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He has a down-to-earth recipe for gardening success

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Jon Rowley is the soil man of Seattle, a gardener with a great sense of humus and a terrific green thumb.

He's also the Pied Piper of collective soil-building efforts at his neighborhood P-Patch, which is part of the nation's largest muncipally run urban gardening program, with 42 sites, 5,000 gardeners, and hundreds on the waiting list.

Last year, under Mr. Rowley's leadership, the Interbay P-Patch garden donated more than 5,000 pounds of what he calls the best organic produce in the city to local food banks.

More recently, Interbay gardeners went into action to salvage a floral memorial that honored victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Rather than let about a million flowers placed around the Seattle Center's international fountain be discarded, Rowley and his fellow P-Patchers arranged for them to be transported to the Interbay garden site.

The flowers will be turned into compost and then returned to the Seattle Center, where the compost will be used to create a memorial garden.

Rowley loves the life-giving properties of soil. When he digs his thick hand into the rich, blackish dirt, he points to innumerable white spots in the crumbly mass. These, he says, are blind springtails, tiny insects that are part of the soil's teeming ecosystem.

They are only the visible tip of a much larger population of decomposing critters and microbes.

"In a tablespoon of this stuff, you're going to find somewhere between a billion and 2 billion organisms, and something like 15,000 species," Rowley points out. "It's incredibly dynamic. It's so complex that there's no way we can understand the interrelationships of that many types of organisms and that number."

As fascinating as this microbial world is, Rowley's prime interest in it is simply that it makes for more fertile soil and better-tasting fruits and vegetables.

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