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Mulch Types make a difference!
Mulch is what covers the soil. Compost goes in the soil and feeds it.

According to Texas A&M University, a well-mulched garden can yield 50% more vegetables than an unmulched garden space! Mulching brings soil organisms to enrich the top of your soil, where the plant’s feeder roots are! And, oh, yay, prevents light germinating hungry weed seeds from sprouting! Less time weeding! Healthy soil suppresses diseases! In addition to that, mulching cools your soil, keeps plant roots functioning optimally when it’s hot, keeps moisture in. Even only a two-to-four inch layer of mulch decreases evaporation from the soil by 70 percent or more! Water well before applying your mulch, or you will insulate dry soil rather than moist soil. Mulch prevents erosion, keeps your crop clean above the soil and above the soil predator zone, and in the long-term, if biodegradable, feeds your soil! Gardeners.com says University field tests have shown that mulch can increase (or decrease) yields by as much as 30 percent.’ Either way, 30% or 50% on the plus side is a significant amount!

I used to be a total indiscriminate mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal mulch thinking to match the plant and the season! Here are important considerations about mulching that make a difference!

If you are north you mulch in winter and maybe summer depending on how hot things are where you live. In cold, cold winters, you use mulch like a blanket to keep the soil as warm as possible, maybe prevent it from freezing, extend your season, keep plants from freezing. And maybe it will all freeze anyway!

In SoCal, south, in our ‘winter’ rainy season, pull mulch away to let the sun warm the soil, reduce moist slug and snail habitat, let soil dry so fungi die, to remove pest habitat. Gardeners generally start mulching late April, May, in summer for sure, unless you are super coastal cool, or your garden is shaded. Then you mulch a little later, if at all. Mulching for us is to keep the soil cooler, keep it moist/use less water, keep roots from burning or drying out, reduce weeds.

The first plant you mulch in spring, well before May, is any Brassica – broccoli, kale – that you will be over summering. Brassicas like cool soil, so pile your mulch on good and deep, 4 to 6″! Sweet Peppers are quite the reverse, the last plants you mulch. They like soil temps above 65. Mulch keeps the soil cooler, so use your soil thermometer to see if your soil is up to that happy 65 yet. Mulch may be too cooling for your peppers, slowing their growth.

Beans and plants that have short roots that need to stay moist, you mulch. Strawberries get big pretty quickly and self mulch pretty soon though you could mulch them just enough to keep the berries clean and above the ground level predator zone. Chard likes moist and much cooler, so mulch. Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching.

Some like it HOT! Fact is, some veggies/fruits do better with no mulch 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 biggest most abundant melons I’ve ever seen grown at cool & coastal Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden were on bare hot dry soil in a plot that had a lower soil level than most of the other plots. The perimeter boards diverted any wind right over the top of the area, the soil got hot! It was like an oven! So, let it be bare! No mulch under melons, your winter squash, pumpkins except under the fruits to keep them off the ground up from insect predators, clean. Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. Raised beds and some containers also need more water since the beds are hotter. Water leaches the soil nutrients away, so you will need to feed, sidedress, those plants during the season.

Don’t trellis your melons or fruits that need heat. It’s cooler up on that trellis where most any breeze lowers the temps. Do put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant is a Mediterranean heat lover! Okra is full sun Southern hot happy plant! Winter squash needs a full hot season to get their full growth and develop that protective hard shell.

Mulch can be many different materials as you can see in the image above. Keep them an inch away from your plant’s stem to avoid rot and fungal problems. Be garden smart! When possible, use an organic degradable mulch that feeds your soil too!

Biodegradable, soil building!

  • Straw is one of the simplest, fastest, easiest to use, readily available – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! It allows air circulation, water to get through. Apply 4″ deep or more, enough to keep the light from getting through to light germinating weed seeds, or if you want your soil to stay quite cool and damp underneath. Be sure it is the seed free kind!!!1″ Deep is good where you want no splash, like on lettuce, or to avoid soil splash on fungi susceptible leaves of tomatoes and cucumbers. Straw is the best choice for them because it allows air to circulate, letting the soil dry and the fungi die! For cucumbers, research shows straw might slow cucumber beetle movement from one plant to another! Plus, it is great shelter for wolf spiders, daddy long legs and other predators, helping predator conservation. The more spidies, the healthier your garden! More about successfully growing Tomatoes!It’s important to remove, throw away, not compost, tired mulch from under disease susceptible plants like tomatoes and cucumbers, then replace with fresh uninfected straw. Keeping it moist creates habitat the fungi do well in. If you keep forgetting to replace it, just remove it entirely and let that soil dry. As best you can, remove any soil-touching drooping leaves like religion!
  • Grass clippings need to be dried before use so they don’t form an impervious slimy mat. Spread them out, run a rake through them a few times. 24 hours and you’re in business. Once they are brown, the Nitrogen is gone, so they are no longer food, just mulch. Be sure no herbicides have been used on the grass.
  • Pine needles, deep downed leaves gathered after a windstorm. Use only leaves that have been aged at least nine months. This allows the growth-inhibiting phenols to be leached out. Run over the leaves with a mower or stomp them in a bag to break them down so they will be at soil level, available to the soil, and not blow away. See more! Know that pine needles can make your soil acidic over time.
  • A thick layer of compost is often used as mulch though when it is used it is usually covered with straw to keep it from totally drying out, off gassing Nitrogen, nutrients lost. Why waste any of it? Dig it into the soil.
  • Simple chop and drop! As you are gardening, have your clippers handy to cut up discarded disease and seed and pest free green waste. It can be mulch, or pull back your mulch, chop in your stuff, pull your mulch back over to cover it. If you have time, use your spade fork to put holes in the soil. Insert the fork, rock it back and forth a bit. Spread very well-aged manures. Cover with your chop and drop to compost in place. It acts as mulch while they decompose. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased undyed mulch you like. Let it feed your soil.
  • LIVING MULCH, SELF MULCHING 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, strawberries, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and when used as an understory they are living mulch for the bigger plants too! The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. Thin them out as they get larger. Eat the tasty tinys! Put plants like these, on the sunny side, around the bases of larger plants. Two crops from the same space!
  • Living Mulch Legume soil feeding understory! Aka cover crop, green manure! Fling a legume seed mix about under your taller plants, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, kale and let it grow. As some of the plants die, the Nitrogen nodules they form on their roots become available to your soil. At the end of the season you can turn it under for a super feed – add some manure if you wish, but not much is needed. OR, you can clear back spots to plant more large plants of the next season! Just slice in a hole through the legume roots, pop in your plant and you’re off! FREE except for the cost of the seeds! In SoCal White Clover is a good choice under summer plants. Be sure to plant companion plants that help your plants before you plant the plant you want to be helped. Add the Clover to fill in; it grows quickly and isn’t too tall.
  • Sawdust, Shavings, Wood bark/chips from disease and pesticide free trees. Ask a trustworthy arborist to deliver chips only from healthy trees. Specify the size of chips you want. They save dump fees. If you are growing organically avoid dyed materials. Generally chips and bark, called perpetual mulches, are used for pathways rather than on veggie beds.

    What you don’t see in the image at top is large bark chips. Yes, larger pieces decompose more slowly, and use up Nitrogen as they decompose. This is not so good in a veggie garden since that decomp uses the Nitrogen veggies need. Same problem when we do continuous sheet composting/lasagna gardening. The process takes N from the soil; our plants may not thrive the first year or so until a soil base is established unless you use a good bit of compost in your planting holes. If you are using chips from your local arborist, know that oaks have tannins, and eucalyptus and tea trees have aromatic oils that inhibit plant growth. Be careful how you use those chips, even in your landscaping, especially if you want to introduce veggies among your ornamentals. Check to see what is in bagged commercial mulches, how they have been processed and if they are dyed.Redwood fiber is acidic, good for shade plants, but you need acidic compost IN the soil for acid loving vegetable plants – strawberries, celery, beans. Please use redwood fiber as a last resort. Please save our beautiful trees. They take a long time to grow.

  • If you are using found manures as mulch, check if animals have been fed hormones, eat pesticide sprayed hays, or pesticides have been sprayed on the manures to reduce flies. It is much safer to get nursery bought bagged manures from a reputable nursery and a reputable brand.
  • Cardboard or simple overlapped sheets of newspaper…about 6 will do the job of suppressing light germinating seeds.
  • Strawberries Board MulchUntreated Boards 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 weed or 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, they leaf out and get bigger, and in addition to the boards, they become living mulch for themselves!
  • Grow your own organic mulch! Comfrey is a great choice! It is a plant with long roots that bring up nutrients from deep in the soil. It has abundant large leaves, and you can spread them about by your tomatoes and peppers. Chop and drop covered with another kind of mulch lets more of the comfrey goodness to permeate your soil. Comfrey has lovely blue flowers for pollinators, other beneficial insects, and hummingbirds. It’s best use, however, is as a compost nutrient and speeder upper! Turn in a few chopped leaves!

Not Biodegradable but still good!

  • Gravel, Rocks of a size and color that pleases you, though this would be easier to use for permanent landscaping rather than veggies that change seasonally. But if it’s all you have…it works. If you live in a windy or desert area, your garden is on a slope, rocks might be best. Rocks were used in Zuni, Hopi and Navajo waffle gardens.
  • Plastic. It works, a lot of commercial growers use it, but it doesn’t feed your soil. There are reasons to use different colors for specific crops, ie red works best with tomatoes! In an urban yard garden there might not be enough of that crop to warrant its use. You must put in a drip system underneath it; rainwater can’t get into the soil. It might work best in a windy area, on a hillside, where other mulch would be blown or washed away. Be careful with it because it is also used in the solarization process to heat the soil to kill weeds, read also the roots of your plants.  The biggest negative is it also kills beneficial soil organisms like worms. If it works for your situation, secure it with garden staples.

Other than rocks, too much mulch would be hard to do. Too little doesn’t do the job. Replenish thinning late summer mulch. Deep mulch really protects the soil and brings soil organisms to the surface where the mulch layer meets the earth. Worms thrive in moist cool soil. Deep mulch feeds the soil and decomposes within the pile too.

If you are going to mulch, do it justice. Put on 4 to 6 inches minimum. Less than that may be cheaper and pretty, but simply makes great habitat for those little grass and weed seeds! Mulch makes moist soil, where a rich multitude of soil organisms can thrive, including great fat vigorous earthworms if you keep your soil wet enough! You see them, you know your soil is well aerated, doing great!

COMPOSTING IN PLACE!  One of the nifty tricks of using deeply mulched areas is to build soil right where you need it! Tuck kitchen waste out of sight under your mulch, where you will plant next or simply to feed the soil there! Sprinkle with a little healthy 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) for leaves to put down first, then add your kitchen stuff. Comfrey speeds decomposition. What you put under your mulch will compost quickly, no smells, feeds 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!Deepest mulch can act like a compost pile that heats up. It can extend your growing season. By installing it early you may be able to plant earlier. You don’t have to wait to plant! Just make an opening, add finished compost, amendments of your choice, and plant! There are two schools of thinking about fall mulch. 1) As fall cools, mulch keeps the soil insulated, warmer longer, extending your fall growing as well! 2) Or, late summer, as cooling starts, you may find removing mulch is better so the soil is again warmed by the Sun. Get out your soil thermometer and test it for yourself and let me know, please!

Mulching is double good on slopes and hillsides. Make your 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. Use a mulch that won’t blow away or be sure to cover it with plastic or netting and anchor it in windy areas – biodegradable anchor stakes and ‘extra tall’ stakes are available. Carolyn Csanyi 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.

Keep your Mulch topped! Cover bare spots and replenish where your mulch is getting thin. 4 -6″ is a good depth. Preferably use light colored mulches, like straw, that reflect the sunlight. If your mulch has meshed into a tight layer, use a watering spike so water gets to the roots of your plants or make holes with your spade fork. Insert it, rock it back and forth, water. Straw, rather than a meshing mulch, is better for your veggies.

Remove and trash mulch where plants have had pests or disease; replace with clean mulch. Do NOT compost it or put it in green waste for city pickup. In general, remove overwintering pest habitat – old straw, weeds and piles of debris.

Any organic mulch will decompose. It really becomes sheet composting or composting in place! An 18″ deep pile becomes about 9″ high in 3 days to a week depending on temps, how wet it is, what kinds and sizes of pieces are used! Such a grand deep pile of mulch can easily become a super nutritious raised bed!

A variation of that is to first plant green manure, a legume and oat mix, let it grow, cut it down at first bloom, chop into pieces, let it sit on top 3 weeks, turn under, then cover that with deep mulch and let it be. If you have them, add some surface feeding worms, red wigglers. Your soil is fed, soil organisms are enriching it, excellent soil structure is being created. In a warm SoCal ‘winter’ you can do this anytime. The whole process can take 3.5 months depending on which plants you choose to grow. See more!

End of Season 

Soil resting and restoration! At the end of summer, depending on the type of materials you used, and if your soil has no disease fungi, the mulch was not under a plant that had pest infestations or disease, you can rest and feed that area of your soil by simply digging your old mulch in. Cover that area with a good deep layer of new mulch, or put on layers of materials and compost in place! Let the soil organisms party out. Leave it alone until your next planting time. It will become living vigorous nutritious soil!

It there have been pests or disease, trash that mulch, literally. Again, Do NOT compost it or put it in green waste for city pickup. In general, remove overwintering pest habitat – old straw, weeds and piles of debris.

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

Mulch is magic when done right! Enjoy that 30 to 50% increased yield!


Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic! Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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.

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DSC00723 Lettuce Frost Hard Freeze
Chilly 2012 Winter Solstice morning, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, Santa Barbara CA

Cold season things to know about your veggies!

  • Fertilize.  Healthy plants can withstand more cold. But. From August on, if you anticipate a cold winter, avoid applying fertilizer with Nitrogen, apply at half your summer rate, until after the last frost, to prevent a flush of tender growth that can be damaged by the cold.
  • Cool season crops, such as broccoli, cabbage, peas, and onions, originated in northern areas, and can tolerate frost and light freezes of short durations with little damage, plant cold hardy varieties. But other tender morsels often die literal black deaths from killing freezes. Lettuces, marigolds, your fragrant basil, and peppers are usually the first to go.
  • Better taste!  Cool-season vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, produce their best flavor when they mature during cool weather. They react to cold conditions and frost by producing sugars, making them taste sweet, especially Brussels sprouts and kale, but also parsnips and leeks! Ask the folks at the farmer’s market stands if their farms have gotten a frost yet – farms in the country often get frost long before the cities.
  • When there are several days at low temps, cole crops (cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) and onion sets, produce a seed stalk, called bolting. Unless you want to save seeds, at that point, harvest good leaves for greens, give the remaining plant to your compost.
  • Early spring planting! I’ve often said, ‘Who can resist early planting?!’ Cold spells do come after last average freeze dates. Most of our plants will be fine, but some plants are really sensitive. Bell peppers don’t like cold. If you have them as transplants, keep them inside for the duration. Many seeds may not germinate during this period. Water them sparingly so they don’t rot. Early planted Beans, Cucumbers and Zucchinis may not make it. Early variety tomatoes should be fine. If your lettuce gets frosty, not to worry. They amazingly usually make it ok. Good luck to you and your planties!

Frost we understand, but what’s a Hard Freeze?! When temperatures drop below 32° Fahrenheit (0° Centigrade) and remain there for several hours, even only 2 hours will do it, typically killing seasonal vegetation. Several hours at 25 to 28 degrees, ice crystals form not only on your plant, but in your plant, damaging the cell walls. The coldest time of day is  just before daybreak. Clouds at night can absorb and reflect heat back to the earth. Wind can mix the ascending warm air with the descending cold air. Calm, clear nights pose the greatest danger of frost. WIND:  If it is windy, less worryCold air must settle to form frost and any wind will usually prevent this. Or, a wind may dry your plants, making them more susceptible to freezing!

Floating Row Cover, Winter Frost Blanket, over Tomato Cages – see how they are staked in place by the cages? One gardener calls these Plant Pajamas!

Frost or freeze survival….

Before!

  • Watch your weather forecast religiously! Weather has no mercy.
  • Water early in the dayWet soil insulates and protects roots. The water warms up during the day and releases heat slowly during the night. The upper part of a plant may die, but the roots may be strong enough to push up new growth!
  • Move frost tender plants under eaves, a spreading tree, into greenhouses, garage. Key word here is UNDER.
  • Haunt yard sales, the thrift shop, for old bed sheets, blankets, tablecloths, curtains, towels, shower curtains, burlap sacks, tarps – many end their lives covering garden plants for frost protection! Use newspaper with clothes pins so it won’t blow around. Plastic can be worse than nothing if it touches the plant. Prop up an unused trellis, get creative! Use those wire tomato cages to support your covers! Lay them down among short plants, stand them around taller plants. At home you can lay out a folding chaise lounge chair, or lawn chairs, and cover them!! Secure the edges with stakes, rocks, bricks, or cover with soil. You can use upside down plant pots only if they are large enough that the plants they will cover don’t touch the pot. Put a rock on top to keep them from blowing over! That’s called a hot-cap! The beauty of floating row covers (see image), also called frost or winter blankets, is they can be left in place during the day! Cover the plants mid- to late-afternoon if possible, before temperatures start to drop.
  • Set up windbreaks.
  • What you can’t cover, that is not frost hardy, harvest. Root crops such as carrots and radishes should be harvested or mulched heavily before a hard freeze.

After! 

  • If you didn’t cover, wash your plants off before the sun gets on them. Sometimes that will counteract the freeze burn.
  • If you did cover, take the covers off, before the sun hits the beds, so everybody can get their sun quotient for the day! Winter days are short!
  • Dry out your covers, keep them handy.
  • Damaged leaves appear dark green and water soaked at first, later becoming black. If your plant is totally gone, it’s compost, replace your plant. Except potatoes! They will resprout, give ‘em 10 to 14 days!
  • Should you trim the ugly damaged stuff off and give your plant a lot of fertilizer to help it? Whoa, Nelly! That’s a NO! The damaged part is protecting the now undamaged part. If you trim and add a lot of fertilizer, tender new growth will form, and that will be toast if there is another frost or freeze. Wait to trim until no more frost is predicted, feed lightly.

Was that groaning, whining I heard? Stop it. Just go out there and cover your plants, no fooling around, you hear?! You will be glad you did, it’s your plants’ lives you are saving! Besides, reviving is harder than covering, and regrowing takes all that time all over again. Also, many will be well past the window for replanting, so cover, cover, cover! Better to have a yard full of ghosts (sheet covers) and look silly, than lose your plants.

Repeat, Religion! Watch WEATHER reports in case of freezes, heavy winds, rain. Santa Barbara’s average First Frost (fall) date AT THE AIRPORT is December 19, Last Frost (spring) date is (was?) January 22. That can vary from the coastal areas to the foothills, and our climate is changing generally to warmer, so these dates may not be viable guides much longer, if even now….

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Updated 12.16.15


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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