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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.

Sustainable Farming, Soil, and Big Agriculture

Sustainable AgricultureCorporate farming has disrupted an independent economic model and a way of life that was common just a few generations ago. Things were different when America’s farming economy was based on countless small, independent producers who then sold their products at rural cooperatives or directly to markets. Today, a few large food producers including Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Tyson, and a few large (mostly) chemical companies, including Dow Agro Sciences, Cargill and, yes, Monsanto, have a corner not only on our food supplies but the products used to raise them. This consolidation of our farm and food supplies creates huge problems, not just in this country, but world wide.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a reversal of this trend with independent, often organic farmers not only raising healthy food but being good stewards of the land. Yet the acreage involved is still miniscule compared to the vast miles of commercial farmland in the midwest, the south, and in California, where big corporate agriculture has a grip. But here, too, there are signs of change. We were reminded of this recently with the passing of Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, who early on saw that the chemical laden ways of big agriculture weren’t all they were cracked up to be and set about trying to find ways to grow his crops more efficiently and more successfully. (more…)

Fertilizer Basics: Plant Micronutrients

Fertilizing with MicronutrientsWe all know the nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sulfur — that are important to plant health. We call them macronutrients. But there’s a whole list of micronutrients that are also key, in much smaller quantities, to the health of your plants. These plant micronutrients — boron, iron, zinc and others — not only assure healthy growth, they help your gardens fight off pests and diseases.

The best long term way to keep your garden soil rich with the micronutrients it needs is by adding compost. The living things that go into compost — grass clippings, leaves, plants trimmings — already contain various amounts of micronutrients. Their presence in your compost guarantees that you’re returning those micronutrients to the soil.

But what if you can tell (pdf format), because of yellow leaves or other signs of weakness (or from you extension services soil test), that your soil is deficient in micronutrients? Your plants are well on their way and it’s too late to effectively amend the soil. What can be done to give them a quick boost full of the micronutrients they need? (more…)

July Gardening Thoughts

Garden BlossomsIt’s July and, as the song goes, the living is easy. Sure there are little chores to be done — watering, of course; and weeding — but mostly this is an expectant time with bountiful harvest of greens, peas (if you live where it’s not too hot), and fast growing root vegetables. Summer squash are in blossom and maybe setting fruit, corn is knee-high and higher, and winter squash, cucumbers and other vine crops are showing some muscle and starting to take over. There’s the first tomato blossom and is that the first tiny bean forming among all those blossoms?

It’s a good week to spend time with your garden doing nothing but taking stock. How is your garden plan looking now that things are well on their way? What pest problems are you having? How does the weather look for the rest of the month? Mostly, we just like to sit back and look at the fruits of our work. Things are still neat and orderly, everything is robust and green. And then we start thinking deeper (gardens will do that to you). Where did the craft of doing this come into our lives? How is it that with each passing year we learn more and more about raising vegetables? How well are we doing passing our knowledge to children and friends? And how important are those friends and children to what we do and learn? (more…)

Dead Zone: Fertilizer Runoff Killing Gulf

Dead ZoneThis year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, usually around 6,000 to 7,000 square miles, might well be the largest in history. The culprit? Heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest. All that runoff from the breadbasket will make its way downstream carrying copious amounts of agricultural fertilizer runoff into the Gulf. Time magazine has the story.

The Gulf dead zone, second largest in the world, is composed of oxygen-depleted water that does not support life. The process by which it forms is known as “hypoxia.” Basically, the process starts with nitrogen and phosphorous- based fertilizers being swept in quantity through the Mississippi River basin and into the Gulf at the Louisiana Delta. The fertilizer fuels the growth of algae which eventually dies or is eaten by zooplankton. Bacteria feed on the mass of dead algae and the zooplankton’s feces, exhausting the water’s oxygen as they do.

Among other negative effects, the dead zone threatens the Gulf’s lucrative commercial and sports fisheries.

Studies show that American farmers badly overuse fertilizer in a misguided effort to increase yields, an effort that also increases their expenses. In China, the problem is even worse. (more…)

Permaculture and Compost

Compost PileWe’ve been intrigued lately how the practices of sustainable, organic gardening and permaculture integrate composting into their philosophies. Your friendly Planet Natural Blogger has been known to say that organic gardening and specifically composting will save the world and both those endeavors seem to prove it. Yet, both have their differences.

We won’t go into all 12 principles of permaculture here. But consider how many of them are addressed by composting (as listed in Christopher Shein’s excellent new book The Vegetable Gardner’s Guide To Permaculture): work with nature, produce no waste, use and value resources, catch and store energy. To organic gardeners, all that come together to mean one thing: improve soil conditions without harmful chemicals.

This is the time of year we’re adding grass clippings, if we have them, to our compost piles as well as vegetable scraps from our kitchens, thinnings from our garden (if we’re not eating them), and year-round items like cardboard and newspaper. The permaculturist, in an effort to diminish waste, advocates using shredded office paper and the like as a brown (carbon-heavy) material. The organic gardening purist may not want to add newspaper because of what might be in the inks, office paper because of the bleaching agents that make it white, and carboard because of the glues used to hold its corrugated surfaces together. (more…)

Healthy Soil: The Dirty Truth

Soil HealthIt’s a point we’ve made often: healthy soil is the key to organic gardening. Whether you’re growing vegetables, ornamentals, or a lush, durable lawn, the health of your soil is what makes it all possible.

Healthy soil is living soil, filled with billions of microbes and beneficial, microscopic fungi; nematodes, earthworms and other beneficial organisms. It’s alive. Frank Tozer, in The Organic Gardeners Handbook says that growing plants is the secondary activity of the organic grower. The first? Growing soil. Grow soil full of organic material from compost, full of living organisms, and the other necessary ingredients plants require, and growing gardens, without chemical fertilizers and the use of pesticides and herbicides to control problems,  becomes vastly easier.

Healthy soil, it turns out, may not be important to just the gardener but to the planet as well. It seems that soil health is the basis of the earth’s store of biodiversity. When we lose healthy soil, we lose everything. (more…)

Starting A Garden

Starting A GardenWe’ve written a lot about planning your garden, which plants go where, crop rotation, companion planting, and the like. But what to do when you’re starting a garden or want to create a second (or a third) garden space?  Where is the best place for your new garden to go? What factors should you consider when starting it?

Often we don’t have a choice. Our yards are small. Everything is heavily shaded except for that one spot over there. If we put the new garden right in that sunny spot in the middle of the yard, where will we play badminton on the fourth of July? Choosing where to put a garden space is a problem a lot of us don’t have.

But if we’re lucky enough to have the space where a choice is in order then it’s important we choose wisely. It’s safe to say that we already know the principles. What’s best for the plants you want to grow? Here’s a brief and most likely incomplete list of principles to consider when starting a garden. Feel free to add things we may have overlooked and other suggestions that will assure you convenience and make your plants a growing success. (more…)

Growing Organic Fruit

Organic ApplesReading through Danny L. Barney’s new book Storey’s Guide To Growing Organic Orchard Fruits (Storey Publishing) not only got us to thinking about what it takes to grow apples, pears, cherries and other fruits without chemical sprays, but also, like a lot of things, made us nostalgic.

Your sentimental, fruit-crazy Planet Natural Blogger grew up on a small orchard back in Nebraska that was sprayed heavily every year. My father was in the pest control business and had access to the compounds and equipment. I remember him fogging the whole place in an effort to keep the mosquitoes and other insects down. Insects weren’t the problem, and needless to say the sprays did nothing to alleviate our real problem, blight and blemishes (and we still ended up with mosquitoes anyway). He didn’t wear a mask or respirator when doing this and neither did we. But we loved to run through the fog much to his chagrin (Note: Dad’s long gone but we’re still healthy).

Maybe it was in reaction to this that — like a lot of former hippies — when we took to the land, we adopted an organic lifestyle. Those of us old enough to remember the Alar apple scare of 1989 probably aren’t surprised to know that the conventionally-grown fruits we buy are still tainted with harmful substances. Some of these chemicals are especially bad for children. (more…)

Fertilizer Recipes: How to Make Your Own

Fertilizer RecipeThere’s been a lot of talk this season about using manures in the garden, the probability of hot manures (rich in nitrogen) “burning” seedlings and squelching germination, and the fact that many commercial manures — or ones you might get from your local farmer — contain metals or toxins not suitable for organic gardens.

Your friendly Planet Natural blogger has always liked using compost to keep garden soil healthy and balanced just the way plants like it, which means most of the manure went into the compost heap. And we were happy to use it because it came from an organic goat dairy. But what about those with new gardens or those with gardens that need amending to help keep the soil at its growing best? That’s the time to fertilize.

In fact, the best time to fertilize is ahead of planting. Of course, that makes it imperative that you hold nitrogen levels down to prevent seeds from not germinating. But most good formulas come this way, so you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. You can always beef up the nitrogen (but not too much, keep it in balance and consider the special needs of different types of plants) later in the season. (more…)

How To Prevent Damping Off

Damping OffMy grandfather used to say that gardening is like cooking. You never walk away from the stove.

What he meant, of course, is that gardening requires a lot of attention. Sticking seeds in the ground and just letting them go is akin to throwing some onions in oil over a hot burner and walking off. When it comes to controlling damping off, the fungal attack that destroys seedlings before they have a chance to flourish, attention to detail can be the organic gardener’s best tool, especially when it comes to watering.

Damping off is a common problem for those starting seeds indoors. But it can also be harmful to seeds planted directly in the garden. Shortly after emerging, seedlings develop a discolored, often black color at the soil line. This rot eventually claims the plant. There’s also a pre-emergence form of damping off that rots the seed before it’s had a chance to germinate. A number of fungi present in soils will cause young seedlings to die. And all of them like wet conditions. Not all fungi are evil … some are beneficial.

This is where attention comes in. If your seeds are growing in flats or starting pots, don’t keep them overly moist. Allow the soil to become dry before watering. Make sure drainage is good. Soil can dry on the surface but be saturated at the bottom of a pot. Again, monitor conditions closely. There’s a fine line between soil reaching a crumbly dryness and drying out rock solid at which point the seedlings tender roots will also dry and shrivel. Not good. (more…)

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