Category Archives: Soil

LIBERATED, AT LAST

Exposée

My garden was liberated yesterday, the soil freed at last. That’s when I peeled back and folded up the black tarps that had been covering some of the vegetable beds since early April. My beautiful soil finally popped into view.

Covering the ground was for the garden’s own good. “Tarping,” as this technique is called, gets the growing season off to a weed-less start. The black cover warms the ground to awaken weed seeds. They sprout, then die as they use up their energy reserves which, without light, can’t be replenished and built up. (I first learned of this technique in J. M. Fortier’s book The Market Gardener.)

Tarping is very different from the much more common way of growing plants in holes in black plastic film, even if one purpose of the soil covering, in both cases, is to snuff out weeds. Black plastic film is left in place all season …

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VEGETABLE MATTERS

Homebound? Plant Vegetables!

Working from home, I’m used to being homebound. And I like it. Not everyone feels this way, and now COVID-19 has forced this situation on many people.

For anyone who isn’t growing some vegetables, if there ever was a time to start a vegetable garden, it’s now. 

A garden will provide pleasant and interesting diversion, some exercise, a chance to be outdoors, the need for less frequent trips to the market, a good family project/activity, and some savings of food dollars. And the experience of — wonder of wonders — watching seeds sprout and grow into plants.

Growing vegetables is easy. Seeds have been practicing sprouting for millions of years. That’s what they do. Sprout. And plants have been doing likewise. 

Paying attention to some basic plant needs will make your garden even more successful. As far as soil, don’t worry about fertility or acidity for now. The most important consideration is …

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To Shred or Not To Shred, That is the Question

Organic Matters

My friend Margaret Roach (https://awaytogarden.com) is a top-notch gardener but not much of a tool maven. She recently said she considers me, and I quote, “the master of all tools and the king of compost” when she asked for my thoughts on compost shredders. (I blushed, but perhaps she was just softening me up for questioning. In fact, her tractor is better than mine.)

Of course I have thoughts about compost shredders.

Climb with me into my time machine and let’s travel back to the early 1970s, to Madison, Wisconsin, where you’ll find me working in my first garden. Like any good organic gardener, early on I appreciated the many benefits of organic materials in the garden, an appreciation bolstered by my having recently began my studies as a graduate student in soil science.

I was hauling all the organic materials I could lay hands on into my 700 square foot …

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I Think My Vegetables are Nutritious

Nutrient Declines in Fruits and Vegetables

Growing vegetables is really quite simple. You put the seeds or transplants into sunny ground, you water and weed, and then you harvest your bounty. For that small effort, you can put on your plate food that is organically, sustainably, and (very) locally grown. Perhaps even richer in nutrients than food you can buy.

Studies over the past 15 or so years have documented a general decline in nutrients in our fruits and vegetables. Some people contend that our soils have been mined for their nutrients, worn out from poor farming, and therefore no longer able to provide us with nutritious food. The cure, according to these “experts,” is to sprinkle mineral-rich rock powders on the soil to replenish and rebalance that which has been lost. It all sounds very logical.

You might have sensed a big “but” looming. Here it is: But . . . further …

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TASTING AND TIDYING, OR NOT

Fruit Heaven

Hudson’s Golden Gem apple

I remember a few years ago of having a most fruitful — and I mean this very literally — experience visiting one of the USDA’s germplasm repositories. “Germplasm repository” doesn’t sound like the kind of place anyone would want to be, but these USDA repositories are, in fact, sunny, colorful places, often redolent with enticing aromas. In the case of the one I visited, the aroma was of ripening apples.

Germplasm is the stuff that gives rise to an organism, and the USDA has set up repositories around the country to house various kinds of plants. Each repository is situated where a particular group of plants grows well. So Davis, California is home to the repository for figs, pomegranates, and Asian persimmons; Corvallis, Oregon is the repository for pears, gooseberries, and mint; and Geneva, New York, where I visited, houses the collections of apples and …

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Colorful, Sometimes Tasty, Ground

Lurid Ground

Lurid, violet flowers have sprouted in the wood chip mulch beneath my row of dwarf pear trees. The flowers are autumn crocuses, the first part of the two-part flowery show that takes place each autumn in that piece of ground.

The second part of that flowery show, soon to follow, will be autumn crocuses. “But,” you exclaim, “autumn crocuses were the first part of the show!” Let me explain.

This first show is from a flower called autumn crocus but which is botanically a Colchicum species. It’s not really a crocus, not even related. Colchicum flowers resemble true crocus flowers, on steroids. The second show will be from true crocuses (that is, Crocus species) that happen to bloom in autumn. The Crocus autumn crocuses are dainty and in colors like our spring crocuses.

What’s really unique about the colchicum flowers, and what makes them so striking, is that, first, they emerge from …

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Interesting and Fun

Interesting, But I Could Do Without It

Out doing stuff in the garden, I sometimes wonder: What’s fun about gardening? What’s interesting about gardening?

European hornets are interesting. My first encounter with them — large, intimidating looking hornets with fat, yellow and black striped bodies, was a few years ago when I saw it feeding on kitchen trimmings as I was about to add more to the compost pile.  

The thought of a sting from this brute seemed horrendous; I learned, though, that they’re not particularly aggressive and their sting belies their ferocious look. The menacing-looking brute that entered the schoolyard turned out to be a pretty nice guy.

My next significant encounter with European hornets was this week, as I was gazing up into the branches of my plum tree admiring the ripe, red plums, ready for harvest. Reaching up and picking a fruit left me in hand with hardly more than …

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Of Corn and Compost

Bed Transformation

In an hour and a half this morning, a 20’ long by 3’ wide bed of spired, aging corn stalks morphed into a bed of succulent, young greenery in the form of endive and Chinese cabbage transplants.

Before beginning this job I harvested what ears were still ripe on the stalks. The yield from this first corn planting was small, both in quantity and size of ears. Old fashioned Golden Bantam, as told by its name, normally yields small ears — but not usually as small as the 3 to 5 inch long ears I harvested.
Planting in “hills” (clusters of 4 plants) usually provides for adequate pollination, but poor weather at a critical developmental stage might have thrown pollination awry.

At any rate, with ears harvested, I lopped each stalk in half with my Hori-Hori knife, then dug straight down right around the base of each hill to sever the …

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Waste Not, Want Not

Two Reasons to Compost

With weeding, harvesting, watering, swimming, kayaking, golf, and biking to do this time of year (not that I do all these), why would anyone spend time making compost? For one or both of two reasons, that’s why.

First, as an environmentally sound way to get rid of so-called “garbage.” Landfilled, the valuable nutrients and organic matter locked up within old broccoli stalks, rotten tomatoes, even old cotton clothes are taken out of our planet’s nutrient cycle almost forever. Landfilling, to me, also disrespects the soil, that thin skin over the Earth that supports much of life here.

Once Levi’s, now almost compost

This leads to the second reason to make compost now. I require plenty of compost for my gardens so need to scrounge every bit of waste organic material as it becomes available. Even go out of my way to haul it in. Or create it.

Sustainabilityness

Having oodles …

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