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.

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 using leaves in the garden. 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. (more…)

Groundwater Contamination from Nitrates

Field SprayingNot so many years ago, my brother-in-law, a Nebraska farmer, made a discovery. The well from which his family pulled their drinking water, a source that had served his family for generations, was polluted from nitrates. The pump house was located near their home on the side of a hill. Near the top of the hill and for hundreds of acres beyond, were the contoured, non-irrigated fields where he grew corn one year, soy beans the next. To maintain productivity and following fertilizer company directions, he had spread nitrogen supplements in a huge, single dose, year after year.

The practice didn’t cost him his water supply. But it did cost him a hefty chunk of change to put in an expensive water purification system. Luckily, his young children were none the worse for it. But it’s common knowledge that nitrates in water cause blue baby syndrome or methemoglobinemia a disease that interferes with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen where it’s needed. Methemoglobinemia can also affect adults who have digestive problems that don’t allow them to break down nitrates in the gastric system. Nitrates are also linked to some cancers. (more…)

Planting Cover Crops

Cover CropsI’ve been called out for not recommending planting cover crops earlier in this blog. Okay, guilty! Cover crops, especially legumes, are best planted a couple weeks ahead of the first killing frost — as if our changing weather patterns give us any clue as to when that’s going to happen — to give them time to germinate. Legumes usually take longer to germinate. But if you haven’t planted? Experience tells us it’s not too late, depending on your climate and the precautions you take.

Grasses — ryegrass, winter rye, winter wheat and wheat grass, oats — germinate more quickly and there fore are more suitable for late planting. But some legumes — hairy vetch for example — are more adaptable to cold climates and will germinate if planted late, especially if you get a string of warm days in the late season. Buckwheat is a good grass choice for colder climates. Not only does it germinate more quickly than legumes, it’s a quick grower. (more…)

Fall Garden Cleanup

Garden Clean UpStop Next Season’s Plant Disease… Now!

Of all the mistakes I’ve made growing vegetables — and I’ve made plenty — the biggest (or right up there) has to do with not taking the time for a good fall garden cleanup. I can barely bring myself to tell you.

One year, like most years, a fall frost hit the garden and I didn’t bother to get it covered. It withered squash vines and wilted the late plantings of lettuce and spinach. I should have been out there right away, removing all the dead vines, pulling the spinach (some of the lettuce made it back) and not given disease a chance to get a hold in the weakened plants. But I didn’t. And then, after a wet snow, I just let it all go, not putting the garden to bed until well into November. I didn’t know it yet, but by then my lack of action guaranteed that my spinach and chard crops for the next year would be compromised and keeping my squash vines growing would become a battle. (more…)

Worms In the Garden

Garden WormsEveryone knows how great worms are for the garden. They increase your soil’s porous qualities by tunneling, they cluster around decaying matter consuming fungi, bacteria, and nematodes and excreting them as vermicompost or worm castings, one of the most potent soil amendments there is. You’ve gone to great lengths to attract earthworms to your garden by adding compost and other organic matter to your soil or maybe you purchased worms to add. (Garden worms are different than composting worms. If you do have a source of garden worms, make sure your soil is “worm-ready” with plenty of organic material or you’ll lose them). But what happens to worms in the garden as soils dry?

Worms, of course, need adequate moisture to survive. You’ve probably used mulch and kept your garden soil moist enough to sustain them. But what about your lawn, now that it’s dormant, and you’re doing what you can to save water? What about the worms? (more…)

Food Pathogens: Let’s Get Dirty!

Organic SoilOrganic gardeners know that a little dirt never hurt anyone. Of course, it’s a different story if the dirt your vegetables grow in contains herbicides and pesticides. Now Jeff D. Leach, in this op-ed piece in The New York Times argues that a little dirt is crucial to our well-being.

Leach is the director of the Paleobiotics Lab in New Orleans. He’s something of an anthropologist of human biology. His take in this article and others is that our fear of food pathogens has led to a sanitized diet that no longer provides us the beneficial microbes that fought off the diseases borne by the contamination found in industrial agriculture. “Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us,” Leach writes. He goes on to suggest that “reintroducing some of the organisms from the mud and water of our natural world would help avoid an overreaction of an otherwise healthy immune response that results in such chronic diseases as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and a host of allergic disorders.” (more…)

Planting Time and Soil Readiness

Planting TimeHow is planting time like opening Christmas presents? There’s a huge temptation to get started days too early. After a long winter, after planning your garden and ordering seeds, we’re all anxious — with visions of sweet corn, squash and greens dancing in our heads — to get in there and start working the soil. Let’s tear the ribbons and the paper off and get those seeds and plants in the ground! For gardeners, the days ahead of spring planting are just as difficult as the day’s before the holiday are for children… and equally filled with anticipation.

But when it comes to planting, it’s best to be patient. Is your soil ready? In other words, is it “friable”? Several factors come into play but for established gardens with previously prepared soil, there are only two: temperature and moisture content. Here’s a list of minimum, maximum and optimal soil temperatures for common vegetables. (more…)

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