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.

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…)

Damping Off In Seedlings

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. (more…)

Composting Manure

Cow ManureHere’s a question we’ve been thinking about: why compost manure? It’s one of those questions we felt we knew the answer to — and we did — but that a reconsideration brought up all the variables and exceptions we’ve either learned from experts or from our own hard experience. So let’s deconstruct. Does all manure need to be composted before being used in the garden? If so, what’s the best ways to compost it? And finally, what about chickens?

We bring that last bit up because more and more people, both in the country and in cities, are keeping chickens. And chickens, er, emit some of the richest manure a gardener could hope for, high in nitrogen and phosphorous and full of other nutrients. Best is the fact that a chicken’ digestive system kills weed seeds — 98%! — that might otherwise be spread to the garden. Fresh chicken manure needs to be composted because it contains so much nitrogen that it will discourage germination of many vegetable seeds and burn young seedlings. Which ones? Ironically, it’s those that require a lot of nitrogen later on as they grow. (more…)

Permaculture: Local and Sustainable

Permaculture LifestyleYour friendly and optimistic Planet Natural Blogger has more than once declared — rather grandly — that organic gardening can save the world.

Actually, it might take a little more than that, though local, personal and sustainable organic food production is playing a huge role in human health and the conservation of our resources. Many of us — suspicious of agri-business, unhappy with the poisoning of our environment in the name of corporate food production, upset with private control of energy sources, and wishing independence from as many facets of wasteful consumerism as possible — want to take charge of our own sustenance and well-being. The permaculture movement, dedicated to natural ecosystems, small-scale sustainable food and energy production, and ecologically-friendly living spaces, is that larger picture. (more…)

Spring & Summer Cover Crops

crimson-cloverEveryone knows the value of cover crops or green manure: they add valuable organic matter to the soil, they prevent erosion, smother weeds, and help maintain soil moisture levels. The ability of pea or other legume crops to fix nitrogen makes them especially valuable as a soil addition. Most cover crops are planted in fall, given time to overwinter, and then turned back into the soil in spring. But is it possible to plant a cover crop in early spring and still reap benefits?

The answer depends on where you live. High altitude locations or those in zones three, four and higher are at a disadvantage. There’s usually only a short window between the last frost (or snow!), something that can happen as late as June, and the heat of the growing season. But zones five and above, especially those at non-mountainous elevations without micro-climate extremes, allow for a spring cover crop when specific conditions are taken into account. (more…)

Worms and Global Warming

Worms and Global WarmingThe more we learn about worms, the more we marvel at the necessary role they play in our gardens, our environment, and the planet at large. We all know that earthworms digest organic material in soil making it more readily available to crops. We know how they add nitrogen and valuable minerals to the soil, how they make soil more porous and allow for more valuable oxygen and other gases to be available for plants, how they help soil retain moisture, how their digestive tracts serve as incubators for beneficial microbes, and on and on. Now, a new study suggests that — when it comes to global warming — worms are more culprit than solution.

The study comes from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the only university in that country (so they claim) that focuses on “healthy food and living environment.” A PhD candidate there looked at several earthworm studies and decided that worms “have an unwanted effect on GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions.” The frightening conclusion as stated by the author of the study? “Earthworms may help us to produce more food through improving soil fertility, but by doing so they also contribute to global warming by increasing GHG emissions from soils.”  (more…)

Planet News…with Links!

Breaking NewsGMOs, permaculture, the costs of drought, and kale — it’s not just for supermodels.

Items (and garden news) of interest to organic gardeners, natural lifestyle, and health-conscious individuals that we’ve come across in the last few weeks:

–Legislation introduced in New Mexico that would have required labeling of foods that contain GMOs passed the state’s Public Affairs Committee only to have that recommendation turned down by the entire Senate which voted not to adopt the committee’s report. State Senator Peter Wirth who wrote the bill was quoted by Albuquerque Business First saying, “Even though SB 18 is dead this year, it’s clear that New Mexicans want and deserve a label that tells them whether or not their food has been genetically engineered.” Stay tuned.

–Drought and deficit: The New York Times is reporting that last summer’s drought will cost taxpayers an estimated $16 billion in crop insurance payments. That’s in addition to $11 billion that’s already been paid out in indemnity costs to farmers, a figure that could balloon to $20 billion before it’s over. Not all those payments go to farmers. Groups on both the right and the left have criticized the crop insurance program for subsidizing insurance companies and largely benefiting corporate farms. (more…)

Is Your Compost Made of Sewage Sludge?

Biosolids in CompostThe Dirty Truth About Biosolids

By Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

Compost is rightly celebrated as the perfect soil amendment and a great way to recycle green waste. But not all compost is created equal. In fact, commercial compost based on “biosolids” or sewage sludge can be downright dangerous.

You know what biosolids are, right? Solids made from bio materials, just what the term suggests. One can’t help but think of Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Except biosolids don’t smell so sweet. And what’s in this name is otherwise known as shit. (more…)

Worm Castings Wiggle Into the Spotlight

Red Wiggler WormThe mainstream press is catching up with what we organic gardeners already know. This article in The New York Times details new research showing that worm castings help plants “grow with more vigor, [making] them more resistant to disease and insects, than those grown with other types of composts and fertilizers.”  One of the big reason for this is one we’ve long championed: microbes.

The story quotes Norman Q. Arancon, an assistant professor of horticulture at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, who says that “the earthworm’s digestive process, it turns out, is a really nice incubator for microorganisms.” Here’s the take-away from this part of the story:

. . . these microbes, which multiply rapidly when they are excreted, alter the ecosystem of the soil. Some make nitrogen more available to plant roots, accounting for the increased growth. The high diversity and numbers of microbes outperform those in the soil that cause disease.

Arancon also points out a fact that’s Bible and verse to organic growers: soil that’s seen heavy use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides is deficient in these microbes. This is why compost, which is technically not a fertilizer, is such a valuable amendment. It infuses the soil with microbes which make it easier for plants to use the nitrogen and other nutrients that are already there. And it fights plant disease. (more…)

Phosphorus Apocalypse

Phosphorus MineWorried that we’re facing the end of the world on December 21st as supposedly predicted by the Mayan Calendar and supported by mass marketers of survival gear? Your timid and easily-frightened Planet Natural Blogger says don’t bother. We have bigger, more reality-based problems to face. Of course, I’m talking about the exhaustion of the world’s supply of phosphorous fertilizer.

Every gardener worth her or his compost knows what phosphorus is. It’s the “P” in the N-P-K ratio. Plants need phosphorus for photosynthesis. It helps plants develop strong root systems, increases resistance and helps plants utilize CO2. It stimulates growth in the first part of a plants life and helps increase yields in their last stage. Its use over the last century is credited with fueling the so-called “green” revolution, the ability of commercial farming to feed the world’s exploding population. It’s also important to humans, necessary for respiration, metabolism and building strong bones. We get phosphorus from the fruits and vegetables we eat. (more…)

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