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.

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. 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. (more…)

Garden Tasks for November

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. (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! (more…)

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