the log picked up in its rough bark as it was being dragged through the woods was washed off and settles into a sort of collection pit. Periodically, it's scooped out and hauled to the field.
Well, as you have probably already guessed, that much organic material of that type collected in one spot was, according to the DEP, unacceptable. Champion was obliged to dispose of it. They opted to contract a nearby transport company to recover, grade, and market this organic material to the gardening and landscaping public.
That company, now called Northland Bark Mulch Company, Milford, Maine, imported a huge grading/screening machine, dedicated the manpower, equipment, and time, and named the material “Cycle-Gro”.
Made up of an assortment of forest-floor residues like leaves, twigs, grass, some topsoil, even a bit of wild animal waste and chainsaw chips, an occasional pebble, even the occasional nut, bolt, or piece of broken chainsaw file. I’ve personally found several very old, hand-rolled-and-fired children’s clay marbles! And small chunks of red jasper show up occasionally. Very rarely, you may find a weed seedling or two. . .but, generally, Cycle-Gro is considered weed-free.
The State Soil Testing Lab checked out Cycle-Gro. . .and found that it contains zero nitrogen, and negligible amounts of phosphorus and potash, but virtually all of the minor nutrients plants need to be healthy and productive. It’s pH runs in the range of 6.3 to 6.5 (slightly to moderately acidic). . .and with the addition of some lime and fertilizer, is very nearly perfect for most of the plants the average gardener grows. There is no ground garbage; no trash ash; and virtually no hazardous or unhealthful contaminants.
We find that adding about 5 or 6 pounds of ground limestone and about 5 pounds of balanced granular fertilizer to every yard is just about right for optimum growth and plant health. You could use wood ash instead of lime (at about twice the amount by weight) and 5 or 6 pounds of any combination of certified organic fertilizer that suits you (equal parts of bloodmeal, bonemeal, and greensand or rock phosphate, for example).
We have it hauled to us in 45-yard loads (that’s about 89,000 pounds). Very nearly all of our perennial and propagating beds are made up of approximately 50% Cycle-Grow mixed thoroughly with the existing soil. . .to a depth of about 10 or 12 inches. Several of the high-production propagating beds consist of 100% Cycle-Gro. Using the material straight requires close monitoring of moisture, pH, and nutrition. . .not to mention tree-root pruning. . . woodland trees seem to love the stuff!
Cycle-Gro also made up approximately half of our potting mix while we operated the nursery and, as such, contained enough nutrition to sustain growth and health for approximately one season. That’s why we recommend the addition of lime and fertilizer (cultivated in. . .not simply sprinkled on the surface) every Spring and again on or about the first week in July in our Northern New England Zone 4b to 5a gardens.
Cycle-Gro is marketed in several grades. I’ve tried both ¼” and ½” screened, and prefer the coarser of the two. The ¼” is so fine and “dusty” that, if it ever dries out completely, it is very nearly impossible to re-wet. Worse than dry peatmoss in that respect.
We retail Cycle-Gro for $22 per yard. Unfortunately, we have no way of loading it for you, so it’s the “old Chinese method"—one shovelful at a time. . . our shovel, your back! Sorry!
Most pickup trucks can carry one yard. . .but that can vary depending on bed size, suspension and, very importantly, air pressure and condition of the tires. It’s best to plan your trip for a load of Cycle-Gro for a time when it has not rained for at least 3 or 4 days. Rain makes it much heavier.
Several of our customers routinely carry several containers in their car trunks, and stop in to fill them up whenever they pass by. Certainly makes sense to me. We’ve learned that there are 33 five-gallon pails (full and packed tight) in a yard, which figures out to $.70 per pailful or equivalent—your pails, sacks, buckets, trash cans, wash tubs. . .whatever. Plastic trash bags—even so-called "tough" ones—won't cut it! Be aware that Cycle-Gro is very heavy. . .nearly a ton per yard. That makes anything larger than a pail quite a heavy load. (We often step in to assist someone with an obvious handicap. . .but for the healthy and young among us. . .you’re pretty much on your own.
And, yes, you can purchase Cycle-Gro direct from the source. The price last mid-summer (2007) for the ½” screened was $4.50 per yard. While they’d like to deliver a full 45-yard load, they’ll bring you any size you want in their enormous 18- or 22-wheel semi truck. . . at the mileage rate of $2.50 per one-way mile, plus a small additional surcharge because of the high truck fuel costs these days. (September 2007 Update: With gasoline and diesel prices skyrocketing to an unconscionable and outrageous—if not totally shameful—heights, those surcharges will no doubt follow suit...so check before you order a truckload!)
Do your math before you decide. Also consider where you’re going to put it all, and how difficult it might be for the driver to back his long, 100,000-pound rig around tight corners or over soft soil or lawn.
For a pickup or trailer load, or anything smaller, we’re your source...any time the pile is not frozen. Just give us a call to set up a time convenient to both of us. Remember to bring your own containers. We have plenty of shovels. 207/993-2246, Palermo, Maine
For a big load that’ll save you some cash, call Northland Bark Mulch Co., Milford, Maine, 207/827-4837. . .you may need to combine a bit of patience with respectful persistence. . .It’s a busy operation.
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