Posts Tagged ‘Soil maintenance’

Puttering In The Potager – Week 14 of 2010

Mulch Removed; Soil Drying and Heating Up

Getting Soil Ready

The first question is whether the soil is ready to be prepared. If it is still too wet, working that soil does more harm than good. There is  a simple test. Pick up a handful of soil and try to make it into a ball. If the ball holds together the soil is still too wet to work. If the ball crumbles the soil is dry enough to get started.

If your garden beds had mulch covering them all winter you can remove the mulch and that will help the soil dry faster. Also it is easier to prepare the soil when the mulch has been removed. We will put the mulch back after the garden has been planted and is growing well.

It is good to spread a thin application of granular organic fertilizer. Then you work the fertilizer into the soil with a rake.  A handful for every 50 square feet is good.

The big question is whether you need to till the soil. The general rule of thumb is that if your soil is compacted and not easily handled then it is probably wise to rototill the garden. However once the your soil has sufficient organic material and is soft and friable than you should put the roto tiller away. With good soil you can break it up with a garden fork or a U-Bar Digger; my favorite tool for prepping the soil in the spring.

The U-bar digger has been used in Europe for centuries. It has not been a common tool in the United States, though every vegetable gardener should have one. This tool is far superior to the spading fork for loosening up soil in a garden bed as long as there are no perennial plants to have to work around. It is not as effective in soils with lots of rocks, but in a loamy or well-tilled soil, it is a dream to operate. 
Design – The term “U-Bar” refers to the two handles of this tool that are attached to the ends of the digging tines forms what looks like a “U” shaped tool. This is a spading fork on steroids. It can have from 4 to 8 tines as long as 5 to 8 inches. Most U-bar diggers have some sort of a lever device at the back of the bar holding the tines. 
Some U-bar diggers have wooden handles and others have steel handles. The tines vary is size and strength. Most U-bar diggers on the market will work just fine in the average home garden situation.

Durability – As with the spading fork, the U-bar diggers’ lifespan is directly related to the quality of the construction and the strength of the tines.

Comfort and Technique – The U-bar digger is a standup type of tool. Holding the tool is almost a vertical position, you sink the tines into the soil with the pressure of your foot on the bar holding the tines. Then you back up a step and pull the handles towards you. This movement causes the tool to lean on the lever device establishing a point, just above the soil level, where your energy spent on pulling the handles toward you is transferred to the tines below the leverage device. The effect is for almost effortless soil loosening. Your back is spared virtually any stress at all, yet the soil is loosened thoroughly. You then pull up the U-bar digger, move it a few inches ahead and repeat the process. Once you get a rhythm you can loosened a 100 square feet of garden bed in a matter of ten or fifteen minutes; all with little stress on your body, especially on your back.

Once the soil has been loosened an optional step that has great benefit is to spread a thin layer of quality compost over the surface of the garden bed. The compost does not really need to be raked into the soil; your choice.

Now we keep track of the soil temperature and when it gets to be 40 to 45° we are ready to start our garden.

What Is Happening In Nature

I saw my first robin and the daffodils have started to blossom.  The leaves should be popping on the lilacs and the cherry blossoms are out.  While you will not see them, the lightning bug larvae are emerging in the lawn and eating every pest insect in sight.  Earthworms will surface in late evening; use a flashlight to spot them.


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I had something of an epiphany a few weeks ago. I realized that everyone I talk with about problems in the landscape have lousy soil.  Thinking about that I realized that probably 90% of American homeowners have lousy soil on their property.  Not only that, but Americans have had lousy soil on their property for over 50 years!  If that is true, and I believe it is, that is an astounding fact.

Why would over 50 million homeowners put up with having lousy soil?  Don’t they know that any plant growing in lousy soil, is a plant that is in stress?  A plant in stress is much more vulnerable to insect and disease problems.  A plant is stress needs more fertilizer and more water, than plants with no stress.

By lousy soil I mean soil that is compacted.  Most lawns are growing on compacted soil and have a root mass only two inches deep.  Lousy soil does not drain very well or if it is very sandy it drains too fast and holds no water.  Lousy soil can be either hard to work clay or sand with little organic matter in it.  Most everyone I know has one or more of these soil problems.

Then for the epiphany.  I realized that the reason we all have lousy soil is because of the way we take care of our property and because of the products we use in caring for the property.  As Pogo said many years ago, “I know the enemy and the enemy is us”.

We rototill our vegetable gardens every year, destroying the structure of the soil.  It takes soil microbes 3 to 4 months to replace that structure, the very period we are trying to grow our vegetables.  Many of us roll our lawn in early spring seriously compacting the soil.  Most of us apply a quick acting nitrogen fertilizer to our lawns, sometimes four times a year.  The side effects of using that type of fertilizer include repelling every earthworm in the soil and killing over 50% of any soil microbes that might reside in that soil.  We use many kinds of pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, many of which as a side effect kill earthworms and beneficial soil microbes.  We create dead soil all by ourselves, over and over again.

Our most grievous mistake is that we don’t, every year, apply a layer of organic material to our gardens and lawn.  The organic matter is essential as food for what is called the “soil food web”.  No organic matter – no soil food web.

The soil food web is the term now applied to the total community of soil organisms that would reside in a healthy soil.  That includes everything from earthworms, sow bugs, centipedes, and millipedes down to the microscopic nematodes, protazoa, fungi, and bacteria.  There can be over 4000 species of critters in a healthy soil.  They need an annual application of organic matter because that is their food.

We must remember that for 10 million years, before man came along, every autumn the trees dropped their leaves or needles and the prairie grasses died.  In other words, for ten million years Mother Nature arranged for an annual application of organic matter on the surface of all soils containing plants.  Without worrying about before 1950, I know that since 1950 few American homeowners even knew that they should be adding an annual layer of organic matter to their soil.  No one tells us to do that.  No book tells us to do that.  They do not teach that in soil classes in universities.

I had a home in suburban Philadelphia for 18 years.  Without really knowing what I was doing, I added organic matter to my soil every year for eight years.  I put 3 to 4 inches of straw on the 1000 square feet of my vegetable garden each year.  I put several inches of chopped leaves on all the 2000 square feet of flower beds.  I put a half an inch of chopped leaves on my 6000 square feet of lawn.

For the next ten years, I did not fertilize my lawn or gardens at all.  Over that period we had only a few problems of pest insects and no incidence of disease on any of our plants.  I needed to water maybe three times all summer and the lawn stayed green 365 days a year.  We had a yard filled with plants with no stress.  If we feed the soil food web each year, a lot of good things happen.

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March 29 – April 4

Renegade Flowers First Up In Potager

Soil Temperature Controls Planting

We don’t plant our vegetables against a date.  We put our plants out only when the soil temperature is right for each species of vegetable.  If we put out a tomato when the soil temp is ten degrees too cold, that tomato will never produce well no matter what we do to try to keep it happy for the rest of the season.  We can’t cheat on soil temperature.  If we do we cause stress in our vegetables that is never completely eased during the whole season.

We all need a digital soil thermometer.  Google “digital soil thermometer” and you’ll find a dozen to choose from.  Mine cost $22 and it’s worked well now for five years.  In early spring I carry my soil thermometer every time I go out in the garden.  No seeds and no seedlings should go into the soil before the soil temp is 40 degrees or higher.  You measure down about two inches.

When the soil hits 40 then you can plant seeds for peas, spinach, Swiss chard, beets, and leaf lettuce.  You must wait maybe three or four weeks until the soil temp hits 60 before putting out any cold weather seedlings like cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi and cauliflower.  Wait a few more weeks to plant seed for green beans and cucumbers when the temp is 65, not any earlier.

The big mistake is made when putting the warm weather seedlings into the garden.  Tomatoes, sweet peppers, and summer squash should definitely not go out into the soil until it hits 70 degrees.  If you really like tomatoes, you wait until it hits 75 degrees; that five degrees makes a difference.  I predict our soil temps do not hit 70 much before the second week in June.

On March 24th of week 13 our soil temperature was  39°F  while the air temperature was 45°.

Predicted last frost around May 15th or Week 20; seven more weeks.

Nature’s schedule this week

The miniature crocus should start blooming. Unfortunately the poison ivy starts leafing out. The mourning cloak butterflies come out of hibernation on days that are warm. Those cute salamanders return to the ponds to mate and lay eggs. The bluebirds will be returning so it is time to put out a bluebird nesting box. For you birdwatchers the eastern towhee returns.

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Get two serious gardeners together and chances are they will disagree on many issues. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, most seasoned gardeners learn by doing rather than just reading. That is not to say that they don’t read gardening books and magazines. They do. Many are voracious readers. But rarely do they take the information gleaned from books and rush out and incorporate it into their gardens. Unless there is a burning environmental issue, their first rule of thumb is, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Avid gardeners realize that every garden is different – what works in one may not work or may need adapting to work in another.

So it wasn’t surprising that Martha Stewart’s syndicated column on soil preparation that ran in Homestyle last April stirred up controversy among avid gardeners and professionals in the green industry. While much of the information was sound advice, start with soil test, amend with organic materials and incorporate raised beds, some recommendations were considered misleading and others way just way too much work.

Christa Suggs of Christa’s Ponds and Gardens in Washington and I both have serious issues with Martha’s suggestion to use raised beds to conquer boggy soil.

It has been my experience, when you step in a true bog, you better wear boots because you may sink up to your ankles in black muck. A bog may be a low lying area that collects water, but some bogs are fed by underground springs. They rarely dry out.

So, Stewart’s suggestion to rototill organic amendments, such as builder’s sand and composted pine bark into existing boggy soil in such a quantity as to raise the soil level 6 to 12 inches, didn’t sound like a very good idea to either of us. You can’t rototill a swamp.

Also, if the area is considered a wetland by the state of Michigan, it may be protected by law from any alteration.

Suggs and I both agree, if your patch borders on a boggy land, your best bet is to take up bog gardening and choose plants that thrive in that type of environment rather than fight Mother Nature. And, from a practical standpoint, America’s Master Handyman, and fellow Homestyle columnist Glenn Haege counsels, “water always wins.” So if you want to grow petunias around a boggy site, plant them in containers.

Of serious concern to me was Stewart’s recommendation to include cottonseed meal as an amendment for improving soil with a neutral pH.  While it wasn’t stated in the article, I assume it was included to acidify the soil to an optimium pH of 6.2. There are a couple of important issues here worth considering. First, most garden plants will thrive in soil with a neutral pH of 7, so unless you are growing true acid loving plants, there is no need to attempt to lower it. Also, research has shown that adding organic matter to the soil will help to buffer the effects of both high and low pH soil.  For more than 30 years I have been successful growing in alkaline soil with a pH of 8, by amending it with shredded leaves , compost, and composted manure.

More important, cottonseed meal is an organic fertilizer used as a source of nitrogen. While it is acidic, cottonseed meal nor any other fertilizer, should never be used to attempt lower the pH of soil. The addition of excessive amounts of nitrogen to the soil will kill beneficial soil dwellers, burn plants, promote lush weak growth, and pollute the ground water. Not a good thing.

On a small scale, amending with Canadian sphagnum peat moss will temporarily lower garden soil’s pH. On a large scale, amendments such as finely granulated garden sulfur will do the job without adding excessive nutrients that can be damaging to both plants and the environment. However, attempting to raise or lower the pH of a large area is an expensive and long-term proposition. And the soil should be tested on a regular basis order to determine recommended amounts.

Martha also suggested using gypsum along with compost to help break up heavy clay. On certain types of clay found in other regions of the country, gypsum is effective as a clay buster. But research by Michigan State University suggests that gypsum does not work on Michigan clay. Fine ground composted pine bark sold as a soil conditioner does a good job. I’ve made my own by putting pine bark mulch through a shredder and composting it over the winter.

To improve gravel soil Stewart suggests sifting out stones larger than half an inch and rototilling in a 6 to 12-inch layer of compost and soil. In a society where most folks don’t have the time to sift enough flour to make a cake, suggesting that we gardeners sift the top six inches of soil in a garden is ludicrous. And, as for rototilling gravel beds – not with my Mantis tiller. My solution would be to dump the topsoil and compost on top of the gravel and plant away or do some research and become a gravel gardener.

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week 10 is March 8 – 14

Rolling The Lawn Is A Major Mistake!!

When the signs of spring start showing up the one task you DO NOT do is roll your lawn with that lawn roller that Dad used to use.  Rolling the lawn is incredibly bad for the soil. When I was a kid, my dear Dad had me rolling our lawn every spring especially at the time the soil was wet enough to be squishy.  His idea was to press down the high spots in the lawn to become even with the low spots.  He could not have been more mistaken.

If your lawn is kind of lumpy, the only way to make it smooth is fill in the low spots with top soil, bringing them up to the high spots.  This job should not be undertaken until well into May. You would level off the lawn at the same time you are going to overseed the lawn.  While there are books that say it is okay to overseed in March, the last two weeks in May are the target date for those tasks.  The soil will be dry and seed will germinate well. Give that roller away.

Growing Grass In The Shade

I have met very few people who have been totally happy with their lawn that is growing in shade, especially in a lot of shade. Most grass species want as much sun as they can get. Grass seed sold for “shady” areas really needs a minimum of 4 hours of sun a day to grow without stress.

If you have an area that gets less than four hours of sun, you have to make adjustments to your lawn care program.

1. If it is possible, you can improve the health of the shaded grass by raising the canopy of your trees so branches start no lower than 8 feet; higher is better. You want to allow as much light into the area as you can.
2. Just in the last few years, seed companies have come out with a seed mixture that is labeled for “dense shade”. This mix will probably work fairly well if you get two to fours of sun. Anything less that two hours means even this product may not do very well.

Shaded turf gets thin from the heat of the summer. You need to overseed your shaded area every year in the fall; around Labor Day weekend.

Mow the shaded grass an inch higher than you mow your sunny lawn. The more leaf surface left on the grass, the better chance it has to stay happy.

Shaded grass needs water before the grass in the sun. Water deeply every few days to a week rather than a little bit each day.

Hold back on the fertilizer. Shaded turf needs less fertilizer, so I suggest you fertilize only in fall with a slow release type of nitrogen fertilizer sometime in late October. This builds the root system without putting too much energy into growing foliage.

Since grass growing in the shade is quite tender, you should try to have the kids avoid walking over the lawn in the shady part as much as possible.

Of course, my strong recommendation is to avoid trying to grow grass in the shade. Not only is it difficult, grass competes with the trees for food and water and the grass wins. You not only have grass in stress, but because of the grass your trees are in stress. I suggest considering a groundcover of some kind to replace as much of the shaded grass as you can aesthetically tolerate. Even a few feet of ground cover around the base of the tree protects it from damage from the lawn mower or string trimmer. A shady lawn is a high maintenance lawn.

This lawn care blog is published every week on Saturdays – stay with us

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This has really been a long winter for me.

Last October my garden helper Joyce Bonesteel and I spent hours cleaning up the raised beds in my vegetable garden, known as a potager. We carefully removed all the spent vegetation, especially the bits and pieces of rotted tomatoes that had fallen from the vines, so there was no plant material left for late blight spores to take refuge in. The dreaded late blight overwinters in tomato and potato plants and fruit, not in the soil. Though they can’t survive freezing temperatures, I am not about to take a chance.

Next I covered the surface of the soil with a mix of shredded leaves heavily laced with worm castings. I left a 6-inch layer of shredded leaves on the ground over the summer, and I swear earthworms came from miles around to feast. The mix was incredible and you can’t buy that stuff even if you wanted to.

Over the summer, our resident mole moved into my potager to partake of the earthworms and did his part in the pathways grinding up and mixing the hardpan clay with the layer of dark black humus under the bark chips. The fresh bark chips spread on the paths four years ago have slowly composted over time, leaving behind a layer of black gold. For hours I sat in that garden scooping that soil mix from the paths, sifting it through a riddle into the raised beds and returning the leftover chunks of wood chips to the walkways, while dreaming about the mother lode of tomatoes and other veggies this garden would produce next summer.

A riddle is the gardener’s rendition of a flour sifter used to remove chunky stuff from soil. My late husband and gardening pal, Hank, made mine by stapling metal hardware cloth on to a wooden frame made of 1-by-1s.

I’m a dirt fanatic who inherited 20 acres of hardpan clay and the soil in those raised beds almost brings me to tears. I loved just looking at it. And then it snowed — and snowed and snowed some more. It’s been a long winter.

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Last week, I observed that it was more important to use organic mulch around the plants on your property than to depend only on compost to build the soil. The organic matter is reduced to something called humus, which offers benefits very similar to compost and is already spread throughout the soil. That left the question: Does that mean I don’t have to use any compost at all? My precise answer was, yes and no.

I think of compost as just another valuable tool I use in certain ways in caring for my property. You can make your own compost, but unless you have a lot of free time, I don’t think it is worth the effort. I buy compost in 40-pound bags. My preference is Organimax because it is not only high quality non-manure compost but the company adds beneficial microbes.

One common mistake folks make is to use more compost on a job than is really needed or useful. A single handful of compost goes a long way to benefit the soil. If you use too much, you do no harm to plants, but why waste the money?

So here are the situations where I think yardeners should use some compost.

Always add a handful of compost in all holes in which you are going to place a plant whether it be a little seedling or a 4-foot shrub. This modest amount of compost is very helpful for any plant in stress from being planted in the soil.

If you have surface roots under some trees, you are wise to mix soil and compost half and half and just barely cover the roots. This slows down the emergence of more surface roots.

If you have no access to chopped leaves for mulching the lawn, you can use a mix of Canadian sphagnum peat moss and compost at a 2 to 1 ratio or a 3 to 1 ratio and get almost the same benefits. All the lawn needs is 1/8 of an inch of this mixture every fall.

If you prefer to use bark chips or chunks as mulch, then adding a layer of compost before you spread the bark chips will speed up the decomposition of the mulch so it becomes food for the soil food web.

Now, if by July, you still have some compost in the tool shed, use it. You can spread it under any and all plants on your property. If you can treat only half the plants, so be it. Most garden centers have really good sale prices for compost in October and November so you can stock up for next year.

There is a place for some compost in the yardener’s shed. However, using as much organic mulch as you can is your road to a better looking landscape that takes less and less time to manage each year.

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