A Few Fertilizing Factoids

“Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants.”

Plants don’t eat like you and I, they don’t have big gobs that scarf down every fat and carb molecule in sight (oh, sorry, that’s just me).

There’s something called the soil food web–a symbiotic relationship among all the elements of the soil, including microorganisms, earthworms  and macro organisms, inorganic decomposed stone (and not so decomposed!), all manner of organic matter including dead things–all existing together and benefiting one another. Well, maybe not benefiting the dead things…

I want to grow beautiful things and have a beautiful garden not so much for the sake or the plants or garden but as part of the greater beauty of creation. I look at the sky and I’m amazed at the blueness of it.

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And when there’s a tornado in New Brunswick I’m astounded at the power of it.

Slurped from amateur video on CBC.

Slurped from amateur video on CBC.

God’s creation is beyond our understanding, and appreciation.

I’d like to do it as little harm as possible, and even maybe do it some good, as a “good steward”.

So here’s some “factoids”:

1. Adding inorganic  fertilizers (I won’t identify the brands, but they’re the ones that DON’T say “organic”) will give your plants some of the nutrients they need (N–Nitrogen, P–Phosphorus, K–Potassium). Maybe a lot more than they need. At the expense of some of the microorganisms, who may find the “salts” too strong and die off as a result.

2. Even organic fertilizers can be overused: they will be slower to break down and filter into the groundwater, but if applied more than the plants need, they WILL filter into the groundwater. Any fertilizers should only be used if needed.

3. Every living organism need more than just N-P-K, but typically the inorganic fertilizers don’t have the iron, manganese, boron etc that we all need in trace amounts. Many of the organic ones do. Read the label.

4. Using organic mulch in moderation is probably the safest way to benefit the whole soil food web: slow to break down so less leaching of nutrients into the groundwater, feeds many of the inhabitants of the ecosystem, which benefits the whole, amends the physical quality of the soil, making it lighter and allowing root penetration.

And now: a completely unrelated poll:

Challenge:

What are your thoughts about use of fertilizer? Yes or no, good or bad, relevant or irrelevant? Let’s get a discussion going. Comment, share, question, dispute (nicely).

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Mulches Part II

Bark vs arborist’s wood chips:

Again, I defer to Linda Chalker-Scott: The Myth of Pretty Mulch pretty much 😉 says it all. Using bark mulch has too many disadvantages, whereas wood chips have few.

So  this:

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Lasagna treatment–layering cardboard and then compost over the grass and waiting for the whole lot to compost down to nice rich soil. Unfortunately not enough layers resulted in grass growing through after a nice mild wet winter.

…is now this:

About 6" of wood chip mulch applied on top of the turned-over, partly-decomposed turf.

About 6″ of wood chip mulch applied on top of the turned-over, partly-decomposed turf. Of course, it’ll be few hours more work to fill it up.

As I’ve said in previous posts, my garden is my research field. So I’m going to try to plant vegetables into this area at the end of the month, when the nights will be warm enough to allow the heat-loving plants to finally get out of the house. I’ll keep you posted on how we’re doing.

Incidentally, take a look at how the morning sun GLOWS through the leaves of the lily-of-the-valley. (Click on any pictures for a larger view.) Stay tuned for a post on “making the most of morning and evening light”.

Comments? Questions? Don’t forget to click the follow button, you won’t want to miss my updates. 🙂

Deomonstrating soil quality

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Soil that sticks together nicely, but breaks up with just a hint of pressure. That’s loamy soil with organic matter (compost) mixed in.

Soil that doesn’t stick together very well– a little too sandy. This is garden mixture that I bought last year. It’s OK, but doesn’t have enough organic matter to support earthworms, so it’s not improving over time. (Sorry, pretty crappy quality of video. I’m new at this!)

A Primer On Soil Characteristics–Part 1

What’s your soil like?

Here are some of the possibilities:

Clay-ish: rich in nutrients, but very fine particles, so it clumps together so much that there’s no air spaces between particles. Doesn’t drain very well.

Sandy-ish: almost no nutrients, but very large particles, so drains very well. So well in fact it’s hard to keep plants hydrated.

Loamy-ish: this is your preferred quality, a combination of both clay and sand, so enough fine particles to hold onto water, and enough course particles to let it go.

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Notice the happy little worm in the middle of the pic enjoying the combination of loam and organic matter.

(All pictures are enlargeable by clicking on them.)

I’ve posted two short videos here to demonstrate nice loamy soil that sticks together weakly, and slightly too sandy soil that I bought as garden soil amendment.

Then there’s organic matter.

Organic matter bulks up soil making it “fluffy”. It is also what attracts earthworms and microorganisms, both of which do the real work of making soil healthy. Earthworms eat small portions of food and plant material, leaving behind “castings”–earthworm poo, aka “black gold” (not to be confused with “black gold–Texas Tea”). And bacteria and fungi are able to take molecules of nitrogen that are unavailable to plants and convert it to ammonium and nitrate that is available to plants.

Optimal soil is loamy and rich in organic matter. But really, we have what we have, and trying to change it can be an exercise in major frustration!

Wendy tells me she has clay soil.

Her backyard is flat, at the bottom of a hill, and in the winter the turf is VERY soggy. In the summer it’s so dry it’s like straw; she figures that because there isn’t enough depth of topsoil on top of the clay so it’s difficult for the grass to put down deep roots.

Really sounds like she’s got it right. Unless you’ve got at least 6″ of topsoil, preferably 8″ of topsoil, grass will not do well. There just isn’t enough depth for a reservoir of moisture and nutrients deeper than the roots, so they don’t reach downward. And if underneath that not-quite-deep-enough layer of topsoil is predominately clay, the clay creates a barrier underneath the layer of topsoil allowing a pool of water to collect when it’s wet. Roots of plants that aren’t really “bog-tolerant” will either rot, or just stay shallow. When the rains stop the pool of water eventually dries out, but the grass roots are still petty shallow and suffer from the relative drought. Even if you water the lawn regularly, there’s still that clay barrier just a few inches away preventing proper drainage.

Wendy thought she would like to  dig it all out, put a better layer of topsoil, and seed a new lawn.

What do you think? What would you advise Wendy to do?

For those who are interested, here’s an excellent short article on managing turf on clay soils.

There seems to be no one solution to improving the site. If you scrape and replace, you’ve still got the layer of clay underneath, and sooner or later end up with the same results. If you regularly add layers of organic matter on top, eventually the worms will do a great job of incorporating the OM with the clay without the damage that rototilling would do. Do you want to work on this project for 5 years or so? (I would.) If you already have large shrubs or trees, they have adapted to the current level of the ground, and their superficial roots would surely not appreciate several inches of material on their heads, effectively suffocating them. So if you do choose the “top dressing” option, keep those layers less than about 2-3″.

Now here’s a couple other options, and both involve abandoning any attempt to have a grassy lawn:

1. Substitute your grass turf with another lawn alternative.

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Thanks to A Small Green Space for her picture of a clover lawn.

Dutch White Clover will grow from seed on your clay patch, and if you already have grass “growing” there, the clover will happily coexist. If the site is bare, sow a lot of clover.

Sedges are another option, such as Carex “Hime Kawasuga” or C. pennsylvanica, short growing, underground spreading, infrequently mow-able clumping grasses.

I’ll do another post exclusively on lawn alternatives, so stay tuned…

2. Raised beds. Instead of trying to manage the whole yard, build several raised beds with pathways in between. These can be your typical 2×8″ boards filled with compost and soil, or something a lot more attractive and creative-looking like dry-stack stones in less rectangular shapes.

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Dry-stack bricks, not dry-stack rocks, but still very cool.

This has been an overly long post, so I’ll stop here and save the rest for a future post.

Do you have soil that is less than Ideal? In fact, how do I even know if it is less than ideal, or if it’s my less-than-optimal technique that’s responsible for under-performing plants?

Leave a comment, share this to your favourite social network site, ask questions. You don’t need to suffer with a garden space that doesn’t meet your needs. Let’s get things working better!