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Time to start compost for spring planting!   

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

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

There are so many ways to build wonderful soil!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take good care of yourself…and your soil.

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I used to be a total mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal mulch* thinking to match the plant! Same goes for composting in place. That’s a good idea for some areas of your garden, other areas not at all!

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

For more heat, put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Permeable shrubs are the most effective wind barriers. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant are Mediterranean heat lovers! Okra is Southern, hot.

Tomatoes need dryer soil to avoid the verticillium and fusarium wilt fungi, no more than an inch of loose straw to allow airflow at soil level but keep heat down. Let ‘em dry nearby; water a foot or more away from the central stem. Let that tap-root do its job, get the water below the fungi, wilt/blight zone, the top 6 to 8 inches. Drier soil is not comfy for slugs.

Get cucumbers up on a trellis, then you won’t need mulch to keep the cukes clean and bug free, but rather because they have short roots. Preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles when your cukes bloom. The radish will provide a living mulch as their leaves shade the cuke roots. Eat a few radish, but let the rest grow out to keep repelling the beetles. In time you can gather their seeds. Plant heat tolerant lettuces at their feet to act as living mulch. They both like plenty of water to keep them growing fast and sweet, so they are great companions. Slugs and snails like peas and lettuce. You will need to use a little Sluggo or its equivalent if you feel comfortable to use it.

Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. In drought areas, plant in basins below the main soil level. Use your long low flow water wand to water only in the basin at the roots of your plant. Fuzzy leaved plants, tomatoes and eggplant, prefer not being watered on their leaves anyway. Since there is no raised mound, there is no maintenance needed for berms surrounding the basin, but you will need to keep the basin from filling in. Plant companion littles and fillers in the basin around the base of bigger plants. They will enjoy the cooler damper soil and provide living mulch to keep that soil more cool!

LIVING MULCH  is triple productive! It mulches, provides companion plant advantages, and is a crop all at the same time! Closely planted beets, carrots, garden purslane, radish, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and bigger companion plants you plant them by. The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. Cucumbers under broccoli are living mulch while the brocs repel cucumber beetles! If you cage or trellis your beans, most of the plant is up getting air circulation, keeping them dryer, more mildew free, if you don’t plant too densely. They, cucumbers and strawberries, also have short feet that need to stay moist, so do mulch them – your beans and cukes with clean chop and drop, straw or purchased mulch.

Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching. But, you can feed their vine up through the largest tomato cages, cut off the lower leaves and plant a family of lettuces, carrots, onions, salad bowl fixin’s or basil on the sunny side underneath! Especially preplant radish to repel cucumber beetles! All of them like plenty of water, so everyone is happy.

Cooler crops, over summering Broccoli, Kale, Chard like moist and cooler, so mulch deeply very early in spring.

Pallet Garden Strawberries Boards as MulchBoards as mulch! Your strawberries like slightly acidic soil, and acidic mulch – redwood or pine needles. Also, you can lay down boards between mini rows of strawberries to keep the soil moist under the boards, the soil between the rows that the berry roots have access to. It’s a variation on pallet gardening. The advantages of using boards are you can space or remove your boards so you can easily access the soil to add amendments, you can add or remove boards to make a bigger or smaller patch, you can make the boards the length you need or want, space them as needed per the plant. Planting between boards can be used for lots of other plants too if you won’t be planting an understory! As for your strawberries, as they leaf out and get bigger, in addition to the boards, they will be living mulch for themselves!

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

Mulching is double good on slopes and hillsides. Make rock lined water-slowing ‘S’ terrace walk ways snaking along down the hillside. Cover your berms well and deeply to prevent erosion and to hold moisture when there are drying winds. Be sure to anchor your mulch in windy areas -biodegradable anchor stakes are available.  has some clever ideas on how to keep your mulch on a slope. Plant fruit trees, your veggies on the sunny side under them, on the uphill side of your berms. Make your terrace wide enough so you don’t degrade the berms by walking on them when you harvest.

If you mulch, make it count!  Mulch with an organic degradable mulch. Chop and drop disease and pest free plants to compost in place, spread dry leaves. Spread very well aged manures. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. Lay out some seed free straw – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased mulch you like. Use redwood fiber only in areas you want to be slightly acidic, like for strawberries or blueberries.

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

Mulch Straw Plant Now!

You don’t have to wait to plant! Pull back a planting space, add compost you have on hand or purchased, maybe mix in a little aged manure mix, worm castings, your favorite plant specific amendments. Sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi on your transplant’s roots (exception is Brassicas), and plant! Yes!

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

Mulch is magic when done right!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara’s community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are often in a fog belt/marine layer 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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February! SOIL & SEED Month!

Please see February 2010 for tips on aphids/white flies, slugs/snails, gophers, soil, seed starting basics! 

When there are warm days, it is ever so tempting to plant up summer veggies!  Don’t do it.  Not yet.  Start seeds. 

Depending on how much space you have, plant a last round of your very favorite winter crops – lettuces, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, kale, kohlrabi, potatoes, radishes, turnips.  Bare-root asparagus and artichokes.  I forgot to tell you last month, you could start zucchini!  At Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden we had an elder gardener who always started his in January, early February, and had great zucchini way before everyone else!  Other than zuchs, really look at those days to maturity, and add the number of days you expect for harvest duration.  If you plant a long maturing plant that would be harvested for some time, think if you would rather have that space for an early round of a summer veggie you love more.  Choose mildew and disease resistant varieties for your late peas.  

Keep sidedressing your producing plants, protect your tasty lettuces from slugs and snails.  Keep watch for aphids, and, if you disturb your plant and a little cloud of white things fly off, you have white flies.  Spray those little buggers off asap so they don’t spread to your other plants or someone else’s!  Keep up with your harvesting.  Wait until it warms up some more to prune frost damaged plants.  Even wait until next month to fertilize.  

But do prepare your soil for March summer veggie planting.  Dig if you must – I’m a no-dig, no weed person who leaves the living soil structure intact [see Gaia’s Garden, 2nd edition, chapter on soil].  Instead, prepare your soil by layering good stuff on top, called Lasagna Gardening, sheet composting, composting in place, or on-the-ground composting!  Garden smart!  If it is already there, you don’t have to move it from the compost pile to where it is needed!  Build your soil in place or in your new raised beds!  If you are putting raised beds on top of your lawn, lay down several layers of heavy cardboard first, to stop the grass and weeds, thoroughly soak it, then layer, layer, layer!  When they get there, your plant’s roots will easily poke their way through the cardboard.  Definitely attach gopher proof wire mesh to the bottom of your raised bed frame before you start filling it, unless you are creating your garden on top of concrete or a roof.  If you are container gardening, check out Patricia Lanza’s book Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces: A Layering System for Big Results in Small Gardens and Containers: Garden in Inches, Not Acres. 

Healthy layering should be 2 dry/Carbon to 1 wet/Nitrogen. 

Carbon – carbon-rich matter (like branches, stems, dried leaves, peels, bits of wood, bark dust or sawdust, shredded brown paper bags, coffee filters, conifer needles, egg shells, hay, peat moss, wood ash) gives compost its light, fluffy body.
Nitrogen – nitrogen or protein-rich matter (manures, food scraps, leafy materials like lawn clippings and green leaves) provides raw materials for making enzymes. 

  • Lay twigs or straw first, a few inches deep. This aids drainage and helps aerate the pile.
  • ADD dry materials – straw, leaves and wood ashes. If you have wood ashes, sprinkle in thin layers, or they will clump together and be slow to break down.  Fine chopped, smaller materials decompose faster.
  • Lay on manure, green manure ( clover, buckwheat, wheatgrass ) or any nitrogen source. This activates the compost pile and speeds the process along.  Put on rinsed seaweed for minerals, scatter some yarrow sprigs to further speed decomposition, and, of course, your kitchen food waste. 
  • Think how that pile is going to decompose lower and lower.  Build enough layers to get the amount of soil you need.  Could be 18” high.
  • If you like, sprinkle some microbe rich topsoil over it all to ‘inoculate’ with living soil organisms that will immediately go to work.  Add a few handfuls of red wriggler compost worms.  Add any other amendments that make you happy.
  • Install some pathways.  Don’t walk on your oxygen rich breathing brew and squeeze the life out of it, or crush your worms and soil structure!  Keep things fluffy for good soil aeration and water absorption.   
  • If you need to, for aesthetic reasons, cover the compost with a pretty mulch that will break down slowly.  Spread it aside when you are ready to plant.  It could be down leaves; if you need your soil in that area to be slightly acidic, cover with pine needles (strawberries).
  • If things get stinky, add more carbon.
  • You want to plant NOW, or the same day you layer?  Can do!  Or your instant soil wasn’t so instant?  OK, here’s the instant remedy.  Make planting holes in your layers, put in some compost you purchased or have on hand, mycorrhizal fungi, and plant!  The rest will catch up, and the heat from the composting material underneath will warm your plants!  You WILL have a fine garden!  

If you do also need a traditional compost pile for spot needs, consider “No-turn” composting!  The biggest chore with composting is turning the pile from time to time. However, with ‘no-turn composting’, your compost can be aerated without turning.  The secret is to thoroughly mix in enough coarse material, like straw – little air tubes, when building the pile. The compost will develop as fast as if it were turned regularly, and studies show that the nitrogen level may be even higher than turned compost.  With ‘no-turn’ composting, add new materials to the top of the pile, and harvest fresh compost from the bottom of the bin.

So here are 3 ways to save garden time and your back!  1)  No digging!  2)  Compost in place, no moving it.  3) No compost turning!  Uh huh.

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Mesa Harmony Garden could use your VOTE!

They are in line for a $10,000 award from RainBird, to install water wise systems in their 3-phase Food Forest installation! It’s an awesome project in Santa Barbara CA, turning unused land into a model garden, to produce food for the Food Bank – the highest % of that goes to seniors and kids.  You can vote every day if you are willing, and it is sure appreciated!  http://www.iuowawards.com/Projects.aspx#search  Blessings!

November things to know about your veggies!

PEAS, if you please!   

  • Go vertical!  Set up a trellis.  
  • Get your peas.  There are 3 kinds of peas – English shelling peas, Chinese snow peas, fat crunchy eat-‘em-off-the-vine snap peas!  I plant and enjoy them all!  Stringless is nice.  Mildew resistant is great!
  • At this time of year, plant from transplants.  Or.  Put in some from transplants at the same time as you put in some seeds.  That is equivalent to about a 6 week succession planting pattern.  Now through February, plant peas every month for continuous crop.
  • Inoculate your seeds if you haven’t grown peas there for the last 3 years.  If you had an area where peas grew well last year, grab some handfuls of that soil and put it where you are planting this year!  Rhizobia makes for abundant production.  Just sprinkle it on the seeds when you plant!  At Island Seed & Feed, one T of inoculant for 6 LBS of pea seeds is only $2!  It’s where the bulk seeds are. 
  • No manure, or very lightly, for peas, they make their own N (Nitrogen).  That’s what legumes do!
  • Peas germinate well at 40 to 75 degrees F, but the colder, the slower.  Pre-sprouting is fair, in fact, makes sense!  Sprouted seed will grow in soils too cool for germination.  YES!  Don’t you love it?!  Easy peasy has true meaning here.  Wet a paper towel on a plate, arrange your seeds on one half of the towel, not touching each other, fold the other half over.  Put them in a zip plastic bag, seal.  Put on a spot that maintains about 70 degrees.  Check those pups daily, add a wee bit of water, spray the paper towel, if needed.  Your peas will sprout in 4 or 5 days!  Soon as they sprout, put them carefully into the garden, right below the soil level.  Gently firm the soil so they have good contact.  If any fail, start another round to fill the gaps.
  • Space your pea babies about 2 inches apart.  If you are putting in seeds, put them in about an inch apart, then thin when they are of a likely height that looks like their survival is assured.
  • Birds?  If those walk-abouts are a bother, get some of that garden netting, or lay or prop those narrow patterned plastic plant flats over them.  When you aren’t using the netting on your peas, in spring & summer use it to cover your strawberries.
  • Water.  They like it.  Every day until seeds are germinated, then once a week deeply.  
  • Now we are back to the trellis.  When your plants are 1 foot to 1 ½ feet high, start weaving twine through/around them to secure them against winds and rain-heavy weight.  Those cute little tendrils just aren’t enough to hold them.  Before wind, rains, are predicted, check everybody to be sure all is secure. 

Stinky Onions?!  You bet!  Onions are sensitive to temperature and day length, photothermoperiodic!  Whew!  They start bulbing only after enough daylight for a certain number of days.  To avoid bolting, in SoCal we need to plant seeds of short day onions in fall, or intermediate varieties in late winter.  Most sets are long-day types and won’t work.  Plant Grano, Granex, & Crystal Wax seeds in the ground Nov 1, today, to Nov 10, or bare root in January.  Granex stores a little better, all of them are sweet like Vidalia and Maui.  If you miss this window, plant intermediate onions in Feb.  Onion seeds sprout very easily! 

Garlic is so easy – separate the cloves, plant in full sun, about 1 to 2 inches deep in rich humusy soil, points up, 4 inches apart.  That’s it!  Water and wait, water and wait…. 

Strawberries Anytime! But which kind?  There are 3 types of strawberries.  Deciding on whether to plant June Bearing, Everbearing, or Day Neutral strawberries depends on your available space, size of preferred strawberries and how much work you want to put into the strawberries. 

  • Everbearing (spring, summer, fall) and Day Neutral (unaffected by day length and will fruit whenever temperatures are high enough to maintain growth) are sweet and petite. They will not need much space and both are great for plant hangers. If you choose to plant them in the garden, be prepared to spend time weeding and fertilizing the plants.  Everbearing:  ♦ Sequoia, medium, heavy producer  Day Neutral/Everbearing:  ♦ Seascape, large 
  • June Bearing, mid June, strawberries produce a nice, large and sweet berry. Because they only produce for 2 to 3 weeks, there is not so much work to take care of them. You do, however, need space because of the runners.  They are classified into early, mid-season and late varieties.  ♦ Chandler, large, high yield, large quantities of small fruit later in season  ♦  Short day, Camarosa is large. It can be picked when fully red, and still have a long shelf life. This variety represents almost half of California’s current commercial acreage.  ♦  Short day, Oso Grande is a firm, large berry, with a steadier production period than Chandler. 

Do not plant strawberries where tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or eggplant have been grown in the past four years, because these crops carry the root rot fungus Verticillium which also attacks strawberries 

Commercial growers replace their plants each year.  FOR THE BIGGEST AND MOST ABUNDANT STRAWBERRIES, REPLACE PLANTS EACH YEAR…

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