Posts Tagged ‘Soil’

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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Ah gardening! It’s all so simple, and yet it can get so freaking complicated, so quickly. Planting seeds for instance. The simple question is, “When can I plant seeds?” And the answer is…well, there are many answers depending on many factors, but let’s try to make it simple.

The simple story about seeds is they need the right soil temperature, the right exposure to light, and the right amount of water to germinate. Sounds easy and it is, kind of. If you follow some basic guidelines you’ll get a pretty good germination rate, not 100%, but good enough.

Here’s where we can make it complicated. This chart that shows the “practical” soil temperature for planting seeds to get a good crop versus the “optimal” temperature for seed germination.


From Gardener's Supply Company

I found it very interesting that the optimal soil temperature where you can expect almost all the seeds to germinate for corn or cucumbers would be 95 degrees. Really! My soil never gets that warm and I’m betting yours never does either. So ignore the optimal temperature and focus on the practical temperature.

Now the next question could be how in the heck do I know what my soil temperature is? And the answer is that there are a couple of ways to do that. One would be to get a soil thermometer to test your soil (a little complicated), or you might go to your local extension’s website and find a record of soil temps (still a little complicated). Or you could say, “It’s late March/early April in Zone 10 (when, generally speaking, the soil temps should be good) and that means it’s time to plant.”

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay attention to your soil temperatures. (In fact, if you regularly have trouble with a particular crop seed, this might help you figure out where you’re going wrong.) It’s just that you don’t have to be so precise.

A good rule of thumb is to plant warm season crops when the soil temps are between 50 degrees and 60 degrees and the daytime/air temperature is between 65 degrees and 80 degrees.

Most of the veggies on the following list are warm season crops, but a few are cool season crops that need a long time to grow before they are mature. Still others can be grown all year round in our zone. But let’s just make it as simple as possible to avoid further confusing anyone. Here’s your list of vegetable seeds to plant right now in coastal Southern California (USDA Zone 10/Sunset Zone 22, 23, 24) in late March/early April.

Seeds to plant in March/April

  • Beets
  • Bush Beans
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Carrots
  • Chives
  • Collards
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Jicama
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuce
  • Lima Beans
  • Okra
  • Parsley
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Radish
  • Snap Beans
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Summer Squash
  • Tomato
  • Turnip
  • Watermelon
  • Winter Squash

Planting tips:

  • Nothing short of full sun is going to cut it for most plants. Make sure you place your veggie garden where it will get at least 8 hours of sunlight.
  • If you have heavy clay soil, do yourself a huge favor and build a raised bed. The truth is that unless you have perfectly loamy soil, you will have much better results with a raised bed.
  • Raised beds are absolutely the way to go if you are in an urban area where your soil is likely to be contaminated with lead and other pollutants.
  • If you have gophers, nail 1/8″ – 1/4″ hardware cloth on the bottom of your raised bed frames to keep them out.
  • Use topsoil in your raised beds, NOT potting soil.
  • Amend with a good organic amendment.
  • Keep you seeds evenly moist until they sprout – use a hose sprayer or a sprinkler.
  • Install drip lines. Ditto on the success factor with drip watering for vegetables, plus it will conserve water.
  • Mulch, mulch, mulch. Conserves water, keeps soil temperatures moderated and plants happy (i.e. not stressed), and cuts way down on weeds.

This is a link to an awesome UC ANR chart that shows when to plant vegetables in all California regions, how to plant them, how much to plant for a family of 4, and how to preserve your crops.

Folks in cooler planting zones should be starting seeds indoors for planting when the air and soil temps warm up. For Durango and all other zones — find out from your local extension or nursery when the soil temps will be 50 – 60 degrees and plan on getting seeds or seedlings in the ground then.

Mary Beth will be writing about Durango area planting in the coming weeks.


Good planting.

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Most of us are SO over winter at this point and all we want to do is get our hands and feet in the dirt again. But hang on a minute! Even though we’re ready to get going, our gardens may not be. Working the soil now could actually harm it and create a difficult growing environment for plants.

Whether you’re thinking about planting flowers or vegetables, the soil in your beds must be completely thawed and not saturated before you start. If your soil is very wet from melted snow or winter rains, don’t do anything! Even walking on it will compact it and make it more difficult to work later. (As a matter of fact, once you get the soil in your beds in good shape, you should try to walk on it as little as possible. A few well-placed rocks, boards or paths will help.)

Here’s a little test to help you decide when soil is ready to be worked. Dig into the ground where you want to work (note that different parts of the garden may have different levels of moisture) and bring up a trowel full of soil. Take a handful and squeeze it. Now open your hand. Does it stay in a tight ball? If it does, it’s too wet to work and you’re going to have to wait until it dries out a bit. If your handful starts to break apart when you open your fingers, poke at it. Does it crumble into small pieces, kind of like chocolate cake? Very good! It’s ready to go.

Once your soil is workable, you’ll want to start thinking about amending it and here is where things get slightly more complicated. When we talk about amending soil, we are really talking about two separate but related things — soil structure and soil fertility, or good tilth as it is sometimes referred to. These are two critical elements that will make or break you as a gardener and in Thursday’s Garden Journal we’ll help you figure out what you need to do to create the best possible soil in your garden.





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This post is late. And why would that be? Well, let’s see. I woke up extra early and started baking cornbread for stuffing. Our guests woke up and we had breakfast. I went to work, got stabbed with a rusty nail and had to go get a tetanus shot (can’t wait to see what that feels like in the morning). I came home, made dinner and cleaned up. And before I knew it the day was almost over and there were a million things I hadn’t done yet, including this post.

Which leads me to conclude that hosting Thanksgiving festivities and blogging are probably mutally exclusive. But blog we must, so I called Mary Beth and we decided to give you just one tip today, but it could be the most important one we’ll ever give you.

Feed Your Soil

In organic gardening the most important thing you can do is feed your soil. Fertile soil encourages the growth of millions of good microbes that will keep the bad guys in check and create a perfect environment for keeping your plants healthy, robust and able to resist most pests.

We like to follow what we call the “forest floor theory.” All that really means is that you should layer organic material on top of the soil.

Instead of digging amendments into your garden beds every spring, leave the ground undisturbed except for planting holes. Then add lots of compost and mulch. Like the forest environment, you’ll be layering organic materials on top of your soil. The microbes living under the surface will do all the work — coming up to the new layer, breaking down the material and drawing nutrients into the soil to feed themselves and your plants. Do this over a few seasons and you will have the most amazing, fertile soil and super healthy plants.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

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Let’s talk about the single most important element in gardening — soil. As you know, we’re strong proponents of using organic gardening methods and our guiding principle is this: feed the soil so the soil can feed the plants.

Feeding the soil rather than the plants is a critical distinction. Feeding plants with synthetic fertilizers is a quick fix, but it’s essentially fast food for your plants. If you want strong, beautiful plants that are healthy enough to fend off pests (so you don’t have to use pesticides), you’ll need to provide a nourishing environment.

Today’s tips are about compost which is hands down the best way to create beautiful, fertile soil. Compost helps sandy soils retain moisture and it loosens up clay soils. The bonus is that you’ll do good things for the environment by keeping loads of kitchen and garden waste out of the landfill. Here’s how to get started.

Tip #1 — Create your compost bin.

There are lots of detailed, sometimes complicated directions for composting usually having to do with creating hot compost. That’s great if you’re really dedicated, but if you’re a lazy gardener like me, you can do this very simply. Set four posts into the ground in a 3′ x 3′ square and string some 3′ high chicken wire around it and, presto, you have a compost bin.

Put your bin out of the way, but close enough to your house that you’ll use it. If it’s in the back 40 there’s probably not enough motivation in the world to get you to trek out there in the rain to empty your kitchen compost bucket (Gardener’s Supply has lots of choices). The bin does not need to be in the sun, partial shade is best. If you’re lucky enough to get a “hot” compost pile, the heat will be generated by decomposing waste. This method, called  “cold” composting will take a little longer to transform waste into “black gold”, the highly nutritious product of decomposition, but you’ll get there pretty painlessly.

You’ll need 50% greens (grass clippings, green leaves, yard trimmings, fruit and vegetable scraps and manures from herbivores — horses, cows, chickens and rabbits) and 50% browns (dried chopped up woody material, dried leaves, dried grass, straw, shredded newspaper, and sawdust) to get your compost cooking. Add them in alternating 4″ layers. Keep adding to it as you accumulate garden or kitchen waste. Turn the pile every few days and keep the whole mess damp (like a wrung out sponge).

There are things you should never put in your compost such as: manure from meat-eating animals, meat, bones, fats, dairy products, ashes, treated wood products (or sawdust from them), infected plant material, weeds seeds, and invasive plants that spread by runners like nut sedge or Bermuda grass.

Your compost is ready when it is dark, brown and crumbly like this:

Once you have compost, dig it into new beds or spread it out on your existing beds. It’ll filter down into the ground, feeding your plants and improving your soil.

Tip #2 — Put coffee grounds in your compost.

Coffee grounds make a great addition to your compost pile. Of course you should throw your own in there, along with tea bags, but did you know you can get loads of free grounds at your local Starbucks? Starbucks bags their used grounds for gardeners. Sometimes they have the bags in a basket near the door, but in other stores you’ll have to ask. Coffee grounds count as a “brown”.

Tip #3 — Add an activator.

Most compost activators don’t do much and they’re expensive, but some say that adding alfalfa meal will do wonders for your compost. MB uses it in her rose and iris tea so we know it’s great stuff. It adds nitrogen and protein to the pile and supposedly helps to accelerate decomposition. At the very least you’ll be adding something that plants love. We’re going to give it a try. Look for it at your local farm supply or garden center. You can order it online too.

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