{ Archive for the ‘maintenance and techniques’ Category }

Soil health: starting the season right

I love this quote from Beverley Nichols that showed up in an advice article in my CG email this week:

“Light in a garden is a quarter of the battle. Another quarter is the soil of the garden. A third quarter is the skill and care of the gardener. The fourth quarter is luck. Indeed, one might 
say that these were the four Ls of gardening, in the following order of importance: Loam, Light, Love and Luck.”
 

In fact, several of the bits of advice in the article mention the importance of healthy soil.

I consider myself a fairly well informed gardener. I’ve gleaned quite a bit of knowledge over the years about all kinds of topics, and lucky me, I have a pretty solid memory retention. But when it comes to soil health, I’ve pretty much spread on the compost and crossed my fingers. Last year, I started feeling that my soil was getting depleted. I can’t tell you exactly why, just a general sense that growth wasn’t as strong as it could be, drainage more sluggish than normal.

So when I learned a class was being put on by a neighbour, an expert in agricultural soil health, I immediately marked it on my calendar. The evening was really valuable, and I learned a whole lot, but it truly is one of those topics that start feeling bigger the more you learn.

Some of the fundamental things I seem to be doing right, but I’ve never been one to add commercial fertilizers, and I think my compost is simply missing some of the trace minerals that plants and soil need. Your average garden-center NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) products don’t have them either.

Here’s a few of the nutrients I learned about from my neighbour. A soil test is the best way to determine what you need, and a really good garden centre or agricultural consultant should be able to help you identify ways of adding them.

Nitrogen: encourages vegetative, or leafy, growth. If your pepper plants look gorgeous but aren’t flowering or setting fruit, they probably have (proportionally) too much nitrogen. Gasses off quickly, so must be topped up more frequently than other nutrients.

Phosphorous: encourages strong root growth and structure. Part of the problem with phosphorous is that it tends to bind with the soil, making not all of what’s in there available for plants to use. It’s needed early in the plant’s growth to do the most good.

Potassium: I always thought this was nutrient for flowering and fruiting, but the real benefit of this important nutrient is how it builds a plant’s aerial (above ground) structure: how strong the stems and leaves are, how well it can take up water, etc. Also fights high levels of magnesium.

Sulphur: competes with sodium. I need to keep the sulphur levels higher than my sodium levels and it will minimize the effects of an alkali (high sodium) soil–but that’s because I have a fairly alkaline (high pH) soil. If you have a more acidic soil, use calcium to balance out the sodium. (Are you confused yet?)

Calcium: among other things, contributes to the storability of the harvested fruit.

Boron: important in plant reproduction. When boron levels are low you end up with hollow potatoes and strawberries, or pea pods with only a few peas in them. But careful: high levels are toxic.

Then there’s magnesium and aluminum, which at high levels cause cracks on top of the soil and contribute to drainage problems. And selenium and zinc, which contribute to both human and plant immunity. But selenium is restricted in Canada as it’s categorized with–get this–arsenic.

Yikes. Apparently there’s a reason people go to universtiy to understand all the ins and outs of this science. I’m ready to throw up my hands and go back to my compost and crossed fingers.

But I did get a bag of fully balanced synthetic fertilizer, which I am spreading on this weekend–with the compost and the leaves.

 

Rescuing garden centre orphans

The height of summer hits and it’s inevitable: heat ravaged, root bound annuals get deeply slashed price tags. And I, being me, can’t help but take a quick gander through the rows of pallets and flats at the local big box.

This year I scored: a few weeks ago two plants from my wish list, wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) and an all-yellow Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule ‘Pacino’), were languishing away hidden among the dried-out grasses, begging me to take them home for a buck a piece. How could I refuse?

Back home though, reality set in. How would I keep this poor things from going even further downhill when I added transplant stress and a heat wave to their list of complaints?

Well, they lived for me to tell the tale, so I’ll tell you what I did: after transplanting them I top dressed them with a couple handfuls each of worm compost and watered them in well. Then, for about the first week, in addition to keeping them watered, I covered them with milk crates I have kicking around.

This is a trick taught to me by an old friend, now gone. It keeps the airflow at maximum while keeping the transplants in the shade while they get the feel of their new home, and is heavy enough that it doesn’t blow away like a cardboard box might.

After that first week, I took the crates on and off randomly for a few days to expose the plants gradually to the sun. They’ve been unprotected (but still watered well) now for a good five days and here they are:

 

 

They need a little clean up, but lots of happy growth going on. I’d call this rescue successful… do you think it counteracts the sow thistle I can’t seem to catch up with?

 

The great gardener’s paradox

I can not win.

My daughter gave me a fridge magnet last Christmas that reads “Gardening forever, housework whenever“. It makes me smile. And I try to live by its wisdom. But the other demands on my time don’t seem to appreciate my priorities.

I spend a lovely, productive day in the garden, then come back inside to realize all the stuff I forgot to do in other aspects of my life. Unopened urgent emails, un-refilled fish tank sucking air through the filter… what’s that? You children want to eat?

So I shift gears, try to repair my negligence a little. Get the laundry put away, make the phone calls I’ve been putting off, help with the Social Studies diorama. But before I know it, four days have passed. The garden is jealous of my attention, and pouts, and the dandelions seed with abandon. Never mind the annoyed greenery in the porch, still waiting for me to get them in the ground. They might as well have their leafy stems crossed and their flowery brows knitted into a scowl.

I’ve had a little chat with my house, and my garden, my business files, and the piece of my soul called “mom”. We’ve negotiated. We’ve guilted. And this is the plan we came up with: One half hour, every day, minimum, in the garden. Enough to keep things together, without everything else falling apart.

Think it will work?

How do you keep a balance?

 

 

Lessons on worm composting

While visiting with my friend Elisabeth and her family, we helped make taco salad for supper. I chopped up some peppers, habitually making a little pile of the trimmings for the compost pile. I asked her where she was keeping her compost bucket and she answered, a little guiltily, that she didn’t compost in the winter: too much trouble.

I was surprised, as she and her husband are probably the thriftiest, low-impact kind of people I know, but I understood completely. Who wants to trudge outside through the snow? And really, who can call that frozen pile thawing to sogginess in spring a pleasure?

Coming home, I realized I should have told her about the worm composting I was trying out. Or, was supposed to be trying out but in reality was repeatedly forgetting about and then trying to repair the neglect. And then I remembered that I had promised you, dear reader, an update on my progress! Well, here you are. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I have two worm composters: a Worm Factory and a Worm Inn. My second Worm Factory went to my sister Jenni. In retrospect, I probably could have kept it to keep up with the volume of kitchen waste around here (assuming I could find a place for it). As it is, I am still taking some larger loads outside to my regular bin, especially during harvest and canning. But Jenni finds the Factory to be a good size for her household of 2.

My set up. Worm Inn above, Worm Factory on table, blue bin full of bedding, bucket of finished compost behind.

When I say I need to “repair the neglect,” there really is more guilt in my heart than travesty in the bin. My worms don’t mind being fed once a week, though I try to give them little bits, more often, rather than lots at once.  It definitely makes a difference if you chop up stuff into smaller pieces. This improves breakdown in regular composting, but it’s doubly true for the worms. They say you can feed worms anything as long as there’s no grease, but I’ve found a couple of exceptions in practice and reading: they don’t seem to eat seeds. I’ve had several sprout on me, including cantulope and pumpkin, and my otherwise finished compost is littered with them.  They leave tougher stuff like stems from squash alone, and they don’t like raw potatoes. Go figure. And no matter what you feed them, always bury it with some bedding to discourage flies and mould.

Speaking of, the “ick” factor is much lower than I thought it would be. There is no smell (unless I over feed and under bed), and the worms keep to themselves. I had some fruit fly trouble once, but a trap placed nearby took care of them within two days. My biggest mess factor: bits of shredded paper or coconut fiber always on the floor. It seems impossible for me to get a handful into either bin without scattering a bit.

I did break down and bring both units into my back entry for the winter. Once the temperature started to drop, they just weren’t eating in the garage.

As far as the bins themselves, I think I prefer the Worm Inn for design and ease of use. It’s easy to add material to the top, and harvesting is as simple as opening the bottom and draining it until you see bits of unfinished food or some worms. I also love the space-saving hanging design, and it holds way more than you would imagine. The major drawback for me is how good the airflow is, meaning, I actually have to remember to check the moisture level. Dry worms=dead worms.

This is the big plus for the Worm Factory. Moisture loss is not a problem; however, too much moisture can be. I leave the drainage spigot open with a bucket under it all the time to try to help the airflow, and I definitely use more bedding compared to the Inn to try to absorb the moisture. I have to be sure not to add too much food at once or it goes slimy before the worms get to it. (I should mention the Factory I have is an older model, and the newer ones look like they are designed for better aeration.) Also, the trays are pretty heavy when full of damp material, and the finished compost always seems to still have worms in it, so you have to sift them out or help them migrate by placing the tray in bright light.

Dig around a little and you’ll find many other composter designs, including ones you can make yourself. But the basics are the same: Keep them aerated, keep them damp, keep them bedded and keep them fed. Is it more work than traditional composting? Maybe, but I don’t have to trudge through the snow, and I’ve got fresh compost all winter long. Whatdayathink, Liz?

 

How to repent and overhaul a flower bed

So, some of you may remember the horrid mess I encountered in one of my perennial beds this spring, thanks to my total neglect.

 

I continued my pattern of neglect right through the summer, but this week I decided the time had come to face up to my sins and fix things up. (Actually, I decided this last week, but it rained.)

If you, as I, have a nasty secret in your backyard, here are a few steps you can take to turn your life around.

1. Admit that you are powerless over quackgrass, that it really has become unmanageable.

2. Come to believe that a power greater than a trowel, fork, spade, or tiller is needed. Consider the merits of Roundup.

3. Start digging.

4. Put aside shame and ask for help.

5. Consider the layered newspaper thing. Smack yourself, remembering it is not a match for this particular problem.

6. Keep digging. Remind yourself that you really do need to divide the bulbs and the perennials anyway.

7. Lift all valuable plants. Marvel at the ability of grass roots to penetrate straight through an iris rhizome.

8. Stop for lunch.

9. Dig.

10. Consider Roundup.

11. Vacillate between replanting now, or stashing all the keeper plants in another part of the yard until the grass is really, really, really gone, either by Roundup or newspaper.

12. Remember that grass is never gone; stash plants/bulbs/etcetera in garage and put off decision for tomorrow.

Jack Frost comes to town

School is back in, the trees are changing color, and bugs are (attempting) to move inside: fall is unavoidably here. Some of you may still be weeks away from killing frost, but we’ve already had a couple of light ones here in Alberta.

Last winter I geeked out and did a bunch of reading on frost, thinking some theory might help my practical application this year. I had visions of early planting, and harvesting veggies and displaying flowers well into October. Not much of my vision materialized, as I still live in the real world, and I definitely haven’t reached the caliber of Niki Jabbour, but it’s cool to understand more about how weather works. And spreading sheets over the pumpkins with a flashlight after dark last week was totally worth buying them another couple of weeks’ growth.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned this year that may help you predict, and hopefully outwit, Jack Frost, and buy yourselves a little more time in the garden.

First off, find a weather website you like or buy one of those weather stations from the hardware store. The Weather Network actually has a Lawn and Garden forecast, including frost predictions and watering advice. A little info goes a long way.

Next, be prepared for frost. Have some old sheets or lengths of burlap ready to cover plants, as well as something to weigh them down against the wind. Small straw bales, a cold frame, or cloches will also do the insulating job. Have a spot in mind in the shed or garage to move containers of annuals to when you get a frost warning. Do a little research if you’re not sure which of your plants need frost protection. Bronze, hairy, or compact plants, as well as those closely spaced, will be naturally more protected, but don’t count on most annual flowers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, or corn to stand up to frost without being covered overnight. Carrots, beets, and most members of the cabbage family, as well as many other vegetables, don’t mind frost.

If you want to actually predict a frost, the first thing to do is look up. Clear, calm skies are a sign frost make strike, especially if afternoon temperatures start falling fast. Frost is less likely to occur under a cloudy sky, or when there is fog, as the day’s heat is trapped closer to the earth. This is part of why covering plants protects them–it traps some of the heat from the earth close to your plants.

Then assess the wind. If it’s strong, especially if it’s coming from the northwest, cover things up. Movements of large, cold air masses often bring on killing frost. But very still nights allow the coldest air to settle to the ground, also risking the temperature for your plants to hit zero. A light breeze will keep temperatures higher, unless that wind itself is below freezing.

Higher humidity decreases the risk of frost. This has to do with all the high school chemistry you’ve blocked out regarding warmer air being able to hold more water molecules. (See the next bit on dew point.) I’ve known people to water in annuals to protect them when a light frost threatens, though I’ve never tried it myself. The science backs them up: when the air is dry, evaporation sucks warmth out of the soil, making for chilly plants. By attempting to increase the moisture available, these gardeners “insulate” plants from the cooling effect of evaporation. Same goes for the old standby of covering things–it keeps the moisture close to your plants.

So here’s the real nitty-gritty of how frost actually appears–feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re not into scientific explanations. Basically, the dew point is the temperature at which the moisture vapor in the air will condense back into liquid, based on the given factors, most importantly, humidity. If the air temperature drops to the dew point above freezing, you get wet summer grass and diamond-scattered spiderwebs. If the dew point is below zero, and the temperature drops to it, the water vapor is changed directly into solid form–ice–and you see lovely feathery crystals on the edges of everything. Now, if the dew point is below zero, and the air temperature drops below zero but doesn’t reach the dew point, you won’t technically have frost, but tender plants will be damaged by the freezing temperatures. The other thing that can happen is the water vapor condenses at a dew point above zero, leaving dew, but the temperature continues to fall below zero, forming a coat of ice. So if you know the dew point and the overnight low, you can predict a frost.

If you’re really of a mind to change your relationship with frost, you may want think right down to the bones of your garden, your location and its physical features. Ever noticed that your neighbor can get white tipped lawn when you don’t? Higher altitude increases frost risk because the air is thinner and the average air temperature is lower. But low areas in the garden can be more susceptible to freezing because cold air is heavier than warm and tends to sink. Gentle slopes that expose the garden to the sun are more protected, open spaces plagued by wind are not. Houses, fences, and water bodies can be heat sinks and/or wind breaks that protect from cold air. Allowing places in the garden where wind can move, and hence, cold air escape, will also be protective. And that old saw about starting with the soil if you want better plants? It’s true in this case too: Fertile soil holds more moisture and passes it into the air more efficiently compared with sandy or deficient soil. And we know that humidity is good.

There. Don’t you feel smarter?

 

 

 

Worms, worms, everywhere

So here’s my story.

Mid-summer, my brother-in-law Jared sent me a rather cryptic message to “watch the mailbox”. What with postal strikes and summer adventures, it was soon mostly forgotten.

At the beginning of August, my friend Teri also sent me a message, inquiring whether I had ever tried worm composting, and would I like to take some equipment off her hands?

I’m a big believer in composting, and have two healthy piles going in my yard, though I’d never gotten into vermicomposting — having little red wiggler worms help the work along — but I told Teri I’d take some stuff off her hands, if only to help her in her downsizing. I could try it out and always pass it on to someone else if I wasn’t into it, right? If nothing else, it was blog fodder…

The next day she showed up on my doorstep with two Worm Factories, one full, one empty, a big bin of coconut fiber (for bedding), and a binder of information on vermiculture and vermicomposting.

Original Worm Factory - 4 Tray

This is the one Teri gave me; click for the latest model.

“You put your food scraps in the top bin, here,” she said lifting the lid and exposing a melange of vegetable bits, newspaper, and itty-bitty red worms. “The worms migrate up and eat it. Then you harvest the bottom bin of compost and rotate it to the top. That’s basically it!” She seemed a little too excited to ditch this stuff and run. Hmmm… what was I getting into?

I was eager to try something new, not so eager at the thought of worms in the kitchen, Teri’s recommended location for the bin. And I knew Chris would not be into that at all. The timing also sucked: we were leaving on our three week camping trip in three days. Apparently they could eat half a pound of scraps a day: could I load them up before I left? Would they survive? Where would they survive? I debated ditching all the worms into my regular bin and re-purposing all that gorgeous coconut fiber elsewhere in the garden (it’s amazing stuff for soil additive, mulch, growing medium…), but felt I owed it to Teri to at least give it a go. Plus, those worms go for 50 to 75 bucks a pound.

So I cleaned up a little corner of the garage where the temperature should remain fairly even through the summer (winter will be a different story) and got the full bin all set up, thinking I’d tackle the empty one on my return.

That weekend, Jenni and Jared came for a visit, and I showed Jenni my newly acquired castoffs (get it?). Sudden inspiration: Jenni could take the empty Factory, and some of my worms for a starter! Yay! But Jenni got this funny look on her face… remember the cryptic mailbox notice? You guessed it. Jared, in one of his characteristic bouts of generosity, had ordered me a Worm Inn, which was, at that very moment, in the dawdling hands of Canada Post.

WORM INN

The Worm Inn. Hanging contraption not included. I've still got to figure that out.

So, in not so much as a week, I’d gone from zero to three vermicomposting bins. How… interesting.

I filled the bin with as much worm food as I dared, covered it up and left the spigot open so it wouldn’t get to slimy, crossed my fingers, and went on holiday.

We were back two days before I remembered to check on the poor little wigglers– but they were alive. Still some food scraps showing, and not moldy either. Hmmm. Maybe I can do this. The Worm Inn has arrived, and I’ve got Teri’s binder (which turns out to be a full-on manual from the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada). Looks like my kids aren’t the only ones in for learning some new things this fall. I’ll keep you posted.

One of my wigglers working on some beet greens.

In which I plant some healthy ideas and reap some better health

This spring I was having some nasty headaches, which seemed to be developing from my constantly tense shoulders. I was climbing into bed aching and exhausted almost every night, but my life was busy with kids and home and garden and community, and I didn’t take the time to get any help other than having Chris rub my back as I washed supper dishes. I got good and fed up with it one night a couple of weeks ago and called my brother, a chiropractor in Calgary. I told him my symptoms, and he asked me a bunch of questions. He told me his over-the-phone diagnosis boiled down to lousy posture. My back went up immediately – in the figurative sense – but then I realized he was I right. I have pretty horrible posture. I’m a sloucher. He ran through a few stretches I could do, and admonished me to see a massage therapist and a real live face to face chiropractor. I thanked him and went to bed.

The next morning, while digging in the garden planting some very, very, very late potatoes (a girl can dream, right?), I realized I was totally hunching into myself over the shovel, giving what I thought was my all my strength into each step. I stopped, tried to recall what my brother had taught me the night before, and corrected my posture, making a conscience effort to roll my shoulders back and down. I immediately felt a difference. I was actually getting more power with each dig, it took less effort, and was not at all uncomfortable. I realized my gardening habits were likely contributing to my miserable body.

Life hasn’t slowed down any, but I’ve been paying much closer attention to my posture, and I’m already reaping the benefits: no more headaches, fewer body aches, more accomplished in the garden (and the house) because I’m not wasting so much energy. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m making my inconsistent yoga practice more consistent, too. I haven’t fit in a visit to the chiropractor or for a massage, but the minute I find one willing to do house calls at 7 a.m. or 10:30 p.m., I’ll book ‘em.

Here’s a few resources to help you in your efforts to stay healthy.
-Maintaining your core muscles will help your whole body, and protect it from injury. Contracting your abdomen before lifting, bending, etc. will protect your lower back.

-Cultivate healthy gardening habits. Remember, your body is a tool as well. It needs care and proper use.

-A wall angel is the first exercise my brother recommended for my tense shoulders and neck. A great stretch to train your shoulders to a healthier position. Focus on bringing your shoulder blades down and together.
-Yoga Journal has lots of great resources, including a list of positions to target different parts of the body, even to target chronic issues.

-If you’re new to yoga, here’s five great simple stretches for gardeners. (the descriptions are to the right of the pictures.)

-Prevention is always better than treating an injury.

Things to do while it’s raining

Day 1

-Grumble about wishing I had more planted before the weather changed.

-Resolve to be productive anyway.

-Enjoy the smell of spring rain.

-Tidy up the shed.

-Read gardening magazine/books.

Day 2

-Grumble a bit; then think positive.

-Edge a flower bed, careful not to step in the bed.

-Clean some tools that got missed in the fall.

-Measure the rainfall.

-Watch birds.

-Read more.

Day 3

-Sigh.

-Do top-to-bottom organize of shed.

-Repair and prepare hoses (meant to get that done ages ago, three points for me!).

-Watch grass grow in front of my eyes.

-Inventory seeds that could have… I mean, will be planted.

Day 4

-Go to greenhouse for sympathy and support.
-Update garden scrapbook.

-Count worms.
-Tidy up houseplants.

Day 5

-Watch dandelions go to seed.

-Lose boot in mud after attempting to “check on things”.

-Consider collecting stamps with flowers, trees, and vegetables on them.

-Retire to couch with scrapbook and magazines.

-Give up and actually get something done inside the house.

At least I am well prepared with my new boots!

How to tell if a tree is dead

Those little plant tags on new shrubs and nursery trees tell you all kinds of things: where to plant, how much to water, even sometimes a primer on hole preparation. But they never say much about what to do if Mother Nature pulls a fast one on you. Same for the magazines (no offence, CG staff): idyllic shots of root balls, mulch, and watering cans, but little mention of how to know if your green thumb has turned black.

I’ve been the death of at least one tree and several tomato seedlings. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this winter has done under one or two of the plants I’ve put in over the last two years, including my mountain ash that I apparently can’t stop talking about. So I got a quick refresher from my sister Jenni, an arborist, on how to assess the level of life or death in my springtime saplings. (For more mature trees, it really is worth it to bring in an arborist. Really.)

First things first: every plant is different. Peeling bark could be a warning sign on some plants, but for ninebarks it’s totally normal—actually, a feature.

Have a close look at the object of your concern. If it’s deciduous, are there buds on the branches? Are they soft and full? Your tree is probably still sleeping. Be patient. If they are shriveled and dry, check all the branches. Are they all like that, or just a few? It’s not unusual for some branches to die off from stress or exposure over the winter, but the rest of the tree can bounce back. If the plant has already leafed out but got zapped by a cold snap, or if the buds all spell doom, try snapping off the tip of one of the twigs. Does it crack easily, or is it bendy? Bendy means there’s still life in it.

If you’re really worried, and not in the mood to wait and see, here’s something you can try. Scratch into the bark of your tree just a couple of millimeters and hopefully you’ll see a soft, moist, green layer of tissue. That’s your cambium, the life-giving part of the tree, where all the other cells are produced. If you’ve got healthy looking cambium, there’s hope. Remember though, not every tree will have a really obvious green cambium. And even a little scratch is still a wound, adding stress to an already stressed tree. Consider yourself warned, but it’s an option.

Here's my mountain ash, showing a bright green cambium. Try a twig or branch before the trunk.

Junipers may look awfully grey, but if you can see some green in the leaves and they are still relatively pliable, they are likely okay.

It’s normal for conifers to lose some needles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see some bronzy ones dropping to the ground. The ones to watch are the needles at the tips of the branches. If those are dropping, you may have a Code Blue. Evergreens continue to transpire (lose water) over the winter, so even with melting snow they could be feeling pretty dry by now. Some judicious drinks of water may rescue them.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce. I'm worried about this guy. Gave him a nice big drink today.

Now, with all that said, I’m a big believer in giving any plant a full season to show itself. Give the poor guys a chance before you rip them out of the ground. I had an Amur maple I was sure was toast (the deer certainly thought it was food), but it came back from the root and (with some love) is now a healthy four-foot tree. There’s a bittersweet vine I never got around to pulling out last year, and in September I noticed leaves on it.

Never give up. Prune back dead bits so the plant can focus its energy on the healthy parts, bring on the water, and – like a good gardener – cross your fingers and hope.

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