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Posts Tagged ‘No-dig’

Soil No Till Lasagna Compost in Place, Sheet Mulching,

No Till Gardening aka Lasagna Gardening… Beds are finished. Push aside grass clippings to plant seeds or seedlings. Read the story, get the details! Start making living soil asap! 

Grow Green Manure  SoCal’s two best starting times are October 1st for mid January bare root plantings, and January 1 for April heat lover plantings! Adjust as you need for your own timing needs. Plant legumes for Nitrogen, oats to loosen the soil down deep. It takes two to three months depending on which plants you choose to grow. If bell beans are one of your choices in a mix, when it starts to bloom, chop your green manure down. Let it lay on top of the soil 2 to 3 weeks, keeping it moist. Add whatever other amendments you choose and turn it all under. Let it sit 2 to 3 weeks more so the soil organisms can decompose it and build soil structure. If you have heavy clay soil or are in a drought or dry, windy area, add Sphagnum Peat Moss to both loosen your soil and increase water holding capacity and more compost too. Probably the fluffy store bought compost with a lot of texture will do the best. Let the mix sit until you no longer see the green ingredients. Keep it moist, not muddy, so the soil organisms will work all the way to the top. See more: Cover Crops  Living Mulch

Make Compost!

No time for Green Manure? First week of January might be the latest time you want to start growing your green manure so you can plant late March, first two weeks of April. So if you won’t be planting by then, add your home grown organic compost or the best you can buy that has worm castings (especially for planting seeds – speeds germination), mycorrhizal fungi for spring planting, some peat to help make humus to keep your soil loose.

Some nurseries, especially locals that depend on your business, are quite trustworthy about what they stock for you. Box stores, nurseries that sell for volume, may just want you and it out the door. Really take a good look at that ingredients list. If there is no list, you likely aren’t getting a very whole food for your veggies. Look at what is in that compost bag when you open it. If there are chunks of recognizable materials, you need to find out if the compost has been nitrogen stabilized – they’ve added enough nitrogen to balance the carbon. Otherwise, Nitrogen required for decomposition is robbed from your plants. It should have no ammonia smell that indicates immature compost that might damage your plants. The only smell you want coming from that bag is for it to be like the forest floor, sweet and earthy.

In SoCal drought times, or garden in a dry, windy area, compost is the single most thing you can do for your soil to add water holding capacity! Sphagnum Peat Moss or coir can be added, but not too much peat because it can make your soil slightly acidic. If you have heavy clay soil, they will also loosen your soil.

Compost is totally easy to make. There are many methods, but the simplest and fastest technique has always been putting fine chopped kitchen waste and healthy garden trim in mini 6 to 8″ deep trenches or areas! Soil organisms are at work and it completely disappears in less than 2 weeks, and you don’t have to move it, it’s already in place and ready to plant in! If the soil there is too dense, you can add store bought compost that has a little fluff, more water holding capacity.

If you need to collect a little compost in place, there are no open trenching spaces available right now, you can make layered compost in a compost enclosure or pit if you wish. 1″ green/wet to 2″ brown dry. You can turn it or not. Research shows not turning it has more Nitrogen. There are many different compost devices. You can use one or just make a pile wherever it makes sense, but do put it in the sun and keep it slightly moist so it stays active and you actually get some compost! Compost making methods!

Tasty soil is loaded with nutrients! What you put in your compost makes a difference. High quality organic kitchen scraps sure beats cardboard and newspaper. Same thing with your worms. Newspaper isn’t exactly food, doesn’t occur in nature. As is said, ‘You are what your food eats.’ Give your compost the best you have or can get. Prevail on your neighbors or family to save their waste for your compost or to feed your worms. Make it easy for them to do the process. Some will deliver it to you because they believe in it and want to help. You may have to make a pickup from others.

No till, no dig, gardening a.k.a. Lasagna Gardening ~ Another way to Compost!

You can do this on top of your lawn, or do a raised bed in the garden you already have! A word to the wise! First, install gopher protection.

If you have the time and materials, composting in place, sheet mulching, has the single most advantage of not having to haul anything anywhere once done! It’s already right where you want it! Lay down your compost materials. Put the ones that would act like tea at the top so when the pile is watered that good stuff drizzles down. The smaller the bits, the faster the decomposition. Chop ’em up!

Depending on your materials you may choose to turn the pile a couple times to blend and mix the materials in the layers. Rather than using a shovel, a spade fork or pitchfork might work, better. If you have them, add worms after all turning is done so they won’t be injured. The worms will add their castings for you! Possibly, ‘inoculate’ your pile with a wee bit of already processing compost or top rate soil that has working soil organisms in it. Know that an 18″ pile will soon become a 9″ pile, so don’t be afraid to build high!

If you want it sooner, cover and ‘cook’ it with black plastic for 6 weeks results when temps are high enough. Worms will be ok. They will go to the bottom of the pile. Depending on availability and preferences, what you layer on will undoubtedly vary from someone else’s project, but your garden bed is made! Now you wait. Let it sit. The hard work is at the front, the rest is ‘low maintenance!’ Done ‘right’ you have less weeds and it needs less water! Read the story that goes with the image above – get more ideas and all the details!

Another terrific way to make a sustainable pile is to do it Hugelkultur style! Your pile starts with logs! The logs and branches soak up water and hold it, so less water to none is needed after the first year. The right hardwood logs will give your plants steady nutrition for 20 or more years! You can do this with many variables depending on materials available and your needs – from containers to the hill method! See more and see how!

Add Manure

Cow manure is better than steer manure if you can get it. Chicken manure is good. Less of it does more. Be careful of free horse manure. It can be salty, and if the stalls have been sprayed to repel flies, you’ve got toxins. All manures need to be very well composted, except bunny poo, which you can sometimes get free at shelters. Different bird guanos do different things per NPK, but mainly they take a long time in the ground before they become available to your plant. Study up on them before applying them.

Worm Castings! 

In nature, worms are a natural part of moist soil. In addition to soil nutrients, it’s smart to add worm castings. They speed germination of your seeds, seedlings grow faster. Worm castings help your plant’s immune system, and you have measurably more produce! Plants like strawberries, that tend to attract fungal spores will also benefit. Castings contain anti-fungal chemicals that help kill the spores of black spot and powdery mildew! Growing your own worms and harvesting vibrant fresh castings is ideal, but if you don’t have time, simply buy the best organic, local if possible, castings you can get! More about growing worms!

The ideal ratio, depending on your soil, is 25% castings. You can see that is a lot of castings if you have a 10X20 foot area. Use your precious castings wisely. Use them in seed beds, planting holes, around ailing plants, or heavy producers.

The worms used for making castings are surface feeders, red wigglers. If you trench your compost, add some of them. If you do sheet composting – composting in place, set up a no-dig Lasagna Garden, install some worms! If you don’t turn your compost, add a handful of worms to your compost pile and keep the pile moist. If you turn your compost, don’t add them – you could injure or kill them. In dry times cover composting ground areas with mulch so the compost will be dark and moist, and your worms safe from birds. If your pile is moist enough, cover it before rains. Shade slows things down; put your compost in the sun!

Compost Tea Bu's Brew Biodynamic Malibu BagTeas offer increased nutrient availability!

First, Temp and Timing matters, especially to the home gardener brewing outside, not using a brewing system. The microbes we want are the most happy at about 75 F, a comfy room temp for us too. Put your brew out of direct sunlight. Making tea outdoors generally doesn’t work in winter, even in SoCal. So if you can, make it indoors. If you need to transport it, you may need to put it in smaller covered containers.

Why wait until your plants are in the ground to add teas?! Start feeding your soil soonest! Mix ’em up. Put compost, manure/fish emulsion, castings, chopped nutritious comfrey/borage/tansy leaves all in a bucket together – adding one volume of compost to 4-10 volumes of water. Let them sit overnight, a couple of days, stir a couple times, when you think of it. Get a spade fork, the kind with the short wide tines. Push it all the way into the soil, wiggle it back and forth to make holes, lift it straight up back out. Pour in your tea. Push soil in the holes. Your plants will thrive!

If you are foliar feeding, put your ingredients in a stocking, sock, or bag. Let the ingredients settle or strain it so it won’t clog up your gear. Use a watering can with a head that rotates so you can spray both on and under leaves, wetting the whole plant.

About that comfrey. It is especially nutritious! Mash it in a mortar & pestle. That makes it easier to stuff into a stocking, sock or bag, and speeds decomposition. Put the comfrey in loosely, not too firmly, so the water can circulate around it.

Here’s another recipe and instructions from Shelle

  1. 2 cups worm castings [or your choice of ingredients]
  2. 2 tablespoons corn syrup or molasses. Molasses feeds the bacterial growth in the brew and also contributes trace elements of iron, manganese, copper and potassium.
  3. 5 gallon bucket
  4. Old sock or pantyhose (no holes), a bag
  5. Water (rainwater is best or let it sit out overnight to allow chemicals to dissipate)
  • Put the castings (etc) in the sock and tie it closed
  • Submerge the stocking in water
  • Add the corn syrup and soak for 24 hours, stirring every few hours. Your mix should never be stinky. Like good compost, it should smell earthy.
  • Dilute to a 3 to 1 ratio, use within 48 hours

There are many tea making methods, from the simplest like above, to technical and elaborate with plenty of debate over different ways. Aerobic brewed teas have much higher microbe population densities than extracted teas and for this reason are the teas of choice. A good head of foam and scum on top signifies healthy microbe action! Try out different methods for yourself if you have the time and the gear, and love researching. Whichever you choose, your soil will come alive again as the organisms start thriving. Your soil will have greater water holding capacity, a resiliency, the aeration it needs from the burrowing of soil creatures.

If you have your plant placements in mind, be sure to invest your teas out to the anticipated dripline so feeder roots will get some.

Teas are perfect for container gardens, right?! You can buy ready made tea bags. No digging, just feeding.

See more important details about teas and tea making! Teas! Compost, Manure, Worm Castings Brews!

Soil pH

Most veggies do best with slightly alkaline soil but will be ok a little to one side or the other. Definite acidic soil lovers are strawberries, blueberries, cranberries. Composts for camellias, azaleas, are perfect!

Do or Buy!

Three of the main components of top grade soil are ones you can grow/make on your own – green manure, compost, worm castings. Teas you can make from compost and castings. For most urban gardeners it is a trip to the nursery for manures, but you can certainly make your own tea with it! Compost and castings are totally available, some from organic local venders. I emphasize doing your own when possible. You will know what’s in it and it’s 100% fresh and alive!

There is some good ready made stuff you can get. There’s heroic satisfaction in toting those bags on your shoulder or filling the wheelbarrow and rolling it in, almost spilling the load on the way… Digging in your valuable ingredients gives you a feeling of virtue – LOL, worthiness, contributing. And oh how your garden grows!!!

At the same time, lay on your compost, manure, and Sphagnum, any other favorite amendments, and turn it in all at once, blending it with your soil. Castings are usually added separately unless you have enough for the whole area. Reserve some of your castings, compost and manure to make teas. Where you run out of materials, use the tea to help that soil.

A few more tips!

If you have had rain, wait until your soil is not so wet that it sticks to your shovel. If you are digging your amendments in, do minimal digging; leave clumps when you can to maintain soil structure. Disturb soil organisms, worms, the least possible. We want to leave their air and water channels intact so your soil stays aerated and moist. Make beds in your garden that are comfortably reachable without stepping on your soil. Make pathways, either with boards that distribute your weight or lay down straw or other organic material to make a pathway that will decompose and become rich soil for next year’s plantings when you move the path! In other words, don’t compact and crush your fluffy healthy soil!

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

See also SoCal Fall/Winter Veggie Soil Care Tips for Delicious Returns!

Updated 12.27.18

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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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Veggies growing in homemade compost!

Veggies growing in homemade compost! Photo by Rod Zimmer

Compost is the single most best thing you can do for your soil! It feeds your plants, adds water holding capacity, and much more! 

Anytime we have a season change, compost becomes more important. In summer most of us are thinking how can I do it all?! Harvesting takes more time than waiting for the plants to produce. There’s more watering to do in summer. Yet, fall is soon upon us and though making compost takes a wee bit more time, it is so needed to give our plants a good start! In winter, making compost is essential for spring planting!

Here are some possibilities!

There are 3 basic kinds of compost, cold and hot and composting in place.

Of the cold kind….

The kind that finishes the quickest is the kitchen veggie waste that gets chopped vigorously with the shovel every few days, turned and turned again. Small bits decompose faster. The pile is kept moist. The dry brown material in the pile isn’t usually  straw. Straw is hard to chop and takes a long time to decompose. It’s more like leaves, some already chopped, partially decomposed mulch type stuff. The right leaves have nutrient value. See more. With only a couple of turns, this whole process might take two weeks, usually less – even in cooler weather! It’s quick. For quick results it’s also best to put your compost in full sun. Shaded compost usually ends up untened. It’s in an out-of-the-way place, processes so slowly a lot of gardeners forget they ever made the pile. Neglected, the pile literally dies.

In a community garden or a small garden area you might not have space for such a pile. But if it’s a priority you probably will make the space! If you do, and if you want to keep it a bit contained, instead, make a shallow pit and put your ‘pile’ in there. Toss a thin layer of healthy soil over it and turn that in to inoculate your compost with soil organisms. They will speed the decomposition process. A thin layer of soil also keeps flies away and you have no smell. Cover it with a light layer of straw or plastic to keep it from being unsightly to visitors while it is in process. A wire cover over straw lets rain in, so I use a couple plastic bags left from manure. I put a light weight board over my cover and a concrete stepping stone on the board to keep it from blowing away. If it rains, the cover keeps your processing compost from getting too wet. If it’s dry weather, covering keeps it moist. It will decompose better rather than off gas the Nitrogen, dry and die. The cover is instantaneous to remove, then you can have at that pile with gusto! With that kind of pile, you have a fairly steady supply of compost. Most of the time some of it is ready to put here and there.

I am very grateful to three neighbors who give me their green kitchen waste. Since I also grow worms, I ask them to give me only what they imagine a worm could eat. Worms!

Compost Sifting‘Every day I fill the wheelbarrow with rich screened compost. It really smells quite delicious; nutty with a spicy note.’ Sifting your compost is a piece of cake! Grab your wheelbarrow or bucket, get a piece of hardware cloth/hogwire or a nursery plant flat with a smaller weave to it, like in the image, and sift away! You can build a lovely framed sifter or buy great rolling devices. Choose the size opening you want. Or, don’t sift at all. I like a little texture to my compost. 

Have your compost pile handy, nearby, warm in the sun for speedy decomposition! Keep it moist, cover it when it needs it – in hot/dry or rainy weather, turn it! Compost that gets turned regularly often gets raided before it’s completely finished. You can still make out some of what the stuff is that’s there. That works just fine because it finishes quickly, in the ground, at home with all the lovely soil organisms.

If there comes a time when you compost has been sadly neglected, spread the stuff out as a mulch and start over, or let it go and just buy what you need. No shame in that.

Hot Compost is PDF, pretty darn fast!

It can heat up to amazing temps, so hot it makes ash and you cannot put your hands in it without getting burned. You can see it steaming on a winter morning! The point is to kill diseases, pests, weed seeds. Well that almost gets done, because, you see, the heat is in the middle of the pile. So they say turn it so the hot part goes to the outside and the cool part to the inside. That, my friends, is easier said than done. But, at least some of it happens.

Two interesting points here. My cold compost pile gets that hot! Yep, it does. A well-built pile with thin layers will cook quite happily no matter your intention. It’s nature. The other thing is I don’t put diseased plants or seeding weeds in my pile, so I don’t need it to get hot. Sure, some pest eggs probably make it. However, what happens most is veggie seeds sprout when I put the compost in to amend my soil! I swear, I can’t see those seeds when it is compost. It all looks dark and yummy. But lots of times I’m glad that happens! The plants get a terrific start and I get surprises! This year I enjoyed two elegant celery plants that came up about a foot and a half from each other and everyone complimented how beautiful they were, robust, with gorgeous long dark green stalks!

Whether you do hot or cold compost is your choice. I’ve tried it both ways. Sincerely. Got a long thermometer, built cubic yard piles and turned them. Now I have cold compost and turn it. No way around that turning if you want results sooner than later. It doesn’t matter what size I build it. I’ve seen 1 cubic foot piles heat up just fine! If it gets hot, it’s hot. If it doesn’t that’s fine with me. Taking care of it, turning, keeping it moist, making thin layers gets the job done. The layers are more a measuring device – 1 dry to 2 wet. Once they are in, mix up the material so the straw is moistened and the wet just doesn’t make a mass. My friend who chops and turns his with vigor gets much faster results, and I may take that up too.

Composting in place

No dig composting in place is an age old technique more recently called Lasagna Gardening. It takes some prep time, that is often done with a group of friends, but once that is done, you’re home free! There’s no turning, no carrying finished compost about because it is already where you want it! Materials may take longer to decompose. It is a cold pile, but if your pile is directly on the earth, soil organisms happily munching makes things happen quickly. It takes a lot of materials to start depending on the size you want your garden to be. You can start with a small area, add more later.

The beauty is it can be done on top of a lawn to form a raised bed, with or without a box border. If you have lawn where you want to plant, peel back the lawn or not, lay down cardboard or newspaper to kill off the lawn, prevent it growing back, up into your bed. If you choose cardboard, water a LOT to soak that cardboard. Layer to your heart’s content until you run out of materials. You can make beds 18″ high to start. They will settle a lot. That 18″ can easily become 9″ in two or three days in warm weather! You can plant instantly! Just pull back a planting hole, add some ready or nursery-bought compost and any other amendments right for your plant, and plant! Your amazing ‘lasagna’ will decompose and make beautiful soil without you doing a thing more! Add more materials as you acquire them to any spots you want to build up or if you want more compost or a bigger or another bed!

If you are doing composting in place while gardening, you just put on the layers, between the plants or down a row, with the materials you have on hand until you run out. The smaller the chop, the pieces, the faster the decomp. Keep them moist so they will decompose faster.

Trench it and forget it! Trenching has always been the simplest technique of all! It’s a super simple way of putting chopped veggie kitchen wastes to work. Dig, pull back a 6″ trench, no deeper. Soil organisms live at the top. Put your kitchen waste in the trench, grab the shovel and vigorously chop the waste into fine pieces. If you don’t feel like chopping it, don’t! Put in the stuff, cover with some of the soil you pulled back. Turn that a couple times to mix in soil organisms to speed the decomp process, cover with the remaining soil and forget it. Period. Done. A week later you can dig in that area and find no trace of it. Soil organisms are intelligent and born hungry.

I combine trenching and a pit. If I have a spot needing compost, I trench it there. If there are no spots needing it right now, I put it in the pit and hold it until a spot needs it or a plant needs sidedressing (feeding mid season). In that case, in summer I also at a bit of manure or if it’s SoCal winter time, a little fish emulsion for easy and quick uptake.

NOTE! Compost you make isn’t the same as manure, nor nursery bought bagged compost. When you trench, you can add those at the same time if you wish. Manure is good ole down home stinky poopy stuff high in Nitrogen. You can also plant cover crops, living mulch, green manure for Nitrogen. You plant different areas to restore your soil, or in SoCal winter to make good soil for spring planting. Your soil also needs water holding capacity from bulk – what is called forest materials in nursery compost bags. Bagged nursery compost is fluffy. Air space. Your soil needs that too. Kitchen waste compost doesn’t have that. I buy bags of nursery compost – bulk and chicken manure – Nitrogen, as well and add them, sometimes to an area, definitely to my planting holes. Plants uptake a lot of their nutrition from tiny lateral feeder roots that often grow beyond the dripline of your plant, so if you can, do a whole area. Add special amendments to your planting hole. Make that planting hole a bit larger than you have been doing? Sometimes it depends on your budget how much materials you have available. Planting cover crops is cheaper, but it takes longer…

If you have massive amounts of stuff to compost, the fastest way of all, record time, is to use maggots! Cities use them and sell the compost! See all about it!

Hugelkultur Sepp Holzer Diagram Cross Section

Hugelkultur is a long term choice. Hugelkultur, hill mound, is the quintessential sustainable variation of ‘composting’ in place. 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! Woods that work best are alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout). Add leaves, grass clippings, straw, cardboard, petroleum-free newspaper, manure, compost or whatever other biomass you have available. Add some red wiggler 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.

Raised bed Hugelkultur Lasagna Combo Buckman StyleIf you are starting a raised Hugelkultur bed, dig down about a foot or more, lay in the big logs, big branches around them, smaller branches on top, layer as above to the height you want, allowing for settling. The difference is that this is a flat top raised bed. You can also dig deeper and make the top of the bed flush with your soil! Also, you can do terracing with a Hugelkultur substructure.

Container gardeners you can do your own mini Hugelkultur version as well. A 1/2 beer barrel, a five gallon can, kid’s swimming pool, whatever you have, can be repurposed! Just be sure there are drainage holes. Double purpose your container by making it a self-watering system as well!

Hugelkultur is an excellent long term sustainable choice!

~ The heat from decomposition gives your plants a terrific early start or extends your growing season. You do need to be careful of freezes if you live in a cold area.
~ The right hardwood logs will give your plants steady nutrition for 20 or more years!
~ If you do the above ground version, you have more planting space because it is tall and vertical!
~ Nearby fruit trees are also fed.
~ The logs and branches soak up water and hold it, so less water to none is needed after the first year.

More clever tips!

  1. At intervals, near the center of your compost pile, place handfuls of old compost or fresh rich soil, as an infusion, an inoculant of soil making organisms.
  2. In dry SoCal, I cover my compost pile to keep it from drying out, and I never need to water it.
  3. When cold composting and composting in place, add red wriggler worms to chomp up materials. They add worm castings that help your plants’ immune systems and uptake of nutrients. If you will be turning the compost, kindly use a pitchfork so there will be the least damage to your worms.
  4. Be smart, add herbs! Penny Woodward says: ‘Regular handfuls of chamomile, dandelion and yarrow leaves and flowers will all speed up decomposition of the compost with YARROW being the most effective. Yarrow also adds copper, nitrates, phosphates and potash while chamomile adds calcium and ‘sweetens’ the mixture. Dandelions contribute copper, iron and potash. Nettles are problem weeds but they actually improve the quality of the soil they are growing in and when added to the compost they contribute iron and nitrogen. Tansy adds potassium, which is very important for plant growth while Valerian increases the phosphorus content so essential for good flowers and fruits [but is invasive!]. The most nutritious compost plant is COMFREY and it grows most of the year in SoCal coastal climate. The leaves are rich in potassium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphates. I keep a clump growing next to the compost. It grows like crazy, and I layer on a handful of leaves whenever I throw in kitchen scraps.
Stemilt's World Famous compost!

Fine finished Stemilt World’s Famous Compost!

Mix it up! Do any version or combo of compost versions that work for you or as you have the materials available to do what you want! Do more than one method at the same time! Super soil is the Number 1 thing you can do for your garden and compost makes the difference! When your compost smells great and you could just about eat it, you know you made it right!

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All that said, there are tons of composting devices available. Some work more or less, some work for one person but not another, for various reasons. Google for pros and cons of each one before you purchase. See if you think you will tend it as it needs to be tended, if it suits your needs, your location. Will you need additional tools. Imagine doing the process it requires. Would that really work for you. Worst is you buy and it fails. You can resell it, give it to someone who would be dedicated to the process it needs, donate it to a charity sale, or an organization that needs one. It’s ok.

All that said, if building your own compost isn’t your choice, support your local nursery and get the best from them! Otherwise, have a good dirty time of it!

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. We 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!

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Garden Low Maintenance Wicker
Casual and comfy outdoor living/dining room. The owner says ‘…the wicker furniture in my garden was found —wearing a “free” sign— on the side of the road.’

I’ve been so serious about this due to the request of a friend, but I love how this gardener started her post: ‘The easiest way to keep vegetable gardening from being hard work is to pay someone else to do the work while you watch from the comfort of your air conditioning sipping on a cold beverage. (Well someone has to say it!) LOL’ And I have to laugh with her!

Whether you are super busy, as my friend is, or working, raising a family, doing dedicated community work, or are a senior taking it slower, or managing an estate, here are some helpful ideas to soothe your way.

As always, soil building is Number 1!

Start with a wide beeline path between your kitchen and the composter! Now that ‘beeline’ may be curvy, but make it the main pathway especially if your composting area is in a far corner. Consider putting your compost closer, centrally located, so you spend less time going to it, delivering compost from it. Add some solar lights for nighttime forays. Perhaps the composter can have a taller many flowered (for the bees) plant on the side to hide your compost area from view, but you know where that path leads. Make it sweet and easy to get there.

Make composting the simplest! Everyone has varying amounts of time and energy to compost. It can be a simple pile. Period. Just keep it moist.
  • If inclined, add a super simple divider like a piece of plywood jammed in the ground so you can turn the compost from one side to the other. That speeds up the process, aerates the pile. If you have compost type worms, throw in a handful and let them add precious castings to your pile. Decomposing will go faster.
  • If you love composting and like building, you can build a tidy 2 compartment setup.
  • Have one of those lightweight hard but thin rubber composters you can move about, enriching the soil at each spot you put it. Rather than spread the compost, plant right in it!
  • Save time and speed your compost by having a covered straw bale right next to your compost. If you don’t want it jutting out, break the bale in half, stack and cover or stand it on end between two hefty stakes, cover. Making compost is so easy. There will be no smells or flies if you layer. 1/2 Inch layers are ideal for fast decomposing, but do what you can. Every time you have non-seeding, disease free weeds or kitchen scraps (no meat – brings predators, no grain – brings mice & rats, little citrus – too acidic), lay it in, then cover it with a twice as thick layer of straw or dry brown waste (dry leaves) as the top layer. No smell, no flies, either!

Design makes a huge difference! And it all depends on how much space you have and how much time and energy YOU have! You want a veggie garden but the space is overwhelming?! Reduce the gardening space!

Garden Low Maintenance No Box Raised Bed The Gardener's Eden

  • As at The Gardener’s Eden, design your paths to be wide, almost as wide as this simple planting mound! Mounds are good in cool moist areas. Dug down beds, like Waffle Gardening, peripheral berms, are good for hot drought areas.
  • The purpose of wide deeply mulched pathways is to break up the space into smaller attractive patches. If your land is sloped, natural contour divisions may be obvious. The idea is to have less area to plant and tend. Same thing with the plant to camouflage your compost area. It takes up space you don’t have to repeatedly plant and repeatedly harvest. Three foot wide paths are fine! That gives you room to move your straw around to mulch under summer plantings, and to wheelbarrow in any bags of special amendments.

    And pathways become Black Gold! Deep straw is great in pathways. Dig down about 6″. You can lay down cardboard first to keep weeds at bay, water lightly, then lay on your straw, replenish as needed. It will be slippery at first, so be careful. If you want the path to become future garden space, omit the cardboard, keep adding straw as it flattens down. By the following summer, the straw will have decomposed, made rich soil. Move the path over one width, and plant in last year’s path!

  • Make a sweet little seating area that takes up more space you don’t have to plant ever again and is enjoyable to boot! It’s a one time job so you can watch your plants grow! Could be just for two, or for a few friends to join you upon occasion. A colorful folding adjustable tilt umbrella is lovely for summer shade. A tree stump table, a couple of comfy back supporting chairs, or bring over folding lawn chairs for summer night star watching! You can take them in during winter. Could be a clever way to ‘store’ another couple of straw bales, casual seating for kids. Do it your way. The simplest flooring is an attractive mulch. If you are a builder, put in a mini deck, squared or curvy as suits you and the space available.
  • Would you like a covered area for garden items storage? How about a little veggie processing table by the hose for processing plantings or your harvests? Maybe even a little greenhouse?! All these lovely amenities take up space you don’t have to garden but make gardening happy. Cleverness prevails!

Do these bits little by little. Might take a couple or three summers. All in good time.

There is no need to build raised beds. You can make them by building up certain areas, like in the image above, by composting in place, but no walls/box are needed! Save yourself and your time. And it gives you more flexible usage of your space. Your soil is actually richer and you save water since less watering is needed and less soil ingredients are drained away. Higher areas are good for plants that like drainage, like strawberries. Save water by scooping up raised mounds with a well on top for tomatoes, cukes, squashes. Put a stake in the center of the well so you can see where to water when your plant’s leaves get big.

Preparing your Beds! NO DEEP DIGGING NEEDED! Usually. Annuals, that’s most veggies, use only the top 6 to 8″ of soil! Adding compost, manures, worm castings, may or may not be needed at all. If the soil has been resting, maybe all you need to do is weed and plant. If the soil is dead and dried out, amendments are probably needed, especially compost, to increase water holding capacity. Start watering to soften the soil and make your work easy, take less time. Get top of the line compost with everything in it. If you can find it, get a manure mix, especially if it has cow, not steer, manure in it. Worm castings are for your plant’s hormones and immunity to pests and diseases. Add all your amendments at the same time; turn them in. No stepping on your new beds and crushing the air out of them! Soil organisms need air to breathe just like we do! Put in stepping stones as needed. Better yet, make beds so narrow you don’t need to step in them at all!

Use any existing fencing, walls, for trellises. Install some permanent trellises, wire guides or hang a remesh panel on eye hooks. One time job. Tie your tomatoes to the fence, run your beans/peas up the trellises. Remesh can also be circled into sturdy easy access tomato cages!

Trellis Cage Remesh

Weed mat? My 20X20 garden is so active that I don’t find weed mat to be helpful. I like to rotate and plant successively, and not in the exact same places. Plus, I do understory plantings of small plants on the sunny sides of larger plants and they are always coming and going. Better I like deeper mulching that feeds the soil. I just pull the mulch aside and plant when and where I feel to do.

Drip lines? Similar answer. In my Southern California garden plants come and go, not only seasonally, but again, as I plant successively and biodiversely, deliberately mixing it up! I water when my plants need it, as much as each needs it. I find being there hand watering makes me see what’s needed and I take better care of my plants. Your circumstances may be different. Do what makes you happy to be there.

Wise Low Maintenance Plant Choices and Harvesting

  • Plant only your very favorite veggies that make you want to garden! Simply don’t plant others you or your family don’t eat up quickly that end up in the compost.
  • Plant from transplants! No growing from seeds that need daily watering then seedlings that need tender vigilant nursing.
  • Choose award winning veggie varieties like AAS 2015 Winners by region, non GMO. Get vibrant healthy transplants with staunch disease and pest tolerance and/or resistance, heat/drought tolerance, humidity tolerance or proper cold hardiness. Don’t lose time with questionable box store plants, spindly, puny, sometimes sick or pest infested, or root bound plants.
  • Choose plants that produce well in your soil and temps so you aren’t discouraged. For example, in the NW you might not choose plants that take a long time to produce; summer is just too short. Carefully choose sunnier locations with low wind and warmth from fencing. Ask around your neighborhood, at your LOCAL nursery for recommendations.
  • Plant fewer plants. Less Zucchini is a classic example. Instead of a vining Zucchini, get a bush/container variety. Plant less string beans. Harvesting, one, two beans at a time, is labor intensive, time consuming, to say the least, and they are prolific! Yes, you can give them away, but if you find yourself not gardening because it takes too much time….
  • Plant plants with large footprints and low maintenance! For example, rather than a 2′ diameter calendula that needs constant deadheading to look good, put in a 3′ to 4′ diameter Borage! Both are beautiful but the herb Borage uses more space, makes pretty, the flowers are edible, requires no maintenance, and, they generously reseed themselves!
  • Rather than gardening vertically to save space, plant ramblers and let them ramble! Put in a mound of 3 winter squash, or melons, and let them ramble a whole patch! All you do is watch and water. Or put in the biggest vining zucchini you can find. They produce a lot and take up a LOT of space you don’t otherwise have to maintain. Put a stake in the basin on the mound so you know where to water when the leaves get big.
  • Tuck in some hardy perennial herbs close to your kitchen at corners or entrances for quick convenient harvest, beauty, fragrance! Some are invasive, like Oregano, so sink in a bottomless 5 gal container to keep them where you want them. Again, less maintenance in the long run.
  • Instead of canning, do the simplest! Whack them into the size you like and freeze ’em in serving size bags or containers you can reuse!

Weed before they Seed! That’s the one thing you need to do like religion for less maintenance later! Otherwise you have a continuous supply of lots of weed babies. And don’t put seeding weeds in your ideal habitat compost! That weeding certainly doesn’t have to be done all at once. Each day or every few days, do a small area. It goes quickly that way and progress feels so good.

To your low maintenance gardening pleasure!

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Mycorrhizal Fungi, the Proof is in the Roots!

Mycorrhizal Fungi increase uptake of nutrients by increasing the surface absorbing area of roots 100 to a 1,000 times!  This is like having way more than a second set of roots!  They work in both natural soil and with fertilizers added, especially phosphorus. P is for  flowering, so increases production.  The fungi also release powerful enzymes into the soil that dissolve hard-to-capture nutrients, such as organic nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and other “tightly bound” soil nutrients.  The extra nutrients can fuel better growth and increase resistance to drought and disease.  Plants in soil with well-established mycorrhizal fungal root systems are better able to survive droughts and transplant shock, and the fungi’s ability to alleviate salt stress is well documented.

Two exceptions to using MF:  1) When the soil already has such ideal nutrient and moisture levels that the plants can scavenge enough on their own.  2) with Brassicas (members of the mustard family), because they do not allow the mycorrhizal fungi to colonize their roots!  Save your time and money!

There is so much more known now due to research the last 40 years!  David D. Douds, Ph.D., a microbiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), notes that different species of plants have different tendencies toward developing mycorrhizal associations. For example, he has found that leeks greatly benefit from mycorrhizal association in most years, while tomatoes and peppers are more likely to benefit when they are more nutrient-or water-stressed. Brassicas such as turnips and radishes do not form mycorrhizal associations under any conditions.

Recent research shows mycorrhizal plants warn each other when disease or pest infestations occur.  ‘The uninfected ‘receiver’ plants also activated six defense-related genes!’  The infected or infested plant may die, but the others live!

Don’t kill your Mycorrhizal Fungi!

Day to day gardening can degrade and destroy delicate mycorrhizal fungi, and the mycorrhizae-forming potential of your soil.  Not good.  Tilling and hoeing, removal of topsoil, erosion, site preparation, compaction (removes air and damages filaments), fumigation, relentlessly removing weeds, and leaving soils fallow without a deep mulch covering, are some of the activities that can reduce or eliminate these beneficial soil fungi. Scientific studies indicate endo mycorrhizal fungal populations are slow to recolonize, unless there is close access to natural areas that can act as a source of mycorrhizal spores to repopulate the affected area.  Reintroducing mycorrhizal fungi in areas where they have been lost can dramatically improve plant performance with less water and fertilizer and at a reduced cost.

So, for example, if you just dug up an area to install gopher barriers, that area needs some babying, tender repopulating.  And you can see this is a huge reason to do lasagna gardening, or sheet composting.  Put the nutrients, compost on TOP of your soil.  Don’t dig up your soil and destroy the mycorrhizal network and soil structure of the micro herds of soil organisms, or the mini air tunnels earthworms make that let your soil breathe and moisture to soak in!  Don’t be shy!  Pile it all on a foot to 18″ deep!  Remember, that pile will rapidly settle to about 6 to 8″ deep.  For immediate planting, pull some holes open, add a tasty compost, and plant away!

Tips to Help your Mycorrhizal Fungi Flourish!

  • Add fungi!  Sprinkle dry or pour or spray liquid fungi right on the roots as you put in your transplants, except those Brassicas.  Use a core drill or auger and put liquid fungi down into your soil.  Not only does it help veggies, but your turf grass as well!  While you are at it, put in some compost tea in alternate holes to build your soil herds.  You will be amazed at the results from these amendments!
  • If your soil is already high in phosphorus (get a soil test), do not fertilize with a phosphorus-rich amendment, because too high phosphorus levels inhibit development of associations between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Manures and manure-based composts can be high in phosphorus, so test these amendments before adding them.
  • Minimize digging (especially rototilling), as it can break mycorrhizal hyphae, preventing them from colonizing new plant roots and transporting nutrients.
  • Don’t let your soil dry out!  Cover it deeply with partially composted leaves and other organic material if you aren’t planting there right away.  Plant densely enough that your plants are living mulch.  Or, simply water anyway until you are ready to plant.  If it will be an extended time, best of all is to plant a quick growing soil-feeding cover crop!
  • Grow a diverse mix of plants in your soil for as much of the year as possible, because mycorrhizae need active plant roots in order to develop.
  • If you decide to use mycorrhizal inoculants, look for a company that produces the inoculant in your geographic region.

Elaine Levine suggests techniques to keep your mix diverse:

• Rotate crops each year (as long as there aren’t too many successive brassicas). Crop rotations are vital to mycorrhizal fungus populations because, in addition to providing a continuous succession of root hosts, different crops also tend to favor different species of mycorrhizal fungi.
• Plant a cover crop. In addition to adding organic matter and retaining soil nutrients, the cover crop offers host roots for the mycorrhizal fungi to colonize and helps them proliferate in preparation for your next planting. A good mix of crops above ground is the best way to support a mix of beneficial fungi below ground.
• Lighten up a bit on weed control, because, surprising as this may be, weed roots can also be excellent mycorrhizal hosts.

Santa Clara Master Gardener Elaine Levine says ‘These simple, no-cost steps help keep the soil’s native population of mycorrhizal fungi healthy and diverse, harnessing yet another gift of the natural environment to create a vibrant and abundant garden.’  She’s so right!

TheEarthProject.org says:  Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi [AMF] is the medium of soil structure, it determines the flow of water, nutrients, and air, directs the pathways of root growth, and opens channels for the movement of soil animals. As the moderator of the microbial community, it determines the metabolic processes of the soil. In other words, the mycorrhizal network is practically synonymous with ecosystem function.

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