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In the garden: Happy tomatos but weird mold

It's not as bad as it sounds, I hope:

As you can see, those are happy tomatoes; nice thick hairy stems, no blight on the leaves, flowers coming. What's even more interesting is that I planted them in a shady patch; they only get late afternoon sun. I had some volunteers there last year, one of which grew right out of a rose bush (!), so I thought I'd make the spot an official patch this year, especially as I'm rotating everything.

Now, about that mold: It's growing on top of some sea-food mulch I got from a vendor who's been very reliable in past years. Last year, he didn't have any, and explained that his supplier had been shut down by the Feds; he'd been getting the makings from coastal restaurants. This year, the mulch is back again, but I'm wondering if it's from a different vendor, specially, evil Casella, the landfill owner. I'm wondering that because this year's mulch smells different from the last mulch: The odor is really lingering, and somehow a little chemical. It's really strong stuff that gave my cucurbits transplant shock, again unlike this last batch. And now this mold.

Then again, last night it rained heavily, so I suppose the mold could have come from the straw, through the newspaper, and then found a happy home in the mulch. Readers, do you think I need to worry about this?

Oh, hugelculture!

Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany, hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource.

Often employed in permaculture systems, hugelkultur allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making this moisture available to nearby plants.

I have plenty of woodscraps, because I've heated with wood, and so I thought I'd experiment with hugelculture. I piled the scraps up last fall, then added some sand and stone dust this year, and planted the tomatoes in it. As you can see, they like it, so I might do that some more. Maybe a better way than the seafood mulch, if it turns out I should stop using the stuff.

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Jay's picture
Submitted by Jay on

Interesting about the hugelkultur. I've started growing in a plot at the organic community garden this year: three raised rows of lettuce, leeks, beets, okra, and eggplant. I had some chopped-up 2x4's that were intended for the Chimenea, but used them instead to create a couple of corduroy roads between the rows. The raised rows tended to dry out quickly, so I covered everything with last year's leaves and that's kept the moisture in. But it seems like when the lettuce roots grew deep enough to get close to the corduroy planks (where rainwater collects and is presumably stored), the plants exploded with an extravagant profusion I've never seen before, like bigger-than-your-head big. We've been eating salads twice a day, every day for a month now and have been giving it away. Hopefully the other plants will follow suit as they grow bigger.

Jay's picture
Submitted by Jay on

Sorry, not an expert. I see weird fungi all over the place. There must be hundreds of thousands of species worldwide. Although some must be beneficial and others less so, I just assume they're toxic and leave them alone. The instructor at the compost class I attended said that ingredients including meat, dairy, oil, human and pet feces promoted byproducts that are toxic, whereas compost from vegetation was much less so. May or may not have something to do with the lobster ingredients. But tomatoes should like that since it contains calcium. What are you going to do? Spoon it up and remove it? Probably release more spores if you do. The only thing for it is experience. Maybe someone at a University agricultural extension could give more info. At ours, in CT, you can get your soil tested.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

Are you sure your professor said that the result of composting meat, dairy and oils were toxic? One usually does not compost such things in the normal manner because they are made of more complex compounds which require an additional series of decompositional methods, some of which can be fairly unpleasant if improperly done, but not toxic.

The deal with feces, however, is all about disease transmission. If there are no pregnant ladies about, for example, used kitty litters made with sawdust or paper are perfect mulches for acid loving ornamental shrubs. A former neighbor, a cat lady of long standing, used the clay kind and ended up with a monument to her hobby which has easily outlived her that we all lovingly call "catshit mountain"; hard as rocks!; not really a good idea....but, again, not toxic.

Submitted by lambert on

... because the mycelial mat is my closest idea of a supreme being!

That said, the tomatoes seem happy, so maybe I can just put this down to decomposition, which is what should be happening, after all!

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

Most molds aren't bad, but it might be an idea to put something down over it to prevent soil splash onto your tomato leaves and delay (?) early blight. Also, too, you might consider putting in a tin foil collar to prevent slug damage, etc, at the base of the tomato stem. Hugel culture is a great growing system, but it does tend to create conditions in which a lot of different types of critters thrive at your expense if one is not careful.

Submitted by lambert on

So far, I've been lucky in both snails and slugs, though last year was very bad. I've used Sluggo with success, but it has to be resprinkled after rain.

Is there any issue with heat and reflection? (And I suppose the downside is that I'd have to collect it, and that's work; it won't rot.)

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

Well, it really doesn't take much to make a little collar, no problem there, and it will come up with the plant when you rip it out to throw on your compost heap. Collection should not be difficult at the end of the season.

Please be VERY careful with slug repellents. Most of them are made from diatomaceous earth (that is why you have to reapply after it rains) and can cause severe respiratory problems for those who have the misfortune to inhale them; not really worth it. Alternatives are a thin two inch ring of 10-10-10 around the plant (slugs hate salt!) and little bowls of beer snuggled down into the soil near the plants (slugs love beer!). Try those and see how they work out for you.

That is really one of the only downsides to hugel culture, that it makes for a perfect environment for critters that like the dark and the damp.

Submitted by lambert on

Damp little creature living in the vast Germanic forest.

Of course, you're right on the workflow, and I'm not so lazy that I let my plants rot.

So, when my hat has soaked up too many mind control rays, I can recycle it into the garden and catch slugs! Or vice versa, I suppose!

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

About plain Sluggo -- not the kind with other stuff in it to deal with other pests besides slugs and snails -- it does not have diatomaceous earth. It has 1% iron phosphate, which birds and mammals can eat as an iron supplement if they want, EDTA as a chelating agent to increase absorption, and wheat to act as the bait. Because iron phosphate poisons mollusc, and only mollusc, digestive tracts, it kills snails and slugs. The EDTA is there to make it more effectively lethal for molluscs. It is also, as far as I know, harmless to mammals.

Furthermore, Sluggo works and the critters can't develop a tolerance to it without inventing a new digestive tract. Which they may eventually do, but not so far.

(Just for the record, no, I don't own stock in Sluggo. I've just used it for years.)

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

What is this "seafood mulch" of which you speak? If it has not been previously composted, it probably will have a pretty strong odor. Sounds like something best buried in trenches...trench composting is a really easy way to build soil with things that could otherwise attract wildlife....

You don't want to end up with bears.

Submitted by lambert on

... but I'm wondering if it's been properly composted. For example, there are balls of the stuff that don't have the same consistency as the rest of it. This theory would be consistent with the idea that I got suckered into buying a Casella product when I thought I was buying something local.

nippersdad's picture
Submitted by nippersdad on

Some things can smell noxious but still have been properly composted, what will tell the tale will be if/when the first line decompositors show up.

Keep an eye out for scavengers or flies.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

The mold? It's not a close enough photo to tell at all, really, but just a wild guess: try looking up slime mold and see if it matches what you can see closer up. There are some pathogens in the group, but mostly they're beneficial decomposers. (They're also fascinating biologically because the individual cells stream together to form the spore-bearing structure, which requires the sort of cell-to-cell-communication you get during development of multicellular organisms. So that's a possible evolutionary route for the development of complex multicellular organisms.)