Jon Rowley Linking Soil and Flavor

Jon Rowley pursues the link between great soil and exquisite flavor.

Rowley's a professional food-marketing consultant who has spent his working life searching for superbly flavored fruits and vegetables, the kind that come from superb gardening. His quest inspired an intense curiosity about the natural processes that produce the plant sugars that affect the flavors, and, logically enough, from there to an investigation of what makes truly great compost.

At 59, Jon has become the dean of dirt in Seattle. He lectures widely on his technique for hot composting and for a cooler but equally effective system he calls Interbay Mulch. He and other gardeners at the Interbay P-Patch are four years into a ten-year experiment, seeking to understand the role of organic matter in producing the most abundant and highest-quality vegetables.

They run the tests on eight plots with eight different soil treatments. One of the ten-by-ten plots recieves only chemical fertilizer. It does poorly compared to the others, including one with leaf mold only, one with composted livestock manure, and a "sea bed" mixture of kelp, seaweed and crab shells.

Jon not only weighs the amount of vegetables produced. He also checks the "brix" reading-the level of dissolved plant solids in the juice as measured with a refractometer, a device commonly used in winemaking. High plant sugars mean a higher brix reading, and more distinctive flavors.

The experiment may help answer a question that he and many others have been asking for years: Why do many fruits and vegetables lack the flavor that they had in years gone by, and how can those flavors be restored? The answer seems to be in the soil, and Jon Rowley will dig happily until he comes up with it.

HOT TIMES IN THE COMPOST BIN

Here's the short version of Jon Rowley's secret recipe for quick, hot compost: half browns, half greens.

Browns include dried grass, dead leaves, wood shavings, even shredded paper. This stuff has a high ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Greens are garden leftovers, fresh grass clippings, barnyard manure, coffee grounds, or anything with a low carbon:nitrogen ratio.

Mix it all in the bin, protect it from the rain, leave some of the sides open for air. Turn it once a week to add oxygen. It gets so hot that you could probably bake a cake in there—but don't. The heat kills weed seeds and disease organizms, and turns the plant material into mealy soil in a few weeks.

For easier, cooler compost, take the same 50:50 mixture of greens and browns. Mix it directly on top of the garden bed. Add a wheelbarrow load of your own compost to inspire microorganisms. Cover with burlap. (Jon uses heavy coffee bags discarded by a Seattle coffee-roasting company.)

Check it now and then to be sure it's moist. Otherwise, ignore it 'til spring, when you'll find 2-3 inches of soil for every foot of material you started with.

Hot compost or cool, flowers and vegetables just about leap out of the beds. Best of all—they do it without a pinch of chemical fertilizer or pesticide.

Chapter 3, Audubon At Home in Seattle:Gardening for Life. Copyright 2003. National Audubon Society and the Seattle Audubon Society. Available online: www.seattleaudubon.org AND www.audubon.org/at_home

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