Gardening: Pots and the magic of chicken poop

On one of our visits to Rome back in the spring of 2004, we discovered something that I will never forget; one of many things that you’ll find only in the Eternal City. It was our first visit back to that amazing city with young children, so what to do? That first afternoon, after a quiet (and well-behaved) lunch of spaghetti all’amatriciana and the spiciest spaghetti allo scoglio (click here for the recipe) I’d ever enjoyed, we had the luxury of doing nothing. We had just two days at our disposal before heading up to spend Easter with our friends in Siena, so there were no plans. No museum visits (totally lost on young children) and no peeking into churches (Don’t young children have the remarkable ability to speak extra loud about the most trivial things when there is such quiet?). So we set out casually on a walk from the Centro storico along the majestic Tevere river into Trastevere. Along the way, we spied an open gateway into what appeared to be a public park.

And there it was: lining the path to an ornate villa (what else is there in Rome?) were the largest clay pots I have ever seen. In these pots were growing full-size lemon trees. With lemons on them. The height of the pots reached my chest and I had to raise my head to look up at the bright yellow fruit on the tree. The scale was impressive. I was instantly reminded that this was also a living thing, much different than the carved stone Roman buildings or the deliberate architecture of this great city.¬† The yellow fruit was nearly chartreuse, not quite ripe but still evoking a beauty not unlike that of Bracci’s stone carvings at the nearby Fontana di Trevi. This is just about the ideal of the perfect Italian aesthetic: grandly informal, decoratively useful, elegantly¬† common.

Returning to Cyprus, I set out to locate the biggest clay pots I could find and afford. Lemon seedlings can be had for a song, so I had decided to plant two together and fashion them into a topiary of sorts, mixing varieties of citrus. Later on, I added in a kumquat tree and two kalamata olive seedlings. Then it was a waiting game. I watered them diligently and each spring they leafed out beautifully. In the first few years, I had the sum total of one orange. Four years later they were moved up to Cerines, their over-sized scale fitting in to the surroundings. I figured they would flourish in the full sun. I ended up losing two of them, both lemons; the transition from their shaded life into full sun was not the recipe for success I had hoped. The others languished.

Last spring, our friend Yiota showed up with a bag of chicken manure (as good friends do) and told me to put it in the pots that had just been moved to the newly-enclosed front courtyard. I obliged and, weeks later, the trees had beautiful blossoms. This had happened before and they ended up just falling off, so I disregarded its success. I haphazardly decided to move the annual herb plantings from the memorial garden in the back, which had gotten so shaded from the towering Leyland pine and cypress trees that it was no longer suitable for herbs and vegetables needing full sun, like basil and tomatoes. The courtyard was the perfect place; these were planted in the same pot under the citrus trees.

What resulted was a happy accident: intense fertilization followed by daily watering through the hot months got us basil up until January and a record yield of the sweetest clementines and an orange I hadn’t seen in a decade. The citrus in these pots, in comparison to the earth-bound mandarine and lemon trees nearby, fared just as well on balance: plump and juicy.

What I know is that the magic is in the chicken poop. And sometimes, you get surprises: tomato plants and squash and pumpkins that produce lovely flowers you can mix into pasta, fill with sausage or fry up in batter.

As we have a coop, I got Sebastian and Maximilian to clean it out once day last summer and they dumped it all (three wheelbarrows full) in the compost pile. I’ve spent the winter working it through. So this spring, we’ve got our own production of compost/chicken manure mix to spread out through the garden and pots. It’s the pots that really need it though, as the plantings draw no nutrients naturally from the soil. It’s not certified organic, but we use no chemicals or fertilizers. After all, we eat every last lemon, cuttings from the herbs and turn the fruits into marmalade. Spread in the garden it is absolutely essential for better yield. Added into terra cotta pots or containers? It keep the soils moister, it’s less dense allowing for better root growth and feeds your plants the right things… naturally.

Container gardening can be very successful, you just need a whole load of chicken poop. You can either start your own to start using in six months or purchase. Keep in mind that compost needs to be seasoned first. It must always be mixed into soil and watered well for three to four weeks.

Follow these tips for beautiful and luscious pots throughout spring, summer and into fall.

Starting out:
1. Clean the pot with a solution of water and a trace amount of chlorine to kill any bacteria.
2. You won’t need to fill an entire large pot with dirt. Fill the bottom half with plastic bags full of recyclable plastic or packing material. It makes the pot less heavy (making them easier to move, if necessary) and you’ll use less water. Place the pot in the desired location.
3. Place feet underneath the pot so that it sits above the pavement, if being placed on stone or tile. Fine dirt and foliage will accumulate underneath the pot and may leave a permanent ring. Fill remaining volume with dirt, using a mix of soil and compost. 4. Plant in seedlings as per the directions on the marker. (Or sow in seeds as per manufacturer’s directions.)
5. Water thoroughly.

Keep it going:

Spring
1. Clear out any dead foliage or weeds from used pots. Clip off any lanky or dead branches as these weaken the plant.
2. Remove only the top layer of dirt and return to the compost pile (or discard if you don’t have one).
3. Using a bamboo stick or thin, metal stick, aerate the soil.
4. Replace top layer with a mixture of potting soil (from your own compost pile) and cured manure.
5. Plant in seedlings as per the directions on the marker. (Or sow in seeds as per manufacturer’s directions.)
6. Water thoroughly.

Summer
1. Deadhead blooms and stems to encourage plant strength and blooms.
2. Remove any dead or sick plants.
3. Move pots based on how your plants are responding and not on where you think they look best. No blooms means not enough sun. Yellow or burnt leaves means too much sun. Shiny leaves like shade, matte ones prefer the sun.
3. Clip off weak parts of the plants. Avoid excessive pruning, as it welcomes infestation.
4. Plant in newer annuals to keep the pots looking fresh, removing ones that have stopped flowering. Follow this guideline also for basil, to extend the yield.
5. Water late at night or early in the morning.
6. Harvest!

Fall
1. Remove any dead or sick plants.
2. Aerate the soil.
3. For smaller pots used for annuals that have gone by, dump in the compost pile. Turn pots over to store for the winter.