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Soil Makes a Difference, Abundance

In Warrenville, IL, Shawna Coronado transformed her front yard to edible landscaping!

Super Soil Makes all the Difference! Great soil grows healthy plant roots and powerful veggies! Here are important seasonal soil care tips…first let’s consider your land.

The Lay of your Land! The shape of your land has a lot to do with the condition of your soil. If you are on a slope, do a little terracing to preserve your precious topsoil from erosion. Use the water saving principles, Slow, Spread, Sink! In lower areas, berms, raised borders, are a simple way to keep your water where it is best used. The berms also allow airflow to go over an area rather than drying the soil there. See Zuni Waffle Gardening! So shape your space! Plant according to what your land can support. Put drought tolerant heat lover plants in drier hotter places. Put water needing veggies in partial shade, in lower water collecting areas, by a spigot. Plant tall heat lovers in the West so not so heat tolerant shorter plants can be shaded from the hottest afternoon sun. If they all like Sun, plant tall to the east and north.

SEASONS

Fall – Put Summer to Bed – Clean up! Remove debris, any infested habitat. Clear places where unwanted pests or diseases might overwinter. Remove mulch so the soil can warm up when the sun is low and there is less day length. In Southern areas, amend your soil for winter planting.

WinterIn SoCal, feed 1/2 strength during cooler weather when uptake is slower. Raise Green Manures, soil feeding cover crops to restore your soil. Cultivate after rains! It’s an age old technique to aerate soil, let it dry out, kill off soil fungi. It is also called, Dust Mulching. Simply cultivate about 2 or 3 inches deep. This disturbs the soil surface, interrupting the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation.

In SoCal End of Winter, Early Spring

Compost well. Compost has excellent water holding capacity and your seeds need to be kept moist for germination. Homemade compost especially thrives with living organisms. Worms are happy and make castings! Add other amendments you prefer at the same time.

Some plants, like strawberries, need slightly acidic soil. When their soil is right, they fend off diseases better and produce like crazy. They like to be moist, so get the right compost, the kind for shade plants, and dig it in. Strawberries don’t have deep roots, so shovel-depth deep is great.

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 veggie garden that is pumping out those veggies! 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 always better, nor necessary!

Depending on what you are planting where, add well aged manure. Hard working leaf crops like lettuces love manure, so do peppers. Heavy feeders like large plants, indeterminate tomatoes, might like a little more. Just be careful not to add so much your crop goes to leaf and no fruits! If you do, there are remedies for that, but you lose production time when that happens. Peas and beans draw their own Nitrogen from the air, and carrots will grow hairy and fork if their soil is too rich. No additional manure is needed for them.

Preparing Planting Beds for Seeds

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 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!

See more at Soil Care for Spring Planting! 

At Planting Time – Using these specific ingredients below may not be your personal choice, but consider adding equivalent goodies. Every plant has different needs. Planting holes are a truly plant specific spots!

Planting Hole Amendments for Transplants

  • Nonfat powdered milk is a natural germicide and immediately boosts plant immune systems. A handful does the job.
  • Worm Castings for rapid growth, disease suppression, reduce insect pests! 25% is ideal.
  • Bone Meal is high in P, Phosphorus – blooms! Uptake is about two months, right at bloom time. It is also high in calcium, which helps prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes. I plop in a generous handful.
  • Adding Jamaican bat guano high in P, Phosphorus, at planting time helps your plants continue to bloom LATE in the season! Its NPK ratio is 1-10-0.2, takes 4 months to become available to your plants.
  • Well aged Manure to boost Nitrogen – especially for manure lovers like eggplant, melons, peppers, big indeterminate tomatoes, winter squash and hard working leaf plants like lettuces.
  • 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 in contact!
  • Compost if your soil needs a little boost right where you are planting. Remember, your plant has a circle of tiny feeder roots out to the mature dripline and sometimes beyond. That’s where the majority of feeding takes place when your plant gets big. Be sure to compost far enough out for them to be well nourished. Your plant will do better longer.
  • 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 long term mineral boost if you think your soil needs it. Kelp works quickly.

In soil with fungi, plant high so the soil drains and dries, the fungi dies. Make basins so the bottom of the basin is above the general soil level. If a plant with a lot of large leaves, put a stake in the center of the basin so you know where to water. Make the basin large enough so the edges don’t degrade from the watering and your large plant is sure to get enough water to it’s dripline, where the lateral surface roots feed. Many plants uptake more food and from these lateral roots than the central deep roots.
Special Soil Berm Basin Level for Tomatoes and Cucumbers

When Your Soil Heats Up, Mulch! A two-to-four inch layer of mulch decreases evaporation from the soil by 70 percent or more! Mulch prevents light germinating weed seeds from sprouting. You save your soil nutrients and time in the garden weeding! Water well before applying the mulch, or you will insulate dry soil rather than moist soil. Be garden smart – when possible use a mulch that decomposes and feeds your soil. But if all you have is gravel, use it!

SideDressing – Between summer watering and keeping up with harvesting, sidedressing often is neglected. But your plants work hard and need some chow! Feed your plants at bloom time. They are just about to go into their maximum production. Liquid fertilizers are easy for them to uptake. Teas – compost, worm, manure, fish/kelp – are terrific. Foliar feeding, sprinkling the leaves, upper and under, with some Epsom Salts/sulfur mix is super for Solanaceae – eggplant, pepper, tomato, tomatillo, and roses, but especially peppers! This care increases your bounty, extends your growing season.  

High to Late Summer – High summer replenish low mulch. Remove and trash mulch where plants have had pests or disease; replace with clean mulch. Keep your soil consistently moist. If you are off on vacation, choose a dependable person to tend your plants. Be sure to have them keep your plants harvested so your plants don’t quit producing. Late summer feed your plants if they aren’t looking so perky and if you still want crop. But if your plant is done, no amount of feeding will matter. They know when the days are getting shorter… Late Summer, as cooling starts, remove mulch so the soil is again warmed by the Sun. 

Words on Watering from water challenged Los Angeles! This is written by Master Gardeners representing the University of California Cooperative Extension:

  • Use the shovel test to know when to water: soil should be moist to the base of the shovel when inserted into the soil.
  • Deep watering is important. Water is not getting deep enough if you sprinkle your garden every day. It is best to water to the point of run-off, and water as frequently as needed to meet the shovel test. Also, with too much run-off, you are wasting water.
  • Teach your plants to grow deeply for moisture. In spring, for average soils, water deeply only every 2-3 weeks. By the time that summer’s heat arrives, plant feeder roots will be growing deeply for moisture, and the plants won’t need watering more frequently than once a week during very hot spells.
  • One inch of irrigated water will soak down to different depths, depending on how heavy your soil is: 12″ deep in sandy soil, 9″ deep in loamy soil, but only 3″ deep in clay soil. Plant root zones generally reach from 2-12″ down, but larger plants like tomatoes may reach 3′ down. Clay soil, because it is so compact, can be watered a little each day for two to three days to allow absorption down that far, rather than a lot of runoff by watering once for a long time.
  • The ideal time to water is in the morning before the sun is high. This avoids evaporation and also gives the plants time to dry off before sunset, which deters mildews.
  • Refrain from overhead watering when the evenings remain warm, especially when leaves can’t dry off by sunset. Fungal diseases thrive when temperatures remain between 70 and 80 degrees; and they need only 2-4 hours of moist, warm conditions to develop. Overwatering is the cause of most plants dying. Too much water drowns the roots.
  • Occasionally you should overhead water in order to clean both sides of leaves.
  • Avoid walking in your garden after watering so that you do not compact the soil. Use stepping stones, boards, or straw or mulch paths. Never step into raised beds. Healthy living soil is 25% air, 25% water. It needs to breathe and be moist for the soil organisms to do their work.

ALL Year Make Compost! It is your single most bestest amendment of all! If you could choose only one, this would be it. It’s nutritious, has super water holding capacity, and steadily releases nutrition to your soil!

When your soil looks good enough to eat, you probably have it right! 

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city’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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Soil Building Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden Santa Barbara Peat Manure

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

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

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

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

Cultivate! An age old technique to aerate soil, let it dry out, kill off soil fungi. It is also called, Dust Mulching. Simply cultivate about 2 or 3 inches deep. This disturbs the soil surface, interrupting the wicking of soil moisture from below to the surface and losing it to evaporation. Do it after rains or irrigating.

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

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

Bed Shapes

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

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

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

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

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

Composting

In Nature, organic matter, our equivalent is compost, only makes up a small fraction of the soil (normally 5 to 10 percent), yet organic matter is absolutely essential. There is various thinking about what the right amount of compost is to use in a garden. Cornell University says use 3 inches over the surface worked into the top 3-6 inches of soil! Research shows ideal soil contains 5% organic matter by weight, 10% by volume.

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

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

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

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

Favorite Additional Amendments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have you noticed dug up spots?  Have areas of your yard or garden been dug up night after night?   

Did you know?!  Skunks are excellent at rodent (mice, moles, rats) and insect control.  Their omnivorous diet includes black widow spiders and scorpions, SNAILS & SLUGS, lizards, frogs, snakes, eggs and some plant materials, pet food.  But they eat earthworms too, and skunks are one of the primary predators of the honeybee, relying on their thick fur to protect them from stings.  The skunk scratches at the front of the beehive and eats the guard bees that come out to investigate.  Being carrion eaters, they help keep roadways and neighborhoods clean.  With their slow, waddling gait and bushy tail, these gentle mammals are delightful to see from a distance, and play an important role in keeping nature in balance – the natural way.   

However.  Several of us at Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden have had major skunk problems.  Plants dug up, areas where seeds are planted dug up, earthworms eaten.  Every night.  Gets wearing.   

In Santa Barbara, Animal Control is no longer trapping due to budget cuts.  They are concentrating on animal abuse cases.  They referred me to Steve of Eradicators, who said he is scheduled 3 months out, and charges for his services.  Officer Demming at Animal Control also mentioned some trappers work with Wildlife Care Network.  I talked with Dan there. He recommends prevention:   

  • Ammonia soaked rags – smell dissipates quickly
  • Cayenne pepper, the powdery type, that will get up their nose, in their eyes. Sprinkle it on the area the skunks are bothering. The animal won’t be permanently injured.
  • Shake Away, an inexpensive form of fox urine available at feed stores.
  • Moth balls in a container that will keep it from getting into the soil. Isn’t it ironic? Skunks don’t like bad smells!
  • Vary the deterrents so the skunks do not become used to them.

Dan says the disadvantage of trapping is that as soon as one skunk is gone, another usually takes its place.  Poisoning is not a good thing since other animals may ingest it or get it second-hand by eating an animal that has.   

Two sites for information are the Humane Society – Skunks and Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network – Skunks   

I’m going to try a combo of moth balls because I think they will last longer, and pepper, as a backup.  But it depends on which is the cheapest remedy overall.  Let us know what has worked for you!   

Cute Hungry Skunks! Trouble Times Three!

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