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Soil Building Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden Santa Barbara Peat Manure

Everybody makes soil their own way for different purposes at different times. At Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, Santa Barbara CA, this happy gardener is lowering his soil pH by adding peat and upping nutrition with manure.

Spring may be early again. If so, we need to be thinking of soil prep now. Perhaps layout a loose summer plan, or make notes for areas you really know what you will want there. If we have a hot summer again, your soil is going to need a lot of water holding capacity, and planting low for retaining water will make a big difference in water usage.

Soil care is for making fat plants and big harvests! We want nutrition, good texture that allows air flow and plenty of water holding capacity.

Clean Up First, free your soil of debris that may harbor pests or diseases. Remove old boards. Weed out neglected areas that may even shade out some areas. Thin out thick tree branches at the right time. Schedule it.

Cultivate! An age old technique to aerate soil, let it dry out, kill off soil fungi. 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. Do it after rains or irrigating.

Compacted Soil If your soil is compacted, it needs lots of organic matter, composted plant and animal materials, to loosen it up. Or grow a green manure crop! Annual rye,  winter wheat or oats put down deep roots opening channels for airflow, compost or worm teas, liquid fertilizers and water to trickle down.

Resist working your soil when it is wet! That compacts it, making it difficult for plant roots to grow, and it drains more slowly. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze. If it stays in a ball, wait! Crumbly is what we want. As B. Rosie Lerner of Purdue Extension says, ‘…soothe that gardening itch by sketching garden plans, browsing online and mail-order catalogs, and making a shopping list for your local garden center.’

Bed Shapes

Raised Beds If we SoCal gardeners get El Nino rains, I’m recommending to make raised beds with berms, cover the berms with straw to prevent them from eroding. Leave the interior of the raised bed open to let winter sun heat up your soil. If you are planting in spring, raised beds heat up sooner. You can make them with or without walls. No permanent walls gives you complete flexibility of shape and location, and if you have too much rain, you can open a berm to release water. They are great for plants that need well drained soil. Make low spots or plant in trenches for plants that thrive on more water, like fast growing lettuces, chard. Short rooted plants, beans/peas, radish, beets, onions, strawberries, can be grown in mild trenches. Or, boards can be lain between rows to keep the soil moist underneath them. Space them per the need of your plant. Roots will seek the moisture under the boards. Overall, you will use less water. It’s a variation on pallet gardening.

In summer, if we have another hot one, lowered beds with thick berms will work well. Water will be held within the berms. In deep beds berms will act as mini wind breaks and well mulched beds will stay moist longer. See Zuni Waffle Gardens

Containers include some bordered raised beds and those pretty pots on your deck or balcony. If things are looking tired, replace that old spent stuff. Do your special soil for small containers per the type of plant you will grow there, being extra conscious of water holding capacity. If we have a hot summer, double pot adding insulation between the pots so the inner pot soil keeps cooler, more moist.

Pathways Healthy soil is about 25 percent air! Rather than compacting, crushing the air and life out of your soil, lay down something dry that feeds the soil, like leaves, straw, then top that with something like a board to distribute your weight. Do boards harbor slugs? Yes, but as you put down something like Sluggo (SLUGGO is 1% Iron Phosphate (FePO₄) in a yeast/noodle base, non toxic to all non mollusks, certified organic and extremely effective if used as directed. (Thanks, William!)), two or three times to kill off the generations, those go away too when they come out for their midnight snacks. Some gardeners use stepping stones and put kitchen trim into the soil under the straw. Next season they move the path over and plant in the old path, now rich soil!

Green Manure is a natural wonder mimicking Nature! During the seasons, leaves are dropped, animals come by and fertilize, things grow and die, laying in place giving their bodies to next year’s seedlings. Well, we are choosing that option. Legumes are a natural choice since they pull N (Nitrogen) out of the air and deposit it in nodules on their roots. N is the main food your plants need for prime growth. Legumes often chosen are Bell Beans (a small type of Fava), Austrian Peas and Vetch. Oats are a favorite of dry farmers because the oat roots go deep opening the soil for air and water flow letting nutrients drain down! When the beans start to flower, cut the patch down, chop everything up into small bits, turn them under. Wait 2 to 3 weeks, until you can’t see the bits anymore, then plant!

Composting

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.

Using the Method of your Choice! There are hot and cold composting methods, hot is faster. Making your own compost means you know what’s in it! The easiest of all composting, hands down, is composting in place, an age old method, but in recent years called Lasagna gardening. Whether you are doing hot or cold composting or composting in place, the principles are the same: put down brown/dry layers, your green/wet layers on top. Two brown to one green. The thinner the layers, the smaller the chop, the faster the result. Add Yarrow or Comfrey leave to make it go even faster! When composting in place put the layers right where you want your garden to be! If it isn’t ready in time, get some store bought compost, pull back a planting hole, plant! The rest of the garden will catch up! If you have worms, throw some on so they can help!

Hugelkultur, hill mound, is a long term sustainable variation of ‘composting’ in place. After the 2nd year the beds don’t need water, and the system will last up to 10 years! It can be above and/or below ground and takes a lot more energy to start but what a payoff! Get some big logs, branches. If you are doing it above ground, lay two logs closely side by side, put a lot of bigger to smaller branches between them, then go for it! Add leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available. Add some red wriggler casting worms if you have them. As possible add your materials in thin 1/2 to 1″ layers, dry, wet, dry, wet until the area is filled. Lay a third log on top of them and if you have sod you peeled up, lay it on top of the whole pile upside down and do it again! Top the turf with grass clippings, seaweed, compost, aged manure, straw, green leaves, mulch, etc. Top that with soil and plant your veggies! If you did it right, you end up with a steep sided tall pyramid pile and veggies planted at easy picking heights. See a LOT more and example variations at permaculture, practical solutions for self-reliance.

Purchase No shame in purchasing compost. It saves a lot of time and is sometimes better than you could make! Buy the best you can afford, with as many tasty items listed as possible. We do want to see worm castings and mycorrhizal fungi in the mix! You can get some quite pricey magical sophisticated blends!

Acidic blends are for strawberries, and shade type landscaping plants. It’s quick and easy to change your soil pH by digging in a serious amount. Strawberries can be grown in the same soil as other veggies, but they get diseases and production is pitiful compared to magnificent strawberries grown in their right soil conditions.

Favorite Additional Amendments

Manures – Chicken, Cow/Steer, Bunny Poop, Horse – all add tons of N to your soil.

  • Bunny poop is supreme. It needs no composting, will not harm your plants in any way.
  • Horse often has salt. It needs to be well aged, from horses that ate pesticide free grass, free of insect spray used to keep flies off the manure.
  • Chicken manure used to be too HOT, but now, nursery chicken manure is a mixed bag literally. It is ‘diluted’ and more safe to use right out of the bag. If friends are giving you chickie poop, try a little first to see how it goes. Be careful.
  • Steer manure can be cheap! But cow manure is better. The more you pay for specialty soil mixes at a nursery that carries them, the more you will find cow manure in that mix. Yes, you will pay more.

Worm Castings are referred to as Black Gold for good reason. They are not a food, but work with the hormones and immune systems of your plants. Just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed, 25% is optimum! You can certainly grow your own easily! Again, this means you know what they were fed. What goes in is what comes out. Feed ’em newspaper and that’s the kind of castings you will get. Feed them a healthy variety of kitchen trim and you will have serious quality castings!

Minerals are from rocks in nature. And are of all kinds from everywhere for every purpose! Chat about with experts, look online.

Coffee Grounds are free from local coffee shops,  and wonderful because they suppress fungal rots and wilts!! Our garden has wilts, so remember, coffee and cultivating! Grounds are more potent than they have a right to be! 0.5%, that’s 1/2 a %, or less is all that is needed or wanted! Be very careful with fresh grounds. They have mojo that can kill your plant or make your soil infertile!

Seasonal amendments are for upping bloom and fruiting! During flowering, we want lower nitrogen and higher phosphorous, that’s the P in NPK! Look for fertilizers higher in P, intended for flowering and fruiting. Know your guanos! Besides being expensive, bat and Seabird Guanos are not a quick fix; they take awhile to break down. Some say they are better applied as foliar teas, but still, the release time per Colorado University Extension is FOUR MONTHS even for powdered guano! Guanos vary hugely in NPK percents! Adding guanos high in P, Phosphorus, at planting time helps your plants continue to bloom LATE in the season! Jamaican bat is high P phosphorus (blooms) 1-10-0.2. But Mexican bat is high N (leaf growth, plant vigor) 10-2-1. Peruvian seabird is high in N and P (leaf and bloom) 10-10-2.

Soil Testing If you have some doubts, concerns about your soil pH, content or balance, you can get DIY soil testing kits or have a professional company do the job for you. They will want samples from several areas and that is wise. Soil can vary significantly in just a few feet!

Soil Building is the single-most important thing you can do for your garden.

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Reminder:  My campaign this fall is for garden cleanup, and turning the soil to expose the fungi that affects our tomatoes, and other plants, so the fungi dries and dies!

Vibrant Yellow Chard!

November, though cooler, is a rich planting time!   

First do remaining fall cleanup of lingering summer plants still at it with the warm weather we have been having.  Now is a perfect time to weed and clear pathways. 

Last chance to plant wildflowers from seed for early spring flowers!  Germination in cooler weather takes longer, so don’t let the bed dry out. 

More transplants of winter veggies.  That’s Brassicas – brocs, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, turnips!  Plant super low calorie nutritious chard, a fast grower; and from its same family, beets.  Beets and carrots are a two in one – you eat the bulb/carrot, and can harvest the leaves to steam as greens, or chop and drop into your stew!  Bright Lights chard is a favorite of mine – it’s as pretty as any flower with its bright easy-to-harvest stalks.  Carrots near peas!  Celery near the water spigot.  Fava, parsley, potatoes.  The fru fru thin leaved varieties of lettuces, that are too tender for hot summer sun, now thrive!  Plant in easy to reach places, so you can continually harvest the big lower leaves.  

Plant seeds of onions for slicing.  Bare-root artichoke, strawberries.  Strawberry and onion varieties are region specific, strawberries (more to come on this soon) even more than onions.  So plant the varieties our local nurseries carry, or experiment!  Get your bare-root strawberries in between Nov 1 to 10.  

Fillers and accents, unders and besides, can be red bunch onions, bright radishes!  Try some of the long radishes, like French Breakfast, said to have a ‘delicate crunch and gentle fire’ or a quickie like Cherry Belle that matures in only 22 days – that’s only 3 weeks! 

Check out the amazing Health Benefits of Eating Radish

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Happy October, Month of Magic!

The next months…so you can plan ahead!       

October  Transplants of all fall crops, but specially of cabbages and artichokes.  Cut Strawberry runners off to chill for Nov planting.
November  Seeds of onions for slicing.  Wildflowers from seed (don’t let the bed dry out).  Strawberries in no later than Nov 5.  More transplants of winter veggies.
December is winter’s June!  Crops are starting to come in, it’s maintenance time!      

My campaign this fall is for garden cleanup, and turning the soil to expose the fungi that affects our tomatoes, and other plants, so the fungi dries and dies!     

Purple Broccoli, Bright Lights Chard, Cauliflower, Yellow Mangetout Snow Peas, Radishes or Beets of all colors, ‘Licous Red Lettuces!

This is Southern California’s second Spring!  Time to plant your winter garden, all the Brassicas, that’s, cabbage, brocs, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, kales, plus celery, chard and peas, peas, peas!  All kinds!  And what I call the ‘littles,’ the veggies you plant all year, beets, bunch onions (the ones that don’t bulb), carrots (bonemeal yes, fresh manure no), radish, spinach, arugula, and, especially, all kinds of lettuces!   Plant gift plants or bowls or baskets for the holidays!  Start making holiday gifts, herbal wreaths, powdered herbs, pretty vinegars and oils, shampoos, soaps, or candles!      

Winter weather?  Bring it on!  Starting to cool down now!  Your plants will grow fast then start to slow down.  Less weeds and insects.  Aphids & White Flies are a winter crop problem (see below please).  Some people prefer the cool slower pace of winter gardening to the more phrenetic hot summer labor and work of big harvests, distribution, storage.  Harvesting cold hardy vegetables after they have been hit with a touch of frost can enhance the flavor and increase the sweetness of greens such as kale and collards.     

Extend the crop! Cut and come again!  Harvest your big greens – kale and collards, and lettuces leaf by leaf rather than cutting your plant down.  Many lettuces will ‘come back’ even if you cut them off an inch or two above ground.  Leave the stalk in the ground, see what happens!  Rather than pulling your bunch/table onions, cut them off about an inch to 2 inches above the ground.  They will come back 3 to 4 times.  Leave a potato in the ground to make more potatoes.  After you cut the main broccoli head off, let the side sprouts grow and snip them for your salads or steam them.  Cabbages?  Cut off right below the head, then let them resprout, forming several smaller heads at the leaf axils.     

Gather your last lingering seeds midday on a sunny dry day.  Dry a few seeds from your favorite tomatoes!  Sidedress continuing and producing plants.  Then cleanup!  Remove funky habitat for overwintering insect pests, fungi.       

Build wire bottomed raised beds for gopher protection.  For very useful information, please see University of California, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Pocket Gophers.     

Prepare your soil!      

  • If you are a new gardener at Pilgrim Terrace, ask other gardeners, or the previous person who had your plot, how the soil  was tended.  Some plots may need no amending, others may need a lot.  Add compost, manures, seaweeds, worm castings as needed.  Some people do the whole garden at once, others conserve valuable materials by preparing only where they will specifically plant, for example, a large plant like a broc.  If it is a lettuce bed that you will do repeated plantings in, you might opt to do the whole bed at once.
  • Since mulch keeps the soil cool, some people pull it to the side in winter, to let the sun heat the soil on cool days.
  • Simple soil test!  Test the soil by putting a drop of vinegar in a teaspoon or so. If it fizzes, it’s too alkaline. Then test it by putting in baking soda mixed with a little water. If it fizzes, it’s too acidic.

Garden Design       

  • In addition to planting your veggies, plan ahead to plant flowers, to always have some in bloom, to attract pollinators.  Borage is a lovely plant, blooms all year, has purple blue star flowers that are edible and good for you!  Toss a few on top of your salads!
  • Make habitat!  Plants for beneficial insects, poles for birds, rocks for lizards! 
  • Plant tall in the North, the mountain end of our plots; plant shorties in the South.  This is especially important in our winter gardens because of the low sun long shadows.
  • Give your big plants plenty of room to become big; plant fillers and littles (beets, bunch onions – the ones that don’t bulb, carrots, radish, spinach, arugula, lettuces) on their sunny south sides!
  • Put plants that like the same amount of water together (hydrozoning). 
  • Put plants together that will be used in the same way, for example, salad plants like lettuces, bunch onions, celery, cilantro.
  • Biodiversity.  Planting the same kind of plant in different places throughout your garden.  It can be more effective that row cropping or putting all of one plant in one place, where if disease or a pest comes, you lose them all as the disease or pest spreads from one to all.
  • Layering example:  Transplant peas at the base of any beans you still have.

How to plant!       

  • This is the time to put your mycorrhiza fungi to work!  One of the great things mycorrhiza does is assist Phosphorus uptake.  Of the N-P-K on fertilizers, P is Phosphorus that helps roots and flowers grow and develop.  Sprinkle it on the roots of your transplants when you plant them!  More about mycorrhiza:  http://www.mycorrhizae.com/index.php?cid=468&    http://www.mastergardeners.org/newsletter/myco.html      Island Seed & Feed carries it.
  • Use vigorous fresh seeds, choose vibrant not-fruiting transplants that preferably aren’t root bound (having a solid mass of roots).  If the transplant is pretty big for the container, pop it out of the container to make sure it isn’t root bound.  If it is the only one there, and you still want it, can’t wait, see what John R. King, Jr (2 min video) has to say on how to rehabilitate your plant!
  • Lay down some Sluggo (See Slugs & Snails below) right away, even before seedlings sprout, when you put your transplants in, so your plant isn’t overnight snail and slug smorgasbord! 

Strawberry Runners!  Mid Oct cut off runners, gently dig up if they have rooted, shake the soil off.  Clip all but two or three leaves off, tie ‘em together in loose bunches. Plastic bag them and put in the back of your fridge for 20 days.  Plant them Nov 5 to 10!  Prechilling your plants makes them think they had a cold winter.  When days get longer and warmer, they will produce fruit, not as much vegetative growth.  You can then either keep your plants that produced this year, or remove and compost them, start fresh with new plants!     

Watering – Morning when you can because plants drink during the day, and we want them to dry so they don’t mildew!  Water underneath, especially late beans, and your new peas, who are especially susceptible to mildew.  Except for your short and shallow rooted plants, once a week and deeply is good unless there is a hot spell or rain.  Then, check ’em.  Poke a stick in the ground to see if the soil is moist under the surface.     

Happy playing in the dirt!

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