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Soil Building Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden Santa Barbara Peat Manure
Kevin Smith making great soil at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, Santa Barbara CA

Summer soils need to be fat and rich for the warming spring temps fast growth your plants put on, then they need to be fed to sustain that fast pace and bountiful production in hot weather.

Cooling Fall/Winter SoCal soils don’t need to be quite as rich nor your plants need to be sidedressed (fed during the season) but maybe once, if at all. However, winter plants are hard workers and prodigious! They are mainly leaf crops, leaf after leaf after leaf! Think curly leaf kale and the remarkable amount of foliage being produced! How big those broccolis and cauliflower leaves! Amazing chard. Lettuces are pumping out the leaves. Cabbages are growing from the inside, as the outer leaves are expanding to accommodate that dense growth, leaf after leaf tightly wrapped!

After you install gopher wire protection, there are two steps to soil care. First is general basic area amending – compost, manure, growing green manure cover crops. Amending areawide ensures micro feeder roots find food out away from the Mother plants. Second is adding specific amendments to planting holes, and at planting time, mycorrhizal fungi to plants that use it. This gets seedlings off to a great start, strong and disease resistant!

Start winter gardening by tending your precious soil. Gather seeds, clear away finished summer plants. Use clean plants in your compost. Remove and use clean sommer straw mulch as compost layers now. Or forget the straw, do pit/trench composting. It’s a lot faster! We want to soil to get a little warmer. Compost will finish faster in late summer and fall heat.

Generally add compost, worm castings and manure to your soil. Get the best compost you can buy if you don’t make your own. Get the ones with worm castings, mycorrhizal fungi, etc. Get manure blends to get the best results, especially mixes that include cow (not steer) manure. This area wide amending assures your plants roots will grow wide from your plant, securing it from winter winds, and letting it feed fully to and even past the dripline! Plus, compost adds water holding capacity.

The exceptions are pea and carrot areas. If a bed is a little tired, add some food for the peas, otherwise, they, legumes, gather their own Nitrogen from the air and deposit on their roots! No manure at all for carrots, and give them regular watering, though not too much, to prevent them being hairy and forking or splitting.

Some plants, like strawberries and blueberries, need slightly acidic soil. When their soil is right, they fend off diseases better and produce like crazy. So get the right compost, the azalea, camellia type. They like to be moist, add a little peat too if needed, and dig it in a good 8″ deep. Some strawberries don’t have deep roots, but others do, so shovel depth deep is great. The variety Seascape, a prolific large berried strawberry bred at UCSB for SoCal production, does have long roots. They feed well, reach deep for water, and it shows! Plant runner babies Oct/Nov or bareroot mid-January. Ask for bareroot arrival time at your nursery so you be sure to get some. They go fast!

Special soil for seed beds! In addition to the above,  incorporate Worm Castings for all your plantings, but seeds benefit a lot! They germinate more quickly, seedlings grow faster! Leaves grow bigger, more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced. Vermicompost suppresses several diseases of cucumbers, radishes, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and peppers, and it also significantly reduces pests – parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealybugs and mites! Who could ask for more?! These effects are greatest when a smaller amount of vermicompost is used—just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed, 25% is ideal!

SideDressing  If your plants look like they need a little boost during winter, keep it light. In SoCal, feed 1/2 strength during cooler weather when uptake is slower. The most common time to feed your plants is when bloom time begins. For winter plants that’s when broccoli and cauliflower make heads and Brussels sprouts make itsy cabbages up the stalks! They are just about to go into their maximum production. Liquid fertilizers are easy for them to uptake quickly. Teas – compost, worm, manure, fish/kelp – are terrific.

If you won’t be planting this winter, a wise choice is to REST and RESTORE an AREA!

  1. When it gets cooler, plant some hefty favas or a mix for green manures to boost soil Nitrogen. Especially plant them where you had summer’s heavy feeders like corn, eggplant, summer squash, tomatoes and/or where you will plant heavy feeders next summer. The mix can include legumes like Austrian peas, vetch and bell/fava beans, plus oats that break up the soil (they have deep roots). Favas are big, produce one of the highest rates of compostable organic material per square foot! If you change your mind, you can eat the beans! 🙂
  2. Or, cover an area you won’t be winter planting with a good 6″ to a foot and a half deep mulch/straw and simply let the herds of soil organisms do their work over winter. 1.5′ deep sounds like a lot, but it will sink down quickly, believe me! That’s called sheet composting or composting in place – no turning or having to move it when it’s finished. If you are vermicomposting, have worms, add a few handfuls to speed up and enrich the process. Next spring you will have rich nutritious soil for no work at all! Pull back any top layer that remains, add some finished compost, and plant, plant, plant!

Cultivate after rains! Cultivating does two important things. One, it’s an age old technique to aerate soil, let it dry out, kill off soil fungi. Two, it is also called, Dust Mulching. Simply cultivate about 2 or 3 inches deep. This disturbs the soil surface, interrupting the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation. Dry farmers use this technique. It has been refined during recent droughts.

Ingredients to build great soil!

Compost for feeding and water holding capacity. Now, before you go compost crazy, in Nature, organic matter, our equivalent is compost, only makes up a small fraction of the soil (normally 5 to 10 percent), yet organic matter is absolutely essential. There is various thinking about what the right amount of compost is to use in a garden. Cornell University says use 3 inches over the surface worked into the top 3-6 inches of soil! Research shows ideal soil contains 5% organic matter by weight, 10% by volume. Like with a lot of gardening, more is not better! For our veggie gardening, plants we want to produce a lot of fruits, incorporate a little more than 5%.

Homemade compost is top of the line and you know what’s in it! Organic all the way. Fine texture. But the bark fines and other ‘forest products’ in commercial compost are necessary too. They give your compost more water holding capacity. As much as I am in favor of making your own, if I had to choose only one, here in drier SoCal I would choose the commercial compost. Plus, few homemade composts have worm castings in them unless you also grow worms and add their castings to your compost.

See also Hugelkultur for an exceptional style of long term sustainable composting. It is self heating, extends your growing season, needs little water after it is started.

Manures are high in Nitrogen, the main ingredient plants need to grow! Cow is better than steer, blends are best. Lettuces love it!

Worm Castings suppress diseases, reduce several insect populations, seeds germinate more quickly, seedlings grow faster! Leaves grow bigger, more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced. 25% is ideal. If you don’t have enough for the entire garden, be sure to put it in the planting holes!

Peat! In drought areas, adding peat is excellent to increase water retention. Per Julie Day: …particularly Sphagnum peat, is a lightweight spongy material that’s great for making sandy soils more water absorbent. Peat will also loosen heavy clay soils, but you need to be careful it doesn’t make the soil too soggy. Peat decomposes slowly and is slightly acidic [good for strawberry beds]. Look for peat that’s harvested from sustainable peat bogs.

If you are curious about Coconut Coir please read more here about what coir is, how it is made, pros and cons, best brands and why, plus how tos. The article starts out about hydroponics. Look at the very end for details on how to use with veggies. It lasts longer than peat, is repurposed waste product from a renewable resource, unlike the peat bogs where we get our peat moss. It can absorb up to 10x its weight in water, but it is expensive and you have to know how to use it.

Amazing Amendments to put right in the planting hole!

  • Nonfat powdered milk is a natural germicide and immediately boosts plant immune systems. A handful mixed into the planting hole soil does the job.
  • Powdered milk is taken up by your plants immediately. Bone meal takes about two months to become available to your plant. That’s just in time for flowering, fruit production! Add that to the planting holes at the same time you put the milk in. By increasing the phosphorous in the soil, bone meal works with other organic matter to ensure a more prolific root growth, winter hardiness and often hastens maturity.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi – Brassicas don’t dance with it, but other plants thrive. It links your plants’ roots with the soil, increases uptake of nutrients. Just sprinkle it on the roots of your transplant and give it a pat so it will stick. The roots and the fungi need to be connected!
  • If your soil has fungi problems, wilts, blights, add a tiny tad of coffee grounds. A 1/2 a percent does the job. Yes, you read right, that is a 1/2 a %!
  • Add Green Sand or some such for a mineral boost if you think your soil needs it.
  • Kelp Meal is terrific for trace minerals too.
  • If your plant is a heavy feeder grown for its leaves, add a little more manure, compost and castings.

How to feed your soil

Dig your amendments into the top 6 to 8 inches! Yum. Add a tasty blend all at once. Some compost, some manure, some castings and whatever else is needed or seems right for the location or what you will be planting!

Incorporate winter amendments, don’t add layers nor cover them with mulch. We want the soil to be warmer, so cooling mulches are pulled back in winter. Nitrogen off gases from uncovered layers, little N is delivered. A layer just dries out. Pulling back mulches removes moist habitat for overwintering summer pest eggs and diseases. Turn soil that has Fusarium and Verticillium wilts so the fungi die.

Spade Fork treatment! Push the spade fork in, wobble it, pull it out leaving the holes. Pour compost/manure/worm tea down the holes! That feeds the roots. If you don’t have digging predators, you can add liquid fish/kelp too. Liquid root feeds are especially good to do when sidedressing at the beginning of bloom time and are quick and easy for your plant to take up. The easiest and best results , however come from foliar feeding. Just know, the tea microbes won’t brew well below 65 F.

Double your benefits by digging in great amendments followed by the spade fork treatment! Liquid tea feeds give immediate uptake; dug in amendments provide feed for a period of time.

Planting Tips

Drainage. In soil infested with fungi or pest eggs, plant high so the soil drains and dries, the fungi and eggs die. Make basins so the bottom of the basin is above the general soil level. Make the basin large enough so the edges don’t degrade from the watering and your mature plant is sure to get enough water out to its dripline.

Soil can only do so much. Don’t starve and stunt your plants by planting too closely. Give them room and access to the amount of soil space they need for natural healthy growth. Given more space they get bigger, produce more, are healthier, more disease resistant. Plant so their leaves don’t touch at maturity, giving access for disease and pests to spread from plant to plant.

However, some deliberate overplanting is pretty clever! If you row or batch plant, especially harvest, thin as they grow. That’s like getting two crops for one! For example, all the Brassica plant – Broccoli, Kale, Cauliflower, Collards – leaves are edible! Add the tender young leaves to your salads, or if bigger, steam over rice, stir fry or add to your stews! Do it with carrots. Tiny carrots are a delicacy, and my pup loves them too!

Consider this ‘esoteric’ factor, terroir, French for land, pronounced tehr/wahr or tɛːˈwɑ. It is ‘The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.’ Said another way: the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma. You can smell and taste terroir. Wine growers who use terroir as their guiding philosophical framework and focus on the importance of the soil are responsible for a disproportionately large share of the world’s most interesting wines. And it’s not just wine: there’s grass-fed beef with an Idaho terroir. Think about this as applies to your very special piece of this earth where you will grow your special veggies. Think about it as you amend your soil for planting, as you grow green manure to restore your land. How you treat your soil results in the unique wholesome terroir you get.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

Updated 8.29.18

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. Santa Barbara’s three community gardens 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!

See the entire August 2016 GBC Newsletter!

…and wonderful images of Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden in July!

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Strawberry Tips for Tasty Super Berries!

  • Strawberries are in the Rose family.
  • The average berry has 200 seeds, the only fruit whose seeds are on its exterior surface!  The seeds are really the fruit!
  • Usually grown from runner daughters, they will grow from seed.  Just throw down caps you bit the berry from.  Sooner or later, you will have a plant you didn’t ‘plant.’  Strawberry seed saving is simple.
  • Eight out of 10 strawberries grown in the U.S. are grown in California!
  • Strawberries came in second to blueberries in the USDA’s analysis of antioxidant capacity of 40 fruits and vegetables. They are also rich in dietary fiber and manganese, and contain more vitamin C than any other berry.

Image courtesy of StrawberryPlants.org

When do I plant strawberries?  Not now, NOVEMBER 1 to 10!  Yes, it’s that specific for winter chill at the perfect time!  They start producing runners now, but cut them off until early July!  Then let them grow, and cut off the new baby plants mid October for November planting.  Or, just let them grow to fill spots where, for one reason or another, a plant has gone missing, needs replacing, and/or another could fit in.  When those needs are taken care of, cut off the rest of the runners.  These runner plant babies will grow so fast you will be getting berries from them late summer and fall if you have everbearers/day neutral types!!

My plant isn’t producing….  

Variety
 – If it is an everbearer, day neutral, variety it will produce almost all year.  June/spring bearers put out a prolific batch in June, then it’s over.  No amount of care or feeding is going to make that plant have berries after June.  Sorry.  Best to get the varieties your local nursery carries.  Or talk with them about special ordering well in advance, so they can get the ones you want.
Temps – cold weather slows down pollinators.
Shaded – believe me, strawberries like all-day sun!  If you are going to tuck them in among other plants, be sure to put them on the sunny side!
Hungry – think about it!  A strawberry plant is often pumping out several berries at a time!  They are using up soil nutrition, so feed them!  Try a light solution of fish emulsion/kelp every other week over some sprinkled seabird guano or a well aged manure.  Give your strawberries a little fertilizer in the 0-10-10 proportions; that’s lots of phosphorus and potassium for strong roots and uptake of nutrients, blooms and fruits!
Water – don’t let them dry out, they will stop producing.  This month they tend to grow more leaves, send out runners.  Clip off the runners for now, so they don’t take your plant’s energy away from producing berries, unless you want more plants right away.
Mulching is good.  They love pine needle mulch, if you have some about, because they prefer slightly acidic soil.  Drape your berries over pine cones to keep them off the ground, out of the slug zone.
Age – First year plants and 3rd year plants don’t produce as well.

My berries are really tiny! 
Strawberry varieties vary from mammoth chocolatiers, to midget but mighty tasty alpines.  If it isn’t a variety issue, it may be diseased.  See below please.

Misshapen berries or split in two sections with a hole in the center 
Irregular watering  Your berry grows fast when it has water, then is restricted when it doesn’t….
Western Tarnished Plant Bugs,
feed on the flowers and developing surface seeds that stimulate growth causing misshapen berries, hard clusters of yellow seeds on the tip of the fruit.  Clean up debris.  Once you see this, you are too late to prevent it any further.  Bummer.  UC Davis IPM Integrated Pest Management on Lygus Hesperus.  Image of typical cat-faced berries.
Pollination Strawberry flowers are usually open and attractive to bees only a day or less.  Temperatures below 60F, low night temperatures, & high humidity result in inadequate pollination, low yields of small or misshapen fruit.  Strawberries require multiple pollination for perfect fruit formation. Generally, as the number of pollinator visits increases, there will be an increase in fruit set, number of seed per fruit, fruit shape, and fruit weight.  ABOUT BEES:  per NCSU ‘Bees rarely fly when the temperature is below 55°F. Flights seldom intensify until the temperature reaches 70°F. Wind speed beyond 15 miles per hour seriously slows bee activity. Cool, cloudy weather and threatening storms greatly reduce bee flights. In poor weather, bees foraging at more distant locations will remain in the hive, and only those that have been foraging nearby will be active.  Pumpkin, squash, and watermelon flowers normally open around daybreak and close by noon; whereas, cucumbers, strawberries, and muskmelons generally remain open the entire day.’  So if the weather isn’t right THE DAY OR MORNING your flower opens…..

Whole plant has yellow leaves.  The most common cause is nutrient deficiencies due to overwatering.  Overwatering causes poor root growth making it difficult to move enough water to the leaves during hot weather.  Lay back on watering; give your babies some Nitrogen –fish emulsion/kelp.

Strawberry Pests
Pecked   If birds are pecking your berries, put bird netting or a wire dome over them.

Rebecca & David Barker, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, Plot 41, staked the chicken wire in place, push it up to harvest, down to just the right height when done!

Holes in them, Chewed  Silvery slime trails are the giveaway!  Use the pine cones to drape your berries over to keep them off the ground.  Put down some Sluggo or the like, to kill off night-time nibblers, slugs, snails.  Harvest regularly before the berry gets soft and smelly, just before the buglets are attracted!  Those little black pointy worms?  I’m trying to find out what they are.  If you know, let me know, ok?!
Uprooted  Sad to say, that sounds like ‘possums, raccoon, or skunk.  They are looking for your earth worms or grubs.  Just like bunnies, these critters won’t jump a low barrier.  They just go around it.  So install a foot tall perimeter of wire pieces, black plastic plant flats, old trellis parts, whatever you have around, or go get something that looks good to you so you will be happy.  Relocating the critters is a good choice because, they do have children, that have children, that…

Strawberry Diseases  StrawberryPlants.org for full list of diseases.  Here’s a link to the 3 Most common leaf diseases with images.

Angular Leaf Spot – exactly that.  Spotted leaves.  A cosmetic problem until it isn’t.  Your plant will produce, but it won’t thrive.  Spread by water, harvest before you water, water under the leaves, remove badly spotted leaves, don’t use them as mulch, wash your hands before going on to another plant.
Strawberry Blight – the fungus is often confused with angular leaf spot, overwinters in old leaves, remove them.  Remove old leaves from runner plants before setting.  All day sun, well-drained soil, in an area with circulation, equals less fungus.  For good air circulation, plant far enough apart, remove weeds, remove, replant and/or give away runner baby sets.  Plant resistant varieties for your area of your state.  Discussion of SoCal varieties.  When you buy new plants be sure they are certified from a disease-free nursery.  If you use a fungicide, spray the underside of leaves as well as the tops.

Successful SoCal varieties!

Chandler is the most widely commercially grown strawberry in California.  High yield, early producer, large southern berry.  It’s a June bearer, so if you want year round supply, this is not your berry.
Seascape is an ever-bearing, big day neutral, all year strawberry, harvests are more abundant in late spring. High yield, resistant to most diseases except leaf spot.  Reliable producer in fall, performs well in hot, dry climates.  Berry is bright red inside and out!
Oso Grande Another June bearer, high yield big berry, good in warm climates.

Eat your red  plump strawberries!  Fresh from your garden, strawberry Sundae, strawberry sauce, strawberry pie, cake, bread, strawberry ice cream, whipped cream, yoghurt, cream cheese, cheesecake, strawberry shake, chocolate dipped, strawberry lemonade, strawberry Syrah, and, as always, the traditional, Strawberry Shortcake!! 

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