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Mulch ~ save water, reduce weeds, keep fruits above bug level and clean!

I used to be a total mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal *mulch thinking to match the plant and the season!

If you are coastal SoCal, in the marine layer zone, your mulch, or composting in place, may be slowing things down a lot more than you realize. The biggest most abundant melons I’ve ever seen grown at cool & coastal Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden were on bare hot dry soil in a plot that had a lower soil level than most of the other plots. The perimeter boards diverted any wind right over the top of the area, the soil got hot! It was like an oven! So, let it be bare! No mulch under melons, your winter squash, pumpkins except under the fruits to keep them off the ground, clean, up from insect predators. Melons!

Put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant are heat lovers! Okra is full sun Southern hot! If you are coastal cool, help them be warm. If you are foothills hot, mulch them.

Tomatoes need dryer soil to avoid the verticillium and fusarium wilt fungi if your soil has it. Plant them in a basin that keeps the water out! Make the basin on top of a mound with the basin bottom level above the surrounding soil level. Let ‘em dry near the main stem; water nearby plants outside the basin, a foot or more away from the central stem. Let that tap-root do its job, get the water below the fungi, wilt/blight zone, the top 6 to 8 inches. Also, drier soil is not comfy for slugs. Yes, when your toms are babies you need to water in that basin until that tap root is developed. Straw is the best mulch for them because it allows drying air flow. Put only 1″ down to allow light to get through, warm and dry the soil. More about successfully growing Tomatoes!

Get cucumbers up on a trellis, then you won’t need mulch to keep the cukes clean and bug free, but rather because they have short roots and need consistently moist soil. 1″ of straw is good. You want airflow so the soil will dry somewhat. Cukes are susceptible to fungi wilts/blight too, so keep the leaves from touching bare ground. As soon as they are big enough, clip off lower leaves that might touch the ground when weighted with dew, or water in case they get wet. Like tomatoes, they are a fuzzy plant, so better to water at the root, not on the leaves. When they are tall enough, plant low growing spreading heat tolerant lettuces at their feet to act as living mulch. They both like plenty of water to keep them growing fast and sweet, so they are great companions. In that case you will need to use a little Sluggo or its equivalent if you feel comfortable to use it. Know that trellised cukes are cooler up in the air, so your harvest may be a little less, but because your plant will live longer, you will have longer production. Growing Cucumbers!

Straw under cucumbers has an added advantage! Per UC IPM ‘Straw mulch can help reduce cucumber beetle problems. First, mulch might directly slow beetle movement from one plant to another. Second, the mulch provides refuge for wolf spiders and other predators from hot and dry conditions, helping predator conservation.

WATER  Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. Water leaches the soil nutrients away, so you will need to feed your plants during the season. In drought areas, plant in basins below the surrounding soil level. Use your long low flow water wand to water only in the basin at the roots of your plant out to their dripline. If your plant outgrows your basin, make the basin bigger, out to that mature dripline. For vines, adjust your basin according to the size of your vine. Mini melons are quite small compared to Butternut squash! Make your basin big enough to serve the immediate feeding area, to where the lateral feeder roots will extend. Put a stake near the main stem so you know where to water when the big leaves cover the area! Fuzzy leaved plants, tomatoes, cucumber and eggplant, prefer not being watered on their leaves. Since there is no raised mound, there is no maintenance needed for berms surrounding a basin though there is natural settling so you do need to clear the basin occasionally. If you are in a wet area, make those mounds with the bottoms of basins above the surrounding soil level for good drainage and check the berms from time to time to be sure they are holding up. These are variations on age old Waffle Gardening.

LIVING MULCH  Closely planted beets, carrots, garden purslane, radish, strawberries, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and when used as an understory with bigger plants. The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. If you cage or trellis your beans, most of the plant is up getting air circulation, keeping them dryer, more mildew free, if you don’t plant too densely. Beans have short feet that need to stay moist, so do mulch them – your beans and cukes with clean chop and drop, straw or purchased mulch. Strawberries get big pretty quickly and self mulch pretty soon. Chard likes moist and cooler, so mulch. Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching. But, you can do what some do if your zuke is a vining type. Feed the vine up through the largest tomato cages, stake them well, that plant is heavy. Cut off the lower leaves and plant a family of lettuces, carrots, onions, salad bowl fixin’s or basil on the sunny side underneath! If you are in a hot drought zone, plant them in the filtered shade underneath. All of them like plenty of water, so everyone is happy.

SOIL FEEDING MULCH Living mulch may be scattering a legume seed mix that makes Nitrogen nodules on its roots! When the plants die, the N is available to your soil and plants! Throw seeds under larger plants like peppers and eggplant in the summer or broccoli and kale in the winter. When the big plants are done, you can turn the legumes under or clear spots and slice in openings and plant your next crop, letting nature take her course. See more!

If you are going to mulch, do it justice. Besides wanting to cool your soil, keep moisture in, prevent erosion, keep your crop off the soil and away from bugs, and in the long-term, feed your soil, mulching is also to prevent light germinating seeds from sprouting. Put on 4 to 6 inches minimum. Less than that may be pretty, but simply makes great habitat for those little grass and weed seeds! Mulch makes moist soil, where a rich multitude of soil organisms can thrive, including great fat vigorous earthworms if you keep your soil wet enough! You see them, you know your soil is well aerated, doing great!

Mulching is double good on hillsides. Make your rock lined water-slowing ‘S’ terrace walkways snaking along down the hillside. Cover your berms well and deeply to prevent erosion and to hold moisture when there are drying winds. Use a mulch that won’t blow away or garden staple down some plastic. Plant fruit trees, your veggies on the uphill side of your berms.

Use an organic degradable mulch that feeds your soil too! Chop and drop disease and pest free plants to compost in place, spread dry leaves. Spread very well-aged manures. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. Lay out some seed free straw – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased undyed mulch you like. Use redwood fiber only in areas you want to be slightly acidic, like for strawberries. Use redwood fiber as a last resort. Please save our trees. Use gravel if it’s all you’ve got. It works.

COMPOSTING IN PLACE  Build soil right where you need it. Where you do put mulch, tuck kitchen waste out of sight under it, where you will plant next. Sprinkle with a little soil if you have some to spare, that inoculates your pile with soil organisms; pour on some compost tea to add some more! Throw on some red wriggler surface feeder worms. Grow yarrow or Russian comfrey (Syphytum x uplandicum) near your compost area so you can conveniently add a few sprigs to your pile to speed decomposition. It will compost quickly, no smells, feeding your soil excellently! If you keep doing it in one place, a nice raised bed will be built there with little effort!

You don’t have to wait to plant! Pull back a planting space, add compost you have on hand or purchased compost, maybe mix in a little aged manure mix, worm castings, specific amendments to the kind of plant you will be planting. Sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi on your transplant’s roots, and plant! The warmth from the nearby decomposing materials will speed the growth of your new plant! Yes!

A caution:  The debris pile of composting in place may be habitat for overwintering insect pests, so put it safely away from plants that have had or might suffer infestations. To break a pest’s growing cycle, put no piles at all where there have been pests before.

If you live in a cold climate, cold, cold winters, mulch can keep the soil as warm as possible, extend your season, protect your soil, keep plants from freezing. In SoCal pull mulch away in ‘winter’ to let the sun warm the soil, let soil dry so fungi die. If there have been diseased or infested plants there, put that mulch in the trash, NOT in green waste for city pickup. If it is clean, dig it into landscaped areas to feed the soil or compost it. In general, remove overwintering pest habitat – old straw, weeds and piles of debris. 

So, you see, there are times for mulch and times not for mulch. Using less saves money, saves work. Using it well gives you a better crop!

Mulch is magic when done right!

*Mulch is when you can see distinct pieces of the original materials. Finished compost is when there are no distinct pieces left, the material is black and fluffy and smells good.

Updated from June 11, 2011 post. Updated 5.12.19

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The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, then became this blog too! All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Besides feeding your plants and adding water holding capacity, composting is important for two more good sustainable reasons. Composting helps to minimize the trash going to our landfill, but most importantly doesn’t contribute methane to our atmosphere. When we compost, an aerobic condition is created and the bacteria that thrive create a waste product of CO2. Yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, however methane is over 20 times more powerful in contributing to greenhouse gas effects.

Composting in summer’s heat is the fastest, just keep things moist! And there are several ways to do it!

In place composting

Hugelkultur Diagram Cross Section

Long term is Hugelkultur. I say long term because you use logs and branches. Not only are you making compost, but heat! You can plant sooner in spring, grow later in fall. Building up, you get more surface area for planting if space is limited. If space is not an issue and you don’t want raised areas, dig trenches fill with logs, branches, twigs. Cover with the soil you dug up and other stuff. Same excellent results! There are many ways to Hugelkultur! Some projects are gentile and mini, others are huge!

  • The classic is the three log triangle stack and hillock system. Put a bean trellis at the end of the pile!
  • Lay a bed of thick diameter branches, small branches, and twigs at the bottom of your raised bed.
  • Use logs to terrace your slope

Long term might be that pile in the back forty that you pay no attention to, other than dumping on more barrow loads from time to time and letting nature take its course. That can take years. But if your pile is warm in the sun and kept moist, at the bottom of that pile, eventually, not less than a year, you will get some fine leaf mold, and leaf mold is potent!

LASAGNA! Quick and dirty is composting right where you will grow things, and planting all along if you like! it’s the easiest on your back! If you have enough materials, all you do is chop and drop your disease free and seed free weed cuttings and lay your kitchen scraps right on the surface and let them decompose. Throw in some composting worms, red wrigglers. It will all go faster still, and you will have castings right where you need them! Throw some manures (no pet or human waste) about to ramp up the heat and Nitrogen plants need! Some people add other favorite amendments. Yes! Do keep things moist or thick/deep enough for the materials that contract the soil to decompose. To plant immediately, pull a space open, put already made compost in your planting holes and plant instantly! There’s no moving the compost you are making because it’s already where it is needed! There’s no turning, no space taken up by a composter. In summer it also acts as a mulch! Composting and mulch at once!

If you don’t have enough materials, do areas as you can, one at a time, each season another one. Consider giving your neighbors a container, or two, to collect their kitchen trim for you; ask for their landscape waste materials. Hooray, no trips to the dump!

Trenching kitchen scraps or burying garden trim 6″ to 8″ deep is really fast. Soil organisms get right to work! Again, keep that area slightly moist.

Composting in enclosures 

Compost Geobin

Quick might be in a babied system in an enclosure, chopping things into small pieces, deleafing tough stalks, feeding with high class chopped, even blender chopped, kitchen trim! Trim could include squshed eggshells (keeps pH balanced), 0.5%, that’s 1/2 a %, or less of coffee grounds (suppresses fungal rots and wilts!). You could add some compost worms, red wigglers, so their castings are precombined with your compost! Careful layering, alternating WET/Nitrogen – grass, green trim, kitchen trim, and DRY/Carbon – leaves, straw, dried spent plants, makes for a well balanced process. Straw aerates, wets moisten and decompose the straw. 1″ wet to 2″ dry is good, but you get it, it’s 1 wet to 2 dry. Easy.

To Turn or Not to Turn! If you decide to turn, you need either a permanent two enclosure side by side system, or a lightweight movable enclosure. You may need to make your system secure from pests like rats or squirrels.

Turning speeds things up a tad, but research shows unturned compost is a little more nutritious. I use the enclosures you can lift off the pile. The pile doesn’t fall apart, so I move the enclosure to a nearby spot and pitchfork the pile into the new location. When things are well decomposed you will need to use a shovel. The pile goes back and forth every couple of weeks or so, leaving a spot that is enriched from the pile’s drippings, a prime planting spot! Then I move the enclosure to another spot.

Covering your pile with a heavy mil plastic, like old compost bags or trash compactor bags, keeps the pile moist. Water the fresh straw or leaves you add just a bit. Also, covering makes the worms feel safe from birds to come and feed at the top of the pile. When you take the cover off, the worms dive to get out of sight of birds!

6 months is usual, but since I add-as-I-have, part of the pile is ready sooner than the rest. I use the part that is ready; the rest I let keep processing. You can use almost finished compost sooner just fine! Mix it into the soil in the new planting area a couple weeks before planting and Baby, you quickly have tasty soil! The soil organisms ramp up and things are integrated down to the micro dots! However, if your compost pile isn’t going as quickly as you like, get some compost accelerator at your nursery or grow a compost activator plant like yarrow or nutritious comfrey next to your composter for convenient use! Add a few leaves to each layer as available.

Also use your compost for sidedressing. If it is summer, pull back your mulch. Push your spade fork in and carefully rock it back and forth to make some holes around your plant – not too close to the main stem, and as you feel to do. Lay down two to three inches of compost as you have available. Put your mulch back in place. Water slowly and gently to let the compost moisten, melt and drizzle into the holes, feeding the root area of your plants. It’s like giving them compost tea! Give it a few days to take effect. It’s especially effective when your plant starts into production, or as a late summer feed when they are pooping out. It will extend your harvest.

Some gardeners just divide their compost into big piles, make a water holding bowl in the top, and plant directly in the compost for super growth! Works great for a giant tomato plant, plants that are heavy feeders like Goliath-size winter squash, melons, Mammoth cabbage! How many times have you let a compost pile go and come back to find little plants growing in it?! They know what’s good for them! Cover the piles with some light blocking mulch, like thick straw, to keep the pile from washing away. Stick a stake beside your plant so you know right where to water.

HOT or Cold compost There is always the curiosity whether to do cold or hot compost.
  • Hot is faster but more labor intensive, frequent turning a must to keep it going. Layering and balancing your ingredients is critical to get those temps. A thermometer is good to have, ideal temps 141°F to 155°F so weed seeds and disease pathogens die.
  • Cold compost can be as simple as pile and wait. And wait. No concern about the order of things. Nature takes her course.
  • My system is a hybrid system. I layer pretty carefully. My pile gets hot when I first layer in a new batch of stuff, but if I don’t turn it for a few weeks, that’s ok too.

Do what suits your needs or as you have materials, but compost, compost, compost! In these SoCal drought times, compost is the single most thing you can do for your soil to add water holding capacity! Keep your soil healthy and lively, with excellent friability, so it makes the most of what moisture it does receive.

Tyler W at Crazy About Compost, says: Just the other week, I had filled the bin up to the edge with new material…and I look out there today after forgetting about it and it’s dropped nearly a foot! This is what I love about compost piles – I’ve been adding material to this thing on a weekly basis and it’s just a bottomless pit of degradation.

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. We are very coastal, during late spring/summer in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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Mycorrhizal Fungi, the Proof is in the Roots!

Mycorrhizal Fungi increase uptake of nutrients by increasing the surface absorbing area of roots 100 to a 1,000 times!  This is like having way more than a second set of roots!  They work in both natural soil and with fertilizers added, especially phosphorus. P is for  flowering, so increases production.  The fungi also release powerful enzymes into the soil that dissolve hard-to-capture nutrients, such as organic nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and other “tightly bound” soil nutrients.  The extra nutrients can fuel better growth and increase resistance to drought and disease.  Plants in soil with well-established mycorrhizal fungal root systems are better able to survive droughts and transplant shock, and the fungi’s ability to alleviate salt stress is well documented.

Two exceptions to using MF:  1) When the soil already has such ideal nutrient and moisture levels that the plants can scavenge enough on their own.  2) with Brassicas (members of the mustard family), because they do not allow the mycorrhizal fungi to colonize their roots!  Save your time and money!

There is so much more known now due to research the last 40 years!  David D. Douds, Ph.D., a microbiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), notes that different species of plants have different tendencies toward developing mycorrhizal associations. For example, he has found that leeks greatly benefit from mycorrhizal association in most years, while tomatoes and peppers are more likely to benefit when they are more nutrient-or water-stressed. Brassicas such as turnips and radishes do not form mycorrhizal associations under any conditions.

Recent research shows mycorrhizal plants warn each other when disease or pest infestations occur.  ‘The uninfected ‘receiver’ plants also activated six defense-related genes!’  The infected or infested plant may die, but the others live!

Don’t kill your Mycorrhizal Fungi!

Day to day gardening can degrade and destroy delicate mycorrhizal fungi, and the mycorrhizae-forming potential of your soil.  Not good.  Tilling and hoeing, removal of topsoil, erosion, site preparation, compaction (removes air and damages filaments), fumigation, relentlessly removing weeds, and leaving soils fallow without a deep mulch covering, are some of the activities that can reduce or eliminate these beneficial soil fungi. Scientific studies indicate endo mycorrhizal fungal populations are slow to recolonize, unless there is close access to natural areas that can act as a source of mycorrhizal spores to repopulate the affected area.  Reintroducing mycorrhizal fungi in areas where they have been lost can dramatically improve plant performance with less water and fertilizer and at a reduced cost.

So, for example, if you just dug up an area to install gopher barriers, that area needs some babying, tender repopulating.  And you can see this is a huge reason to do lasagna gardening, or sheet composting.  Put the nutrients, compost on TOP of your soil.  Don’t dig up your soil and destroy the mycorrhizal network and soil structure of the micro herds of soil organisms, or the mini air tunnels earthworms make that let your soil breathe and moisture to soak in!  Don’t be shy!  Pile it all on a foot to 18″ deep!  Remember, that pile will rapidly settle to about 6 to 8″ deep.  For immediate planting, pull some holes open, add a tasty compost, and plant away!

Tips to Help your Mycorrhizal Fungi Flourish!

  • Add fungi!  Sprinkle dry or pour or spray liquid fungi right on the roots as you put in your transplants, except those Brassicas.  Use a core drill or auger and put liquid fungi down into your soil.  Not only does it help veggies, but your turf grass as well!  While you are at it, put in some compost tea in alternate holes to build your soil herds.  You will be amazed at the results from these amendments!
  • If your soil is already high in phosphorus (get a soil test), do not fertilize with a phosphorus-rich amendment, because too high phosphorus levels inhibit development of associations between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Manures and manure-based composts can be high in phosphorus, so test these amendments before adding them.
  • Minimize digging (especially rototilling), as it can break mycorrhizal hyphae, preventing them from colonizing new plant roots and transporting nutrients.
  • Don’t let your soil dry out!  Cover it deeply with partially composted leaves and other organic material if you aren’t planting there right away.  Plant densely enough that your plants are living mulch.  Or, simply water anyway until you are ready to plant.  If it will be an extended time, best of all is to plant a quick growing soil-feeding cover crop!
  • Grow a diverse mix of plants in your soil for as much of the year as possible, because mycorrhizae need active plant roots in order to develop.
  • If you decide to use mycorrhizal inoculants, look for a company that produces the inoculant in your geographic region.

Elaine Levine suggests techniques to keep your mix diverse:

• Rotate crops each year (as long as there aren’t too many successive brassicas). Crop rotations are vital to mycorrhizal fungus populations because, in addition to providing a continuous succession of root hosts, different crops also tend to favor different species of mycorrhizal fungi.
• Plant a cover crop. In addition to adding organic matter and retaining soil nutrients, the cover crop offers host roots for the mycorrhizal fungi to colonize and helps them proliferate in preparation for your next planting. A good mix of crops above ground is the best way to support a mix of beneficial fungi below ground.
• Lighten up a bit on weed control, because, surprising as this may be, weed roots can also be excellent mycorrhizal hosts.

Santa Clara Master Gardener Elaine Levine says ‘These simple, no-cost steps help keep the soil’s native population of mycorrhizal fungi healthy and diverse, harnessing yet another gift of the natural environment to create a vibrant and abundant garden.’  She’s so right!

TheEarthProject.org says:  Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi [AMF] is the medium of soil structure, it determines the flow of water, nutrients, and air, directs the pathways of root growth, and opens channels for the movement of soil animals. As the moderator of the microbial community, it determines the metabolic processes of the soil. In other words, the mycorrhizal network is practically synonymous with ecosystem function.

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Say what?!  Why is Hugelkultur, ‘hoogel kultoor,’ considered a Permaculture* technique? It resuses logs – freshly downed or old, wood debris right in place. It fits the needs of the land – less to no water, self fertilizing soil building! ‘Hugel’ means hill in German.  In this case, steep is good, tall makes for easier harvesting!  It is another form of composting in place, or building a raised bed, with more benefits, concentrating heat and nutrients!  Sepp Holzer has used the technique, but never called it Hugelkultur.  His wonderful method is diagrammed in the image.

Holzers version of Hugelkultur, hill planting, is now adopted by Permaculture gardeners.

Paul Wheaton at RichSoil.com explains it simply:

‘Hugelkultur is nothing more than making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. This makes for raised garden beds loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets for the roots of what you plant, etc. As the years pass, the deep soil of your raised garden bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season. The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water – and then refeeding that to your garden plants later. Plus, by holding SO much water, hugelkultur could be part of a system for growing garden crops in the desert with no irrigation.’ He does caution about what kinds of woods not to use, and recommends the best ones to use.

Hugelkultur as diagrammed at Paul Wheaton's site RichSoil.comHolzer’s diagram shows one log.  At Wheaton’s site the diagrams show a veritable lumber yard pile!  Gradually the pile decomposes making super nutrients!  Lay down your logs – don’t be shy, stack ’em deep, twigs, branches as per the images. Fill with dry brown leaves if you have them. If you are taking up sod, turf, lay it over the top of the logs upside down, cover with soil! Plant!

You can make borders if you wish – dense hardwood logs, stones you removed from the soil you gathered.  There are so many terrific ways to vary making a Hugelkultur garden! Use what you have about, do what fits your site needs. With urban neighbors nearby or woodlands, street side to backyard, it works! Start small, add some each year, or do huge if you have the materials available!

This might not be a project to start at the beginning of a rainy season. Now would be excellent! Get some plants on the mound right away. Vines with big leaves are terrific to protect the soil from washing away, let the soil settle, get the system percolating. Squash, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins. Use some allysum as filler.

Perfect in areas short on water because after it’s established, the first two years, it needs NO irrigation!  It is self feeding, no fertilizer needed!

Lawns to slopes! Hugelkultur terraces act like mini bioswales to slow, spread and sink rainwater!  That’s Hugelkultur farmer Glenn Kangiser’s planted slope in the image below!  Would love to see your images if you give it a go!

Hugelkultur farmer Glenn Kangiser's planted slope!See all the details, and Paul Wheaton’s thoughtful therapy on how to talk with your skeptical friends and neighbors, and tons of images!  Click on every image to go to a thread about it! Marvelous inspiring ideas!  I used to say garden anywhere, now I’m saying Garden EVERYwhere!

* “Permaculture uses ecological design to build self-sufficient human systems that meet our needs while regenerating and healing the natural environment. Central to the practice of permaculture are three core ethics, taken from the study of cultures which have traditionally lived in balance with nature: care for the earth, care for people, share the surplus.” Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara, sbperm2006@googlegroups.com

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Fertilizing Your Favorite Summer Plants!

Compost is the single most good thing you can do for your soil!

One school of thought is if your soil is great when you start, no fertilizer is needed for the rest of the season! Then there are others who fuss and mother attentively weekly, even daily. The rest of us do what we can when we can or if we have to. Do your best. Most of all, watch your plants. Check on them frequently – at least that, especially after drying winds, super hot days. They will tell you what they need. If you don’t understand the ‘symptoms,’ you can get help and figure it out. If you are container gardening, regular fertilizing is a must because nutrients are leached away as you water.

Humble homemade compost just can’t be beat as a fertilizer! Whether you do it in a bin, a pile, lasagna garden or sheet compost in place, it adds a wide variety of nutrients that are easily taken up by your plants, adds tilth to your soil, that’s loamy nutrient laden soil with excellent water holding capacity. Compost is not only a soil enhancer, but a water saver! Even manures, that are also excellent for your soil, need to be composted first. Composting stabilizes the Nitrogen.

Use the NPK of organic fertilizers to your advantage!

1. Nitrogen – N gives leaf growth, and lots of it! If your plant looks tired, and leaves are yellowing, give them a fertilizer high in N. Plants can uptake blood meal quickly; use it for emergencies. Bone meal decomposes slowly. A handful in your planting hole is good to feed your plant later in its season. Too much N makes your plant grow fast and soft, more susceptible to diseases and pest attack.
2. Phosphorous – P promotes a strong roots, prolific flowering and fruiting! Use quick uptake fertilizers high in P if you, oops, put too much Nitrogen around and are only getting leaves.
3. Potassium – K works in tandem with P, and helps your plants resist disease.

The critical times for fertilizers are

  • when you plant
  • when your plant starts into production, at and/or just after flowering – see below, and fruiting, when it is working its hardest

Beans – produce their own Nitrogen, grabbing it right out of the air and sending it to little nodules on their roots. But, give them a light feed AFTER heavy blooming, and at pod set. Use fertilizers higher in P, for more blooming. If your beans look tired, production slowing, and they start to yellow, common late in the season, give them a little fish emulsion/kelp boost or scratch in very small amount of chicken manure to perk them up and extend their production time.

Brocs – Summer brocs are usually making tons of side shoots after having made that main head in winter or spring. You can see they are still working hard. Scratch in a thin layer of chicken manure, lay on a mulch of clean well aged horse manure a couple inches deep, scratch in bunny poop if you can get it, within the entire drip line area of your plant so all its roots get a taste!

Cukes, Zukes, Melons – Fertilize when the vines are about a foot tall, but before the vines start to run. Give them double what you give your other plants, because these babies are hungry monsters! Fertilize them a week after blooming and again 3 weeks later. They are working hard. If you are growing dwarf or container/patio varieties, give them about the same as your other plants.

Corn – TLC at12” to 18” tall. Higher in N, because that is a mighty stalk with huge leaves your plant is making. Unless you are growing early maturing, smaller, or dwarf varieties. Then if you jazzed up the soil at planting, you may not need to fertilize at all. Your corn knows what to do.

Kale – to keep your kale in vibrant production, feed it generously. It is another plant that we use for the leaves it is constantly producing. It is one of the workhorses of your garden.

Lettuces, chard – scratch in chicken manure every couple of weeks or if production slows or the leaves yellow. They are constantly making new leaves and you are constantly removing their biggest lower leaves. They need food. If you are not a manure fan, do a fat tablespoon of fish emulsion/kelp mix even every week and keep ‘em well watered!

Peppers – magnesium and sulfur! OK, those babies can be as hot as brimstone, so they need some uppity fertilizer. They take up sulfur and magnesium most easily by foliar feeding. A tablespoon Epsom Salts in a gallon of water will do the trick. Water your plants before you apply, not after and wash it away. Do it early to midday so the plants have time to take it in before evening dews and it just runs off the leaves. Put it on right away at transplanting, again at first flowering and at fruit set. Also give them a taste of manures.

Strawberries – they are a continuous heavy producer per the size of the plant! Fish emulsion/kelp every other week makes them very happy. In their case, pine needle mulch is a form of ‘fertilizer’ because it causes the soil to be slightly acidic. Strawberries like that.

Tomatoes – Magnesium deficiency in the soil may be one reason your tomato leaves yellow between the leaf veins late in the season and fruit production slows down. Epsom salts can keep plants greener and bushier, enhance production of healthier fruit later in the season, and potentially help reduce blossom-end rot. 1 tablespoon Epsom salts per gallon of water at transplanting, first flowering, and fruit set. A taste of manures for your toms too, one to two weeks before, and after, first picking. In Santa Barbara first picking is usually right about the 4th of July. Remember, we want production not leaf, so fertilizers higher in P at this time.

When I say scratch in….

• I recommend you only do it on two sides of your plant, not in a circle around the plant breaking all the tiny horizontal roots. This is one time you don’t want a heavy hand that would damage significant roots either.
• It’s important to cover your fertilizer with soil, get it into the top 2 inches, because the N simply off gases if left exposed. It dries, it dies.

Worm castings are not a fertilizer. Not. They have negligible Nitrogen, usually like .05%. Their NPK rating is 1-1-1. See? But they are a terrific amendment for other reasons! They have special plant-growth hormones. The humus in castings improves your soil’s capacity to hold water. Castings suppress several diseases and significantly reduce parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealy bugs and mites. Add some castings when you add your other fertilizers. You can add some wonderful compost too. It IS a fertilizer. The best results I have observed at Pilgrim Terrace, for super healthy vibrant plants, has been with chicken manure. It is efficient for the space it takes up and the price paid. A couple of us are going to be using bunny poop, so I am excited to see how it does.

Water it in. That’s like making compost, manure, worm tea in place! The water helps disperse the fertilizer and percolate down into your soil for hungry roots to feed on.

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Time to start compost for spring planting!   

Did you make rich fall soil?  If so, your bin and sheet composting is really paying off now!  If you have more compost available now, incorporate it with the soil in your new planting places, and plant another round!  Keep ‘em coming!  Now it is time to start the cycle again for your spring garden – start some more fat compost!  SOIL!  I’m always talking with you about soil because it’s the legs of your horse!  Can’t run without it!

When you restore, recondition soil, you can imagine how much the ground must be welcoming you, screaming up to you in its own way, how grateful it is to be so lovingly fed, organically to boot!!!  You are going to have wonderful soil, and very soon!  Just the act of planting adds life, the plant roots busting through, little creaturelets thriving!

There are so many ways to build wonderful soil!

  • Tuck kitchen trim in the top 6” of your soil, where the microbes and buglets are hard at work!
  • Make piles and fill bins with compost from kitchen trim, cuttings, leaves, straw for aeration.  Whack it up!  Smaller pieces, thinner layers decompose faster and fluffier.  Dry brown on the bottom, then up and up, alternating layers.  1 green wet, 2 dry brown, 1 green wet….
  • Sheet composting – build your compost in place, no moving later!  Lay down straw, cover with green and wet waste like kitchen trim, cover with straw.  That would be the simplest of all.  If you can, keep layering, up to 18” deep if you are starting raised beds, because you know that stuff is gonna sink down!  2 brown dry to 1 green wet is the formula.  Inoculate it with soil microorganisms by flinging a few handfuls of nearby soil onto it every couple of layers.  If you have them, put some red wriggler surface feeding worms in there.  They will chomp about and add their castings for free!  If you are seaside, chop up some seaweed for trace minerals!
  • Plant Nitrogen fixers – fava, peas, beans, clovers and other ground cover legumes.  At home plant Leucaena trees!  Not only do they fix N, and are drought tolerant, but the young pods are edible!  Be warned though, they grow FAST, and can be invasive – if you aren’t ready for that, like burning them for firewood, not a good choice.
  • Let your local livestock, goats, chickens, bunnies add their part!  Horse manure has more N than cow manure.  For excellent info and fun reading, check out the scoop on poop, Manure Matters! by Marion Owen, Co-author of Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul.

Margaret Frane, President of the California Rare Fruit Growers, reminds us, ‘FEED THE SOIL, AND THE PLANT!  When planting a garden, especially a fruit garden, don’t just focus on individual plants; remember the importance of looking after your soil.’  She further says, ‘…let the soil provide the nutrients. Don’t fertilize your plant; feed the soil and the soil will feed the plant. And for the most part, everything you need to feed your soil is already on your property!’

Frane says:  Trees benefit most from the nutrients available in their own leaves. Most leaves beat manure for mineral content; when incorporated into the soil, they add nutrients, improve aeration and soil structure and encourage earthworms. So don’t rake leaves up and throw them away! Leaves are not garbage, they are an important food for your soil!

Planting immediately and directly in your sheet composting, lasagna layers?  Of course!

Are you doing seeds? Ok, a little preparation is needed.  Time for a little potting soil.  It’s good to get the seedlings started – it has the water holding capacity they need – just like the little transplants you get at the nursery, which they feed, probably daily, kelp, fish emulsion mix, other concoctions.  After that, seedlings have to hit something with real nutrition in it, like a mix of compost and soil.  Most seeds are planted directly in soil, just like Mother Nature does the job.  That’s where they immediately get the most nutrition.  I would get a deep bowl, a bucket, put in ½ soil, then compost, mix it up.  Put the mix in the planting hole, make a little hole for the potting soil, and put your seeds in that.  No more potting soil than if you were filling up one of the little transplant containers.  Obviously, not a lot would be needed.  To keep the soil from falling through the lasagna layers below, you could line the hole with two or three sheets of newspaper, saturate them.  That will keep things where you want them until it all decomposes together, the newspaper, the lasagna.  It won’t hurt your drainage, and little roots will poke right through!  And you are only going to lightly sprinkle, water, your seeded areas, right?  You don’t want your seeds to wash away, get buried too deep or uncovered.  It’s a good thing to check seedlings after a rain.  Recover or rebury anyone who needs it.  If you are doing transplants, you just won’t need any potting soil.  Make your compost/soil mix and pop your cute little transplant right in there!

In the biggest sense, “We are part of the earth and it is part of us … What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.” — Chief Seattle, 1852

Take good care of yourself…and your soil.

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