Soil Health

Experienced growers know that a beautiful, sustainable garden starts with living, healthy soil. Most plants thrive in well-drained, slightly acidic, soils that are rich in organic matter. The challenge, however, is that most of the world’s soils do not exist this way and they must be balanced, or amended, to provide the conditions necessary for robust plant growth. Click on the information and news below to learn about soil health and what can be done to improve it.

Soil: America’s Greatest Resource

Healthy SoilA recent project looks to catalog the earth beneath us.

We were fortunate to have had a middle school teacher (when middle school was still called “junior high”) who when teaching American history gave a lot of attention to the the dust bowl years of the 1930s. This fine instructor — if only we could remember his name! — not only discussed the destruction of farm land, the migration of displaced farmers from Texas, Oklahoma, and other states, and the huge black clouds that rolled into cities as far away as St. Louis, but the causes of the disaster; not just drought but the wrong-headed, unsustainable farming practices that turned once verdant farm and pasture land into what today would be called an environmental disaster area. (more…)

Patience When Planting Peas: The Payoff

Pea PlantsWait for the right soil temperatures and conditions before planting peas.

This time of year we’re thinking peas. Peas are always the first thing to go in our garden and the common wisdom — “plant as soon as the soil can be worked” — is our cue to get into the garden as soon as the soil dries enough that it doesn’t ball up when squeezed in our fists. Peas are also a cool weather crop, doing best in spring and early summer but also planted in late summer-early fall in places where winter doesn’t jump the shark as soon as October comes around.

Not only great eating — we were all about serving curls of fresh pea shoots in salads before it became popular in gourmet, farm-to-table restaurants — peas serve another purpose that promotes well-being in gardeners. They give us something to do in the weeks (and months ) ahead of when the rest of the garden goes in.

If you’re like me, you’re chomping at the bit once March rolls around and garden season is imminent. It’s like waiting for Christmas when you’re a kid. Sometimes you just can’t keep your hands off the presents even before the big day. (more…)

Agricultural Water Use and the California Drought

Agricultural Water100 billion gallons of water, in the form of alfalfa, shipped to China. How can we use less water to grow the produce needed in this country? (Hint: small, sustainable, organic farms.)

Here’s one effect of the drought in California and elsewhere: there’s been a lot of fascinating reporting on water use in commercial agriculture. And the amounts of water that go into some crops, and where those crops are headed, has created something of a controversy. (more…)

Springtime Soil Testing

Soil TestingMaking sure your garden soil has the proper pH and amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium now helps guarantee growing success.

We often talk about the fact that successful gardening, especially successful organic gardening, requires healthy soil. But how do you know if your soil is healthy? Adding lots of organic material helps assure that your soil is alive with microbes, maintains a balance of nutrients, and has good drainage. But what about its acid-alkaline balance (the measurement known as pH)? What about the nutrients that plants need to be healthy and resist pests and diseases? (more…)

Wide Row and Intensive Gardening

Intensive GardensGetting the most from your vegetable garden while saving space, water and work.

I give my grandfather a lot of credit when it comes to teaching me the craft of gardening. But he wasn’t right about everything. Or, at least, not all of his techniques were the most productive. Like grandfather demonstrated year in and year out, I started off planting vegetables in neat-lined rows, one plant following the other. I did this for everything: carrots, beets, lettuce, corn, even squash and pumpkins. It was just the way he did it and always had.

Circumstance eventually changed my thinking. Given a tiny front yard, I began spacing plants together in enclosed, raised beds. As long as I could reach the center of the beds, everything was fine. (more…)

Facing Drought

Drought in the GardenWhat should gardeners do in the face of water shortages?

We don’t have to tell you. The news from many parts of the west is all about drought. You can find accounts of what’s being faced, including the potential for cutbacks and rationing, here, here, and here. And the forecast for the coming months doesn’t look good.

No matter if you believe that drought is just a part of the natural cycle (it is) or is a product of global warming (we don’t see this as an easy either-or question but think both factors could be in play), dealing with a lack of or more expensive water is something that gardeners frequently face. Even as a back-to-the-land, ex-hippie in the 19(garbled) living on the edge of the rain forest in Washington State we had summer months without rain some years that meant the buried reservoir that collected water from our spring filled more slowly and even ran dry when we watered our rather large garden. That’s the problem with water: you run out just when you need it most. (more…)

Preventing, Curing Gray Snow Mold

Lawn DiseaseKeeping lawns exposed to wet springs and slowly melting snow from falling to disease.

The vagaries of climate variation across the country this winter suggests that we might be seeing the dreaded gray snow mold surface in lawns where it hasn’t been seen before. Those of us familiar with late snow covers, cold, damp springs, and other conditions favorable to lawn diseases are well familiar with this problem.

Gray snow mold is a common problem in areas where snow cover persists into the spring as temperatures warm. It shows itself in circular or irregularly shaped gray or brown spots in the lawn that can range from an inch or two across to over a foot or more. Fuzzy gray strings, known as mycelia, may stretch across and out from the area, especially as the snow melts away. (more…)

Cover Crops? Smother Crops!

Alfalfa CropPlanting green manures to manage weeds eliminates the need for risky herbicides.

Organic gardeners know the value of sowing cover crops. Often referred to as “green manure,” cover crops are thought most valuable for what they return to the soil. Protecting the soil from hard rains, wind erosion, and other effects is seen as a side benefit. And, too, a cover crop discourages weeds, by crowding them out or inhibiting their growth.

Sometimes, cover crops are planted primarily to control weeds. Planted with this purpose in mind, cover crops become smother crops. They work best when dealing with perennial weeds but can also help starve out annuals when used over consecutive seasons. And they can be as effective (or more) on some of the worst perennial weeds. Let me tell you a story. (more…)

Crop Rotation In the Home Garden

Rotating Garden CropsPlan your spring planting to control disease, weeds, and pests while boosting soil quality.

We’ve all heard of the benefits of crop rotation in large scale agriculture. And we all know that those benefits can transfer to our home gardens. Even the smallest of gardens can benefit from crop rotation, even if crops are only moved a few feet each year. Crop rotation is especially important to the organic grower because it precludes many of the problems that lead to the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Exactly what are the benefits? Rotating crops is especially critical to preventing disease from getting a foot hold on certain vegetables you might plant. The bacteria and spores that attack specific plants can survive winters and infect those plants again the following year. The good news is, once in the soil they can’t travel far. You’ll do more to move them around with your spring cultivation than anything they might do on their own. If you plant the same hosts that those diseases are looking for, you’ll provide them with the ability to re-establish and become even more severe. Plant something from another group of vegetables that don’t normally host the problems, and they’ll eventually disappear. (more…)

Arctic Vortex Gardening

Winter Soil ProtectionProtecting garden soil and starting seed outdoors in the dead of winter.

The harsh weather much of the country is experiencing means something to our gardens. Ground will freeze where it seldom freezes. Snow will visit places it seldom sees. Those familiar with snow and cold are seeing more of it.

What does this mean for our gardens? Bare soil frozen at extremely cold temperatures is subject to frost heave. Microorganisms, worms, and other living components of our earth are lost as they retreat as deeply as they can.

Mulching before the the cold weather sets in will moderate ground temperatures and protect soil. A good snow cover also helps. When the forecast is set for extreme cold, it might be a good idea to add more mulch – you’re mulching your garden, right? Those places already with snow cover, forget it. (more…)

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