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Soil Health

Experienced growers know that a beautiful 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.

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. I was going to recommend that you go out and shovel fall leaves, if you can find them, and snow on top of what’s already blanketing your garden. But I’d forgotten how cold your toes and your cheeks get when you’re outside and it’s 15 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees above zero or colder. And I forgot how fast the wind will scatter any leaves you turn over. No doubt you mulched well ahead of winter weather. That will have to do. (more…)

Gardener’s New Year Resolutions

New Year's ResolutionGardening practice, like the garden itself, can always be improved. We resolve to do more, do better.

I’ve always liked the idea of New Year’s resolutions even if I wasn’t completely successful in keeping them. I can get behind the idea of taking stock of where you are, what you need to change; all with an eye to improvement or the realization of a goal or two. It’s good medicine.

Gardeners have more opportunity at this than most. Sure, everyone at least considers turning over a new leaf at the beginning of the year. But gardeners consider these resolve-to-make-it-better ideas when they plant in the spring, put the garden to bed in the fall, and all winter long as they peruse seed catalogs, read old gardening journals, and draw schematics that show exactly where the tomatoes will go. They’re always resolving to do something. (more…)

Beauty Bark or Living Ground Cover?

Living Ground CoverWe love mulch, but why not fill empty space with something green and living?

Don’t get us wrong. We love mulches of all sorts. But one kind of mulch we’ve seen too much of is beauty bark. You know what we’re talking about. That chipped or shredded bark often bought in bags, sometimes sold in bulk, that’s used to cover bare ground around trees, in various landscape beds, and other open space. It’s become a suburban American cliche.

The stuff can often be attractive, sure; and give off a delicate scent, especially if it contains cedar. It does what mulch is supposed to do: keep down weeds, slow moisture evaporation, prevent run-off from heavy rain. And it does break down and add organic matter to your soil. But it doesn’t necessarily do these things as effectively as other mulches. Weeds can often find a way through chunks of bark and the acidic nature of most barks means you’ll have to monitor and adjust soil pH for the plants around it. And beauty bark is expensive, unless you live near a sawmill and can get it for free. And it needs replacing from time to time. The biggest argument we have against beauty bark? It doesn’t flower. (more…)

November in the Garden

November GardeningGardening isn’t over until the ground freezes.

For a lot of us, November marks the end of our outdoor gardening season. There’s still puttering to do: cleaning and oiling tools to be put away for the winter, bringing indoors any potted plants we may still have outside, trimming back and protecting roses; that kind of thing. Often we’ll wait for a sunny (relatively) warm day to do these things. But as all of us have heard said — thank-you, Coach Kruger! — it ain’t over ’til it’s over. And in gardening, that means it ain’t over until the ground freezes, no matter what the calendar says.

How so? As long as you can get a spade in the ground, the ground can still be worked. That means you can still plant bulbs for spring blooming. Lots of experts will tell you that bulbs need to be planted around the time of the first frost and several weeks ahead of the ground freezing. We’ve found that this isn’t necessarily true. Bulbs planted well after the first frost will do quite well as long as the freeze is gradual and not the result of a sudden and prolonged cold snap. The main thing here is to avoid over watering. Everyone knows bulbs don’t like wet feet. When the solid freeze comes you don’t want your bulbs to be too damp which may cause them to be damaged. (more…)

Composting Leaves: Keeping Yard Waste From Landfills

Leaf CompostLeaves, turned into rich organic compost or protective mulch, are Autumn’s gift to composting.

We’ve often said that composting can save the world. Here’s one of the ways. During the fall, our yards and landscapes yield tons of refuse, much of it the form of leaves. Those leaves, bagged and placed on curb sides across the country, contribute significantly to the trash that goes into our landfills. In 2006, even after many local governments had instituted yard waste recycling programs, leaves, grass clippings and the like made up the largest component by weight of everything that went into our landfills. Grass clipping were the largest component by weight of yard waste but leaves were by far the largest component in volume. By 2013, yard waste had fallen to third, behind paper products and food waste. Progress!

The reason things have improved? More communities, and even some states, have rules on the books that prevent yard waste from going into public land fills. Waste 360 has the figures. 33.4 million tons of yard waste is generated in the U.S. every year. That’s over 200 lbs for every man woman and child. 19.2 million tons, over 57%, is composted. One sobering fact: the percentage amount of yard waste disposal has been flat the last several years after declining precipitously in the previous decades. And that situation might worsen. (more…)

Late-Season, Cold Hardy Cover Crops

Winter RyePlanting cover crops — green manure — early enough in the fall has always been something of a problem for me. We all know the advantages that cover crops give our soil. They blanket it over the long winter, protecting it from erosion, keeping it from hardening and preventing the leaching of valuable nutrients by rain and snow. Their roots keep the soil aerated. They protect against the dangers of a deep freeze, thus preserving beneficial microbes and other organisms that help keep your soil healthy. They help prevent the spread of weeds. Best, cover crops add green material to the soil, material that supplies nutrients as well as nitrogen. They’re one of the most valuable tools in the organic gardener’s playbook.

Those cover crops, no matter what kind you’re planting, need to go in ahead of the first frost so that they have a chance to become established before the long cold winter sets in. The problem with that is that our gardens are usually producing right up until the first frost. We’re not anxious to pull our still-productive vegetables from the ground to make way for cover crops. Is it okay to plant cover crops later in the fall? Yes, depending on the conditions. (more…)

Beddy-Bye Garden Time

Fall Garden CleanupPutting gardens to bed in the fall is something like putting children to bed for the night. Both are multi-step processes. Kids need to change out of their clothes, bathe and/or wash their faces, brush their teeth, and might even need a bed time story. Gardens? They can be as reluctant as kids when its time to go to bed. It might take you weeks to get them there.

Putting gardens to bed properly and promptly can have rewards come spring time. I’ll admit I am both reticent and lazy when it comes to tucking the garden in for the winter. But prompt and considered work this time of year means less work in the spring. And isn’t gardening a four-seasons activity?

This is the time of year we follow the weather carefully. If there’s even a chance of a freeze, we break out the old sheets — our more organized neighbor has sheets of Visqueen — and cover everything that’s still showing life and the promise of production. (more…)

Is Monsanto’s Roundup Killing Our Soil?

Roundup HerbicideWe’ve often argued against “biotech” or genetically modified crops and the accompanying use of glyphosate herbicide — trade name Roundup — because of its effects on human health, sustainability, and its culpability in creating a new class of glyphosate-resistant “superweeds” that are spreading across America’s farm country. Now comes word that Roundup is killing not just weeds but the very soil in which we grow our crops.

This article in The New York Times  explains the negative effects glyphosate has on soil, effects that include compaction and resultant runoff, the killing of beneficial microbes and bacteria, and the exhaustion of necessary minerals and other nutrients that plants require.

The article also shows how nearby use of Roundup affects farmers not using the “Roundup Ready” system of growing GMO crops coupled with the spraying of glyphosate. One farmer describes how he loses corn every time his neighbor sprays Roundup and the herbicide drifts onto his conventionally grown corn. Worse, his neighbor’s fields have become so compacted that every time it rains, Roundup-laden runoff floods his conventional crops. “Anything you put on the land affects the chemistry and biology of the land, and that’s a powerful pesticide,” the farmer is quoted as saying. (more…)

Declare War On Weeds Now

Pulling WeedsSeptember is here and many plants in the garden are going to seed. Some of those plant are weeds. Depending on how carefully you kept your plots and landscapes weeded this season, you may have lots or you may have few. However many weeds you have, now’s the last chance you have to get them before the cycle starts all over again next spring. Any work you do now will make your weeding easier next year.

I know, I know . . . the best and most effective weeding is done in early season when the ground is soft and the weeds are small, shallowly rooted, and vulnerable. But it’s too late for that. And next spring will be too late to stop weed seeds from spreading now. Weeding is a continuous activity in the organic garden and one’s attitude towards it has a lot to do with seeing it as a chore and impossible task or an ongoing activity that provides exercise, fresh air, and a chance to get close to one’s garden. Part of that attitude requires acceptance. You’ll never get all the weeds (or maybe you’re one of those people with small plots who will) and it’s better just to accept some. Even those herbicides we see advertised on television as giving complete control don’t get all the weeds. Just make sure the weeds you miss aren’t the most noxious or persistent. Those are the ones to concentrate on.

One other thing regarding attitude. It’s said that weeds are plants for which a use has yet to be found. They’re often the same local wildflowers we admire when they’re not in our garden. This may all be true, but we don’t want anything to limit or compete with our flowers and vegetables, let alone add their own improvisational touches to our landscape plans. (more…)

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