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Amendment Biochar Applying

Charcoal-like biochar improves soil hydration and enhances agricultural production while it curtails nutrient leaching, increases nitrogen available to plants and reduces the release of gas pollutants. A new study by researchers at Rice University and North Dakota State University gathers current and potential sources of government support to promote the production and use of biochar. Credit: Ghasideh Pourhashem, from the January 11, 2019, Rice University post. Read more Biochar holds promise for sequestering carbon and cleansing polluted air.

Fans rave about its virtues. Some are skeptical but want to learn more. So, wanting to learn, possibly use, I typed in ‘2018 2019 Biochar pros cons’…carefully read the latest noncommercial posts and their comments threads.

A few years ago a knowledgeable gardener I know raved about biochar. Now, some years later, recently a friend sent an article that turned the tables enough to make me want to check it out. One is how it was compared with natural soil that is replenished with biochar by forest fires. Two is how Biochar has several soil sustainable features, but foremost is how it keeps Carbon in our soil hundreds, maybe even 1000s of years! And that is to say nothing of its water holding capacity! Carbon is the foundation of our soil ecosystem. Three: Also, I recalled how amazingly my winter and summer garden plants grew last year. It started with a collusion of happenstance. I planted quite late, Dec 10, 2018 during the Thomas Fire ash fall. The ground was literally solid white with ash and chunks. But this winter my plants didn’t do nearly as well. Hmm… Granted, the ash is not biochar, but it’s a relative – it came from the high heat of a forest fire.

Right now, planet wide, by many, Biochar is considered crucial to our planet’s sustainability. Using it is a regenerative practice that will help our plants not only weather extreme conditions, but thrive!  

BIOCHAR RESEARCH

There are technical discussions, both pro and con, in a language all their own, to simple explanations for the home gardener. The main research is in consideration of farmers with vast tracts of land that could have significant impact on climate change.

CONSIDERATIONS

Nov 29, 2018 From a field day presentation at California State University-Fresno, here are some points from Suduan Gao, a research soil scientist with the USDA San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier. She talked of the potential of applying a biochar amendment to help in water and nutrient management.

Biochar is charcoal used as a soil amendment. It is made from biomass through thermal decomposition [fire]. Gao said it increases water use efficiency and nitrogen retention, reduces leaching, cuts nitrous oxide emissions and reduces ammonia emissions.

Gao said nitrogen dynamics are influenced by biochar and are highly affected by irrigation levels.

She said ammonia volatilization loss was substantially higher when fertilizer was applied only a few times in a larger amount than when it was applied more frequently in smaller amounts.

“Soil accumulates more nitrogen at lower irrigation levels than at higher irrigation levels,” Gao said. “The accumulated nitrogen, however, can be all leached during the rain system.” [Fertilizing after rains is more better!]

She said there were no significant biochar effects on ammonia, nitrous oxide and soil nitrate concentration, but there was a significant interaction between biochar and irrigation.

PROBLEMS WITH BIOCHAR? Fabulous or Fantasy? Is it too good to be true? There are extensive rebuttals to its use, even warnings that it’s not all the fans say, can even cause harm!

Nov 18, 2010 DR MAE-WAN HO said ‘Turning bioenergy crops into buried charcoal to sequester carbon does not work, and could plunge the earth into an oxygen crisis towards mass extinction.’ She further says: …implementing the biochar initiative could be dangerous, basically because saving the climate turns out to be not just about curbing the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere that can be achieved by burying carbon in the soil, it is also about keeping oxygen (O2) levels up. Keeping O2 levels up is what only green plants on land and phytoplankton at sea can do, by splitting water to regenerate O2 while fixing CO2 to feed the rest of the biosphere.’

  1. She cites: A ten-year trial in Swedish forests showed that buried charcoal appear to promote the breakdown of humus, the decomposing plant matter on the forest floor, thus completely offsetting the carbon sequestered in the charcoal.
  2. She discusses examples of the stability of biochar stating that it isn’t always stable. [In a 2012 Mother Earth News post, Editor Dr. Kehres (Journal “Humus and Agriculture“) summed up a symposium: “Biochar appears over-rated — the biochar claim to 1,000 year stability is revised downwards to 10 to 100 years, roughly the same as compost.”]
  3. She warns that things that happen so fast now that we have the internet and huge commercial organizations, a lot goes on without public awareness or understanding and no testing. Since this one expressly claimed climate change remediation, it was touted to be necessary immediately. Some fads are found to be faulty later.
  4. She gets into comparisons of interest to gardeners, stating that Biochar effects on soil fertility are not always positive. Field trials were conducted on cleared secondary forest with 15 different amendment combinations of chicken manure (CM), compost (CO), forest litter, chemical fertilizer (F), and charcoal (CC) applied once on rice and sorghum, and followed over four cropping cycles. Chicken manure gave by far the highest yield over the four cycles (12.4 tonne/ha). Compost application came second at about half the yield, but was still four times higher than chemical fertilizer. The control, leaf litter (burnt and fresh), and charcoal treatments gave no grain yields after the second season, and were discontinued. Further, in combination with compost, charcoal amendment decreased yield by about 40 percent compared to compost alone, and only improved yield in combination with chemical fertilizer.

Read the comments on this page for rebuttals and further information. It is suggested Biochar is not THE answer, but part of a complex mix of possibilities.

This 2013 Mother Earth News post Biochar: Not All It’s Ground Up to Be? states the appropriate use of Biochar depends first on soil type. Some soils retain nutrients very well without any amendments like biochar. Tim Crews says: ‘If you’re cropping on soil types other than Ultisols or Oxisols and you manage your organic matter (residues, manure, compost, etc.) well, you don’t need biochar. It won’t do anything for your fertility.’

Second, a ‘situation in which biochar could provide benefits is on very sandy soils in arid climates, because of its ability to improve such soils’ water-holding capacity, reducing drought stress on plants. But making biochar requires large quantities of bulk plant material, and the biochar factory needs to be close to the source of that material; therefore, the product would have to be manufactured in or around highly productive lands or on vast areas of unproductive lands, and then be hauled long distances to the arid environments where it’s to be applied.’ Not only is the available quantity of crop residue per acre too small, but to haul residues off of cropland to a biochar plant would be to further rob the soil of organic matter, while paying a price in energy and other resources as well. After all that, some ‘studies that found yield increases with such heavy application found that after a few years, soil carbon was no higher in biochar-treated plots than in control plots.’

Biochar has been under discussion for years! When you are doing your own questing about it online, look for current posts and research. Note whether the post is on a commercial site, a university, posted by a farmer, if the poster is knowledgeable, what their credentials are or aren’t, if they have experience. Remember that universities make money from research grants on popular topics and sometimes the donation is made by a company. Go to permaculture sites for a look at possible long term possibilities, concerns. Look for pros and cons.

In 2018, the agriculture application segment accounted for 71.1% of the total biochar demand. That makes sense because they have the biggest land holdings. [But it also means 28.9% is used by others, including home gardeners! That’s a big % considering the sizes of their small gardens!] Quoted from a Biochar fan, he says ‘However, a large number of farmers still lack in knowledge about the product and its benefits.’ My question back to him was ‘Do you know what % of farmers use biochar?’

Amendment BioChar and Compost + Manure Yields Great Results!

Some say Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

When would you, a home veggie gardener, use biochar?

First, are wood ash and biochar the same thing? Yes and no. Biochar is made at 450 °C/842 degrees F with low oxygen and wood ash is made at 870 °C from the same mixed hardwood. What about BBQ charcoal? Not the same thing as wood ash or biochar! Not recommended for garden use.

How do you even know if you need Biochar? Was there a forest fire ever there and you already have it? They say biochar comes from such fires and lasts 100 to 1000 years, or 10 to 100 depending on where you read… That translates to the question whether Biochar is considered to be stable or not and under what circumstances.

Have you been applying wood ash from your fireplace regularly? Some gardeners say Yes, used it for years, readily absorbed, amazing crops! Great substitute for lime to raise pH. Others say it’s grey death. It has a high pH that throws off the balance of your compost/soil, can kill off the microbes that are producing your compost. Poster Mr Bill says: ‘Charcoal chemically functions like a sponge, absorbing many organic compounds. When placed in nutrient rich soil, it absorbs the excess nutrients and traps them in the soil. As the carbon in the charcoal is annexed by fungal colonies, those nutrients are released over time. By tying these nutrients up in the soil with charcoal, they resist erosion and release at regular intervals, rather than the feast or famine spikes in levels that occur with manual fertilization by humans.

However, ‘…added to poor soil, or soil deficient in even one nutrient (which may not be obvious), the charcoal’s sponge-like absorption can compete with the roots of plants for the nutrients, leading to increased disease susceptibility or irregular growth hazardous to the plant.’ So it’s good with good soil, bad with deficient soil.

Lord knows even a 10X20′ community garden plot has varying soil content within the plot for many reasons. In my case, I trench in kitchen waste given to me by neighbors. One eats lots of bananas, hence peels. One is a super juicer, greens, carrots, etc. + lettuce and avocado. Another is a senior tea drinker, so little bags along with old snacking grapes, a few eggshells, a bit of coffee and citrus peels, etc. I get them when they have enough. They put them in a bucket outside my door. I take them to the garden and trench them in where compost is needed most. Sometimes a certain kind of plant never thrives in one area no matter what I do. It would take a lot of soil testing to sort out these small areas. I do my own remediation by adding store bought fluffy compost, and chicken manure in general. Most of the time it works fine.

FYI! If you are using or opt to use wood ash as an amendment, DO NOT mix the wood ash with nitrogen fertilizer; a reaction can occur releasing ammonia gas.

Be careful with your choice to use biochar. Is your garden flourishing because it is high on temporary soil amendments that will be spent this season? Is one area doing great, another adjacent area not doing so well; great for one plant but not another? Does your summer or winter garden do well and the other season doesn’t? Plus, all Biochar is not created equal. Its pH and ash content vary depending on the temp it was created at and the feedstock (what was burned) used, whether that was contaminated or not. In general Biochar raises soil pH. You need to use the right amounts. In a community garden 10X20′ plot, where the soil pH varies within the plot, you don’t have room to test/experiment. The increase in soil pH with alkaline biochar will be higher in acid soils than in originally alkaline soils. However! If a biochar has less ash content it will decrease soil pH because of the organic matter content.

Clearly, fireplace ash that is added every season or spring, doesn’t function the same as biochar that lasts 100 to 1000 years. It is either used up or leached away by watering, otherwise, your garden would have the highest pH in history! If biochar can’t be removed from your soil, and lasts for 100 to 1000 years, and your soil is unfavorably balanced, you may need to adjust your soil for a long time. Ironically, it works best where you already have a super flourishing garden!

Note, the type of fire makes another difference. There is increased growth after a forest fire, but slash and burn techniques have a long term bad effect in just a few years. Definitely not sustainable. Wildfires get much hotter, average over 1600°F, than farmer-made controlled burn fires kept under 1000°F to clear a field. Wood burns differently at different temps; the coals have a different structure. Forest fires burn hot at the center with low oxygen and you get Biochar. Big difference. All fires are not equal.

Mr Bill made a convenient list for us home gardeners!

• Use on rich soil with no deficiencies
• Use to correct acidic soils, or amend the pH of the char before application
• Never use on acid loving plants like blueberries [strawberries, celery, beans]
• Add to compost after composting has finished, not during composting. The recommendation for application is about ½ cup per cubic foot of finished compost. [That’s not a lot!]
• Use in moderation
• Never use char from pressure-treated or painted wood.
• Don’t use petroleum based fire starters or fluids if you intend to use the ash.
• Fires started with alcohol or non-paraffin wax are acceptable for garden use.
• Be mindful of your nutrient levels and pH when using char, test regularly for best results.
• Not all char is equal, refuse from wood gasifiers or efficient wood stoves is preferable to that from your campfire, fireplace or grill, but all are acceptable for use given the correct use of your discretion.

Making Your Own Biochar Amendment in Place!

HOW to MAKE OUR OWN BIOCHAR?! 

Though it’s been many years since the Biochar cure has been offered and raved about, using biochar on a mass basis has not been implemented to an extent that is making a planet wide difference. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use it individually. The simplest way to do it is right where you will use it, just like the Amazon Indians did 2000 years ago.

First check your legal situation before you go for it! Per the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District where I live: A burn permit is required for all outdoor burning activity except recreational (campfires) and cooking (BBQ). This includes: Agricultural Burning (see definition) … Residential backyard burning (permitted only in the unincorporated areas of the Santa Ynez Valley)

Highly flammable gases are released during pyrolysis, so make it outside, well away from buildings, animals and people!

Barbara Pleasant, famed author of 5 garden books, throws in her two cents! ‘Last year, I committed one of the great sins of gardening: I let weeds go to seed. Cleaning up in fall, I faced down a ton of seed-bearing foxtail, burdock and crabgrass. Sure, I could compost it hot to steam the weed seeds to death, but instead I decided to try something different. I dug a ditch, added the weeds and lots of woody prunings, and burned it, thus making biochar. It was my new way to improve soil—except the technique is at least 3,000 years old.’

Barbara words the process more simply… What’s biochar? Basically, it’s organic matter that is burned slowly, with a restricted flow of oxygen, and then the fire is stopped when the material reaches the charcoal stage. Unlike tiny tidbits of ash, coarse lumps of charcoal are full of crevices and holes, which help them serve as life rafts to soil microorganisms. The carbon compounds in charcoal form loose chemical bonds with soluble plant nutrients so they are not as readily washed away by rain and irrigation. Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

She speaks of the Amazonian ‘dark earths,’ terra preta, that ‘hold plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. Even after 500 years of tropical temperatures and rainfall that averages 80 inches a year, the dark earths remain remarkably fertile…’ They were produced this very way, burning. …composts and other soil-enriching forms of organic matter last longer. …increased productivity by making nutrients already present in the soil better available to plants. …organically enriched soil retains nutrients for decades rather than for a couple of seasons. This charcoal releases its carbon 10 to 100 times slower than rotting organic matter. See the details  See Twin Oaks Forge for making charcoal in a barrel!

Why buy commercial Biochar? 

Jeremy Menefee says, first, because they use more advanced tools and techniques than the home producer can easily acquire, commercially-produced biochar is usually more consistent in composition and charred under ideal temperatures.

Second, they are able to produce inoculant tailored to specific uses. Vermont Biochar, for example, produces (by hand) several versions ideally suited for either leafy annuals, root crops, or shrub or woody perennials. Each uses a different composition of inoculant to tailor it for the specific application.

Experienced permaculturist Jeremy also says to Biocharge your Biochar! Even commercial biochar producers say their products benefit from being biocharged again once it’s on your property, to tailor it to your site conditions. Here are two easy methods he recommends.

1) Compost charging Even if you buy inoculated biochar, rather than producing it on-site, it will be improved by maturing in your compost. You can use as much biochar as you want, up to about an even 1:1 ratio with the compost, so don’t worry too much about overdoing it. The Biochar doesn’t break down in the process. You may have shorter compost times! Some experts recommend adding both manure and bones.

Quick tip: If you have time, a great way to get the most out of your biochar is to spread it an inch thick or less into your farm animal bedding. Then, when the bedding is spent, add it to the compost pile. [LOL Black Sheep?!] The biochar is essentially ‘double-charged’ in this way. Also, in addition to stacking functions of your animal bedding, this can help reduce odors. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can also reduce illness among your animals!

2) Rapid Charging! The other way to inoculate your biochar is a bit more labor-intensive, but you can complete the process in hours or days, not months. First, fill a 55 gallon (210 litre) drum with fresh water and biochar. If you are using municipal treated water, let it sit for a couple days to remove any chlorine. Then add compost tea or worm castings and leachate to the barrel with some soil from the area where you will use the finished biochar. For example, if you are going to apply the biochar to your fruit orchard, add some soil from around a robust and healthy tree in that orchard. This will help charge the biochar with the ideal microbiology for your specific orchard.

Once everything is well mixed, insert a long tube such as a length of PVC pipe into the barrel and direct air from a blower into the tube, or use a pond aerator and air stones. Aeration supercharges the inoculant and gives the beneficial microbes a massive head start, and helps them adhere to the biochar. Continue this for 12-24 hours.

Safety when applying Biochar amendmentBe careful when applying dry Biochar!

Wear a dust mask such as the 3M™ 8511 Particulate Respirator – N95 to protect your lungs. Moistening biochar can help a lot with dust control. Some Biochar is shipped with about 30% moisture content to help with dust control. Protective eyewear will reduce the chance of getting dust in your eyes. Wear gloves! Wear rubber boots that can be cleaned easily! Apply evenly on a dry, windless day. Mix thoroughly into the soil before planting.

How much do you apply? Doing it right depends on what kind of soil you have and it’s tested content, its pH, how much you want to raise the pH if at all. And, of course, none, if you don’t need it or your situation isn’t right for it!

There are different answers!

  • A company says: From everything we have seen in our own use and through the research of others a good “rule of thumb” is 10% of the planting area should be biochar. If your soil is absolutely horrible you should probably start with a 50/50 mix of biochar and compost and apply about 1/4 lb per square foot.
  • Typically home gardeners use 5-10% biochar in the top 6 inches of their soil.
  • A gardener says: If bought, follow the instructions on the bags, but I would suggest 50/50 with soil and the same for containers, and see your results the first season before you adjust quantities.
  • Farmer Jeremy Menefee says: It takes about 10 pounds of biochar to properly cover 100 square feet. For potted plants, use pure biochar at a ratio of about 1:16 with your potting soil – about ½ cup per gallon of soil. This ratio is good for raised beds as well, one gallon of biochar per 16 gallons of soil. If you inoculated your biochar in compost (at ratios up to 1:1), just apply compost as normal – the presence of biochar doesn’t change the amount of compost used.

How to apply? Simple!

  1. Made your own in place? Just add amendments of your choice, especially compost, and till it in.
  2. Purchased, preferably inoculated? Lay on about 1/4″, amendments and till it in. If you don’t have much, spread it out and add more each time you amend.
  3. If you’re not able to till, spread out your inoculated Biochar, cover with mulch to hold it in place, let Nature do the work for you.

Coast of Maine Biochar Amendment raised bed mix

Biochar IS big business. There is university research devoted to it for sustainable reasons. They make huge grant monies from it. Yale and Cornell, Ames Iowa, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Rice U in Houston Tx to name just a few schools. Government is in on it too, for example the USDA’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. There are subsequent conferences, magazines, books, products at your nursery.

USBI Biochar 2019 – is the largest event in North America dedicated to advancing the sustainable production and use of biochar through scientific and engineering research, policy development, field practice, and technology transfer. It will focus on bridging scientific, industrial, practitioner, and policy gaps in biomass utilization for biochar and bioenergy production. June 30 – July 3 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins Colorado.

BIOMASS Magazine – Beyond the Hype

Check out the BioChar Journal …we want our readers to be confident that what is written in the Biochar Journal is based on sound science and practicality.

Local gardeners might see various products at their nursery. A blend in snowy Maine might be quite different than in SW SoCal droughty areas. Before you order up online, take this into consideration. When buying locally, look on the package to see where it was made, then check out those ingredients. The bag shown here is definitely intended as a pH raiser; it has biochar and lime!

For those of us gardening at community gardens, we need to think of what the next gardener’s soil needs might be after you leave. What if they primarily want to plant acid loving plants, those blueberries, strawberries, celery or beans? In keeping with rotating crops, planting in a different place each year, to avoid soil diseases various plants are susceptible to, we may need to stay flexible – amend each season or year with regular or acidic compost per patch as we go.

If you have a good size parcel of land for veg gardening, that you plan to keep for many years, soil test different areas. You might coordinate your Biochar choices with the land’s own natural flow, plant accordingly. Some sites say it takes about a year for the Biochar/soil relationship to be fully established. If you are planting in raised beds/containers, where soil is leached of nutrients due to higher soil temps, drying, in those structures and frequent watering to compensate, replacing spent soil/compost each year, Biochar isn’t going to work for you.

Making your own Biochar is cheap, but a lengthy process you hope you do right. Probably wise to have someone experienced with you when you do your first processes. First there is gathering the right materials, selecting the right place and technique for the kind of results you want, doing the burning. Then there is the biocharging process for it to do its best work. Buying Biochar can be pricey if you get the best, inoculated. If you put it where it can be used to best advantage, that is worth the one-time expense.

Your final decision to use or not use Biochar may be based on your instinct. You may decide not to use it at your current location or in a specific area of your garden. You might move, or be visiting in another gardener’s location and feel it is the right choice for that place. Maybe you will decide to wait and see. Honor your feelings. You might not save the planet today, or maybe you will by using succinct educated choices.

Bless you for being a garden guardian, a caring Earth Steward.

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The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. 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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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 monster chard leaves! 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 packed!

After you install gopher wire protection, there are three steps to soil careFirst 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 per the plant that will be grown there. Third is at planting time. When planting transplants, pat that mycorrhizal fungi onto the exposed roots of plants that interact with it – Brassicas don’t. This gets seedlings off to a great start, strong and disease resistant! If you are planting seeds, add 25% worm castings to the surface to increase germination time and speed growth! Mycorrhiza and castings are not necessary but do make a difference.

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

Generally add compost 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 transplants mid-January for May production.

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! If you don’t have enough for the entire garden, put castings in seedbeds first, planting holes second!

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 during 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%. Informative details from  Michigan.gov

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. As it is, I make some of my own compost, trench in a lot of kitchen waste, and use commercial 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. Truly sustainable.

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

Peat! I’ll tell you about peat, but it, itself, is not sustainable and I personally don’t use it anymore. It is said 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.

When I did use peat, the kind I used vanished in about 2 months. I can’t say it helped significantly in spite of what is said about it. Perhaps I should have used a LOT more, but then, why not just make or get some highly nutritious compost?! Peat has no nutritional value and Nitrogen, what plants use most, is spent decomposing it. If it works for your situation, great. Unless it is an emergency, I would test an area first before you make a heavy investment of money and labor.

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, and what makes you happy!

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 front to back, 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. In winter, brew them in a warm garage or a sunny covered porch. Double your benefits by digging in great amendments followed by the spade fork treatment! Liquid tea feeds give immediate uptake; dug in amendments provide slow release feeding over 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 or just beyond 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

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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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