Harvesting Compost

It’s always a happy thing to go the the compost heap and find enough composted material for a new mini vegetable bed. But’s it’s an especially happy thing to harvest more than compost–

One of my favourite food tools...

One of my favourite food tools, lost for … a long time.

Vegetable Garden: Understanding Soil

Day 9 of Garden Tribes’ Boot Camp for novice gardens. Today it’s all about soil–what it is, what it isn’t, and how you make it work for you and your harvest. Before going any further you should know that if you are in a newly constructed house, the “material” surrounding the house may bear little resemblance to soil. Between the time the old house (or whatever) was removed and you moved into the new house, most of the site was probably changed significantly. You may even have the joy of finding MaDonald’s wrappers when you stick a shovel in the ground, or pieces of concrete, or great rocks that had to be either buried or disposed of some other way. So what is said about “soil” here may not actually relate to your situation. I suggest you dig a few good big holes in various not-too-conspicuous places to determine what is down there.

As the expression goes, “Feed the soil, not the plants”.

  1. Soil is a complex structure of organic and inorganic things. The quality of soil is dependent on the size of the particles, the amount of air space around the particles, and the percentage of organic matter mixed in among the particles.
    1. Clay is the smallest particle of soil. The more clay, the denser the product, the less air space, the wetter, the heavier it is. But clay is wonderfully full of all the macro- and micro-nutrients and trace minerals needed for most plant growth, and is generally slightly alkaline. More on pH later.
    2. Sandy soil is the opposite: large particles, it holds on to little nutrient, but drains very well. Sandy soil is considered “light”–because it’s not heavy, since it doesn’t hold much water.
    3. Silt is mid-sized particle, easier to work with, but still doesn’t hold many nutrients.
    4. Every ground space has some combination of the above three materials. And once some organic matter is added you have loam–either clay loam, silty loam, or sandy loam.
  2. In coastal BC because of our rainy climate, some of the nutrients that contribute to the pH of soil get washed out of the reach of plant roots. So in general we have acidic soil here, which is why rhodos, azaleas, heather, oregon grape, and huckleberry do so well and are found in almost every garden. If you have any of these, and they thrive, you can be fairly confident your pH is acid. That’s not a bad thing (don’t think sulphuric acid here), in that more nutrients are available to plants in an acid environment than in an alkaline environment. So acid is better than alkaline. And if your pH is really low, then you can grow better blueberries than I can!
    • Changing the pH of soil is pretty much a fool’s job. It takes several years of continual application of either a sulphur product (to acidify) or lime product (to alkalinize). Better to just appreciate what you have, and it you want to grow something that prefers a different pH, go with containers/raised beds. This is how many vegetables do well in acidic soil.
  3. The key to the good soil that you want to grow your plants in, is organic matter. Material that was once alive, when added to the soil, creates food for all the soil-based organisms that will increase the fertility of the soil. It’s those organisms that take the organic matter (last year’s banana peels and coffee grounds, or the sheep or mushroom manure, or Sea Soil…) and work on it to release the macronutrients (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium–NPK) and micro-nutrients (Mg, Ca, Fe, etc) that your plants need to grow and fruit.
  4. So the last thing you want to do is destroy the community of organisms that are doing the work of providing nutrition to your plants. You want to maintain the soil structure–not too much vigorous tilling, and certainly not every year. You want to avoid synthetic fast release fertilizers which can act almost like antibiotics against your beneficial bugs. And you want to continue to nurture them by giving them a supply of organic material ever year.

Here’s a crappy little video on feeling the quality of soil, and the post that goes with it: the handful of soil sort of sticks together, so it has a little clay, is obviously not that heavy, and not very wet, and doesn’t have much organic matter–it looks pretty grey.

Ways to Keep Your Garden Looking Great

Steve Whysall (Vancouver Sun gardening columnist) wrote a great article in Friday’s paper entitled Six Ways To Keep Your Garden Looking Great.

He interviewed Egan Davis, the chief instructor of the Horticultural Training Program at the University of B.C. Botanical Garden, but formerly at Van Dusen Botanical Garden, and one of my Master Gardener instructors. So I’m really happy to report that all of Egan’s “six ways” have been previously addressed here in the pages of Real Life Garden Solutions!

Here’s a quick overview:

1. Mulch. And only use organic amendments to the soil, and only fertilizers that are actually needed. See here for LOTS more info.

It's about 5' high, 10'across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

Mountain of mulch. It’s about 5′ high, 10’across. That means probably about 10 cubic yards.

2. Make sure your soil is carrying enough moisture. Adding compost will help with that.

3. Leave your fall garden “unkempt” for the critters. Read more here.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably 3-4 mm diameter.

4. I love this one: Don’t be afraid to make changes. It’s one of my design mantras. A garden should be something that delights in changing over the years.

5. Grow some from seed. I haven’t written this post yet, but the pictures are all ready to go…

6. Become a backyard ecologist. Yes, I’ve written lots on this.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It's pretty fat and fuzzy.

I think this might be a bumble bee. It’s pretty fat and fuzzy.

First Rose Bloom of the Season

First bloom on Julia Child

First bloom on Julia Child

Any first blooms of the season are exciting, And somehow, roses are up there with the best of them. I have quite a few roses, some I love more than others, but Julia Child, now entering only its 4th year in my garden, is the best of the best. Her growth habit is restrained and shapely–it doesn’t straggle all over the place, it doesn’t just grow straight up, and the size is very manageable.

Julia Child, about 4.5 feet tall May 17, 4 years old.

Julia Child, about 4.5 feet tall on May 17, 4 years old.

She doesn’t suffer from diseases–black spot is the bane of rose growers here in coastal BC–and she blooms reliably until frost. That’s about 5 months of flowering!

Her only downside is that she has no fragrance. I used to think a rose without fragrance was a waste of space, but I’m a little less dogmatic now. I have several roses without fragrance, which actually makes it easier to make a bouquet–mix a fragrant rose and a non-fragrant rose so there’s no competition.

Some thoughts on Roses

So I thought I’d write a little essay on roses. It’s a terrible myth that roses are hard to keep–too much tending, feeding, spraying, pruning (scary!), protecting. Well, all of that is true, and untrue. There’s almost no reason (one–I’ll get to it) you can’t successfully grow roses.

I’ve owned a lot of roses over the years. I’m not exactly Brad Jalbert of Select Roses fame, (although I’ve bought from him), but I’ve been trying to make roses make roses for me for about 20 years. My favourite rose (name lost to the sands of time) was almost blue, unbelievably fragrant, perfect in shape–hybrid tea, classic “dozen red roses” shape–and was such a black spot magnet that all summer it was pretty much just sticks having dropped all its leaves, and would only develop one or two blooms per year because it couldn’t keep leaves long enough to photosynthesize (make sugar). Another, Heritage by David Austin, another fragrance-rich rose, beautifully old-fashioned in shape, considered to be black spot resistant in our area, was anything but. I gave up because I couldn’t keep it looking good. Which leads me to thought #1:

Choose “very disease resistant” roses.

Roses that you might buy at Home Depot or Canadian Tire in little boxes are unlikely to be the best to invest time and money into. They buy them in  bulk of course, and will get the same product for all their stores across the country, regardless whether they are appropriate for the location or not. When you can buy a $5 rose at HD, why pay $25 somewhere else? The answer is “disease resistance”.

Black spot this early in the season bodes ill for the rest of the year. This rose is not long for my garden...

Black spot this early in the season bodes ill for the rest of the year. This rose is not long for my garden…

Now one little problem with choosing disease resistant roses is knowing WHERE they’re disease resistant. Disease resistant in Toronto where the cold kills overwintering diseases and the sun comes out reliably in the spring is not going to be the same as disease resistant here. There’s a rose breeder from Hamburg, Germany (which has very similar weather to ours) whose mandate is to develop roses that need no fungicide to stay disease-free,  so you can be sure that if you get a KORDES rose, you’ve got a VERY disease resistant rose in coastal BC. (On the Select Roses website there is a page of Top Performers that starts with Julia Child and includes several Kordes roses!)

Here’s another site that will give you a list of suitable David Austin roses for the Pacific Northwest. And since it also has Heritage in the list, just goes to show you can’t expect exactly the same results when there are so many variables to contend with.

Which conveniently segues to thought #2:

Give your rose LOTS of sun.

The best thing you can do for your rose is place it in a place where it will get AT LEAST 6 hours of uninterrupted sun. And sunlight before breakfast and after supper don’t count! So 8 am to 2 pm, or noon to 6 pm, or any 6+ hours in the middle are all good. The right amount of sun will inhibit disease, promote good growth, which together inhibit pests. More sun means more blooms, which means happier grower–you. So before you buy your roses, spend a sunny day identifying where on your property the sun is fully shining (not shining through the leaves of a tree) for 6 hours. If there isn’t such a spot, I’m terribly sorry, roses are not for you. Yes, there are some that say they will tolerate part shade, and I have several of them. They don’t bloom. Rugosa roses have a lot of advantages: disease resistant, fragrance, repeat blooming, and allegedly shade tolerance. But if they don’t get enough sun, they don’t bloom, so I guess you can see the dilemma. Don’t bother, get some other attractive flowering fragrant shrub instead.

Rugosa rose 'Agnes' didn't bloom at all in 4-5 hours of sun, so has been in a pot for two years waiting for a better spot. Apparently delightfully  fragrant, altho' I wouldn't know from experience. Maybe this year I'll find out...

Rugosa rose ‘Agnes’, described as shade-tolerant,  didn’t bloom at all in 4-5 hours/day of sun, so has been languishing in a pot for two years waiting for a better spot. Apparently delightfully fragrant, altho’ I wouldn’t know from experience. Maybe this year I’ll find out…

Feed the Soil, the Soil Feeds the Plant

And now, for feeding the hungry little buggers! I’ve many times heard that roses are hungry, and maybe if what you’re after is show-quality blooms on an extravagant scale, then yes, maybe roses can get hungry. But I don’t think you’re going to be taking your roses to a flower show, or you wouldn’t be reading this somewhat simplistic blog. You want roses that will perform without requiring daily attention. So, Feed the Soil, the Soil Feeds the Plant. Most plants will be satisfied with a meal that can be delivered by a smorgasbord of microbes and earthworms. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor there… “with a smorgasbord delivered by an army of microbes and earthworms.” How’s that? And go back to my post on  Soil Characteristics to learn more about soil health.) Now that’s not necessarily true of all PLANTS, but MOST plants. And most roses will be satisfied with heathy nutritious soil, not needing a lot of extra desserts. Top-dressing (that’s adding on top of the soil under the canopy of the plant, staying 1-2″ away from the stem) with 1-2″ deep compost 1-2 times yearly (spring/fall) will make your soil/microbes/earthworms very happy indeed, and they will feed your roses. Very easy, and pretty easy to remember as well.

Water Them Well the First Year.

You’ll read that a lot on plant labels and information sites. Roses are actually quite drought tolerant–you won’t kill your rose by forgetting to water it through a few weeks of our dry summers–except for the first year. Everything needs a good start, and one key way of giving it is to make sure your rose doesn’t dehydrate that first summer. Needless to say, once the fall rains start, you don’t have to worry about water any more. (Just make sure when you’re planting that you have good drainage, or you will be worrying about those fall/winter rains.)

So there you go, Sun, Compost, Water. Very Disease Resistant. All you REALLY need to know about having roses in your garden. There’re lots of other things you may WANT to know about growing roses in your garden, and likely I’ll be posting about some of those in the future. So stay tuned. Click Follow. Like my FB page. Comment. Ask questions.

Princess Alexandra. Resists dying!

Princess Alexandra. Resists dying!

Octavia Hill. Fabulous diminutive shrub with glossy leaves, no fragrance. I love it for the name as well--google Octavia Hill.

Octavia Hill. Fabulous diminutive shrub with glossy leaves, no fragrance. I love it for the name as well–google Octavia Hill.

Looks impressive, but this is the Ingrid Bergman that has such bad black spot already., But you can see why I bought her.

Looks impressive, but this is the Ingrid Bergman that has such bad black spot already. But you can see why I bought her.

Rosemary Harkness--so many lovely ladies. I tried to dispose of her last year--black spot--but she resisted my efforts and is growing again.

Rosemary Harkness–so many lovely ladies. I tried to dispose of her last year–black spot–but she resisted my efforts and is growing again.