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.

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…)

Soil Amendments for Your Garden

Healthy SoilBefore you grow your organic garden, grow your soil. This often-repeated wisdom is simple to say but requires some work to make happen. Growing soil — making it ideal for growing vegetables, flowers, lawns, and other plants — means bringing it to life. How?

  • by making sure its acid/alkaline or pH balance is perfect for what you’re growing,
  • by providing all the nutrients that your soil may lack and your plants require,
  • by improving its structure so that it holds oxygen your plants need as well as retaining necessary moisture and providing critical drainage,
  • by supplying and encouraging strong populations of beneficial microbes that will stimulate the health and growth of your plants

Most soil amendments are added to improve the structure of the soil, to increase the organic content so that the soil is more capable of holding nutrients and moisture. When these organic materials are added to the soil, they also act in varying degrees as fertilizers, providing a mix of nutrients to plant roots. By first determining the needs of your soil, you can best determine what you should add. Need nitrogen? Want to sweeten the pH of your soil? Want to increase moisture-holding ability or break up heavy clay soils? (more…)

Preparing Garden Soil

Organic Garden SoilHealthy soil is the basis of healthy plants and a healthy environment. When garden soil is in good shape there is less need for fertilizers or pesticides. As author and respected gardener Frank Tozer writes, “When building soil you not only improve your plants health, but you can also improve your own.”

Organic soil is rich in humus, the end result of decaying materials such as leaves, grass clippings and compost. It holds moisture, but drains well. Good organic garden soil is loose and fluffy — filled with air that plant roots need — and it has plenty of minerals essential for vigorous plant growth. It is alive with living organisms — from earthworms to fungi and bacteria — that help maintain the quality of the soil. Proper pH is also an essential characteristic of healthy soil. (more…)

What’s in a Number?

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 Fertilizers

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 needs 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. (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. (more…)

What’s the Big Stink About Organic Fertilizers?

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 blood meal 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. (more…)

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