Posts Tagged ‘Organic Fertilizer’

Here are a couple of things I read over the past week that you might want to take a look at.

The Cost of a Green Lawn. There’s a new law in New Jersey limiting the amount of fertilizer that homeowners and landscapers can use on lawns. The law was passed after environmental activists warned that state legislators that “Barnegat Bay, the state’s largest enclosed estuary, was dying, in part because of the pollution caused by runoff lawn fertilizer as it washed into the sewer system. Such overstimulation has caused an increase in algae and jellyfish in the bay, and a decrease in sea grass, fish and shellfish.”

People, do we need our green lawns so much that we poison the waterways and kill everything that lives in them? Really?

So what should you do about it, wherever you are? At the very least FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE PACKAGE. A lot of pollution comes from people not applying the recommended amount of fertilizer, pesticide, etc. Use only the recommended amount; more is not better. Better yet, reduce the amount of lawn to the bare minimum (which might be none!), use only organic products, and learn to live with a few weeds.

In an interesting speech William Rosenzweig, accepting the Oslo Business for Peace Award, talks about the lessons he learns from his garden and how he applies them to business. I especially like this quote: “In essence, the gardener’s work is a life of care. We cultivate abundance from scarce resources. We nurture, encourage, fertilize – and prune when necessary – while being respectful of the true and wild nature of all things.”

Love that!

Come back tomorrow for a new Tuesday’s Tips on building a raised garden bed.


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Mary Beth and I decided to have our soil tested a few weeks ago. We were curious to know if all the work we’ve been putting into improving the soil over the past few years would show up in the test results. The bottom line is: of course the addition of all those organic amendments, mulches and fertilizers made a difference. We could have guessed that because our plants are happy, healthy and provide an abundance of flowers and crops, but we also wanted to know if there might be any problems cropping up or if we’re about to overdo it with fertilizer.

Mary Beth has been improving her soil for more than 12 years. All of her new beds get a generous addition of organic matter, she mulches often, and fertilizes every spring and fall with her favorite product, Yum Yum Mix. I, on the other hand, got a later start and have only been at it for a little over two years. I also dig organic matter into all my new beds and side dress plants with my own organic compost at least once a year, but I haven’t been so great about mulching.

We had our soil tested at two different labs just to see what the differences might be. Mary Beth sent her sample to the Colorado State University Soil, Water and Plant Testing Lab. She used the Horticultural Applications for Gardeners test which costs $28. I used the University of Massachusetts Soil and Plant Testing Lab. They charge $15 for a Standard Soil Test w/Organic Matter.

Here are the two reports: MB Soil Test and BW Soil Test. They both have their plusses and minuses. The CSU report is well-organized and presented in an easy-to-read chart. The U Mass report is visually a little bit of a mess — clearly this is a report that is based on a format used for scientists not home gardeners, but if you give it a good look it contains a more detailed analysis. It also reports the lead levels in the soil, so this is a test we would recommend for urban and suburban gardens if you plan on growing food crops.

We both live in the West in areas where the soil pH tends to be alkaline. Most plants do best when the pH is slightly acidic to neutral, somewhere between 5.5 and 7.5, though acid loving plants like azaleas and camellias like a soil pH of  5.0. Both of our soil samples tested in the acceptable range for all but acid-loving plants. The U Mass report suggests that I use an acid mulch like pine needles for those plants.

The levels of organic matter in our samples reflected our efforts. Mary Beth’s report indicates that her OM is high and they recommend that she maintain it using organic mulch. My soil OM level is “lower than desired for most herbaceous perennials” and the report recommends that I use plants that are adapted to such conditions or improve the humus content with finished (aged) compost. It goes on to make suggestions for both new bed prep: “in early spring incorporate 1 part peat moss into 2 parts soil along with 3 parts of dried blood per cubic yard of soil;” and established beds: “in early spring and early June sidedress with 1.5 cups dried blood per 100 square feet taking care not to damage foliage and water afterwards.” We really liked that the U Mass report provided a remedy that was so specific.

Both reports give the levels of individual nutrients in our soil and U Mass also included two documents that will be very helpful. One is Soil Test Interpretation and the other is Fertilizer Products and Their Properties. Note that this second one provides info for both organic and synthetic fertilizers. I’ve marked the synthetic fertilizers with X’s to indicated that we do not recommend your using them in your garden. There’s also a handy guide showing the capacity of some common household containers. CSU also provides lots of useful information on their site.

Getting your soil tested is a good idea. It’s a very inexpensive way to find out what your garden needs and it will take the guess-work out of deciding what kinds of amendments to use. It will also help you figure out how much fertilizer you need. Mary Beth found out that her nitrogen is very high. This means that she can skip the Yum Yum mix for a while. Too much nitrogen can result in an overgrowth of foliage at the expense of fruiting and more than that can actually harm plants and the environment. My nitrogen is very low, so I’ll be fertilizing with liquid fish emulsion fertilizer (contains nitrogen that is immediately available to plants) and with another longer lasting organic fertilizer on a regular basis until future tests show a better level.

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Today’s tips are meant for gardeners in Southern California, but will apply to those of you in cooler climates in a month or so.

We’ve been having a spell of wet, cool weather. Normally things are growing at a rapid pace by now, but because the night-time (and even the day) temps have been unseasonably cool our gardens are a bit behind where they would normally be. Still, that’s ok because it gives us a chance to catch up if we’ve fallen behind.

March Garden Maintenance

  • Fertilize lawns. I use GroPower Plus and it seems to work well. It has humic acid which is really good for conditioning the heavy clay soil in our area.
  • Fertilize roses. This year I’m trying Dr. Earth Organic 3 Rose and Flower Fertilizer. It’s got lots of great ingredients, like fish bone meal and kelp meal, that should help my roses be strong and healthy.
  • Check new growth for pests. Staying on top of pests in your garden is key to keeping plants healthy. Succulent new growth attracts sucking insects like aphids.
    • My roses have aphids. I washed them off with a stream of water and I’m going to pick up a container or two of ladybugs to help keep them under control.
    • Snails and slugs. We’re likely to notice a big increase in their numbers because of all the rain we’ve had. If you garden organically, you’ll have help in controlling snails and slugs. Lizards will eat them, as will opossums and birds. You can lay down barriers of diatomaceous earth, sand or crushed eggshells to keep them from your plants. Copper barriers on tree trunks will keep them from climbing up and eating fruit (they love citrus). You can capture them by watering an area they frequent and laying down a board or a piece of old carpet. You can also use dampened tubes of rolled newspapers. — anything that creates a dark, damp space. Wait a day or so and pick it up in the morning to capture these pests. Seal them in a plastic bag and throw them in the trash. You can also put some beer in a shallow pan or can. They’ll come for a drink and fall in and drown.
  • Pinch back fuchsias. Cut them back by two-thirds or so, leaving 2-5 leaf buds for new growth.
  • Divide perennials like agapanthus, callas, day lilies, rudbeckia and daisies.
  • Pruning – many books will tell you it’s time to prune ornamentals, but it’s best to wait a while until the spring nesting season is over. Otherwise you might inadvertently prune away a nest with eggs or baby birds. (Speaking of which, check out Thursday’s Garden Journal for an exciting surprise!)
  • Stay on top of weeding. The rains will make weeds pop up, so get them out of your beds while the damp soil makes it easy and before they disperse seeds for a whole new round of weeds.
  • Finish cleaning up storm debris in your flower beds. Put down some compost or other organic fertilizer (see last week’s tips on improving your soil) and mulch.

We’ve noticed in our search terms that a number of people are looking for information about digging fresh manure into soil. Be careful. Some manures must be aged before you use them. If you are preparing new beds and will be able to leave it to mature for at least couple of weeks, you can dig in fresh horse or cow manure. However, don’t dig these manures into soil near plants. It will heat up as it decomposes and it will burn your plants’ roots, possibly killing them. Chicken manure also needs to be aged – at lease three months.

Once these “hot” manures have been aged for three months, you can use them as you would other fertilizers. Other manures like rabbit or llama poo are ok to use straight, both for digging into new beds and as top dressing on established beds. Just be sure you find out how much to use. Too much of anything will cause big problems.

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Now that the winter is closing in, it’s a good time to turn our attention to the plants that live with us. In colder climates indoor plants provide us with blossoms and enough green that we don’t completely despair in the depths of winter. They also keep us healthier by filtering pollutants from the air we breath. So let’s talk about how we can return the favor and keep them at their best.


As you would guess, there is no one answer for all plants. Each plant has its own requirements and won’t thrive, and certainly won’t flower, unless you make sure the light is appropriate for the plant.

Here are the categories of light that are commonly referred to:

  • Direct sun — a sunny windowsill usually facing south or southwest. Sunny most of the day with direct sunlight on the plant.
  • Bright, or indirect sun — a room where there is bright sunlight for most of the day from a east- or west-facing window, or a south-facing window with filtered light (through trees or other light shade).
  • Average — a north-facing window, or some morning sun from an east-facing window. Might also be a location farther from the windows in the sunny or bright categories.
  • Low — a shady location near windows shaded by trees or far from a bright window.

If your plants become spindly, won’t bloom or have yellowing leaves you can suspect too little light. On the other hand if your plants wilt, the leaves fall off or have brown patches, it could be an indication that they are getting too much light. This link will give you an idea of what light levels some common houseplants will tolerate.


Most houseplants like a temperature between 70 – 80 degrees in the day and 60 – 68 degrees at night. A nighttime temperature that is 10 – 15 degrees cooler than the day is ideal.

Too high or too low temperatures will cause leaf drop, spindly growth and slow to no growth. Also be careful that your plants aren’t getting blasted with hot air coming from heat registers.

Water & Humidity

And speaking of indoor heating, it sucks moisture out of the air and your plants. Keep an eye on your plants’ moisture levels when you start using your heat. Most need less water in the winter, but being near a fireplace, stove, or other heat source could increase their need for water.

If you have humidity-loving plants like orchids or ferns, keep them away from cold or hot drafts. Place them in a tray on a bed of pebbles and keep it filled with water. They’d appreciate an occasional misting too.

As with light, each plant has its own requirements, but in general water your plants when the top layer of soil is dry. I just stick my finger in the dirt and if it feels dry I water the plant. Or, you could get one of those inexpensive soil moisture meters at your local garden center and keep your hands clean.

After a while you’ll get to know which plants like to watered more or less frequently. Don’t wait until the plant wilts to water it. This is a major stress on the plant and it will never do well.

Here’s a tip for watering orchids: put 2 – 5 ice cubes in the pot (depending on the pot size) once a week.


We like organic fertilizers like fish emulsion (can be a little smelly, but works well) and seaweed extracts like Stress X or Neptune’s Harvest. Mary Beth just got some TerraCycle Plant Food, which is an organic foliar spray, that she’s going to try.

Follow label directions for whichever type of fertilizer you select. Most plants will need to be fed every 2 weeks when they are actively growing, usually from March to September. You can give most plants a diluted feeding, about 1/2 to 1/4 strength, once a month in the winter months. Remember to be consistent in your feedings. Your container plants rely on you for their nutrients.


Pests on indoor houseplants can be tricky. Well-cared for plants generally won’t get pests, but if you have a serious infestation you could be in big trouble. I had a nice collection of orchids that I had to get rid of as a result of mealybugs —  horrid little creatures. My daughter gave me her beautiful orchid when she moved. It had a few mealybugs on it and against my better judgement I decided to rescue it. I isolated it and swabbed the bugs with alcohol, but they never went completely away. Then I discovered that my other orchids had been infested even though they were in another room. I struggled with them for months, but could never get rid of them and so I have to start over with new plants. Very sad!

Many problems can be solved by washing bugs off the leaves with a water spray — putting them in the shower works well. If that doesn’t work, try a mixture of water plus 1 tablespoon of mild liquid soap like Ivory or Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap. Put your plant in the tub or shower, spray with the mixture, then rinse with lukewarm water. Be sure to follow up with a second treatment in a couple of weeks. Insecticidal soap is another good option.

Here are the most common bugs and what to do:

Mealybugs are white and wooly, like little cotton fluffs. Be sure to check for them under leaves and in crevices and joints. Start with the soap solution, keep checking to make sure they don’t come back. You may have to take the plant out of the soil, rinse the roots and repot with fresh soil to get rid of them. Another remedy is to wipe the leaves and crevices with alcohol.

Fungus Gnats are little black flying insects. You may notice a little cloud of them when you water your plants or you might see the larvae wriggling in the soil when you water. They can often be killed by letting the soil dry out between watering. You might also try those yellow sticky traps, which can also help with thrips and whiteflies. Some say that sprinkling the soil with cinnamon helps.

Scale are round, brown hard shelled-bugs that are found on the underside of leaves and on stems. Wash the plant with the soap solution and rinse well. They are a  little tough to get off, you may need to scrape them off with your fingernail.

Colorado State University has a really good article and printable fact sheet that will help you identify and treat pests on your houseplants.

One last tip is to check the soil in your pots. Plants that have been in the same pot for a long time can use up the soil. So if your soil level is low, or you notice that the roots are coming out of the bottom of the pot, make a note to repot those plants in the spring.

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There’s no theme or focus today, just a little of this and a little of that — kind of like what’s going on in my head today.

Tip #1 — Getting Transplants Off to a Healthy Start

Now that we’re all scrambling to get our baby plants in the ground, here are a few tips to help you do it right.

  • Make sure your soil is loose and friable — which means crumbly. Vegetables have very fine root hairs and need a looser soil structure to be able to grow well. This is especially true of carrots which will get gnarly if they encounter anything in the path of their root as they grow.
  • Amend your soil before you put in your transplants, but don’t put anything in the hole you dig for your plants. That means no fertilizer (dry fertilizer will burn the roots killing the plant) and no weird additions that your grandmother swears by. New research by the folks at the University of California shows that plants do best with nothing but the dirt you just dug up around their roots.
  • Now you can fertilize your plant, but only a little bit! To help your starts recover from transplant shock, mix a little fish emulsion into a watering can or bucket and water in your transplants. Use just enough fish emulsion to color the water.
  • Don’t forget to water your babies well over the next couple of weeks. Never let them completely dry out. Once they are established, you can water less frequently.

Tip #2 — Keeping Container Plants Watered

One of the big issues with containers is keeping them moist enough throughout the dog days of summer. To that end we suggest mixing water absorbing granules into your potting soil. We have been using Soil Moist in our pots and it works like a charm. But we only use it with ornamentals, never with edibles because it’s petroleum-based.

We recently heard about another product by Zeba called Quench which is an “all natural, starch-based product.” It supposedly releases water into the soil more readily than the petroleum-based products. A grower we talked to at a well-known nursery swears by the stuff. So we’ll be giving it a try it in our containers this summer.

Mix it into your soil according to the package directions. Use only the amount specified — more is not better. Use even a little bit more than you’re supposed to and the granules will swell up and push your plant right out of the pot! It should cut down your container’s water requirements significantly and save you from coming home one blazing afternoon to droopy or, worse yet, dead plants.

That’s all we’ve got for this week. Happy gardening!

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Barbara: I’ve been running around all day doing errands — I HATE doing errands. I kept feeling like something was missing, like I was forgetting something. What could it be…?

Tuesday!! OMG! It’s near the end of the day and this day is Tuesday! Ding, ding, ding!

Here are your tips — a miscellaneous trio. A little late, but it’s still Tuesday.

Banana Peels for Roses

Mary Beth swears by this tip – bury a chopped up banana peel next to each of your rose bushes and they will be happier and healthier. It makes a lot of sense. Bananas are naturally high in potassium and phosphorus. Plants need these macronutrients for fruit, flower, and root formation. Put the extras in your compost. Free fertilizer!

Geranium Budworms

Those nasty budworms make little holes in your geranium buds and eat the flowers before they blossom. They also munch geranium leaves and petunias and generally make a frassy, raggedy mess out of your plants. According to Pat Welsh, in Southern California the night-flying moth that is the parent of the budworm usually lays her eggs with the first full moon in April.

Phenology again! Although the April full moon is a marker, the timing most likely has more to do with the temperature. If you’re not in SoCal, you can probably figure out which full moon applies to you by using the average nighttime temperatures in our area which in April are in the high 40’s to low 50’s. So that means that you would spray one day before whichever full moon occurred in a month when the nighttime temperature was consistently in the high 40’s to low 50s.

So get out your BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) and spray or dust your zonal geraniums the day before the full moon, which would be tomorrow in Southern California. Repeat for three or four days. This should keep the little buggers from destroying your flowers. Do the same next month at the full moon and you should have a lot less damage from these worms.

Watering Your Potted Plants

When you’re watering your potted plants be sure you water until it runs out the bottom. This will ensure that salts in the water don’t build up in the soil and it will encourage the plants roots to grow all the way down into the soil.

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Barbara: I just bought Pat Welsh’s Southern California Organic Gardening: Month By Month. What an amazing resource this is! A month-by-month guide to organic gardening, it’s full-to-bursting with everything you need to know about growing beautiful, healthy plants.

Even though this guide is written for my region, I would encourage the rest of you to consider it for the advice Pat gives on plant cultivation. Our climate and gardening calendars may be different, but the tips and organic recipes for feeding your plants are well worth the price of admission. Her catalog of organic fertilizer ingredients and how to use them is the best I’ve ever seen.

A little plug for organic gardening — the most important thing to understand is that if you grow plants in the right place, give them the right amount of water (neither too much, nor too little), and feed them well you will have gorgeous plants that can shrug off most pests. (We’re talking bugs here. I make no such claims for rabbits, deer, gophers, etc.)

Here’s a grab bag of tips from Pat’s book.

Pat Welsh’s Quick Tip #1 — Use Paint Buckets for Garden Tasks

Pat recommends keeping several small, plastic paint buckets around your garden for measuring, mixing and carrying fertilizer. She also points out that they’re great for carrying kitchen peelings to the compost bin and birdseed to the feeder. I find them useful for catching the random prunings and deadheading that I inevitably do as I walk through the garden in the morning.

Pat Welsh’s Quick Tip #2 — Protect Bean and Corn Sprouts from Birds

Save those little green berry baskets (the ones strawberries come in) and put one over each planted seed. This will keep the birds from eating your seeds. By the time the sprouts have grown to touch the top of the basket the birds will have lost interest.

Pat Welsh’s Tip Quick Tip # 3 — Encourage Ladybugs to Stay Put

When you buy ladybugs to release into the garden, they more often than not fly away. Pat says to put them in the fridge for a couple of hours to slow their metabolism. Time their stay in the cold so that you are releasing them at dusk. Place them low on the plants and, if it’s dry, provide dishes of water at the base of the plant with a little rock in the bowl for the ladybugs to perch on while they drink. This, plus some yummy pests will encourage then to stay in your garden.

Here’s a link to Pat’s website.

Happy Gardening!

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