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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.

What’s in a Number (N-P-K)?

Fertilizer NumbersConfused about fertilizer numbers? What value do they have in organic gardening? A plant needs nutrients to survive. Most of these are provided by the soil, but soil varies tremendously in nutrient amounts, soil type, pH, and nutrient availability.

The three main nutrients that have been identified as absolutely necessary for plants are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). These three are also known as macronutrients, and are the source of the three numbers commonly found on organic fertilizer labels. The numbers found on our All-Purpose Fertilizer, for example, are 5-5-5. This is the percentage by weight of the N, P, and K found in the fertilizer. (more…)

A Gardener’s Guide to Organic Fertilizer

Organic FertilizersIn a perfect world, your garden’s soil would provide all the nutrients plants need. But in the real world, garden and lawn soil — and thus the plants that live in them — often need a little boost. Improving the soil is the number one thing you can do to improve your garden, yard or landscape and organic fertilizers can help.

All plants need:

• Macronutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium
• Secondary nutrients – sulfur, calcium and magnesium
• Micronutrients – iron, manganese, zinc, chlorine, boron, copper and nickel (in very small quantities)

Organic fertilizing can be as easy or as technical as you want it to be. For gardeners who don’t wish to spend a lot of time figuring out what individual plants want, there are commercial blends that can be used on all plants.

For those who like to treat each plant as an individual there are singular fertilizers or mixes for every kind of plant. Often fertilizing protocol changes as the plant grows. Keep reading to review the best fertilizing method for you. (more…)

Organic Fertilizer Benefits

Healthy PlantsWhy not use chemical fertilizers? It’s a reasonable question. After all, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium ARE chemicals, so where is the advantage in these bags of heavy, grainy stuff, that need to be measured and mixed and then dug in, when you can just pick up a small plastic bottle of the blue stuff?

There are several organic fertilizer benefits, some purely altruistic, others much more self-interested. First of all, most chemical fertilizers provide only that well-known trio, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These three, known as the macro-nutrients, are indeed required in greater quantity than any others, but they are only three of the thirteen nutrients plants need. The three chemicals that qualify as secondary nutrients, calcium, sulfur, and magnesium are generally ignored, as are the trace nutrients, boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, and molybdenum. While these are needed in far smaller quantities than the macro-nutrients, they are still essential.

This might not matter if plants could just get these other nutrients from the soil, and this is indeed what usually happens. But over time, and in several ways, chemical fertilizers can interfere with plants’ ability to take up nutrients. (more…)

What’s the Big Stink About Organic Fertilizer?

FertilizersHere’s a list of some organic fertilizers you can encounter:

Manure for the garden comes from cow, sheep, poultry and horses. Pretty self-explanatory. Manure is known as a “complete” fertilizer; it has a lot of organic matter, but is low in nutrients. Manures are most valuable as organic soil amendments and mulches. Note: Beware of using fresh manure as a fertilizer because it can burn plants.

Blood meal is dried, powdered blood collected from cattle slaughterhouses. It’s such a rich source of nitrogen that gardeners have to be careful not to over-apply and burn the roots of their plants. Apply just before planting to stimulate green leafy growth.

Bone meal is finely ground bone. A by-product from animal slaughterhouses, it is a great source of calcium and contains up to 15% phosphate. Bone meal promotes strong root systems and flowering. It is often used when growing flowers, bulbs and fruit trees.

Shellfish fertilizer or shell meal is made from crushed bones or shells from crab or other shellfish. It is a great source of calcium in addition to phosphorus and many trace minerals. One benefit of shellfish fertilizer: it contains chitin which encourages the growth of organisms that inhibit harmful pest nematodes. (more…)

Organic Lawns, Healthy Soil

Sprinkler FunBy Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

Here’s something of a Zen puzzle for you. The key to a healthy lawn is healthy, organic soil. And the key to healthy soil is a healthy, organic lawn.

Confused? Don’t be. Organic lawn care starts and ends with healthy soil, soil that is full of nutrients for both grass and the microorganisms that call your dirt their home; soil that is not compromised with toxins and synthetic chemicals that destroy those microorganisms. And nothing contributes to the health of your soil more than a thick, rich organic lawn, one that returns organic nutrients to your soil. In this win-win situation, organic lawn care can actually give you a more vibrant lawn than you would have with regular applications of commercial fertilizer.

To put it another way, the organic lawn is a self-sustaining lawn.

Take it from Paul Sachs, whose books on organic athletic fields and golf courses, have started something of a green playground revolution. “When you feed the life of your soil, those growing populations of microorganisms begin to accomplish many jobs that now consume great amounts of your time, money and energy.” (more…)

The Perfect Potting Mix Recipe

Potting MixNothing can be created out of nothing. - Lucretius, 99 – 55 B.C.

As with any garden, soil preparation is what really counts when it comes to being successful growing in containers. It’s the foundation. It’s the staff of life. Pick your life-giving metaphor and you get the idea.

In other words, select the right potting mix recipe for your plants and they will thrive. Skimp on the soil and you’ll get weak, non-productive plants that require more work to maintain and are susceptible to all kinds of pest problems.

What is the perfect mix? That depends. Every professional gardener has his own “secret” recipe just like every Italian grandmother has her own way of making tomato sauce. However, most experts agree that a good container medium should be lightweight and drain well, yet contain enough organic matter to hold moisture and nutrients even through hot, dry weather. You can purchase a quality potting mix or you can make your own. (more…)

Using Autumn’s Bounty: Leaf Mold, Mulch and Compost

Autumn LeavesBy Bill Kohlhaase, Planet Natural

Leaves, easily turned into protective mulch, soil-enhancing leaf mold or rich compost, are the fall season’s gift to the composter. After the last tomatoes are picked, the standing greens harvested, the squash brought in and the carrots pulled, nature provides a bounty that assures the next year’s crops will have the best soil possible. Let your non-gardening neighbors curse autumn’s raking tasks. Composters rejoice in the piles of mineral-rich organic material that trees graciously shed just for them.

Okay, okay, maybe that’s a little too much hyperbole. Still, it’s hard not to get poetic about leaves. Sure, raking can be hard work even for composters who know the value in each and every leaf. But leaves have long been a treasure for the gardeners: easily available, rich in nutrients, an effective mulch in winter and summer and, once decomposed, extremely beneficial to the soil. (more…)

Mighty Mycorrhiza

Mycorrhizal FungiOne of the great things about gardening — in addition to creating beautiful landscapes and delicious, healthy food — is its educational opportunities. Your friendly Planet Natural blogger has gardened on and off since my childhood some (garbled) years ago and I learn something new almost every time I pick up a how-to book, talk to a companion gardener, or get my hands in the dirt. Best are the things that I once knew nothing about and, as I explore them further, result in deepening levels of understanding and wonder. Current example? Mycorrhiza.

Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial soil organisms that attach themselves to the roots of plants — almost 95% of the world’s growing things have a symbiotic reationship with mycorrhiza  –  and help them facilitate the uptake of water and nutrients. I first came aware of mycorrhizal fungi when pursuing hydroponic gardening a few years back. Hydroponic gardeners add mycorrhizal fungi innoculants to their growing solutions to encourage quick and vibrant growth. Some soil boosters also contain them. That’s good as far as it goes. (more…)

Turkey Time

Turkey DinnerDid you know that turkey manure is one hot fertilizer with slightly more nitrogen than chicken manure? Though the difference is slight — and actually disputed by the University of Minnesota — one thing’s clear. Turkey manure, like other poultry manure, is a valuable source of phosphorous, potassium, and, yes, nitrogen. It also contains other valuable nutrients and microbes that your plants will appreciate.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own little homestead with a turkey or three trotting about — we’re told they make acceptable country pets and a single male strutting around can be as decorative as a peacock — or live near (but not too near) a source of good organic turkey manure, take advantage. Most likely, it will be available as “litter,” mixed in with sawdust, straw, feed and other components to be swept or shoveled off the coop floor (wear a mask). No matter how your turkey droppings come, you’ll want to compost this material before using it. (more…)

Things We’ve Learned: Leaves

Autumn LeavesWe think of gardening as a never-ending learning process. Just when something makes sense, we learn something new — or remember some detail we’d forgotten — and suddenly, Doh!… we feel like Homer Simpson. Such is the case with composting leaves. We used to have so many. We’d heap up our compost piles and spread them over our garden. One not-so-bright day in November we decided that if we turned them into the soil they wouldn’t blow around as much. And, come spring, they’d decompose faster into the soil, enriching it with mineral-rich humus. Win-win!

No, lose. Even though we knew that carbon-rich materials use up nitrogen as they break down, we didn’t put it together with our garden soil, which of course we wanted to be nitrogen-rich. By turning those leaves into the soil, we were guaranteeing that we’d be losing some nitrogen for next growing season. Same thing happens with other carbon-rich materials: wood chips, sawdust, pine needles; even shredded paper and cardboard if you’re using it. Turning them directly into the soil will deplete nitrogen.

Of course, there’s a simple solution. Put those leaves into your compost heap with enough “green” (nitrogen-rich) materials to finish the resulting product. You don’t need much. Experts tell us that 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen will do the trick If you don’t have enough nitrogen, the composting process comes to a halt. (more…)

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