Cats with potted begonias


What’s in Your Mix?

That potting soil that you’ve bought for your seedlings and houseplants? It probably has no REAL soil at all in it. Real soil is just too hard to obtain in reliable and uniform quantities for commercial packaging. Soilless mixes, as commercial potting soils are (or should be) called, are a mix of some kind(s) of organic materials along with some aggregate, with possible additions of fertilizer, ground limestone, and a wetting agent.Cats with potted begonias

Organic materials in these mixes help sponge up water and cling to nutrients that might otherwise wash down and out of the pot. Peat moss is the organic material traditionally used in soilless mixes. Although it holds water well, it’s initially hard to wet, which is why wetting agents are sometimes added to soilless mixes. Read more

Raised beds


Universal Plant Needs

Although garden plants hail from all corners of the world, they have surprisingly similar soil requirements — best attended to before planting. Simply put, most garden plants need soils that are well-supplied with air (yes, roots must breathe!), water, and nutrients. And one other important ingredient, organic matter (sometimes called humus), that witch’s brew of living and once-living organic materials in various states of decomposition that, in addition to contributing to the just-mentioned needs, also includes a friendly microbial community for optimum plant health.

Aeration must be the first consideration, since plants are unable to utilize nutrients, even in fertile soils, if roots lack access to air. There are two causes for waterlogged soils: either the water table is too high, bringing water up from below; or the soil has pores so small that they cling by capillary action to too much water that falls from above.

Deal with a high water table by either choosing another site for planting, by raising roots above the water table, or by lowering the water table. Growing plants in raised beds is the way to bring roots above a water table. Raised bedsBuild beds high enough to take the roots up out of the water, and wide enough so they don’t dry out too quickly. Read more

Spreading wood ash


Potash Kalium Connection

I wonder if my neighbors suspect that I’m engaging in some sort of occult ritual as I take rounds through the farmden followed by puffs of grey smoke. Perhaps I’m entreating tiny gnomes living within the soil to keep weeds at bay next season? Or begging garden gremlins to make my soil fertile? No, and again no! I’m merely spreading wood ashes.Spreading wood ash

I must be careful with my terminology: I’m not dumping wood ashes; I’m fertilizing my soil with wood ashes. Wood ash is a rich source of potassium, a nutrient required by plants in amounts second only to nitrogen. Potassium helps build strong stems and helps plants resist disease. It also regulates the opening and closing of stomata, the tiny pores in leaves through which gases pass for photosynthesis.

The close connection between potassium and wood ash is reflected in a traditional source of, and the root of the word, potassium — “potash.” Read more

Cat on leafy mulch


No Other Explanation

The leaf-goblin struck again; this time I was sure. Leaf season is pretty much over around here but I was in my car on my way to do some errands and spotted a row of plastic trash bags full of leaves lined up along the other side of the street. I says to m’self, “I’ll be back this way within the hour, so I’ll stop and throw the bags in the back of the truck on my way home.” When I drove by again, the leaf bags were gone! This was not an isolated incident, but never has the leaf-goblin’s handiwork been so quick.Cat on leafy mulch

I suppose I’m to blame for this curse. Over the years, I have written about, spoken about, yes, even bragged about all the leaves — that’s other people’s leaves, conveniently in bags — that I have gathered up each autumn for my garden. I have preached to anyone who would listen about the folly of stuffing leaves into plastic garbage bags to be thrown out. Read more

Weeping fig bonsai


No Drama

A seminal moment in the gardening year turned out to be thankfully anticlimactic. That moment was the arrival, on the morning of November 2nd, of the first fall frost. It turned out to be more than just a frost; it was a freeze, with temperature plummeting to a very chilly 22.7°F at 7:33 that morning. (I didn’t have to keep running outdoors to check my thermometer, but am able to monitor past temperatures recorded on my iPhone throughout days and nights with my handy Sensorpush.)Frosty morning

The cold weather had taken its time in arriving. Weather stations around the country have compiled the “average date for the first killing frost” for sites throughout the country. (Also the “average date for the last killing frost” for spring.) Where I farmden, that first frost date is October 22. That is an average; the chance of frost arriving sometime before early November is 80%, and the chance of that frost arriving by mid-October is 20%. Last week’s freeze was late.

Years ago, as a novice gardener, I planned my gardening around these published dates. I considered these averages fixed in stone. With global warming, those dates were officially amended. Messed me up for awhile until I realized that the complexity of the natural world makes it appear capricious. Read more

Scooping biochar out of a bag



A couple of years ago a gardening friend shared with me her excitement about a biochar workshop she had attended. “I can’t wait to get back into my garden and start making and using biochar,” she said.

Biochar, one of gardening’s relatively new wunderkinds, is what remains after you heat wood — or other plant material such as rice husks, yard trimmings, or manure — with insufficient air. It’s akin to charcoal, although its physical characteristics vary with the kind of plant material, the amount of air during the burning, and the duration and intensity of the heat. BiocharRather than releasing the carbon in wood or other material into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide by burning it or allowing it to decompose, the carbon in biochar remains locked up. Less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means less global warming.

And yes, biochar can be made at home — outdoors, because the process gives off Read more

North garden



A recent blog post of mine was titled and about some of the reasons it was “My Worst Garden Ever.” From comments and emails, I learned that such was the case generally in this part of the world. That was then.

North gardenRecently, as I opened and walked through the gate into my vegetable garden, I thought, hmmm, things are looking pretty spiffy in the garden. Even a seasoned gardener friend remarked, “There’s so much green!” And that green is not from weeds, but from neat rows of napa cabbages, large heads of lettuce in various shapes and shades of green, and dark green rows of arugula and mustard. Leafy tops of Watermelon radishes (the name from the look of the sliced roots, not any affinity in flavor) and sweet Hakurei turnips perched above swelling roots. Read more

Two pigs


Plants, All Plants, Love it Here

You’ve got to be careful what you wish for. Nonetheless, the naturally rich, well-drained but moisture retentive soil here has made me, especially this season of abundant rainfall, heat, and sunlight — okay I’ll say it, wish I was gardening on poor soil. Then I could earmark my cultivated plants for compost, fertilizer, and other goodies that make for good soil. Weeds, except those that made their way beneath the limited areas beneath these plants, would languish.Weedy flower gardenThe naturally excellent soil here is weed heaven. Seems if I turn my back for a day, these interlopers, which stand waiting from outposts in field and woods, jump forward in among my cultivated plants. Quackgrass moves stealthily in from garden edges, pushing its pointy runners underground. Thistles pop up from lateral root and seeds. Read more

Mulching chestnut trees


Biochar vs. Wood Chips

People are funny. Take, for instance, a fellow gardener who, a couple of months ago, shared with me her excitement about a biochar workshop she had attended. “I can’t wait to get back into my garden and start making and using biochar,” she said.

Biochar, one of gardening’s relatively new wunderkind, is what remains after you burn wood with insufficient air. It’s charcoal. Stirred into the soil, its myriad nooks and crannies provide an expansive adsorptive surface for microbes and chemicals, natural and otherwise. Biochar, being black, darkens the soil, and dark soil is generally associated with fertility, although that’s not always the case. Because biochar is mostly elementary carbon, it resists microbial decomposition, so it’s carbon is less apt to end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.Biochar

In contrast, when raw wood — wood chips or sawdust, as examples — are added to soil, it feeds microbes and then plants as it decomposes, eventually turning to organic matter, sometimes called humus. Humus is a witch’s brew of compounds with beneficial effects on soil’s nutritional, biological, and physical properties. So is cooking up a batch of biochar and digging it into your soil better for the soil and really worth the effort?

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Spreading Limestone!

Visiting Clyde (not his real name), a farmer friend, one summer day a few years ago, I came upon him sprinkling some white powder along a row in preparation for planting. In response to my wondering what he was doing, he said he was spreading limestone. I was surprised.

In much of the eastern part of the U.S., unless you grow only native plants, or a rather narrow spectrum of exotic plants, you probably do have to do something to make the soil less acidic. And remember, tomato, apple, peach, marigold, rose, and many other plants in our gardens are exotics. Not only are many soils in the East naturally too acidic for most of what we grow in our gardens and farms, but soils here always are becoming more so.

Acid rain is one reason for this, but even before acid rain, the abundant rain that falls in this part of the country has been leaching soils and making them more acidic since time immemorial. As a general rule, areas where rainfall — not necessarily acid rain — exceeds about 30 inches per year, enough base-forming ions such as those of calcium, magnesium, and potassium get leached down and out of the ground to make soils more acidic.

But that’s not all. Calcium, magnesium, and potassium are plant nutrients, so harvesting crops takes them off site, increasing soil acidity. Some fertilizers, such as those that contain nitrogen in the form of ammonium, also make soils more acidic.

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