Category Archives: Soil

SOIL MATTERS

Plastic on My Bed?!

You’d be surprised if you looked out on my vegetable garden today. Black plastic covers three beds. Black plastic which, for years, I’ve railed against for depriving a soil of oxygen, for its ugliness, for — in contrast to organic mulches — its doing nothing to increase soil humus, and for its clogging landfills.Actually, that insidious blackness covering my beds is black vinyl. But that’s beside the point. Its purpose, like the black plastic against which I’ve railed, is to kill weeds. Not that my garden has many weeds. But this time of year, in some beds, a few more sprout than I’d like to see.

The extra warmth beneath that black vinyl will help those weeds get growing. Except that there’s no light coming through the vinyl, so most weeds will expend their energy reserves and die. And this should not take long, depending on the weather …

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Cold Rules

Water Freezes. Why Don’t Plants?

(The following is adapted from my book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, available wherever fine books are sold, and my website.)

Not being able to don gloves and a scarf, or shiver, to keep warm, it’s a wonder that trees and shrubs don’t freeze to death from winter cold. They can’t stomp their limbs or do jumping jacks to get their sap moving and warm up. The sap has no warmth anyway.

Sometimes, of course, plants do succumb to winter cold. But usually that happens to garden and landscape plants pushed to their cold limits, not to native plants in their natural habitats or to well adapted exotic plants. 

Think about it: water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit—not a particularly cold temperature for a winter night—and plants contain an abundance of water. Water is unique among liquids …

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Dry, Wet, Bad, Good?

Some Bad

Wow! What a gardening year this has been. Looking back on 2018, it’s been the oddest year ever in terms of weather, insects, and disease.

After starting off the season parched, seemingly ready to go into drought, the weather in July did an about face. The rains began. Average precipitation here in the Northeast is about 4 inches per month. July ended up with about 6 inches, August saw 5 inches, September 8 inches(!), October 5 inches, and November 8 inches(!!).

All that rainfall brought humidity, which might have been responsible for my celeriac plants hardly growing, then rotting.

Celeriac, early in the growing season, before the rains

(Perhaps not, because this was my third growing season of failure with celeriac.) I’m taking this as a celeriac challenge. Perhaps next year I’ll try them in a large tub where I can have more control over soil composition and moisture.

The humidity also …

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Of Worms and Leaves, Here and Beyond

Unreiking is Good Exercise

For the past few days I’ve been engaged in the esoteric exercise of unreiking. Basically, this involves lifting heavy (or sometimes light) sacks, slitting them with a knife, and then moving my arms back and forth over the spilled contents. Okay, okay, the “sacks” are plastic bags, their contents are autumn leaves, and I’m holding a pitchfork in my hands as I spread out the spilled leaves.

Sammy is looking forward to this leafy mattress

(Unreiking is the reverse of another esoteric exercise, reiking, whereby  . . .  well, leaves are raked up into plastic bags.)

Some people have too many leaves or otherwise don’t want them around. I have too few leaves and have use for them. By unreiking, the leaves get spread beneath my berry bushes, grape vines, and pear trees. These leaves feed bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes, which slowly rot down the leaves …

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Shaving and Composting

 . . . But My Garden is in Order

“Some men there are who never shave (if they are so absurd as ever to shave), except when they go abroad, and who do not take care to wear polished boots in the bosoms of their families. I like a man who shaves (next to one who doesn’t shave) to satisfy his own conscience, and not for display, and who dresses as neatly at home as he does anywhere. Such a man will be likely to put his garden in complete order before the snow comes, so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.” So wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his wonderful little book (much more than a gardening book) My Summer in a Garden (1898). I gave up shaving a few months ago, but I am putting my garden in order for autumn.

The scene …

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Making My Bed(s); The “Best” Tomato

Buckwheat Beds

About a month ago the greenhouse was looking messy as oxalis, grasses, chickweed, and other weeds were starting to carpet the mostly bare ground.  An unacceptable situation, considering that a month hence — now — I would need the space for planting in preparation for fall and winter.

The first step back in August was, obviously, to clear away the weeds, pulling almost each and every one out, roots and all. As long as weeds aren’t too overgrown or too abundant, the job is pleasantly satisfying. Moist soil also helps.

Pulling out weeds differs from the usual approach of preparing the soil by tilling it to discombobulate and bury weeds. I avoid tillage because it exposes buried weed seeds to light, which is just what new weeds need to germinate and grow. Tillage also burns up valuable humus and discombobulates not only the soil, but also resident fungi, earthworms, and other …

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Some You Win, Some You Lose. Why?

Mo’ Better Berries

Because I’ve grown a number of varieties of blueberries for a long time, I’m often asked what variety I would recommend planting. Or whether you need to plant two varieties for cross-pollination in order to get fruit.

The answers to both questions are intertwined. First of all, blueberries are partially self-fertile so one variety will bear fruit all by itself.

But — and this is important — berries will be both more plentiful and larger if two different varieties cross-pollinate each other. (Apples, in contrast, are self-sterile so, with few exceptions, won’t bear any fruit at all without cross-pollination.)

Benefits of cross-pollination aside, why plant just one variety of blueberry? Different varieties ripen their fruits at different times during the blueberry harvest season. With a good selection of varieties, that season can be very long.

Here on the farmden, the season opens with Duke and Earliblue, both usually ready for picking …

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Watering — in the Rain?

Why Are Pots Thirsty?

With recent rains of more than 3 inches over the last couple of days, you’d think that the last thing on my mind would be having to water anything. But you’d be wrong. Plants in pots — and I have plenty of them, some ornamental and some tropical and subtropical fruits — don’t get the full benefit of all that water.

Potting soils are, and should be, more porous than any garden soil to maintain good aeration within the confines of a pot. About a one inch depth of water is needed if you’re going to thoroughly wet a 12 inch high column of potting soil. If a flower pot is, for example, only 6 inches high, only 1/2 inch depth of water would be needed; and so on.

A lot of my potted plants didn’t drink in that 3 inches of rain that fell over the past couple …

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Thirst

Too Much or Too Little?

The current deficit of rainfall reminds me of the importance of watering — whether by hand, with a sprinkler, or drip, drip, drip via drip irrigation — in greening up a thumb.

Not that watering is definitely called for here in the “humid northeast;” historically, cultivated plants have gotten by mostly on natural rainfall. Historically, vegetable gardens also weren’t planted as intensely as they are these days. In one of my three-foot wide beds, for example, brussels sprouts plants at eighteen inches apart are flanked on one side by a row of fully grown turnips and on the other side by radishes. Five rows of onions run up and down another bed.

The rule of thumb I use for watering is that plants need the equivalent of one inch depth of water once a week.

Finger in soil to test for moisture

This approximation doesn’t take into account …

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