Soil Amendments: the Robb and Lisa Way


Given access to the smallest scrap of earth, I'll start a garden. And once gardening commences, composting is not far behind.

In Baltimore our constantly-fighting, tree-hating, next-door-neighbors detested our compost bin, because they were convinced it was the source of every rat in the entire city. Personally, I think they should have directed some of their negative energy to our upstairs neighbor who regularly threw his kitchen scraps out his third-storey window. He was a toothless, ex-cop, cross-dressing gazork, and perhaps the next-door-neighbors found him a tad unapproachable. Who knows, in a city like Baltimore?

At the farmhouse outside of Cooperstown, I started the compost pile that earned the affectionate nickname "the raccoon's snack bar." Once I got access to the tiny plot in West Oakland, I was carrying compost buckets into work each morning.

Yeah, I'm pretty much of a compost wacko.

From the moment we took possession of our little cottage, we've been composting.

However, not all food waste goes into the compost pile. Eggshells and coffee "pucks" (we make lattes at our house) go directly onto the garden.

Our garden in East Oakland has a serious slug problem. They'll completely destroy a young plant overnight. If you research non-chemical methods of slug-deterrence, you'll read about setting out saucers of left-over beer, and about sprinkling ground eggshells on the soil. I'm not sure where other people get this stuff, but we never have extra beer around our house.

Eggshells, on the other hand are easy. We stick the empty shells in the oven, because dried out shells are so much easier to grind up than fresh. Our vintage oven has a perpetually-lit pilot light, so eggs dry out quickly. Somehow, while we've become very methodical about sticking eggshells in the oven, we've utterly failed to develop the habit of taking them out before we preheat the oven. When Ellen was visiting, we actually managed to set eggshells on fire. How we didn't notice the horrible sulfur smell that led up to combustion is still a bit of a mystery.

When we're not trying to set the house on fire, we're shooting moody photos of slightly burnt eggshells. A short depth of field is always arty.

We spread eggshells over the most slug-infested areas of the garden, and the slugs apparently eat the shells with relish. Toasted eggshell must be a most delicious delicacy, because the shells completely de-materialize almost overnight. It's mystifying.

When the coffee "pucks" fill up our adorably mis-labeled canister, I'll sprinkle the coffee over our garden. When I had a friend working at a coffee shop near my studio, I used to get used coffee grounds in five gallon buckets. I'm told that the earthworms love coffee grounds.

Robb takes a different approach, and lobs coffee at the feral cats, when he sees them harassing the birds.

So, does anyone have any further questions about our soil amendment techniques? Have I left anything out?


Carol said…
Great advice Lisa! Love the neighbor story!lol ;>)
Gary said…
Hilarious post!
I have to say that I havent found an eco freindly way of deterring slugs yet. As you say, eggshells disappear, beer...well I totally, there shouldn't be 'spare' beer anyway, it's as bad as people who use good red wine to cook with!
I think the coffee/feral cats is the best idea, not only deters the blighters but breaks up on impact thus spreading over larger area.
Thanks for visiting my blog by the way
knitica said…
So do the eggshells kill the slugs, or just distract them with something else to eat. A friend who recently returned from the peace corp said they were taught that the eggshells were somehow harmful if put in the compost pile for a year before going into the garden but beneficial if added directly to the garden. I've found nothing to back this up and both my father and father in law have been composting them since before I was born. Do you have any information on this?
Erica - I think the eggshells just distract me, and probably don't have any effect on the slugs.

As far as the safe-in-the-soil but-not-in-the-compost idea, I think that's silly. Perhaps this person heard that eggshells in damp cmpost don't seem to break down as quickly as shells on the dry ground. But chemically, this makes no sense to me.

Likewise all that stuff about no citrus or no cooked veggies. Or that there's some difference between composting and decomposition. So much voodoo, in my opinion!
Anonymous said…
I save my egg shells all winter. They are toasted and ground up like yours. They go on the ground when the seedlings sprout and do disappear also. My reasoning is that the birds pick them up. The shells work like grit for grinding up grains in their "throats" and help with calcium needs in the egg laying department. I have seen the birds flying away with pieces. The rest are my thoughts on the subject. Egg shells are good anyway you want to use them. compost or soil topping.

Larva lady-ZZ
Zelienople PA
Gary said…
Further to my last comment, which on reading again includes the spelling of a five year old, I have just read your 'soil amendment' post to my wife, who, despite getting the onset of a migraine simply burst out laughing and couldn't stop!..
Emily said…
We have slug problems as well...I've just sort of resigned myself to planting stuff they don't like (can't plant butter lettuce, but they leave romaine alone- go figure).

I'm a relative newbie at composting, but I just added the latest batch from our composting box (got it through "San Jose Composts!") to our veggie garden- 5 wheelbarrow loads now all mixed in and ready for tomorrow's planting!

I always forget about coffee grounds, as we are not big coffee drinkers and someone already collects the grounds from work for his own garden...I think the local Starbucks still will give out bags of their used grounds, though...
Anonymous said…
Oh, Lisa, your writing is so entertaining! Thanks for the info on composting. We are in the PNW and are just now making some raised beds for the first time. I also loved the hummingbird story with a link to hear the sound they make! My son loves looking at your photography and we both long for an "up close" lens.
--Leah in Centralia
Anonymous said…
My first room mate in Baltimore was a dwarf, drug dealing, lesbian, so I completely know where you are coming from. She eventually beacme a bartender in Fells Point where she met other characters almost as interesting as herself.

Beer works well for me, and the shells are probably dissolving away into your soil overnight, if it is starved. Or other critters eat them for the lime, I know birds eat them for the lime as well, so they can produce stronger eggshells for themselves.

Sand can sometimes work because it is supposed to cut up the little buggers and they dry out and die.

Ducks LOVE to eat slugs. Get yourself a free range duck and kiss your slugs good bye! Get a duck that needs a home because its wings are clipped or broken or etc, from an animal rescue unit.

Or build tiny tiny bird houses for wrens, who also love to eat all pesky bugs, and I believe they will avoid your bees. Thats all I got.

kelley said…
My understanding of the eggshell/slug equation is that they slice up the soft little bodies. If you crumble the shells roughly (1/4 - 1/2 inch pieces), it's the equivalent of surrounding your plants with razor wire, as far as a slug is concerned. Finely ground may not work so well, though it's probably good for the soil.
Anonymous said…
Really the best way to add compost stuff to your soil is to use seaweed. That is the only thing I spray as a fertilizer, and it's awesome. I sold an old metal stove out of the barn today on craigslist. I love craigslist! It got me some much needed room.

Lisa said…
Goodness, I'm glad we don't have a slug problem!

But we're also demented composters, and I've been known to bring home banana peels and apple cores from conference lunches. Not to mention collecting coffee grounds, in addition to those that we produce ourselves.

A microwave version of your crispy eggshell method is making the gardening rounds here -- I can't say it makes a tremendous difference in mine (in terms of their breaking down), but maybe I'm not zapping them long enough.

Compost is always a good thing!

Christine said…
Vermicomposting is the best! Apparently the worms create amazing fertilizer and the bin is pretty cheap through stopwaste. I'll have to try the eggshells- definitely worth a try with my one remaining lupine. Those sluggy bastards!
Karyl said…
I've not tried the coffee grounds. We don't have many slugs but we do have small species snakes. I've always wondered if it would effect them. If it bothers soft bodied invertebrates, would it bother a snake?

Tried the eggshells and the jays ate them. Now I just toss them out without grinding for the jays before they claw up my garden.
Sue KuKu said…
Getting a duck that needs a home from a rescue center? Now, why in the world would you think Lisa would be able to do this? :O)

You don't use good left over beer for slugs. You buy a can or two of cheap icky beer on sale.

What I had learned was to take left over plastic containers like soft margarine spread. You cut slots around the top, big enough for slugs to squeeze through.

You put beer in it, put the lid on and put it in the ground so the slots are ground level. They crawl along, smell the beer and in they go. This prevents other animals from accidentally ingesting the beer, or from curious toddlers dipping their fingers in the bowl . . . you get the idea.

mamakin said…
We just picked up a few bags of used coffee grounds from our local Starbucks. We're near several & when my DH is out he'll stop & ask if they have any & pick up whatever they give him. It's a great way to get a ton of coffee grounds without staying awake drinking all the coffee I'd need for all those grounds!

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