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Container Gardening - fence bags!

If you don’t have land, don’t want to or can’t join a community garden, Small Space Urban Farming, Sustainable Containables may be perfect for you! Check what the curbside use rules are for your city. You might be able to use that space too! The number of containers is completely flexible. Have as many as you have time and energy for.

I discovered container gardening through the amazing book Bountiful Containers by McGee & Stuckey. I first wrote about container gardening in November 2012. Now there is a feast of books written on the topic. Learning container gardening principles taught me a lot about how to use precious space productively in a small area!

Containers give you complete flexibility. Have as many or as few as you want, put them wherever you want, move them, remove them, replace them! If it’s too hot or too cold, bring ‘em inside!

Garden in anything! From grow bags, hanging bags to pots. There are containers of any size, shape, material or color, some are even self watering! Some are spiffy new, others are what you have around at the time, maybe an old favorite or an old wooden bucket, the wheelbarrow with holes in it.

Container Gardening gone Rampant!

Most of all, the Beauty of Using Containers is You can plant!

You can make them, paint them!
They can get you outdoors
There’s no digging
You eat better food, fresh basil for your fresh salad.
Often, no slugs or snails, avoids soil-borne fungal diseases
Rarely any weeds
You can give them away
You can instantly remove and replace problem plants, or redesign your layout!
You can move them around for more sun or shade, for warmer or cooler
You can take them with you when you move!
No packaging, or food miles!

Location, location, location – Garden anywhere!

Balcony, Rooftop, along Stairs
Patio, Deck
Along a Wall or Fence, on top of the wall!
Backdoor, Front door
By Kitchen, in a Window
Box hanging from fence, a basket hanging from the upstairs neighbor’s balcony or a tree

A lovely raised bed in plenty of sun is a large container!

What can you plant?! Light makes a difference! 6-8 hrs Sunlight 

Everyday edibles to fruit & nut trees, minis to full size! Flowering plants, water plants, and fruiting vegetables require eight hours of sunlight each day to grow well. Root vegetables can do well with six hours; leafy plants and herbs should get at least four hours.

As a general rule leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce can tolerate the most shade, while root crops such as beets and carrots will need more sun. Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers need the most sun.

If you don’t have enough light, paint a wall white, put a free standing white reflective screen behind your plants to capture light.

Put your planties on a rolling cart, table, on plant dollies and move them with the sun during the day!
Move them from your front porch to your backdoor during the rainy or cold season, or indoors during a frost. Dollies raise your plants so your wooden containers and deck don’t rot.

Too hot?  Double pot – one inside the other. Too cold? Use black containers, wrap your pot with dark fabric, a blanket, burlap.

  • Dwarf & semi-dwarf trees, shrubs, grapes
  • Beets, chard, cucumbers, dwarf sunflowers, eggplant, dwarf kales, bush beans, green onions, green peppers, leaf lettuce, mini melons, garden purslane, radishes, spinach, smaller varieties of summer & winter squash, strawberries, determinate tomatoes!
  • Herbs and edible flowers too!
  • Select smaller veggie varieties that are bred for productivity, disease and pest resistance, slow bolting, heat and/or cold tolerance
  • Pick varieties that tolerate your conditions – sun/shade, wind, water, time of year
  • Find plants that match your diligence, time available to care for – do you like to prune or deadhead?
  • You can plant a container Orchard! Dwarf is the key word! Dwarf figs, ‘cados, citrus, plums, etc! Grafting 3 types that come in early, midsummer and fall on one tree gives you all season fruit for the space of one tree!

Designing your Container Garden

Tiered Space Saving Container Gardening!

Container gardening is a way for people living in urban areas to enjoy the benefits of veggie gardening.

Questions & Options!

Will my deck, balcony or roof support the weight of watered plants?
Do I want to get a bunch of small containers or two really big ones, or a combo of sizes?!
Can I place pots around my regular garden? Would the pots look better on my deck or around my copper beech tree?
Can I grow herbs and flowers or should I stick with one type of plant?
Will someone trip over those small herb troughs near my narrow pathway or underneath my garden arbors?
What complementary plant colors will look best in my sunny office? Or in or around my house?
Are these plants pet and child safe?
Will the draining water rot wood, drip on my table, cause mold or mildew, be tracked indoors?  Drip on your neighbor’s patio or balcony downstairs?
Do most people like the scent of that herb, society garlic? Allergies?

Containers along a Spiral Staircase can be alternately planted with veggies, herbs, more flowers for pollinators!

Design for Beauty and fit There are wonderful design programs online! Or start with one container and see what happens from there.

If you want to, sketch it out – summer, winter layouts
Pencil in your largest plants first
Tall plants against the fence, wall, to the back, north if possible, short in front, vines spilling over front
Stagger the heights of containers
Elevate with concrete blocks
Purchase just a few containers at first to get the hang of it
Mix colors luxuriantly!
Mix veggies, edible flowers and herbs mercilessly!

The simplest space saver is to go Vertical! Hanging baskets & grow bags, tiered planters, strawberry pots, pallets, gutters affixed to a fence (slope to one end for drainage & cover the low end to keep the soil in), put a trellis in a rectangular basket or oblong galvanized container, hang planters on a fence or up a wall!

Each Container is a miniature garden! Select plants with the same watering requirements.

  1. Thrillers:  the tallest, most noticeable or unusual plant.  Put pots with melons, cukes, beans, near a trellis or fence.
  2. Spillers:  plants that “spill” over the edge of the pot. Even if you are using a spectacular container, you do not want all of the plant material to only go up.  Strawberries….
  3. Fillers:  plants that tie your container together, providing a backdrop for your thrillers to shine.

Theme Container Gardens can be oriented to bring wildlife!

Theme Gardens are special!

One color
Pink!  Chard, chives, dianthus – an edible flower, monarda – an herb, pansies, sage
One type plant – a lettuce box or basket
Ethnic
Asian — Japanese Eggplant, Chinese Cucumber, Sugar Lace Peas, Broccoli, Thai Chile Pepper, Chile de Arbol Pepper, Bell Pepper, Cabbage.
Greek and Middle East — Tomato, Eggplant, Cucumber, Shallots, Garlic, Onions.
An era like Victorian – Lavender, roses, sage, scented geraniums, thyme, tulips, with violets, violas, pansies
For kids! Radishes, Thumbelina small round carrots, pansies (cat faces), purple-podded beans, dwarf sunflowers, Wee-Be-Little pumpkins!
To attract pollinators, butterflies, wildlife, hummingbirds! POLLINATION is Vital & Easy to Do!  Grow a Pollinator Meadow at Home in Your Veg Garden!

Design for Companion Plantings for many reasons! Here are just a few to get you started! There are many more combinations you will discover!

Pest prevention  Some plants emit allelochemicals from their roots or leaves, which repel pests. Oregano repels insects that bother broccoli! Borage repels tomato hornworms.
Enhance each other: Oregano enhances the flavor of beans. Carrots stimulate peas (onions stunt peas). Chamomile is called the Plant Dr!
Some plants attract butterflies and bees to pollinate your plants! Feverfew repels bees.
Others are great trap plants – they are more attractive to pests than the plant you want to save. Calendula traps aphids, whiteflies, and thrips!

Colorful Glazed Ceramic Containers of Differing Heights Create Interest!

Choosing the perfect magical container …from found reusables, on the cheap, humble homemades, to extraordinaire, there are multitudes of beautiful materials!! Shop, scavenge, everywhere!

Start with the Standards

1. Traditional Terracotta: has good air circulation, dries out fast, degrades, and is easily breakable, charming old world outdoor look, least expensive.
2. Ceramic: hardier, retains moisture better if glazed, myriad of colorful choices and shapes.
3. Plastic, Resin, Fiberglass: long lasting, lightweight, good for balcony & rooftop plantings or where weight is a factor. No air circulation. They can be inexpensive to very expensive. They are an excellent liner pot. Be sure what you choose is FDA approved for growing food.
4. Untreated Wood Boxes/Barrels: natural look, dries out fast, line with water barrier or use a sealant, use peat for insulation & to hold moisture. If use a water barrier, cut holes for drainage.
5. Magical Metals: keep moisture in

Drainage holes are a must! Ask the nursery if they will make some for you if there aren’t any. Usually there is no charge.
Grow Bags: Complete Guide to Fabric Pots 4

Pros/cons of Fabric containers  Select bags made of breathable and strong fabrics. Some are washable, reusable and biodegradable. Avoid ones made with plastics. Fold and store for later! They generally last 2-3 years. They need lots of watering, which can leach nutrients from your soil. However, the chance of root rot is little.

Excerpts adapted from SpringPot: The most unique feature of fabric containers is the prevention of plants becoming root bound, they call it ‘air pruning.’ In pots, the roots of plants tend to grow in circles entangling themselves leading to less water and nutrient intake. This increases the likelihood of having oxygenation or water stagnation issues, especially in larger pots that lack proper drainage. In fabric grow bags when the roots meet the edges of the fabric pot, they sense the drier soil that is exposed to the air. At this point, they know they have reached their growth limit. The roots become “air pruned” which is vital to growing healthy plants in containers. You will also get many more fibrous roots when air pruned. A more fibrous root system (many small root tips) allows the plants to take in more nutrients and water.

If you want prettier, most of the bags are black or gray, Simply put it in another larger container! If not protected in a container, the black ones can get too hot, put shade cloth around them (added expense and time), but you have healthy roots!

Be creative! Use what you have at hand or experiment!

Pots, baskets, boxes, grow bags, nested burlap bags, shoe bags, plant sacks, bowls, buckets, plastic containers
Plant right in the compost bag!
Bathtubs, sinks
Drawers – use untreated wood, no paint
Drums, ½ whiskey barrels
Wheelbarrow, wagon
Built-in deck planter, top of rail/wall planter
Hanging, upside down toms
Recycled anything – old garden boots, laundry basket
Greenhouses themselves are the perfect winter container or for all year Veggies!

If you like wooden troughs or baskets, make sure that your wood is of a solid quality. Finish the wood with a veggie-safe preserver. If you use barrels, make sure that the hoops are secure. Wood containers fare well in colder weather, provide more insulation than clay pots.

To retain moisture and prevent freezing and cracking, seal your clay pots inside and out with a veggie safe sealant.

Lettuces, peas, beans and cukes require the least depth; tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, the most.

You’ll need some fail-proof saucers to capture that loose soil and dripping water that escapes from the bottom of any container. Plastic saucers don’t get damp as do terra cotta ones.

Your Very Own Pepper Nursery Container!

Making a Home for your Plants  Soil, Filling Your Container, Seeding, Transplanting

Terrific Vertical WorkStation to tend your Container Garden properly!

Soil Selection is critical, a workstation is optional but very nice!

A high-quality potting soil works, choose ones with time release nutrients!
Use all potting soil, or add the very best compost!
Topsoil alone is too heavy, doesn’t drain well, too dense for tiny roots to get through
Soilless mixes are two to three times lighter weight
Each year use fresh soil mix when you plant

Put drainage holes in your container if they aren’t there already. 3 to 5 is good, use your judgment.
For less weight on a balcony or the roof, line the bottom with capped plastic bottles or insert a smaller upside down pot, put your soil on top. It uses less soil, weighs a lot less, especially when wet .
OR, install a self watering system, sub irrigation.
Fill with your soil – lace it  with slow release organic fertilizer (and a ¼ cup lime for tomatoes)
Install trellises as needed for beans, cukes, toms, melons, squash, grapes
Anchor pots and trellises securely if your plant will get tall or is in a windy spot

Seeding, Transplanting

Partially fill your container, put your central or tall back plant in, fill around it. Add any peripheral plants.
Water gently so you don’t wash the soil away from the roots, add more soil if needed as the soil settles.
Plant seeds according to the instructions on their packet in 6 packs or right in your container!
Water again with a watering can so as not to wash the seeds away or cause them to get uncovered, or covered too deeply with soil. Keep them moist!
Top dress, mulch with wood chips or as you like, about 1” deep.  Less weeds, saves water, keeps your soil moist.  Keeps roots cool in summer, but remove in winter so your soil will be warmer. Cocoa mulch is toxic to dogsMulching ~ Why, When, With What, How Much?!

Container Gardening Self Watering Bowl or Pool!


Self watering, save-water Sustainable Container Technology!
  You can use this in any small container to kiddie swimming pool containers used in rooftop gardening! The principles are the same. If you decide to purchase, there are multitudes of amazing, and even lovely, self watering containers available! Or get a DIY kit, or simply DIY!  There are various techniques.

 

 

 

If it is hot weather or you may be away, try these bottles with watering spikes to keep your plants moist.

 

 


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Fertilizing, Side-dressing

Since potting mixes drain water rapidly, fertilizer will be leached out of the container as you water.
Avoid contaminating vegetable plants with manures (use only if well aged and incorporated in your soil weeks in advance), teas, or organic emulsions. Do not use manure foliar teas on veggie leaves that you will eat, like lettuce. Not recommended by UC Master Gardeners. Instead, use a dilute liquid fertilizer with every other watering, maybe every two weeks. Liquid fish emulsion is smelly but good. Liquid seaweed/kelp are great plant boosters, add trace elements.

Remember that you need to provide your plants with a variety of nutrients.
Compost and/or worm castings are tasty additions!
Or use organic time release pellets when you build your soil!
Check the labels on the products in your garden center to be sure that they contain a complete, balanced solution that includes trace elements. Be sure to get a season or use specific mix. Early on you want Nitrogen for leaves, but not too much or you get all leaf, no bloom. Be a bit careful with phosphates for bloom…not all soils need it added.

Contact your local extension office to inquire about soil testing. Many municipalities offer soil testing free of charge.

Special Care for Your Tomatoes – the most popular container plant!

Scout around for a good container tomato soil mix or build your own! See Tomato Dirt! They do not recommend to scoop up your ground soil – ‘It compacts making it difficult to water and keep aerated by mid-season. Also, garden soil is infested with fungi, weed seeds, and pests, which can wreak havoc in your containers…’
IF your soil is acidic, add a ¼ cup lime (calcium) when making your soil mix
And a tablespoon of Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom salts), both to prevent blossom end rot
Secure your plant so it won’t topple in the wind
When the plants are flowering, give the stems a sharp rap about 11 AM to help pollination along.

Common Problems Help List – Be vigilant, Remove diseased plants ASAP! If you are trying to save a weakened plant, move it away from your other healthy plants. Weak plants are vulnerable to pests and diseases. 

Common Problems of Container Gardening Help List

Your harvest! Harvest, Seed Saving, Sharing the Bounty

DO harvest!  When the time is ripe, do it, don’t let it go to waste. If you don’t pick, ask yourself why.  You don’t like that veggie as much as you thought you would? You planted too many plants and you are tired of it! Your recipe is too time consuming or intimidating? Harvest is too labor intensive? This is all a natural part of the live & learn gardening experience. Plant something different, differently next year.

Keep picking, especially beans, cukes and peas, or your plant thinks it is done and stops producing.  Pick daily, don’t ‘store’ on your plant. Cut & come again plants are a true value! Take lower lettuce leaves and the plant will grow more; cut off onions 1-2″ above ground and they will grow back! Several times!  Chards and kales too! When the radishes are pulled, plant more or something else right away!

Seed saving is your 2nd harvest!

If you have a plant, that does terrifically, you might want to save some of its seeds! Or sow them immediately for continuous harvest!

Tie ribbon around a plant you choose to save seeds from to remind you once it has stopped producing you don’t accidentally remove it.
Let it flower – the bees love it, let it seed.
Let the seeds, or your bean pods, dry on the plant. Tomatoes get a different treatment. SeedSaving! An Easy Annual Ritual & Celebration!
Harvest the seeds midday on a dry sunny day.
Label your envelope – save date, plant name.
Store in a cool, dry place.
Some seeds have a short shelf life, only 1 season, so check to see if you should be sure to plant them next year or give them away to someone who will!
If you have extra, share your seeds at a neighborhood garden exchange, Seed Swap, or give some away as holiday or birthday gifts!
Organize your garden seeds during our cool season. It is an inspiration for spring planting!

Container Gardening can be one of the most creative experiences you will ever have! Exercise your options! Have fun and be healthy!

The Beauty & Pleasures of Container Gardening! Pattypan Squash!

Wherever you are, enjoy growing the most colorful tasty organic veggies!

Last updated 7.31.20.


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

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

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Amendment Biochar Applying

Charcoal-like biochar improves soil hydration and enhances agricultural production while it curtails nutrient leaching, increases nitrogen available to plants and reduces the release of gas pollutants. A new study by researchers at Rice University and North Dakota State University gathers current and potential sources of government support to promote the production and use of biochar. Credit: Ghasideh Pourhashem, from the January 11, 2019, Rice University post. Read more Biochar holds promise for sequestering carbon and cleansing polluted air.

Fans rave about its virtues. Some are skeptical but want to learn more. So, wanting to learn, possibly use, I typed in ‘2018 2019 Biochar pros cons’…carefully read the latest noncommercial posts and their comments threads.

A few years ago a knowledgeable gardener I know raved about biochar. Now, some years later, recently a friend sent an article that turned the tables enough to make me want to check it out. One is how it was compared with natural soil that is replenished with biochar by forest fires. Two is how Biochar has several soil sustainable features, but foremost is how it keeps Carbon in our soil hundreds, maybe even 1000s of years! And that is to say nothing of its water holding capacity! Carbon is the foundation of our soil ecosystem. Three: Also, I recalled how amazingly my winter and summer garden plants grew last year. It started with a collusion of happenstance. I planted quite late, Dec 10, 2018 during the Thomas Fire ash fall. The ground was literally solid white with ash and chunks. But this winter my plants didn’t do nearly as well. Hmm… Granted, the ash is not biochar, but it’s a relative – it came from the high heat of a forest fire.

Right now, planet wide, by many, Biochar is considered crucial to our planet’s sustainability. Using it is a regenerative practice that will help our plants not only weather extreme conditions, but thrive!  

BIOCHAR RESEARCH

There are technical discussions, both pro and con, in a language all their own, to simple explanations for the home gardener. The main research is in consideration of farmers with vast tracts of land that could have significant impact on climate change.

CONSIDERATIONS

Nov 29, 2018 From a field day presentation at California State University-Fresno, here are some points from Suduan Gao, a research soil scientist with the USDA San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier. She talked of the potential of applying a biochar amendment to help in water and nutrient management.

Biochar is charcoal used as a soil amendment. It is made from biomass through thermal decomposition [fire]. Gao said it increases water use efficiency and nitrogen retention, reduces leaching, cuts nitrous oxide emissions and reduces ammonia emissions.

Gao said nitrogen dynamics are influenced by biochar and are highly affected by irrigation levels.

She said ammonia volatilization loss was substantially higher when fertilizer was applied only a few times in a larger amount than when it was applied more frequently in smaller amounts.

“Soil accumulates more nitrogen at lower irrigation levels than at higher irrigation levels,” Gao said. “The accumulated nitrogen, however, can be all leached during the rain system.” [Fertilizing after rains is more better!]

She said there were no significant biochar effects on ammonia, nitrous oxide and soil nitrate concentration, but there was a significant interaction between biochar and irrigation.

PROBLEMS WITH BIOCHAR? Fabulous or Fantasy? Is it too good to be true? There are extensive rebuttals to its use, even warnings that it’s not all the fans say, can even cause harm!

Nov 18, 2010 DR MAE-WAN HO said ‘Turning bioenergy crops into buried charcoal to sequester carbon does not work, and could plunge the earth into an oxygen crisis towards mass extinction.’ She further says: …implementing the biochar initiative could be dangerous, basically because saving the climate turns out to be not just about curbing the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere that can be achieved by burying carbon in the soil, it is also about keeping oxygen (O2) levels up. Keeping O2 levels up is what only green plants on land and phytoplankton at sea can do, by splitting water to regenerate O2 while fixing CO2 to feed the rest of the biosphere.’

  1. She cites: A ten-year trial in Swedish forests showed that buried charcoal appear to promote the breakdown of humus, the decomposing plant matter on the forest floor, thus completely offsetting the carbon sequestered in the charcoal.
  2. She discusses examples of the stability of biochar stating that it isn’t always stable. [In a 2012 Mother Earth News post, Editor Dr. Kehres (Journal “Humus and Agriculture“) summed up a symposium: “Biochar appears over-rated — the biochar claim to 1,000 year stability is revised downwards to 10 to 100 years, roughly the same as compost.”]
  3. She warns that things that happen so fast now that we have the internet and huge commercial organizations, a lot goes on without public awareness or understanding and no testing. Since this one expressly claimed climate change remediation, it was touted to be necessary immediately. Some fads are found to be faulty later.
  4. She gets into comparisons of interest to gardeners, stating that Biochar effects on soil fertility are not always positive. Field trials were conducted on cleared secondary forest with 15 different amendment combinations of chicken manure (CM), compost (CO), forest litter, chemical fertilizer (F), and charcoal (CC) applied once on rice and sorghum, and followed over four cropping cycles. Chicken manure gave by far the highest yield over the four cycles (12.4 tonne/ha). Compost application came second at about half the yield, but was still four times higher than chemical fertilizer. The control, leaf litter (burnt and fresh), and charcoal treatments gave no grain yields after the second season, and were discontinued. Further, in combination with compost, charcoal amendment decreased yield by about 40 percent compared to compost alone, and only improved yield in combination with chemical fertilizer.

Read the comments on this page for rebuttals and further information. It is suggested Biochar is not THE answer, but part of a complex mix of possibilities.

This 2013 Mother Earth News post Biochar: Not All It’s Ground Up to Be? states the appropriate use of Biochar depends first on soil type. Some soils retain nutrients very well without any amendments like biochar. Tim Crews says: ‘If you’re cropping on soil types other than Ultisols or Oxisols and you manage your organic matter (residues, manure, compost, etc.) well, you don’t need biochar. It won’t do anything for your fertility.’

Second, a ‘situation in which biochar could provide benefits is on very sandy soils in arid climates, because of its ability to improve such soils’ water-holding capacity, reducing drought stress on plants. But making biochar requires large quantities of bulk plant material, and the biochar factory needs to be close to the source of that material; therefore, the product would have to be manufactured in or around highly productive lands or on vast areas of unproductive lands, and then be hauled long distances to the arid environments where it’s to be applied.’ Not only is the available quantity of crop residue per acre too small, but to haul residues off of cropland to a biochar plant would be to further rob the soil of organic matter, while paying a price in energy and other resources as well. After all that, some ‘studies that found yield increases with such heavy application found that after a few years, soil carbon was no higher in biochar-treated plots than in control plots.’

Biochar has been under discussion for years! When you are doing your own questing about it online, look for current posts and research. Note whether the post is on a commercial site, a university, posted by a farmer, if the poster is knowledgeable, what their credentials are or aren’t, if they have experience. Remember that universities make money from research grants on popular topics and sometimes the donation is made by a company. Go to permaculture sites for a look at possible long term possibilities, concerns. Look for pros and cons.

In 2018, the agriculture application segment accounted for 71.1% of the total biochar demand. That makes sense because they have the biggest land holdings. [But it also means 28.9% is used by others, including home gardeners! That’s a big % considering the sizes of their small gardens!] Quoted from a Biochar fan, he says ‘However, a large number of farmers still lack in knowledge about the product and its benefits.’ My question back to him was ‘Do you know what % of farmers use biochar?’

Amendment BioChar and Compost + Manure Yields Great Results!

Some say Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

When would you, a home veggie gardener, use biochar?

First, are wood ash and biochar the same thing? Yes and no. Biochar is made at 450 °C/842 degrees F with low oxygen and wood ash is made at 870 °C from the same mixed hardwood. What about BBQ charcoal? Not the same thing as wood ash or biochar! Not recommended for garden use.

How do you even know if you need Biochar? Was there a forest fire ever there and you already have it? They say biochar comes from such fires and lasts 100 to 1000 years, or 10 to 100 depending on where you read… That translates to the question whether Biochar is considered to be stable or not and under what circumstances.

Have you been applying wood ash from your fireplace regularly? Some gardeners say Yes, used it for years, readily absorbed, amazing crops! Great substitute for lime to raise pH. Others say it’s grey death. It has a high pH that throws off the balance of your compost/soil, can kill off the microbes that are producing your compost. Poster Mr Bill says: ‘Charcoal chemically functions like a sponge, absorbing many organic compounds. When placed in nutrient rich soil, it absorbs the excess nutrients and traps them in the soil. As the carbon in the charcoal is annexed by fungal colonies, those nutrients are released over time. By tying these nutrients up in the soil with charcoal, they resist erosion and release at regular intervals, rather than the feast or famine spikes in levels that occur with manual fertilization by humans.

However, ‘…added to poor soil, or soil deficient in even one nutrient (which may not be obvious), the charcoal’s sponge-like absorption can compete with the roots of plants for the nutrients, leading to increased disease susceptibility or irregular growth hazardous to the plant.’ So it’s good with good soil, bad with deficient soil.

Lord knows even a 10X20′ community garden plot has varying soil content within the plot for many reasons. In my case, I trench in kitchen waste given to me by neighbors. One eats lots of bananas, hence peels. One is a super juicer, greens, carrots, etc. + lettuce and avocado. Another is a senior tea drinker, so little bags along with old snacking grapes, a few eggshells, a bit of coffee and citrus peels, etc. I get them when they have enough. They put them in a bucket outside my door. I take them to the garden and trench them in where compost is needed most. Sometimes a certain kind of plant never thrives in one area no matter what I do. It would take a lot of soil testing to sort out these small areas. I do my own remediation by adding store bought fluffy compost, and chicken manure in general. Most of the time it works fine.

FYI! If you are using or opt to use wood ash as an amendment, DO NOT mix the wood ash with nitrogen fertilizer; a reaction can occur releasing ammonia gas.

Be careful with your choice to use biochar. Is your garden flourishing because it is high on temporary soil amendments that will be spent this season? Is one area doing great, another adjacent area not doing so well; great for one plant but not another? Does your summer or winter garden do well and the other season doesn’t? Plus, all Biochar is not created equal. Its pH and ash content vary depending on the temp it was created at and the feedstock (what was burned) used, whether that was contaminated or not. In general Biochar raises soil pH. You need to use the right amounts. In a community garden 10X20′ plot, where the soil pH varies within the plot, you don’t have room to test/experiment. The increase in soil pH with alkaline biochar will be higher in acid soils than in originally alkaline soils. However! If a biochar has less ash content it will decrease soil pH because of the organic matter content.

Clearly, fireplace ash that is added every season or spring, doesn’t function the same as biochar that lasts 100 to 1000 years. It is either used up or leached away by watering, otherwise, your garden would have the highest pH in history! If biochar can’t be removed from your soil, and lasts for 100 to 1000 years, and your soil is unfavorably balanced, you may need to adjust your soil for a long time. Ironically, it works best where you already have a super flourishing garden!

Note, the type of fire makes another difference. There is increased growth after a forest fire, but slash and burn techniques have a long term bad effect in just a few years. Definitely not sustainable. Wildfires get much hotter, average over 1600°F, than farmer-made controlled burn fires kept under 1000°F to clear a field. Wood burns differently at different temps; the coals have a different structure. Forest fires burn hot at the center with low oxygen and you get Biochar. Big difference. All fires are not equal.

Mr Bill made a convenient list for us home gardeners!

• Use on rich soil with no deficiencies
• Use to correct acidic soils, or amend the pH of the char before application
• Never use on acid loving plants like blueberries [strawberries, celery, beans]
• Add to compost after composting has finished, not during composting. The recommendation for application is about ½ cup per cubic foot of finished compost. [That’s not a lot!]
• Use in moderation
• Never use char from pressure-treated or painted wood.
• Don’t use petroleum based fire starters or fluids if you intend to use the ash.
• Fires started with alcohol or non-paraffin wax are acceptable for garden use.
• Be mindful of your nutrient levels and pH when using char, test regularly for best results.
• Not all char is equal, refuse from wood gasifiers or efficient wood stoves is preferable to that from your campfire, fireplace or grill, but all are acceptable for use given the correct use of your discretion.

Making Your Own Biochar Amendment in Place!

HOW to MAKE OUR OWN BIOCHAR?! 

Though it’s been many years since the Biochar cure has been offered and raved about, using biochar on a mass basis has not been implemented to an extent that is making a planet wide difference. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use it individually. The simplest way to do it is right where you will use it, just like the Amazon Indians did 2000 years ago.

First check your legal situation before you go for it! Per the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District where I live: A burn permit is required for all outdoor burning activity except recreational (campfires) and cooking (BBQ). This includes: Agricultural Burning (see definition) … Residential backyard burning (permitted only in the unincorporated areas of the Santa Ynez Valley)

Highly flammable gases are released during pyrolysis, so make it outside, well away from buildings, animals and people!

Barbara Pleasant, famed author of 5 garden books, throws in her two cents! ‘Last year, I committed one of the great sins of gardening: I let weeds go to seed. Cleaning up in fall, I faced down a ton of seed-bearing foxtail, burdock and crabgrass. Sure, I could compost it hot to steam the weed seeds to death, but instead I decided to try something different. I dug a ditch, added the weeds and lots of woody prunings, and burned it, thus making biochar. It was my new way to improve soil—except the technique is at least 3,000 years old.’

Barbara words the process more simply… What’s biochar? Basically, it’s organic matter that is burned slowly, with a restricted flow of oxygen, and then the fire is stopped when the material reaches the charcoal stage. Unlike tiny tidbits of ash, coarse lumps of charcoal are full of crevices and holes, which help them serve as life rafts to soil microorganisms. The carbon compounds in charcoal form loose chemical bonds with soluble plant nutrients so they are not as readily washed away by rain and irrigation. Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

She speaks of the Amazonian ‘dark earths,’ terra preta, that ‘hold plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. Even after 500 years of tropical temperatures and rainfall that averages 80 inches a year, the dark earths remain remarkably fertile…’ They were produced this very way, burning. …composts and other soil-enriching forms of organic matter last longer. …increased productivity by making nutrients already present in the soil better available to plants. …organically enriched soil retains nutrients for decades rather than for a couple of seasons. This charcoal releases its carbon 10 to 100 times slower than rotting organic matter. See the details  See Twin Oaks Forge for making charcoal in a barrel!

Why buy commercial Biochar? 

Jeremy Menefee says, first, because they use more advanced tools and techniques than the home producer can easily acquire, commercially-produced biochar is usually more consistent in composition and charred under ideal temperatures.

Second, they are able to produce inoculant tailored to specific uses. Vermont Biochar, for example, produces (by hand) several versions ideally suited for either leafy annuals, root crops, or shrub or woody perennials. Each uses a different composition of inoculant to tailor it for the specific application.

Experienced permaculturist Jeremy also says to Biocharge your Biochar! Even commercial biochar producers say their products benefit from being biocharged again once it’s on your property, to tailor it to your site conditions. Here are two easy methods he recommends.

1) Compost charging Even if you buy inoculated biochar, rather than producing it on-site, it will be improved by maturing in your compost. You can use as much biochar as you want, up to about an even 1:1 ratio with the compost, so don’t worry too much about overdoing it. The Biochar doesn’t break down in the process. You may have shorter compost times! Some experts recommend adding both manure and bones.

Quick tip: If you have time, a great way to get the most out of your biochar is to spread it an inch thick or less into your farm animal bedding. Then, when the bedding is spent, add it to the compost pile. [LOL Black Sheep?!] The biochar is essentially ‘double-charged’ in this way. Also, in addition to stacking functions of your animal bedding, this can help reduce odors. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can also reduce illness among your animals!

2) Rapid Charging! The other way to inoculate your biochar is a bit more labor-intensive, but you can complete the process in hours or days, not months. First, fill a 55 gallon (210 litre) drum with fresh water and biochar. If you are using municipal treated water, let it sit for a couple days to remove any chlorine. Then add compost tea or worm castings and leachate to the barrel with some soil from the area where you will use the finished biochar. For example, if you are going to apply the biochar to your fruit orchard, add some soil from around a robust and healthy tree in that orchard. This will help charge the biochar with the ideal microbiology for your specific orchard.

Once everything is well mixed, insert a long tube such as a length of PVC pipe into the barrel and direct air from a blower into the tube, or use a pond aerator and air stones. Aeration supercharges the inoculant and gives the beneficial microbes a massive head start, and helps them adhere to the biochar. Continue this for 12-24 hours.

Safety when applying Biochar amendmentBe careful when applying dry Biochar!

Wear a dust mask such as the 3M™ 8511 Particulate Respirator – N95 to protect your lungs. Moistening biochar can help a lot with dust control. Some Biochar is shipped with about 30% moisture content to help with dust control. Protective eyewear will reduce the chance of getting dust in your eyes. Wear gloves! Wear rubber boots that can be cleaned easily! Apply evenly on a dry, windless day. Mix thoroughly into the soil before planting.

How much do you apply? Doing it right depends on what kind of soil you have and it’s tested content, its pH, how much you want to raise the pH if at all. And, of course, none, if you don’t need it or your situation isn’t right for it!

There are different answers!

  • A company says: From everything we have seen in our own use and through the research of others a good “rule of thumb” is 10% of the planting area should be biochar. If your soil is absolutely horrible you should probably start with a 50/50 mix of biochar and compost and apply about 1/4 lb per square foot.
  • Typically home gardeners use 5-10% biochar in the top 6 inches of their soil.
  • A gardener says: If bought, follow the instructions on the bags, but I would suggest 50/50 with soil and the same for containers, and see your results the first season before you adjust quantities.
  • Farmer Jeremy Menefee says: It takes about 10 pounds of biochar to properly cover 100 square feet. For potted plants, use pure biochar at a ratio of about 1:16 with your potting soil – about ½ cup per gallon of soil. This ratio is good for raised beds as well, one gallon of biochar per 16 gallons of soil. If you inoculated your biochar in compost (at ratios up to 1:1), just apply compost as normal – the presence of biochar doesn’t change the amount of compost used.

How to apply? Simple!

  1. Made your own in place? Just add amendments of your choice, especially compost, and till it in.
  2. Purchased, preferably inoculated? Lay on about 1/4″, amendments and till it in. If you don’t have much, spread it out and add more each time you amend.
  3. If you’re not able to till, spread out your inoculated Biochar, cover with mulch to hold it in place, let Nature do the work for you.

Coast of Maine Biochar Amendment raised bed mix

Biochar IS big business. There is university research devoted to it for sustainable reasons. They make huge grant monies from it. Yale and Cornell, Ames Iowa, Delaware, Missouri, North Dakota, Rice U in Houston Tx to name just a few schools. Government is in on it too, for example the USDA’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. There are subsequent conferences, magazines, books, products at your nursery.

USBI Biochar 2019 – is the largest event in North America dedicated to advancing the sustainable production and use of biochar through scientific and engineering research, policy development, field practice, and technology transfer. It will focus on bridging scientific, industrial, practitioner, and policy gaps in biomass utilization for biochar and bioenergy production. June 30 – July 3 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins Colorado.

BIOMASS Magazine – Beyond the Hype

Check out the BioChar Journal …we want our readers to be confident that what is written in the Biochar Journal is based on sound science and practicality.

Local gardeners might see various products at their nursery. A blend in snowy Maine might be quite different than in SW SoCal droughty areas. Before you order up online, take this into consideration. When buying locally, look on the package to see where it was made, then check out those ingredients. The bag shown here is definitely intended as a pH raiser; it has biochar and lime!

For those of us gardening at community gardens, we need to think of what the next gardener’s soil needs might be after you leave. What if they primarily want to plant acid loving plants, those blueberries, strawberries, celery or beans? In keeping with rotating crops, planting in a different place each year, to avoid soil diseases various plants are susceptible to, we may need to stay flexible – amend each season or year with regular or acidic compost per patch as we go.

If you have a good size parcel of land for veg gardening, that you plan to keep for many years, soil test different areas. You might coordinate your Biochar choices with the land’s own natural flow, plant accordingly. Some sites say it takes about a year for the Biochar/soil relationship to be fully established. If you are planting in raised beds/containers, where soil is leached of nutrients due to higher soil temps, drying, in those structures and frequent watering to compensate, replacing spent soil/compost each year, Biochar isn’t going to work for you.

Making your own Biochar is cheap, but a lengthy process you hope you do right. Probably wise to have someone experienced with you when you do your first processes. First there is gathering the right materials, selecting the right place and technique for the kind of results you want, doing the burning. Then there is the biocharging process for it to do its best work. Buying Biochar can be pricey if you get the best, inoculated. If you put it where it can be used to best advantage, that is worth the one-time expense.

Your final decision to use or not use Biochar may be based on your instinct. You may decide not to use it at your current location or in a specific area of your garden. You might move, or be visiting in another gardener’s location and feel it is the right choice for that place. Maybe you will decide to wait and see. Honor your feelings. You might not save the planet today, or maybe you will by using succinct educated choices.

Bless you for being a garden guardian, a caring Earth Steward.

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

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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Say what?!  Why is Hugelkultur, ‘hoogel kultoor,’ considered a Permaculture* technique? It resuses logs – freshly downed or old, wood debris right in place. It fits the needs of the land – less to no water, self fertilizing soil building! ‘Hugel’ means hill in German.  In this case, steep is good, tall makes for easier harvesting!  It is another form of composting in place, or building a raised bed, with more benefits, concentrating heat and nutrients!  Sepp Holzer has used the technique, but never called it Hugelkultur.  His wonderful method is diagrammed in the image.

Holzers version of Hugelkultur, hill planting, is now adopted by Permaculture gardeners.

Paul Wheaton at RichSoil.com explains it simply:

‘Hugelkultur is nothing more than making raised garden beds filled with rotten wood. This makes for raised garden beds loaded with organic material, nutrients, air pockets for the roots of what you plant, etc. As the years pass, the deep soil of your raised garden bed becomes incredibly rich and loaded with soil life. As the wood shrinks, it makes more tiny air pockets – so your hugelkultur becomes sort of self tilling. The first few years, the composting process will slightly warm your soil giving you a slightly longer growing season. The woody matter helps to keep nutrient excess from passing into the ground water – and then refeeding that to your garden plants later. Plus, by holding SO much water, hugelkultur could be part of a system for growing garden crops in the desert with no irrigation.’ He does caution about what kinds of woods not to use, and recommends the best ones to use.

Hugelkultur as diagrammed at Paul Wheaton's site RichSoil.comHolzer’s diagram shows one log.  At Wheaton’s site the diagrams show a veritable lumber yard pile!  Gradually the pile decomposes making super nutrients!  Lay down your logs – don’t be shy, stack ’em deep, twigs, branches as per the images. Fill with dry brown leaves if you have them. If you are taking up sod, turf, lay it over the top of the logs upside down, cover with soil! Plant!

You can make borders if you wish – dense hardwood logs, stones you removed from the soil you gathered.  There are so many terrific ways to vary making a Hugelkultur garden! Use what you have about, do what fits your site needs. With urban neighbors nearby or woodlands, street side to backyard, it works! Start small, add some each year, or do huge if you have the materials available!

This might not be a project to start at the beginning of a rainy season. Now would be excellent! Get some plants on the mound right away. Vines with big leaves are terrific to protect the soil from washing away, let the soil settle, get the system percolating. Squash, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins. Use some allysum as filler.

Perfect in areas short on water because after it’s established, the first two years, it needs NO irrigation!  It is self feeding, no fertilizer needed!

Lawns to slopes! Hugelkultur terraces act like mini bioswales to slow, spread and sink rainwater!  That’s Hugelkultur farmer Glenn Kangiser’s planted slope in the image below!  Would love to see your images if you give it a go!

Hugelkultur farmer Glenn Kangiser's planted slope!See all the details, and Paul Wheaton’s thoughtful therapy on how to talk with your skeptical friends and neighbors, and tons of images!  Click on every image to go to a thread about it! Marvelous inspiring ideas!  I used to say garden anywhere, now I’m saying Garden EVERYwhere!

* “Permaculture uses ecological design to build self-sufficient human systems that meet our needs while regenerating and healing the natural environment. Central to the practice of permaculture are three core ethics, taken from the study of cultures which have traditionally lived in balance with nature: care for the earth, care for people, share the surplus.” Permaculture Guild of Santa Barbara, sbperm2006@googlegroups.com

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February! SOIL & SEED Month!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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