Friday, April 16, 2010

Ways to improve, or "amend" your garden soil

It's a mystery, this dirt.
Your soil might be the single most important component of growing great vegetables, and yet the hardest to get a handle on. I'm still learning quite a bit about it myself, admittedly (please don't ask me what exactly 'loam' means), but this list is what I've done and what I know, and I've gotten great results.

Your Goal: good 'tilth'. Some over-simplified ways to tell you've got good tilth:
1. easy to shovel.
2. Think back when you have eaten a great muffin. You know how it crumbles? Light, airy, a little moist? Imagine a lot of those crumbs, and that's how your soil should crumble in your hands.

"Amending" just means adding stuff to your dirt to make it better dirt to grow vegetables in. Amending will get your dirt closer to our goal of great tilth. Your dirt, unless it's been a well-tended garden for a while, is probably pretty sub-optimal. There's two ways in which it can be sub-optimal: composition and fertility. I'll concentrate on composition here, because by improving composition in the ways outlined here you will increase fertility also.

Odds are your soil is either clay (in the west, where if you put a chunk on a potters wheel you could make a bowl) which is so compact that air and roots can't penetrate and water sits, or sandy, which drains of water way too quickly. Note neither of these if fluffy and crumbly like our delicious muffin! Or, your soil is just crappy in general. Ironically, if it's crappy in any of these ways, which it probably is, you should add crap.

Real crap
From cows or goats or horses or llamas or alpacas. You can get bags of cow manure at the garden store, but if you want more or have a bigger garden area, I totally suggest getting loads delivered to your house. I found a great guy on Craigslist who gets manure from farms and delivers it to my house. In order to not create an angry mob of neighbors,
-get composted crap/old crap. This is manure that has been sitting for a while, breaking down, and no longer smells. It's already starting to turn into the dirt you so desire. After tilling it in to your existing dirt, you can plant plants immediately and they will be fine.
- if you can only find fresh crap (i.e. steaming piles): buy it in the fall after your garden is done for the season. (Note: steaming piles are not ok to plant in! It'll burn your plants, and they will whither and die. That's not what we're going for here.) Dig it into your existing soil immediately - this cuts down on the smell. It will break down over winter and be wonderful for spring planting.

Worm Castings
This is earthworm poop. It's great stuff, but probably not a large-scale solution. I'd advise that you amend your soil well with other stuff listed here and the worms will quickly inhabit it, pooping in it for free forever more. I'm mentioning it here because you definitely want to see earthworms in your soil. If you don't see any, then your soil isn't even good enough for worms - and that's pretty darn sad. Amend, my friend.

Compost is broken-down leaf, grass and kitchen-waste matter. Odds are you can't make enough compost yourself to fill your garden, but if you do, go you! You can buy compost from community recyclers also. I haven't found the compost sold at garden stores to be very good, but that might just be my experience.

For manure and compost, get enough to cover your garden by at least a few inches, although truly, I use more. If your garden needs a lot of help, I'd go up to half manure/compost and half existing dirt. Mix it in with your dirt as deep as your garden goes.

Other Amendments, in addition to the above:

Leaves break down over winter, and "leaf mold" is a great amendment. It improves the water retention of the soil. I highly recommend raking all the leaves in fall into your garden. Water them down, and let nature take it's course over the winter.
Amount: For leaves, there's really no limit.

Not easy to come by in the city. But, straw and hay is great to mulch with, or mix in, and it breaks down slowly, ultimately enriching your soil.

Peat Moss (probably not), Gypsum(no)
What you buy as peat moss in the store is not really peat moss- it's usually sphagnum moss. While moss increases soil air/water retention which can be good, sphagnum moss is pretty expensive and thus not a suitable large-scale solution. If you find cheap peat moss, don't buy it. It's some kind of other moss that's more broken down and not as good at it's retention purposes. In addition, mosses can make your soil more acidic, so it's really not that recommended for clay soils (which are already slightly acidic).
Gypsum is sold as a way to break up clay. Don't buy it. It does this initially, but in a few months ionic forces conspire to leach important nutrients like iron, manganese, phosphorous, copper and zinc, inhibit mycorrhizal action on roots (the fungus has a symbiotic deal with roots, helping them uptake nutrients), and it's breaking-up-clay capacity peters out. Adding organic matter like compost or manure does a great job at breaking up clay and also adds nutrients rather than stripping them.

In the fall: Mix in up to half - but usually just a few inches - compost and/or manure (either old or new). Mix in all your leaves, plus some hay/straw if you have it (or leave hay just on the top). Water. Let it sit all winter.
In the spring: if you didn't put in manure in the fall, mix in up to half - but usually just a few inches - *old*, non-stinky manure. Hay/straw can be part of your mix, or just layered on top as mulch around the plants and pathways.

I'm sure I didn't cover every possibility, but this covers what *I've* done and what has worked for *me*. (My experiences with lasagna-gardening/amending will have to be another post!). I've been mixing in lots of manure and leaves for a few years now and - not to brag, but - my plants grow so much bigger and are more productive than some of my community garden neighbors who don't amend. The difference truly is striking. I hope you can have the same great results!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Giving you your winter fix, giving me one less thing to not have done

Update: Heh, well this didn't happen. Home-ownership and marathon-running-dog-ownership happened! I'm now trying to write a few posts that distill what I've learned so far about soil, growing tomatoes, and building a garden from scratch. The adventure continues....

All spring and summer I've wanted to post. But I haven't had the time or will to do it. Between intensive grafting, house-hunting, house-buying, house moving-in, gardening my 1.33 community garden plots, exercising my dog, and having a life...oh and a job... well, disappointing the 4 occasional readers of my blog hasn't really made it onto the radar. Although it is a regularly-passing thought.

Then another thought hit me: everyone is garden blogging in summer. But what about winter? "no new news, everything still dead and frozen" - not so great. But winter's the time where I'm not too busy doing the gardening to post about it, and everyone isn't off reading other blogs. There's a gap just waiting to be filled for you and me: winter blogging! Relive another glorious summer in the form of my blog posts, giving all of us that green fix we miss so much during the cold, horrible, if-only-global-warming-really-meant-just-warming winter. So that will be my niche. Maybe then someone will read this blog instead of the 100's of better ones out there, because those 100's will be in hibernation.

So that's the plan. Stay tuned. I'll be your only option ;)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Going into hibernation for thesis defense: T minus 30 days

UPDATE: I actually passed! I got out of school - finally and forever! Other new things:
1.I got a scientist-track job at my favorite research institution
2. I got a dog: the spunky, hilarious and cuddly Bueno
3. I bought a house. Really, I bought a yard. More gardening space! Stay tuned as I completely overwhelm myself yet again :)

To the thousands of adoring fans of this blog (note overload of sarcasm per capita), I want to say that there won't be any more posts for about a month. I have ~30 days till I defend my thesis; on November 13, apparently, hopefully, probably, so They* say, They will give me a Ph.D.** Till then, all non-essential systems are powering down, including this blog.

When I return, newly officially over-educated, I have tons to post about fall and winter gardening, row covers, cold frames, indoor HID grow lights, a recap of original season goals (see 1st post) I achieved, and tons to say about grafting (I'm at 100% success rate now). Too late for this season, but maybe they'll be helpful to people next season.

bye for now...

*my thesis committee of 5 awesome, amazingly-intelligent scientists who unfortunately are probably above bribery
**at which point the phrase "crazier things have happened" will no longer be true. Going forward, this phrase will be universally known to refer to my degree.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Goodnight Garden

In the little green garden
there was an impending frost (~35F)
portending the season's end
and on every branch-
so many tomatoes not ripened.

And there were 3 little eggplants hidden behind other plants
and tons of tomatillos
and half-ripe serranos
and my first ripe green zebra.
and chocolate bells and squash that all need a wash
and the habaneros I totally forgot to pick!

Goodnight upside-down tomatoes...

Goodnight tomatillos...

Goodnight Blue Heaven morning glories...

Goodnight giant sunflowers...

Goodnight cucumbers...

Goodnight eggplant...

Goodnight habanero, serrano and hungarian wax...

Goodnight green zebra, on same day as your first harvest...

Goodnight striped cavern, you were prolific...

Goodnight mystery tomato, one who produces only rock-hard green 2lb-ers...

Goodnight Better Bus h, I'm sorry you fell over without support and got taken over by slugs...

Goodnight papaya squash...

Goodnight patty pans...

Good night delicata...

Goodnight Sungold...

Goodnight pasilla and poblanos and chocolate bell peppers...

And goodnight to all my perennials - raspberry, thyme, black-eyed susan, bee balm, lavenders - I expect to see you all next year!!

Goodnight garden.

(end bad cheesy ripoff of children's book)

I don't want the season to end! No!

Post-frost assessment: All things curcurbit completely died. Amazing how leaves can go from green and turgid to black and shriveled in one night! Tomatillo plant also gone, but I managed to harvest about 40 that were ripe or almost ready. Most tomatoes suffered - some lost only a few branches, some are in pretty critical condition. Eggplant was protected enough that it is still trying to make more eggplants.. oh, so futile... Everything will fully die this weekend when we're supposed to get snow. I took cuttings of a couple of the tomato plants, hoping to grow new plants this winter under lights. The cuttings are doing great, so hopefully I'll have Sungolds all winter!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Saving tomato seeds

The cherry tomatoes in my new garden plot - sprawling and unkempt as they are from the last guy - taste fabulous. I really haven't liked raw tomatoes, but these are like candy! Since I don't know what specific variety they are, and they are prolific, I am designating them the subject of my trial attempt at seed saving.
(Apparently seed saving only works with heirlooms, since hybrid seeds might produce a tomato with different qualities. These cherries might be hybrids, unfortunately, but at the least it's good practice for when my black krims are ready!)

I've read up a bit on the method to save tomato seeds, and it looks like a simple process. The point is to remove the germination-inhibiting goo from around the seeds; this is usually done by fermentation:
1) scoop seeds and gel (goo) into a small container
2)add a bit of water, either same amount as goo, or a few tbsp
3)cover loosely so some air can get in/out
4)let it ferment for a few days in a warm location (not too long, though, or seeds will start to germinate). Good seeds should sink (per Patrick)
5)scoop off scum
(5.5 some say keep rinsing out scum/bits)
6)sieve seeds out
7) dry the seeds on paper plate or coffee filter (per Patrick)

There's some differences between sets of directions, but overall the general process is the same.
Here's some links to good directions:

Here's my goo. I used about 10 cherry tomatoes. I ate what was left of most of them :)
I poked a bunch of holes in the saran wrap, and put the container on top of the fridge.

We'll see!

Update 9/26: an coherent, opaque film has formed on the surface. I added a bit more water since the goo seemed really thick, like a lot of the water had evaporated (we have 15% humidity here)

Update 10/1: Was it supposed to grow mold? Grey and black fuzz quickly covered the film. But, when I tried to take off the filmy layer, it and the mold came off in one piece so I guess it was okay. The pic below shows a bit of the mold and the seeds after I drained all the liquid.

I spread the seeds to dry on a coffee filter. Hard to unclump them!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Green Thumb Sunday: practice with macro

Here's some pics I took yesterday with the macro setting on my camera. When I had to get a new camera after my old one broke, I made sure to buy one with manual controls and the ability to get within a few cm in macro mode. I really haven't explored most of the options yet, but it's fun to take simple close-up shots.

Squirrel BYOC party at my plot

I think I now have a pretty good circumstantial case that the squirrels come to my plot to sit and eat the corn they steal from other plots. Here's the clues:

1. Thoroughly-knawed corn cobs left on the bricks surrounding my compost pile
2. Watching vigorous rustling in my garden neighbor's corn patch, and then watching a squirrel burst out of the patch with a cob and take off
3. Happening upon them hanging out, looking guilty:

and running like the little looters they are :)

(by the way, BYOC means Bring Your Own Corn)

I have no corn in my plot this year, but I grew a few last year in my first little plot. I planted the corn before I realized I had no idea when to harvest it. With no one to advise me, the internet was a vague guide, so what the weevils and ants didn't get was mushy and no good. Oh well, always worth a try! And in the garden area I have plots in this year, I'm glad I don't have any corn - the squirrels and raccoons feast and plunder under the cloak of night, leaving the plot owner to find complete wastage come morning.