{ Posts Tagged ‘soil’ }

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.

 

Dirt: the book and the movie

At my local library last week I stumbled across a DVD brazenly titled “DIRT!” which I of course immediately picked up, being one of those people who knows I should use the term ‘soil’ but can’t resist the earthy real-ness of the d-word.
It’s a documentary about… well, dirt, and it’s role in farming, civilization, food stability, and the roots of life itself. Before you yawn, I must tell you that this is a funny, engaging movie, as well as being informative a thought-provoking.
There’s cute little animated dirt bits commenting on the scientific stuff, and astonishing news about microbial fuel cells (! I’d never heard of them before either). While it feels slightly soapboxy when it gets into mining and clear cutting, there are wonderful insights into traditional farming in India and digging up concrete playgrounds in NYC.
I found it well worth the watch (as did the people at Sundance) and am now hunting down the book on which it was based, Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by William Bryant Logan.
Happy Digging!

Eco-gardening lessons I’ve learned this week

ecologicalgardeningcoverI’ve been reading Ecological Gardening by Marjorie Harris on the subway. I love it because it’s trade paperback-sized–perfect for my purse–and it’s so conversational, you don’t even realize you’re reading non-fiction sometimes. The Globe and Mail wrote that “the facts come across as if from a helpful conversation with a good friend.” I need to remember to keep a pad of sticky notes in my purse to mark all the pages I want to come back to. I really want to strive to make my garden as healthy as possible and I’m so excited about what I’ve been learning.

Here are some of the facts I have learned from my new friend Marjorie:

  • Dandelions only grow in fertile, balanced soil. Their crazy long roots can actually bring nutrients from deep in the soil up to the surface. This is good news because I have a ton in my backyard and now I don’t feel so bad. They can also apparently help the growth of other flowers.
  • Watering thoroughly once a week is better for the plants than shallowly watering each day–except for containers which sometimes need to be watered twice a day.
  • Not all ants are bad. The other day some of the buds on one of my flowering perennials (I’m not sure what it is, but it has electric-blue frilly petals) had these little ants on them. I was a little alarmed at first, but according to Marjorie, they were sipping the sap from the buds, which isn’t harmful. Also, some of the other ugly beasties I’ve seen in my garden aren’t at all bad, so I need to make friends with them, too.
  • I think one of the best pieces of advice I have taken away this week from the book is to feed the soil, not the plant. If a plant is suffering and you’ve done all the things you’re supposed to–watering, given it adequate light, etc.–your problem likely lies in the soil and what it might be lacking. Marjorie provides lots of easy troubleshooting tips for amending your soil.

This weekend I hope to tackle my monster rose bush with the brand new rose gloves I got from my sister for my birthday.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Marjorie’s book on CanadianGardening.com: