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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients to build great soil!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing Amendments to put right in the planting hole!

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

How to feed your soil

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

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

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

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

Planting Tips

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

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

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

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

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

Updated 8.29.18

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. Santa Barbara’s three community gardens are very coastal, during late spring/summer in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

See the entire August 2016 GBC Newsletter!

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

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Cilantro - persnickety, smelly and lovely!!

Cilantro is persnickety but lovely and valuable! Maybe it is even temperamental. You see, it needs everything just so. Cool weather is its favorite time to grow in SoCal!

Cilantro even tolerates a light frost, but has a short life. It simply grows right up and quits. No, you didn’t do anything wrong, and it’s not that you just don’t have a way with it. With the best conditions Cilantro will last about 8-10 weeks before flowering. It’s doing what it does. It has a unique taste, so if you love it, save seeds and keep right on planting, again and again and again for a steady supply! That’s called succession planting!

I let a plant fall down after it died last summer, forgot about it. Now I have a quite dense sizeable thriving cilantro patch! Do what nature did! Plant densely, just broadcast the seed, better without fancy rows, contrived spacing. Planting tightly shades the ground, keeps your soil moist and cooler. Mulch well around the perimeter of the patch! It is not the heat of the air that causes cilantro to bolt, but rather the heat of the soil. If you are attempting a spring or summer planting, warmer days, read bolting coming, especially do this.

If you are in a hurry and want more surety of germination, soak the seeds 24 hours before planting. Put them in a half a glass of water, soak, lay them out on a paper towel and pat them dry. Plant a half inch deep in a 2″ deep trench with low sloping sides. The low slope keeps the soil from filling in the trench, burying the seeds too deeply when you water. Firm the soil well so there is good contact and they will stay moist after watered. If your weather is unseasonably hot and dry, plant just a tad deeper so the seeds stay moist. Happy cilantro is not picky about soil pH, but it likes well composted soil, well drained though they do like to stay moist.

Baby cilantros don’t take to transplanting because their little taproot goes deep quickly. These babies are vibrantly fresh, have powerful flavor. It happens, for my taste, just one in a salad or a stew is ample. I cut it up, toss it in, roots and all. The roots look like little tiny white carrots. In fact, carrot, celery, cilantro, dill, parsley and parsnips are all in the Carrot Family, Apiaceae or Umbelliferae.

Usually you start harvesting the outer leaves when they are about 6″ tall. Harvest frequently, take the central stems immediately! This may slow down your plant’s demise, but only for awhile. Once it starts to flower, the leaves lose their flavor, but you do have edible flowers! Sprinkle fresh to taste on salads, bean dishes, and cold vegetable dishes.

Because your plantings are going to be closely spaced, you can see liquid fertilizers, fish/kelp types, are going to be the ones to use so they will trickle down into the soil. A little goes a long way. This is a Mediterranean native used to harsh infertile conditions. Over fertilize and you lose the flavor. However, they do like to be kept moist, not swimming, but consistently moist. But they don’t like humidity!!! Like I said, they are persnickety.

I love cilantro in all its stages. As a mature plant, before it bolts (makes a central stalk) flowers and seeds. It smells so lovely Cilantro flowers and seedswhen you walk by. It bolts when weather warms, even if only a few days. You can see, why in summer, it’s best to plant so it gets morning sun, afternoon shade. Also it wants to be sheltered from wind. Ok, ok. You definitely want to get slow bolting, bolt resistant varieties. Four varieties of cilantro currently dominate Central California Coast commercial production: Santos, Long Standing, Slo Bolt, and Leisure. All four are used for spring, summer, and fall production, while Santos is the most common variety grown during the winter months.

The tiny white blooms are beautiful, perfect for bees and beneficial insects, especially those little parasitic wasps and predatory flies! Plant some just for them! The feathery leaves don’t make too much shade, so plant cilantro throughout your veggies, under your fruit trees, any place you can fit them in.

Cilantro makes tons of little brown round seeds, no more than an eighth of an inch across, very easy to harvest for next year’s plantings. I scatter them to fill empty places or along the border of my garden. Along the border is nice ‘cz that way all I have to do is stoop a bit as I walk by, to enjoy their scent and those bright little ferny leaves. But make it count more by planting generous patches among your Brassicas like broccoli, cauliflowers and kales because it repels APHIDS!

A mighty threesome is your Brassicas, with cilantro to repel aphids, and lettuce to repel Cabbage butterflies! Not only does cilantro repel aphids, but it enhances the growth of Brassicas! It makes them grow REALLY well, bigger, fuller, greener! With that and edible flowers and seeds it truly is a worthy plant.

Harvesting seed is an easy affair! As Birgit Bradtke at Tropical Permaculture says:

Cilantro Coriander Seeds…cut the stalk, stick the whole thing upside down in a big paper bag and leave it in a dry spot for a couple of weeks. (Most people recommend to hang it up. In my place it just lies around somewhere…) After a couple of weeks you take the bag and shake it and bash it and all the coriander seeds should fall off and you can pull out the bare stalk. Keep your coriander seeds in a cool dry place. (Most people recommend an airtight container. In my place they just stay in that bag…) And now you should have enough coriander seed to cook with and still have plenty left to throw around your garden next year!

So here it is, quite a list, but you can do it!

  • Cool season is best
  • Select afternoon shade when in warming conditions
  • Plant closely to keep soil cool, reduce & delay bolting
  • Keep moist but avoid humid locations
  • Plenty of airflow but sheltered from wind!
  • Harvest frequently, especially & immediately the central stems – sure thing!

Cilantro is the Spanish word for Coriander. We know the seeds only as Coriander. They are used in pickling and sausages. Cilantro comes from the Middle East, and is used in many ways in other parts of the world. It is a proven antibacterial, is used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. The uniquely flavored leaves are high in Vitamin C, and it concentrates Calcium – good for older women! Cilantro is a crucial part of salsa, gazpacho, chimichurri sauce, veggie burgers, steamed with rice, and more. We like it in cocktails, pesto and Indian snacks, too. It is an ingredient in Belgian wheat beers!

Ahem. Keep in mind that many people are not Cilantro lovers like you and I, so go easy on it at that dinner party – leave it out of the salad. One in 6 have taste buds that find it bitter. It’s a genetic trait! Ha! More for us!

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Foliar plant care is so easy!
Use a
Dramm Can, the Perfect Foliar Machine!

Worm Castings, Compost, Manure Tea, Fish Emulsion/Kelp for FEEDING – All in ONE!

You can easily make this tea!  A handful of castings, a handful to a cup of compost, handful of manure, stir and let them soak overnight in a bucket.  In the morning, swoosh it around in the bucket one more time, let it settle, then pour the top liquid into your watering can, the one with the up turning rose.  Add a Tablespoon Fish Emulsion/Kelp, mix, and drench your plants in the morning!  Yum!

Epsom Salts, Magnesium Sulfate, Your Solanaceaes, Peppers especially, and Roses!

Magnesium is critical for seed germination and the production of chlorophyll, fruit, and nuts. Magnesium helps strengthen cell walls and improves plants’ uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.  Magnesium deficiency in the soil may be one reason your tomato leaves yellow between the leaf veins late in the season and fruit production slows down.

Sulfur, a key element in plant growth, is critical to production of vitamins, amino acids (therefore protein), and enzymes.  Sulfur is probably the oldest known pesticide in current use. It can be used for disease control (e.g., powdery mildews, rusts, leaf blights, and fruit rots), and pests like mites, psyllids and thrips. Sulfur is nontoxic to mammals, but may irritate skin or especially eyes.  Sulfur has the potential to damage plants in hot (90°F and above), dry weather. It is also incompatible with other pesticides. Do not use sulfur within 20 to 30 days on plants where spray oils have been applied; it reacts with the oils to make a more phytotoxic combination.

Epsom Salts are easy to do!  Buy some Epsom Salts, what you soak your feet in, at the grocery store, mix a tablespoon per gallon, foliar feed!  Foliar feeding is simply sprinkling leaves with your solutions, and works better than applying to the soil!  Get a Dramm 5 liter long snouted watering can that has a turnable sprinkler head.  That long spout comes in handy, reaching well into your plant!  Turn the head so the water shoots up under the leaves then falls back on the tops!  The long arc of the handle gives lots of maneuvering ability!  Feed your plants once when they bloom, and again ten days later. The results, attributed to magnesium in the salts, are larger plants, more flowers, more fruit, thicker walled peppers!  I use this mix on all my Solanaceaes: eggplant, pepper, tomato, tomatillo.  Roses love it too! 

Baking Soda & Nonfat Powdered Milk for PREVENTION!

The bicarbonate of soda makes the leaf surface alkaline and this inhibits the germination of fungal spores. Baking soda prevents and reduces Powdery Mildew, and many other diseases on veggies, roses, and other plants!  It kills PM within minutes.  It can be used on roses every 3 to 4 days, but do your veggie plants every 5 to 10 days, or after significant rains, as the plant grows, because these new plant tissues are not yet protected yet by your fungicide.  Irrigate well 2 days before use; on a sunny day spray off as much of the PM as you can from plants in sunny locations.  A heaping Tablespoon baking soda to a gallon of water, with a 1/2 Teaspoon of a surfactant – insecticidal or dish soap or salad oil, does the job.  It is not effective without the surfactant to spread it and make it stick.  You can add a liquid fertilizer with it if you want.   Cautions:  1)  I have had no trouble using it on my veggies, but it may burn the leaves of some other plants, so try it on a few leaves first.  2)  Don’t apply during hot midday sun that can burn the leaves.  3)  Avoid over use – it is a sodium, salt.  For a definitive discussion of Baking Soda usage and research, see https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/bakingsoda.html.   The article is an easy read, nicely summarized, has references, includes cautions and info on commercial preparations.  Best of all is to plant powdery mildew resistant varieties:

  • Cucumber:  Diva
  • Yellow Summer Squash:  Success, Sunray, Sunglo
  • Zucchini:  Ambassador, Wildcat
  • Pumpkin:  18 Karat Gold, Gladiator

Add nonfat powdered milk to your Baking Soda fungicide!  Powdered milk is a natural germicide, boosts your plant’s immune system!  Apply right away on young bean plants, all your cucurbits – cukes, zuchs, any mildew prone plant.  A 1/4 c milk in your gallon of water.  Get under those leaves, early morning so the leaves dry and the habitat is less humid.

Also add Salicylic acid, an aspirin to the mix! It triggers a defense response in tomatoes and other plants as well, and stimulates growth!  One regular strength dissolved/gallon does the job.

Healthy plants and abundant production are so rewarding!  Just take a few minutes to give your plants a boost with these simple treatments!  Whether Dramm, or another can, get yourself a good one!  Make it easy to get up under those leaves!  Otherwise, you are treating only 1/2 your plant!

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