on the right path

Kind of hard to believe, but it’s already time to start thinking about next year’s garden, at least for me. The main reason for that is a complete reorganization of my bed locations.

The plan is to make beds that are uniformly 3′ wide. Until now, I’ve been winging it from year to year with beds of different width, depending on what I was planting.

The idea worked ok, but I think that uniform bed width will be beneficial in a couple of ways; cloches and bed protectors will fit on any crop, anywhere in the garden, and the paths and beds will be permanent. No more walking on next year’s beds, compacting the soil.

I temporarily marked the future beds with small stakes, so I can tell where to plant cover crops and where to plan for paths.

next year's beds marked out

next year’s beds marked out

The first major cleanup commenced. I decided we had enough broccoli in the freezer, so even though the plants were still bearing site shoots, I pulled them and let the chickens have at it. I’ll be sowing buckwheat in the empty space, to be cut down as green manure in a month or so, and then followed by a winter cover crop mix.

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broccoli on its way to the chickens

back to the soil

When I think back to the amount of shredded leaves I collected last fall, my mind boggles at how little evidence is left.

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I stored shredded leaves in 12 of my 2 1/2′ diameter tomato cages (about 3′ high in each), filled a 3’x3′ compost bin, another 4’x4′ bin, and layered shredded leaves in sections of the garden.  Logic aside, they’ve pretty much returned to the soil except in a few places where I refreshed them with stored leaves in the spring.

The theory that you really can’t collect too many leaves still holds.

The buckwheat that I planted a couple of days ago as green manure is popping through.  Replacing the organic matter and nutrients taken out of the garden isn’t a one-time deal.  Those veggies above and below ground create massive quantities of leaf material, and it all needs to be replaced.

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the wet soil aftermath

The soggy June that just went past is rearing its ugly head.  I’ve pretty much written off one of my grapevines that sits in the very epicenter of a low corner in the garden.  Bad planning, I suppose, to include an area that I knew would suffer in very wet years…

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Luckily, this type of wet happens very rarely.  The grapevine next door to it is doing well.  And in reality, I probably only want one vine growing in the amount of space available on the trellis.

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I had high hopes for the pepper plants too.  They were planted in the area where last year’s compost bins sat.  Unfortunately, this was that same wet corner of the garden.  The peppers are dropping leaves and have me a little worried.

IMG_4980 IMG_4979And the pickling cucumbers are still reeling from the wet, also sitting in the low corner of the garden.

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There will be disappointments every year; I accepted that long ago.  It’s still hard to take.  Happily for me, the rest of the garden is something I’m proud of, plenty of produce to freeze and can for the winter.

biology, not chemistry

If you’re not too busy in the garden, this article is well worth a read…

Gardening Is Biology not Chemistry

The article’s a little complex to distill in a few sentences, but it makes wonderful sense to me.  Considering the garden soil biologically rather than chemically reminds me that life in the garden soil is just as important as life above it.  There are chemical compounds involved, but that’s just a one dimension of a many-dimensional, living organism.

This time of year things get really satisfying. The hardware jungle begins to cover in green, and the freezer starts to fill.  The above-ground portion of my living organism makes me happy that I pay so much attention to the other, less visible part.

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the organism in mid-July

tomato holes and water lines

After 51 days, our water lines have defrosted.  A testament to the brutality of this past Michigan February.

But now, the thumb-twiddling, mid-40s, dreary Spring. It make a person antsy. It make a person look for things to do. We’ll start by filling up the space under the grow lights…

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And instead of thumb-twiddling, I decided to do what could be done. Starting with aspirin. Last year was the first year I tried spraying the tomato plants with an aspirin-in-water solution. Whether it helped or not I’m not certain, but I do know I had far fewer tomato disease problems than ever. So why not?

Aspirin sprayed on tomato plant leaves is supposed to poke their immune systems, I guess sort of like smallpox vaccines do for humans. The dosage I use is four 83 mg tablets per gallon of water (or in this case, one tablet in a quart). I started spraying a little later on last year, but I wanted to try it on my seedlings. I shouldn’t pretend to recommend this; I’m not a doctor. But I think it’s safe and it worked for me. I crunched the pill with a pestle and dissolved it in a little warm water.

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(It needs to sit a little bit. This isn’t fully dissolved.)

After getting rid of tomato headaches, I unburdened myself of the stash of pulverized, dried banana peels that I’ve been hoarding all winter, saving back some for the tomato holes.

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And since I was outside, I decided to get my two early tomato holes cooking. First, a deep dig to loosen things up.

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peat moss to mix in with the soil from the hole

Supplies gathered:

  • about a tablespoon of banana peels for potassium per hole (sort of a guess) because my soil test recommended more potassium
  • a tablespoon or two of Epsom salts (also tried last year) to help absorb the excess phosphorus in my soil. It also contains sulfur, which was something that my Extension agent said would help lower the soil pH
  • a couple of cups of worm castings
  • a shovel full of compost
  • about a cup of used coffee grounds (just wanted to…bad reason)
  • and a shovel full of peat mixed into the soil that I removed from the hole. I’ve not read anything about peat in tomato holes, but it worked well for me last year. Our soil is alkaline, peat is acidic. Our soil is sandy, peat soaks up moisture.

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It seems reasonable to me to get these potions into the planting hole early so they can start doing their things for a bit before the plants go in.

I don’t know. It’s sort of scientific, but also kind of voodoo. Science is too exact for my pea brain, so I usually end up just swinging. Something to do when there’s nothing else to do.

the tomato holes in my mind

With a couple of tomato seedlings poking their tops through the potting mix, it’s time to start the annual too-early obsession with what to add to their planting holes.

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There’s just one item that I don’t even consider leaving out; worm castings. They’re good for everything and harm nothing.

The soil test results from last year indicated that I should add 1 lb. of potassium per 1000 sq. ft. of garden. Got it covered. Pulverized, dried banana peels. That little chore that I made sure to do every winter day, drying our banana peels over the register, has yielded very close to the right amount of potassium needed for the garden. And since different plants have different needs, I’ll make sure to add them where they’ll feel wanted.

Pulverized dried eggshells?

This is disappointing for me. I’ve looked forward to putting some of the powdered eggshells that I saved all winter to my tomato holes to add calcium, which prevents blossom end rot. But in comparing the soil test results to optimal levels of calcium (very good explanation in that link)…my soil was fine. I know. A self-defeating way to look at the world. But I did all that work! I’ll have to find a better use for them. Uh…chickens!

Bone meal? Well, here’s where some science comes in. The soil report said that no phosphorus was needed. In fact, there’s excess phosphorus in my soil. I’d always heard that bone meal helped tomato plants, but never looked up the elemental composition. In looking, I found this:

Bone meal is primarily calcium and phosphorus, two elements which are usually adequate in non- agricultural soils…Both calcium and phosphorus are required for plant growth, but both (and especially phosphorus) can cause problems if they occur in high concentrations.

Interesting. And I won’t be adding bone meal to my garden this year. But I will be adding Epsom Salts, because they tie up excess phosphorus.

What can you do if you have added too much phosphorus over the years? If your soil test indicates that phosphorus levels are high, you may be able to tie up excess phosphorus by adding a mixture of other mineral fertilizers. I’ve not had to do this myself, but various web sites recommend concoctions of ammonium sulfate, magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), iron sulfate and zinc sulfate.

Coffee grounds, in moderation, worked in early so they’re not robbing the plants of nitrogen as they decompose.

And then as the tomato plants grow, a weekly foliar feed of aerated worm tea, fish emulsion just as the fruits form, and a monthly foliar spray of dissolved aspirin to help ward off disease. It’s a thing. Really.

Edit:

My friend Julie reminded me thatI forgot composted manure.  That’ll definitely be happening.

steering clear of the devil’s workshop

It’s winter. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. Not this time Devil, because I’m getting busy.

Before we go any further with this, a disclaimer; I haven’t actually tested this seeding mix in these proportions. From experience with other proportions and mixes though, I believe it to be a sound recipe, and have high hopes. Although hopes and a buck fifty will get you a bad cup of coffee.

I love this process, which started more than a year ago with 1000 red wigglers, then continued three months later with a trailer-load of enticingly-scented horse plops. Now, with two buckets of black beautiful worm castings and compost in front of me, I can finally get my hands dirty.

It’s another sort of harvest, and I can’t stop myself from fluffing the stuff with a little garden fork and patting myself on the head. Good little gardener.

It’s a cathartic thing, mixing seed-starting media. Like baking, only with poop.

The mix is simple:
2 parts compost (for nutrients and moisture retention)
2 parts peat (to lighten the mix and add drainage)
1 part vermiculite (also for moisture retention)
1 smidge of worm castings (for flavor)

I would have added some perlite too, but didn’t have any on hand. No matter.

It makes a light, fluffy, enticingly dark mix. I started measuring what I had the least of (peat) and mixed that 2:1 with vermiculite. Then started dumping equal amounts of that mixture and compost into the wheelbarrow until I ran out. Finally came a couple of cups of precious vermicompost. It’s hard for me to actually use my composts. I want to KEEP them. But the garden moves on, and composting never ends.

last banana peel post, I swear

When I finally got an email back from the extension agency last year, it read:

“Your soil test indicates you need to apply 3 to 4 lb. Nitrogen/1000 sq. feet, 0 lb. phosphate/1000 sq. feet and 1 lb. potassium/1000 sq. feet to meet recommendations.”

But a little graph on the test showed the potassium level in my garden shooting past the “above optimum” range.

Why add potassium when there’s already so much? Contact the extension office. “Is this right? ADD potassium? See, I’ve always been anal about test numbers, even in school. It has to be a mistake, because the graph…”

“Not a mistake,” says the agent.

“Adding 1 lb. potassium is to ensure that the young plants have a readily available source of K, and that it’s maintained as plants grow, or as you harvest and then possibly replant a succession crop.”

I know I should have asked more questions, but the poor lady has to deal with more important issues than my fat potass problem. The sense I took away was that the ‘above optimum levels’ of potassium existing in my garden are somehow not available to the plants, therefore more is needed.

1/2 lb. of pulverized banana peel

1/2 lb. of pulverized banana peel

So a while back, I got all loopy about drying banana peels. Well, they’re 42% potassium, free, natural, recycled, turned into compact, dry, storable powder by my own hands. No problem getting together that quantity by Spring. A perfect solution. The reason I’ve written so many boring banana peel posts lately.

And now you know…the rest of the story.

Wait, no you don’t. I forgot the message.

42% potassium means that about 2 1/2 lbs of dried banana peels would provide the right amount of potassium for my 1000 sq. ft.

2 1/2 pounds is like half a bag of sugar. I went into the garden and pictured broadcasting half a bag of sugar over it. Seriously? That would be a minuscule amount of matter. Not even a dusting.

That’s the learning moment.

It takes so little to put things right sometimes.

Half a sugar bag, when I’m accustomed to adding half a trailer load of stuff…leaves, manure, compost, grass clippings, to the garden.

Just like in school, I need to pay attention. Eyes and ears on the teacher at all times, lest that one essential fact slip past while I’m drawing pictures on the back of the seat in front of me. In gardening there are lots and lots of those essential facts. The closer attention you pay, the quicker you graduate.

older than dirt

The median age of the world’s population is 29.4 years.

That means that I’m more than twice as old as most people. ‘Older than dirt’, I think, is the saying.  The little pains pop up, the slight numbness in strange places, and I think, “I don’t feel old inside. I’m still the same person I was when I smelled the grass that my Dad mowed. I still like the lights on the Christmas tree. Low-class jokes still make me laugh.”

But the truth is, I’m old. My body’s degrading. Yours is too. It’s natural and unavoidable. And not bad.

The organisms of time are at work on you non-stop, transforming muscle and skin and hair.  And as you age, you’re also leaving behind little bits of yourself that are dispersed into the world around you. Not bits of muscle and skin…that comes later.  Bits of yourself.  Like a leaf in the garden.

A leaf in the garden takes its time changing, being transformed by the microscopic life that surrounds it. Pieces break off and become smaller pieces. The leaf eventually ceases to be a leaf. But it isn’t nothing.  It’s more than it was.

change is hard

There’s been a lot of talk about permaculture in the last few years and even longer.  The concept sounds solid and good.  At the same time it also seems (to me anyway) trendy, fashionable, like the cultural concept of the week.  I know the idea’s been around for ages, but I associate it with eco-enthusiasts and sometimes outright zealots.  That’s not me.

But then it’s hard to change when you’re deeply routine in your thinking and ways, like me.

I might be more likely to embrace the term and the concept of permanent mulch.  Not so socially-encompassing.  It, too has been around for ages.  Ruth Stout was its champion, and it’s very simple; you put what you have directly on the garden and leave it to decay in place.  It creates an undisturbed system that mimics how nature generates life and death, and I’m absolutely certain it would be better for the garden.  Not to mention easier.

But it’s hard for me to make this jump.

I love to mess with the soil.  I like to see it black and tilled.  I enjoy collecting stuff to compost and creating the witch’s brew piles that heat up in the middle to blistering temperatures.  I like to see the dirt.

Right now I’m considering the change.  A permanent mulch that continually decomposes right on the garden.  No compost bins.  No tilling.  Hmm.  At the very least, it gives me something to obsess about next to the wood stove while the snow flies.