Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘fertilizer’

We moved into our current house and yard at the beginning of August a couple years ago, and having a long list of veggies that needed to be planted by July 15th, set about tearing out 4×8 chunks of the lawn to make garden beds.  The grass came out, the 4×8 frames of 2×8 boards went around each bed, and new dirt- a pickup truck load of quality soil from a real store, not Craig’s list- went in.  Seemed logical and like this would grow us some fine vegetables… but we’ve been struggling to improve the soil every season.

So this post is about what i would do differently, and what i will do differently when we move to a new place sometime in the future.

First- the soil in residential areas is most often craptastic.  It has no nutrients, no organic matter, no structure, and very few earthworms or soil bacteria/fungi/nematodes, etc (hereafter referred to as “soil critters”).  This is because during construction, the top soil on the lot is scraped away to lay the foundation, heavy machines drive around building the house and compacting the soil, then a layer of “top soil” is replaced that is geared toward accepting sod for a new lawn- sandy for drainage, but with little organic matter.  The soil in the sod itself is clayey to hold the sod together- bad for drainage and air circulation.  (David knows- he used to lay sod as a summer job.)  Soil in the yards of rental houses is often the worst, because none of the short-term renters ever invest any effort in improving it.  When we first moved in, you could pour water on the soil and it would just run off and pool at the lowest point.

Where am i going with this…?  If you add anything to your soil when you start your garden, it should be compost.  Crap loads and shit tons of compost.  Don’t buy dirt- you’ll just have to add compost later.  Compost is organic matter.  Organic matter 1) increases the ability of the soil to hold water, 2) slowly releases nutrients for your veggies, and 3) attracts and makes a home for soil critters.  Add compost, and when you water your garden, the water will stay where you put it and you’ll have to water less frequently.  Your veggies will grow bigger and healthier with compost.  Soil critters will come to feast on your added organic matter, and more soil critters = better air circulation, soil structure, and nutrient cycling = better veggie growth = awesome root systems = even better soil structure, more organic matter content, and even more soil critters!

If it is late fall or winter (like now) and you want to start your garden in the spring, there are a few things you can do to get an earlier start.  It’s a good idea to wait until the soil dries out in the spring before you start digging around in it. When disturbed, wet soil loses its structure very easily and then dries into chunks of rock hard dirt- i know, because i didn’t think digging in wet soil was a big deal, and now i have beets that have taken almost a full year to grow to the size of a golf ball.  If you know where your garden will be, you can build plastic hoop houses or some sort of tarp structure to shelter it from the rain so that it dries out more quickly.  If the soil in your future garden is bare, cover it with fallen leaves or grass clippings or other organic material that can break down over time, providing compost for your beds while sheltering the soil from the rain and preventing it from becoming too compacted.  If there’s grass in your future garden spot, you can start killing it by laying cardboard down over it- it will be easier to pull up in the spring if it’s mostly dead.  And you do want to tear out the grass- if you turn it into the soil it will revive and overgrow your garden beds very quickly.

If you are lucky enough to move to your new yard/plan your new garden before winter, ie, september-october, you should plant a cover crop in preparation for the spring.  A cover crop will do similar things to a layer of fallen leaves- improve soil structure with its root system, increase organic matter when you cut it and turn it in in the spring, and protect the soil from compacting rain.  Cover crops also add nutrients to the soil: nitrogen-fixing cover crops like crimson clover return nitrogen to the soil when turned in, and others like alfalfa and buckwheat have root systems that bring up nutrients like phosphorous from the subsoil.

In the spring, you should turn in any cover crop or remaining leaf compost 2-3 weeks before you want to sow seeds so it can decompose fully.  If you don’t have time, put them in the compost pile- fresh decomposing plants can inhibit the growth of new seedlings.  In beds where you’ll plant cool-weather spring crops like broccoli and peas and radishes- that’s all you have to do.  In beds that will grow summer crops like tomatoes, beans, peppers, melons, etc, you can sow a spring cover crop (or let your current cover crop keep growing, as long as you cut off flower heads so it doesn’t go to seed), and turn it in for even more organic matter and nutrients before you plant those heat loving crops. Again, give the cover crop a few weeks to decompose before you plant new seeds.

This coming spring i’m going to try to sow buckwheat as a cover crop in beds where i’ll plant tomatoes, peppers, melons, and squash because buckwheat adds phosphorous to the soil and those “veggies” all need phosphorous and potassium to produce their fruits.  Buckwheat is a summer-sown cover crop, but grows very quickly- so i’m hoping i can get at least one round in before i plant the tomato seedlings.  Also- with the chicken manure compost we’re producing, we don’t really need any more nitrogen for the garden- that’s hot shit!  Heh.. heh… heh… get it?  So i’m thinking about switching over entirely from crimson clover to buckwheat (and a winter crop like wheat) for all my cover crop needs.

In any case, focus on the soil- it’s not just a container for plant roots and fertilizer- healthy soil will a magnificent garden make. (And a lower water bill, less fertilizer run-off, less fertilizer or none at all, more worms for the chickens, more pest-resistant veggies, happier renters that move in after you….)

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Check out these great articles about organic farming and gardening:

This is a good overview of the development, principles, and future challenges of organic agriculture:  Organic Agriculture, a global perspective.  A bit slow, but you know, in case you were wondering.

An amazing, horrifying seven-part series about the dangers of synthetic fertilizers used in modern agriculture by Seattle’s Grist Magazine:  The Nitrogen dilemma- is America Fertilizing Disaster?

My new favorite book!  The New Organic Grower, by Elliot Coleman.  Great information about crop rotation, green manures, composting, and how to pick a good plot of land for your small organic farm.  Here are a couple of my favorite chapters:   Chapter 2 Land            Chapter 7 Crop Rotation

Renewing Husbandry   This is the 2005 article by Wendell Berry I mentioned previously- a stirring tale about the fall of soil husbandry.

Another fascinating book, this one entirely about soil, and how it is the key to a successful garden:  Start with the Soil, by Grace Gershuny.  Written in 1993, it’s a bit out of date with current USDA organic regulations, but still quite awesome.   The soil community       Hummus and Soil Health     Compost- gardener’s gold!

A shorter article from Mother Earth News in 2003 about building soil health and fertility using no-till gardening and farming methods.  Building Fertile Soil    I had heard about no-till, but some people advocate no digging whatsoever!  I announced to David last night that we were switching to no-till gardening.  “Huh?”  I repeated myself.  “I understand your words, but what the heck does that mean?”  I don’t know either quite yet…

More articles to come!

Read Full Post »

Though I’ve heard of Wendell Berry, I’ve never read anything he’s authored until this morning. I will commit myself to reading much more. Funny how the more you learn, the longer your reading list grows.

Here is a beautiful piece about “soil husbandry.”

Read Full Post »