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The Earthworm’s Lair


This is Owen’s blog. It’s a mix of serious articles on matters relating to sustainable landscaping and a look into Owen’s irreverent side. Why “The Earthworm’s Lair?” The earthworm works beneath the surface of the soil to convert minerals and other elements into a form that is usable to plants. It then delivers this material, in the form of “castings,” to the rootzone where it can be absorbed by roots. Here are the castings, hopefully nourishing, of Owen’s subterranean peregrinations. Enjoy!

Wonderful, Rotten Compost: An Introduction


Compost is nothing more than plant parts broken down by microorganisms into stuff that looks like soil. It’s the most natural, and the most common, recycling program on earth and it’s happening in your yard right now whether you do anything about it or not. In fact, here’s a case where benign neglect is half the battle. By allowing leaves to remain where they fall, you mimic nature’s own composting system whereby the leaves (called “duff” in a natural system) decay in place and the nutrients are returned directly to the plant in a perfect, elegant little loop. Nature doesn’t need you for this. Go back to your hammock.


Compare this with the really dumb conventional practice of raking everything up on Saturday morning, putting it in trash bags and sending it to the landfill. You’ve gotta ask, “Why are people doing this?” The truth is, they don’t know. Their fathers did it and their fathers’ fathers and so on, and without questioning they, too, take rake in hand as dutiful suburban homeowners and repeat this folly of middle-class wastefulness. See, that stuff is a resource, not a waste material. Where are you taking it?? It’s organic fertilizer waiting to go to work! When you throw it away and then have to bring in, at considerable expense, inferior nutrients in the form of chemical fertilizers, you’ve created several problems at once — the waste of a resource, the effort of removing it, the cost of disposing of it, the impact on landfills, the expense and effort of buying and applying fertilizer, the damage done to plants and soils by the harsh, salt-laden elements in the fertilizer and the loss of natural mulch on the soil surface. You’ve gone to a lot of work to make things worse.


So perhaps you could write this down and tape it to the wall in your toolshed, or maybe have it engraved into the handle of your leaf rake:




(Why do you think they CALL them leaves??)

That way, when guilt finally drives you out into the yard, the last thing you’ll be tempted to do is destroy the automatic composting system that’s under your shrubbery.



FIRE: Many people live in areas where wildfire is a concern. Naturally, the more dry stuff you have laying around when a fire comes, the greater risk that your house will burn down. Even if that doesn’t happen, the leaf litter will burn up under the plants and kill them by toasting off the bark; not a happy scenario. If you’re at a high risk for fire, keep leaf litter down to a minimum. Rake it up and use it to feed your compost pile, which is described below.

DISEASE: Certain diseases are made worse by allowing litter to collect under plants. For instance, Camellia petal blight is commoner when the fallen flower parts are allowed to remain on the ground. Some fruit tree and rose diseases are also spread this way. If you have susceptible plants, first ask yourself why, and remove them if you can’t come up with a good answer. If you decide they should stay, resign yourself to the constant chore of cleaning up after them.

VERMIN: People talk about how rats and other filthy creatures live in mulch, but I have never seen any evidence that this is actually true. I think it’s another urban myth that’s been passed along from generation to generation like the alligators in the sewers. The only critters I know of that like natural duff are beneficial ones — earthworms, soil bacteria, sowbugs and other members of the Leaf Reincarnation System.



What most people think of when they hear the word “compost” is a pile or bin of steaming yard waste out behind the garage. It conjures up images of long days spent turning it over and over with a rusty, hand-blistering pitchfork, watering it with gallons of sweat, being chased by clouds of irate fruit-flies and ending up with a puny pile of brown dirt that looks no different than something you could have swept up off the driveway.


WHY COMPOST? Compost seems like an act of penance, a virtuous undertaking whose reward may only come in another life. Compost seems like a sacred practice of the lost tribes, something “real” gardeners do, in private and for mysterious reasons only they understand and are sworn on penalty of death never to tell the rest of us. So why would the average gardener ever want to compost?


IT’S NEEDED ELSEWHERE. Sometimes the valuable nutrients and microorganisms that are tied up in compost are needed elsewhere in the yard: a newly-planted flowerbed for instance, or the veggie garden. Even lawns benefit from compost. In fact, by manufacturing and spreading compost in your yard, you greatly reduce the need for fertilizing, and your plants will respond miraculously to being composted. I have seen many plants come back from the nearly-dead within a few weeks after an application of compost over the root zone and a couple of good waterings. You know what those “real” gardeners say? They say, “You can never have too much compost.” They say this with great feeling and a sense of wistfulness because no gardener has ever even had enough compost. Like sex and money, we imagine that others are getting more than we are.


THE GREENWASTE LOOP. Even in the best-planned yard, there comes a time when there’s just too much foliage of one kind or another to leave laying around. When the hedges get trimmed, when the leaves drop in the fall, when the lawn gets mowed — all these events and more produce sudden pulses of biomass into the system. Since these cannot be ignored, and since it’s no longer acceptable to send them to the landfill, the compost pile serves a basic need. Composting keeps green material (too bad it’s been given the unfortunate name “greenwaste”) within the system of your yard by breaking it down into a usable form.


Composting will help you be a lazier gardener because it solves so many problems at once. Instead of hauling waste out and fertilizer in, you make and spread compost. Instead of nursing sickly plants that are suffering from a lack of decent nutrients, you enjoy the beauty of healthy plants that are more resistant to pests and diseases.


how hard is this going to be?

“OK, I’m convinced. I’ll compost, I’ll compost already!” you say, “But how hard is this going to be? I don’t know if I can do this.” Relax. Composting is a lot easier than you think. Imagine something that you make in less than an hour, then mostly ignore for a few weeks, then spend less than an hour with to harvest the end product. Isn’t that easier than what you’re doing now?


Perhaps you’ve read complex “recipes” for compost, involving exact percentages of different materials, compost starter inoculants, special herbs gathered by tribal virgins, ram’s horns passed over the pile by the light of the full moon, dust of alabaster, eye of newt and all that. Well, I’ve read those recipes, too, and met the wild-eyed zealots who advocate their use. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Personally, I would advise you to forget them. Stuff rots. If you follow a few basic principles, the stuff rots somewhat faster. That’s it. OK? Let’s do it, then…




50% green stuff (lawn clippings, fresh leaves, etc.)

50% brown stuff (wood chips, branches, decrepit lawn furniture)

0% animal products (meat, fat, chili con carne, fish heads, dear departed Aunt Millie)


shredder-grinder or chipper (optional)

compost enclosure or manufactured composter (optional)



1. CHOP IT UP. Make stuff smaller by shredding or chipping. Shredding is what you do with leaves; you use a shredder-grinder. Chipping is what you do with branches; you use a chipper and then visit the chiropractor the next day to have him stop your entire upper body from twitching uncontrollably. Your goal is to beat the material up as much as you can and make it as small as you can. This increases the surface area to make it more accessible to the microbes that are going to do the real work. In my own garden, I chop everything up into tiny pieces with my pruning shears. This is less work than it sounds like; I just stand there snipping away until it’s a trash can full of little pieces of my yard. It’s more peaceful than using a noisy machine and the pruning shears are cheaper and easier to maintain than the machine and they don’t burn gasoline and pollute the air like the machine. Plus I have an awesome right wrist. Want to arm-wrestle?


2. PICK A SPOT. Find a place that’s out of the way, since compost piles aren’t usually all that good-looking. If you do have any friends who are real gardeners, they will admire your compost pile (you might want to invite them over now and then just so this will happen). Others will ignore it or look alarmed as they pass by, as if you had just audibly broken wind. If you choose a shady location, then the pile won’t dry out as quickly and you’ll be able to work in the shade when the time comes to harvest the material. You can even compost over an area where you’re planning to plant a garden; you’ll have a head start on fertility that way because nutrients from the compost will leach out into the soil below.


3. PILE IT UP. You don’t need a fancy compost tumbler or bin. Do that if you want to. A pile is fine. Now, one thing that’s going to happen as soon as you make the pile is heat. The pile will heat up and you want that to happen. Heating is the first stage of the process, and starting temperatures inside the pile should reach around 140-150 degrees in order to kill as many weed seeds and pathogens as possible. If your pile is too small, it won’t heat properly. If it’s too big, it may overheat. The ideal size is 3 x 3 feet up to 5 feet tall by 8 feet long and wide.


Mix about half green material and half brown material. You can add a bit of soil, or manure or organic nitrogen fertilizer to speed the process up a bit. Don’t bother with the compost inoculants (also called “starters”) that are sold in nurseries and catalogs; all the bacteria you need for compost are already in your raw materials. Some people layer their materials, others mix them together. Be careful not to allow layers of grass clippings to form, as they’ll rot and smell really unforgettably bad, rather than quietly composting as you want them to. Also, don’t include weeds that have gone to seed, because many seeds remain viable despite the heat of the process, and so you’ll just spread them back into the yard later. Kitchen scraps are fine, but no meat, OK? No meat, no fat. Compost piles are vegetarians. Animals will eat the meat long before it ever has a chance to break down.


By the way, if your pile is open to the outside world, and if you don’t turn it regularly, mice and rats will come to live in it. This is not so good. So either make sure your bin is completely enclosed or turn your pile every few days. Keep in mind that mice and rats can get through even very teeny openings. I’ve been told that a rat can dislocate the major bones in its body, kind of like taking a snap-together model plastic skeleton apart, push them through a half-inch diameter hole one-by-one, and easily enter the forbidden lair of, in this case, your composting operation. Kind of gives me the creeps. My otherwise impenetrable recycled plastic bins are open at the bottom; I wrapped the bottoms with aviary wire, which is like chicken wire but with ½ inch diameter holes that the critters can’t pass through. I’ve had no intruders since then.


When your pile’s made, water it down real well to get things going. Covering it with a tarp helps hold the heat and moisture in.


Now go away and let the pile do your work for you.


4. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? The pile will begin to heat right away. Maybe steam will come off it for a couple of days. Keep it moist during this stage, and maybe turn it once or twice. Have fun pushing your hand inside (you can’t resist) to marvel at the amount of heat generated. (Be careful, though. It can be hot enough in the center to really burn you.)


After a while, the pile will cool down and you’ll notice how much smaller it has gotten. That’s the signal that the intense period is over and a long process of breakdown and curing has begun. If you turn the pile often, you could have ready compost in as little as a month. But what’s the rush? Lazy yards should have lazy compost. Turn it now and then if you think of it, and definitely keep it moist. Pull back the outer layer once in a while to see how the center’s doing. After a few months, you’ll find a big heap of delicious brown material inside, ready to be harvested.

5. GATHERING THE COMPOST. Perfectionists sift the finished compost before using it. It’s not a bad idea, especially if you’re incorporating it into the soil. There are always chunks of undecomposed material in the mix and they can be awkward to work with. But it’s perfectly OK to simply shovel the compost up and haul it away to be used. If you do sift, use an old nursery flat, the kind they sell ground covers in, as a sifter. It’s free.



Incorporating compost into flowerbeds and vegetable gardens will make a huge difference in the growth, vigor and productivity of the plants. You don’t need much; a half-inch layer dug into the top 6 inches of soil will do. Too much can actually stifle plant growth.


Spread compost in beds, under shrubs and trees, and even over the lawn. Water it in and stand back. Compost supplies everything your plants need and can be used in place of fertilizers. In some cases you may have special problems that need the addition of trace elements or other special treatment, but the compost will handle most of your plant nutrition.



You can also enlist worms to do your dirty work. A worm compost bin can be a simple box or a ready-made multi-tiered annelid apartment complex. Either way, the idea is that specially trained red worms gobble up your kitchen scraps and garden clippings, and quickly turn them into ultra-rich worm compost that’s laden with good things your garden needs. In fact, worm compost is even better for your garden than plain vanilla compost. If you want to learn more about worm composting, visit or see a pretty cool video at


Composting is easy and it’s an essential part of closing the nutrient loop. A sustainable garden isn’t complete without some kind of composting system. Have fun with yours.

Coming up for a look


Hello gardening friends,

It has been close to a year since I completed the manuscript for my latest book, Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Writing a book is a huge commitment and it takes a lot out of a person. For several months after the book was finally finished, I didn’t want to write anymore than I wanted to eat a bag of triple sixteen on toast. But time has passed and I’m once again in the grip of the urge to share observations about the fun and follies and great potential of gardening and landscaping. 

This fine summer afternoon sitting under my apricot tree with my laptop on my lap and my two cats by my side, I reached a threshold, not really expecting to, and here I am more or less impulsively stepping into the world of blogging. It’s not a completely impetuous act because, truth be told, I’ve been reading about blogging for a while and thinking it would be a good soapbox and, not incidentally, a savvy modern way to promote my books and my landscaping business. Yes, cyberspace is crass that way and I’m not about to be coy about it. I would love to reach out to all of you with garden wisdom, humor, pathos, and insights. And I’d love it even more if my doing so were to inspire you to buy one or more of my books, to contact me about a design project or garden coaching, or to ask about our new sustainable landscape analysis service (I’ll talk more about that in future blogs). But if you learn something here that will help you to have a better, easier, cheaper, prettier, environmentally friendlier garden then I shall be happy, with or without the other rewards.

I haven’t been so impulsive as to ignore the question of what this blog will be about. I’ll be writing about the insights I’ve accumulated over nearly 40 years of working as a professional gardener, landscape contractor, and landscape architect, as well as the experience I’ve gained as an educator, a writer, and a television personality. The arc of my career has been broad and high. I continue to enjoy (and sometimes be alarmed by) wild leaps of understanding of what landscaping and gardening are all about. Many is the morning when I awake with yet another BIG IDEA and an unsettling feeling that I’ve just been propelled into yet another ring of the seemingly endless universe known as horticulture. 

It started with a love for wild places and the idea that if our gardens worked more like nature does they’d be a lot more attractive and we’d be a lot less burdened by them. Acting on that insight I started my little landscaping and gardening business in 1971. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that. Droughts, wildfires, floods, pest invasions, changes in society’s beliefs about land and our relationship to it, and many more factors soon became driving forces that made me take a fresh look, over and over again, at what landscaping is and what it could become. The original dream I dreamed so many years ago has grown larger, deeper, more compelling. I don’t expect this to stop any time soon, nor would I want it to. The fact is, we who live in the world of horticulture and related fields can never fully know the import of our work. We can only continue to seek out deeper levels of understanding and to incorporate new wisdom — ours, that of others, and the inherent wisdom of nature itself — into our activities. Beneath it all, for me, runs the abiding belief that what we do matters, that working with land and natural forces is important. We may not always be skillful, we may not always be right. We are always learning and being humbled by what is larger and wiser than us. Yet, we who love land hold the key, I believe, to a better life for all.

So my aim is to share some of those deeper levels of horticulture with you in this blog. I call it The Earthworm’s Lair because it is the earthworm who goes deep into the soil, transforms its rich elements into a usable form, and delivers the results to the surface where they can be made use of by the ecosystem. So consider me your personal earthworm and enjoy my castings as you see fit.

Sometimes the postings here will be funny (I can’t and won’t be serious all the time), and sometimes they’ll be sober. I shall make passes at profundity when I can summon up the chutzpah to do so. I hope to entertain as well as educate, and to touch something in you that matters more than the technical details. 

I will, of course, be delighted to hear your thoughts and comments. Please let me know what you think, what you know, what you’ve learned. Think of this blog as a sunny patio where we can sit a spell and chat. Make yourself comfortable and tell us what’s on your mind.

I’ll start with a overview. It’s an introduction to a book that I wrote a few years ago. That book never quite came about, and the introduction has moldered away in my files for long enough. It still looks pretty righteous to me, perhaps a bit overly serious but I get that way at times and am just as unapologetic about it as I am about being goofy and silly at other times. I promise to make my next post as fun as this one is sober. For now, consider this a window into what gardens might become if we follow our deepest and best visions.

So, with a deep breath I shall release this into cyberspace and see what happens next. Enjoy.

Owen Dell

p.s.  Please visit my website for more information on sustainable landscaping and to order my books. Thanks!

p.p.s. If this was too serious for you, then check out the rock video I did with the co-host of my television show Garden Wise Guys, the inimitable Billy Goodnick.


OK, Here’s the intro…

…the reason

for some silly-looking fishes,

for the bizarre mating

of certain adult insects,

or the sprouting, say,

in a snow tire

of a Rocky Mountain grass,

is that the universal

loves the particular,

that freedom loves to live

and live fleshed full,


and in detail.


From “Feast Days”

By Annie Dillard


I often wonder what is to become of mankind. We are kind and cruel, sensitive and clueless, creative and destructive, a study in contradictions if ever there was one. Today we teeter on the precipice of environmental collapse and yet few seem able to do anything about it. We flirt with another form of disaster in the endless wars we fight with one another, and we have enjoyed just a handful of years without war in all of human history. Despite the unique imperatives of our moment in time, we go on as if nothing much had changed since the beginnings of civilization, and we seem quite prepared to sleepwalk to our own doom. It’s not a pretty picture. Yet there are so many solutions at hand, and so much good work to be done that I believe if only humanity would turn to the task, things would start to get better fast. I’m a gardener, which means I’m an optimist. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “I’ve made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk to my gardener I’m convinced of the opposite.”

What is the role of gardening in such a crazy world? Is there any possible justification in making or enjoying a garden, or in writing or reading about gardens? Despite the fact that I know the happy answer to that question, I have many times despaired over what seemed to be the indefensible nature of my professional life. I don’t know why I have at times allowed myself to wallow in this self-doubt. Perhaps it has been my conscience’s way of keeping me honest by forcing me to question, over and over again, the legitimacy of my life’s work.

After much soul-searching, this is how I see it: Your garden and mine are our personal chunks of nature. They are no longer pure nature, yet they are still part of the natural world. Denuded of their endemic inhabitants, rain still falls on them, photosynthesis proceeds in the leaves of exotic species of plants, odd foreign animals gambol about. The garden is at once our shame, our legacy, our pleasure pit, our little protectorate.

For the most part, gardens are made and maintained very badly. The reasons for changing that are many. In the context of global crisis one obvious and primary one is the restoration of some degree of order, sustainability and ecological sanity on a yard-by-yard basis. If that were all we could do, it would be enough.

But a garden is also a refuge, a sanatorium for weary spirits, a bit of personal agriculture, a place of joy and a thing of beauty. Those are all important too, for without healthy bodies and spirits we have nothing. When the world outside looks grim, we can always turn to the garden for nourishment, peace, and safety.

The garden, then, can be the place where we practice personal and planetary healing. As Annie Dillard says, the universal loves the particular. Use the information in this blog to delve into the particulars of gardening and of your garden, and to bring the full-fleshed richness of life to it and to you. It’s a difficult and joyous task. Begin.