Friday, May 27, 2011

What Mulch is, Types of Mulch, What Mulch Does, How to Mulch

What Mulch is, Types of Mulch, What Mulch Does, How to Mulch
Mulch is something covering your soil. When it is hot mulch keeps in moisture. When it’s cold mulch hold the heat in the soil. Light colored mulch reflects light back up to the plant leaves. Mulch can be anything from compost to living plants; to rocks (don’t use rocks for mulch).

Before planting in the early spring, when the soil is cold and wet from the winter, I remove all the mulch from the garden. This lets the sun shine directly on the soil, warming it and drying it out a little. This also starts hatching any insect or slug eggs in the soil. Cold nights and no food make it hard on the insects and they move on to find food and cover elsewhere. This also starts weed seeds germinating. Weeds can be removed easier without vegetable plants in the way or left in place as a green mulch so long as they don’t compete with vegetable plants for light or nutrients.

Plastic sheets can also be used in early spring as mulch. Clear plastic lets in light that turns to heat when it hits the soil, and then hold it in. Temperatures on a sunny day can reach 160* under the plastic mulch, killing just about everything in the top inch or two except the organisms that make compost. The plastic mulch should be removed when you plant the vegetables so you don’t cook the roots.

Once the vegetable plants are in, I start adding compost as mulch around the seedlings. This gives them extra nitrogen for leaf growth in their early stages. I clip any weeds growing in the mulch or any weeds over 2-3 inches tall.

Once the summer heat kicks in, I add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch over the entire garden bed. I use straw or dead leaves because it reflects some light back up to the plants. A thick enough layer should stop and weeds from growing through it and prevent the vegetables from touching the soil. This also keeps the sun from shinning directly on the soil, slowing evaporation. To continue adding compost I rake back the mulch add the compost around the plants and cover it back up.

In the late fall after I’ve removed my summer crops and put them in the compost pile, I turn the mulch in to the soil a little and cover with a thick layer of chopped leaves. This will hold in the heat for my winter crops or let the bed rest until spring.

Mulch is a valuable tool for the home gardener when used correctly. Mulch at the wrong time can create a haven for bugs leading to an explosive infestation or can cause the soil to be cold and wet when the plants want it warm and damp. No mulch at the wrong time can lead to rot and disease on the lower parts of the plant or hard dry soil. Proper use of mulch allows us to regulate soil moisture and temperature to create the best growing conditions for our vegetable plants.
Garden Mulch, Mulch for Vegetables, Green Mulch, Plastic Mulch, Mulch in the Garden

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Clay soil, Amending Clay soil, Planting in Clay Soil

In most of the Merced area we have hard-pan clay. Even in some parts of Atwater the sand layer is very thin with the same clay under it. It’s not the end of the world but it takes fixes and tricks to work with it. With organic growing methods natural roles are mimicked as closely as possible by the gardener. Because we like to eat non native plants some adaptations have to be made. I think I should start with what soil ideally could be, then what clay is and how to get your soil closer to ideal.

Soil serves a multitude of purposes directly and indirectly for plants. Its purpose and characteristics change gradually as it gets deeper. I’m going break it down into three layers.

The top 2-3 inches in nature is usually the decomposing plant material from plant litter from previous growth. This zone is where the essential nutrient nitrogen is produced by microbes. This is also the zone that is home to most bugs and their eggs, molds, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Some are detrimental, others beneficial and some essential. We can reduce the detrimental by thoroughly composting this layer away from the plants and then reintroducing it to the soil [See How To Compost]. Roots are rare in this upper layer for most plants. Nutrients from this layer are carried by water to roots below.  Ideally this layer is up to 50% empty space. That space transitions between being filled with air and water. [Future blog about water and air]

The next layer is usually denser. It is the mineral remains and the woodier parts of plants and decomposed rock in some form. It is denser with smaller capillaries, so it has less air and its water holding capability is more than the layer above. That’s why this is the layer we try to saturate when we are watering. This is where most of the roots are. They are gathering nitrogen washed down from above, potassium, phosphorus, and small amounts of a lot of other nutrients from this layer. As gardeners this is the layer we try to make as loose and deep as possible (12 to 18 inches) so the roots can freely spread as far as they wish. This layer has less microbial life and it works much slower due to lower temperatures and less air. In this layer is where earth worms, scarab larvae, the occasional potato bug live. Not many other bugs live down here.

The next layer is even denser. It is compacted from the weight of the soil above. Other than trees, most plant roots have a hard time penetrating it. Most of the spaces between the molecules are filled with water, not much air. It’s pretty dead down here.

Now, our clay in Merced is pretty much like that bottom layer all the way up to surface. So, we have to build the top two layers. The reason it is like this is mostly because of the shape of the particles of clay. They are flat, shaped kinda like dishes in a big pile.
It’s really hard to get roots to grow through it and it compacts easily. So we need to break it up. Sand helps a little, but clay and sand is the recipe for brick. It makes it a little more like this.  The clay molecules are much smaller than sand, but I hope you get the idea.

It’s still really hard for roots. So we need to mix in compost until it’s at least 50% compost/sand to 50% clay. That will sufficiently break up the clay and even out its air/water holding capability.
 This only needs to be done once or, anytime the soil becomes compacted. Not walking on the soil will keep it loose. The “mixing in” process [tilling] is very labor intensive. The natural biology of the soil is disrupted by tilling. The micro organisms that live in each layer are moved to a new layer and some die. This is why it is best to till as little as possible and to give the soil as much time as possible to recover before planting.

The top layer is just compost. For most crops like tomatoes and peppers, I add about a ½ inch layer every other week, as soon as the seedlings are a few inches tall. Then slowly increasing to every week until they start to fruit. Then I stop for the season. Leaf crops get it evenly over the whole season.

An edaphologist would probably laugh at this post. Soil science is extremely complex. They usually talk in 4 to 40 horizons of soil. The organisms at work are diverse and numerous.

I can’t bring myself to tell anyone what I think they should do without giving them an equal amount of why I think so. I’ve done my best to explain the “why” in a topic that honestly bores me just before it goes over my head. I hope you find this helpful in dealing with a sticky [soil] situation. clay soil, fix clay soil, amending clay soil, planting in clay soil, gardening in clay, clay, soil, vegetables, vegetables in clay, organic vegetables, soil amendments, compost, composting, making compost, vegetable gardening, organic gardening, Merced clay, Merced gardening

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How to Compost

Compost is nature’s own organic fertilizer. It’s the cheapest, most dependable, safest, and easiest to use of any type of fertilizer for your garden. Chemical fertilizers destroy the natural biology of the soil. Even store bought “organic” fertilizers can do this. Manure for fertilizer is even banned here for commercial farmers because it adds so much nitrogen to the soil at one time and that pollutes the water table. Too much nitrogen even harms the plants. Compost won’t do that. A healthy, living soil creates its own nutrients and makes them available to the plants as they are needed. This is what compost will do for your soil in your garden.

Given enough time everything organic will break down. Certain conditions work faster and better. As soon as plant material is removed from a plant, microorganisms slowly begin to decompose it. These organisms create a small amount of heat. If the plant material is piled in a compost heap or in a compost bin, this heat begins to build up. It will eventually get so hot that it kills the organisms that started the process. Other micro organisms that thrive in this high heat take over. They work much more quickly than the low heat ones. This heat also kills most seeds, plant diseases and fungus. We can also classify them as aerobic and an anaerobic. That just means some like oxygen and some do not. The anaerobic (non oxygen) organisms live in a cooler environment, without air and are the ones that create all the bad odors.

It’s easy to make your own compost for your garden. Whether you use a compost bin or just piling the compost in a heap doesn’t really matter. If you are using a compost bin it should be at least 3 feet in every direction to heat up well. A compost pile should be at least 4 feet high.

What you put in your compost is important. Plant material you put in your compost pile contains all the nutrients in roughly the right proportions that plants need. Not all the material is going to break down completely and some nitrogen is lost in the process. This has to be compensated for. Some people have very elaborate compost recipes but simply speaking, most of them are approximately 1/3 “green” to 2/3 “brown”. Green materials are things like lawn clippings, kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps or anything organic that has a lot of nitrogen. Make sure your greens are chopped up well with a shovel. Add these by digging a hole one foot deep into the compost and mixing them in. Then cover with about six inches of compost, so the flies don’t find it. The Brown materials are things like tree leaves, small twigs, or pine needles. These have higher carbon content, break down slower and help improve soil texture. These should also be chopped up, mixed in a little and have some water added, when they are put in the compost pile.

Moisture is necessary for the microorganisms to thrive. Too much water creates anaerobic pockets within your compost pile creating a stinky muck. Stirring the compost every week or two or anytime the pile cools off, helps even out the moisture and add oxygen to the pile.

It’s best to have two compost bins or piles, one that is being filled and one that is finishing or done. If you are continually adding to your pile, you inevitably end up with too much unfinished compost in it.

The compost is done when there is very little in it that is recognizable. Some small twigs may remain, but any larger pieces should be picked out and moved to the working pile. Compost that is still hot is still working and shouldn’t be used yet. If it is used, the microorganisms will actually consume nitrogen from the surrounding soil, depriving your plants. The heat may also burn the roots.

Making your own compost is easy. Most suburban yard waste is naturally 2/3 fallen leaves and bush trimmings to 1/3 lawn clippings. Once you get the hang of it you’ll hardly give it any thought. It’s the only way you can be sure of what you are putting in your garden's soil. It’s recycling as nature intended it. We just use a few tricks to speed it up. If you have problems feel free to ask. I will also be making a blog about common composting problems.

Examples of Compost ingredients:

            Lawn clippings
                        Nothing that has been treated with fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide
                        Avoid weeds after they have seeded
            Debris from the garden
                        Not plants heavily infested with bugs
                        Not diseased plants
            Kitchen scraps
                        Apple cores, watermelon rinds… anything starting to spoil is ok
                        Coffee grounds, tea baggers
                        Nothing cooked
                        Not with any oils, meat, salt or cheese in it (like salad dressings)
            Manure from herbivores (so little is needed it’s not worth seeking out)
                        Only from organic animals
                                    No pharmaceuticals
                                    Grazed on land without herbicides                      
            Leaves (brown, yellow or green)
                        Fallen from trees
                        Bush trimmings
                                    No oleander or other poisonous plants
                        Pine needles (adds acid; not a big problem in our neutral clay)
            Shredded wood, twigs
                        Don’t add just bark, the tannins slow seedling growth
            Saw dust
                        Not from pressure treated (green) or painted wood
            Brown paper (like bags) without colored ink
            Woody stalks of garden plants. clay soil, fix clay soil, amending clay soil, planting in clay soil, gardening in clay, clay, soil, vegetables, vegetables in clay, organic vegetables, soil amendments, compost, composting, making compost, vegetable gardening, organic gardening, Merced clay, Merced gardening

Friday, May 6, 2011

Is the Hwy 59 Landfill Selling Compost Contaminated With New Herbicide Made by Dow?

Is the compost from the highway 59 land fill is contaminated with herbicides? I’m not a soil scientist and I did not discover this in a lab, so I have no proof. I discovered it the hard way, I tried to use it in my garden. I lost 15 tomato plants to what seems to be herbicide poisoning. The symptoms are very distinct. I do not use any weed killers or fertilizers in my garden or yard. The only place I can imagine it could have come from is the compost.

So what’s going on? How could this happen? It starts with Dow Chemical. They have created herbicides that break down very slowly (we’re talking years) to market to farmers, ranchers, landscapers, golf courses and the likes as a “Once a year application” rather than needing repeat applications. Because the economy is depressed, it sold like hot cakes. Adding to the problem is the fact that it survives the digestive tracks of mammals. So cows, horses, or whatever eats grass sprayed with it and the manure goes to be composted. The icing on the perfect storm is that it survives the composting process too.

So what do we do? DON”T USE IT! Unfortunately herbicides are turning up in the bagged compost you get from the home improvement stores now too. If we are going to stay organic the only real solution is to make our own compost. If you think it’s going to be stinky and full of flies you’re wrong. That only happens if you do it wrong. Read my bog on Composting.

How can you tell if you have contaminated compost? Some garden plants exposed to these new types of herbicides curl up on the edges of the leaves. It’s called “cupping”. Growth is stunted and the whole thing kinda resembles Charley Brown’s Christmas tree. New growth flops over or looks kinda limp.

What can you do if I do I do have contaminated compost? The news isn’t good. It can take 1 to 2 maybe even 3 years for this stuff to break down in your garden. You can remove any compost you can see and spread it along the alley behind your yard to keep the weeds down. Introducing you own “clean” compost to your garden beds will speed the breakdown of the herbicides. Don’t put any plant debris suspected of contamination in your compost! Some crops like corn, squash, and mint are pretty immune to it. Plants like peas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuces and carrots are harmed by it. The good new is that it doesn’t seem to harm people, although long term data isn’t available.

Who are the culprits? I do not blame the landfill. They have been very helpful. They accept green waste on the good faith that it is not contaminated. On the price list for item they accept it clearly states it must not be contaminated. They don’t have the resources to test every load.

I also don’t blame the County Ag Commissioners Office. They are taking samples and gathering evidence for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

I can’t blame the CDP. When this happened in 2002 with Clopyralid, they put measures in place to keep this from happening.

It’s hard to blame Dow because they are obligated to their stockholders to make as much money as they can within the confines of the law. If that means changing the formula slightly and releasing it under a new name to get around the regulations, they have to try.

I can blame everyone that misused the herbicide.

These are the chemical names and the names they are marketed under:

Aminopyralid - sold as Milestone, Forefront, Pharaoh, Banish
Clopyralid - sold as Curtail, Confront, Clopyr AG, Lontrel, Stinger, Millennium Ultra, Millenium Ultra Plus, Reclaim, Redeem, Transline.
Picloram - sold as Tordon, Access, Surmount, Grazon, and Pathway

Monday, May 2, 2011

Garden Planning is the Secret to Success

Not having a good garden plan is a sure recipe for disappointment. I discourage you from deciding what vetetables plant by choosing from what is available as starters outside the grocery store. Try deciding what to plant by looking at your grocery list. We are lucky to live in a part of the world where you can grow almost anything. Some plants are more practical to grow than others for reasons of space and the fact that some things are just cheaper and easier to buy from the store. If your motivation for growing your own food is purely economic, then it’s probably better to just buy that bag of potatoes or flour than try to grow it yourself. If you’re avoiding all the nasty stuff they do to grocery produce then why not try it?

The first step in making a garden plan is to make a list of everything you would like to grow. Keep in mind the preferences of every member of the household. Then go down the list and put the number of people in the household you expect to eat each item. Kids may count as a half a person in this case unless they really like something, vegetarians may count as two people and if someone only likes it a little, that may count as a half also. If you like to canning or dry your own vegetables, that can count as an extra person or two.

Now after every vegetable on your list has a number value (round the number up) we need to determine how many plants of each variety it takes to satisfy the average person. Lots of lists can be found on line if you search “Garden Vegetable Plants Per Person”. Don’t look at too many because they are all different and you will certainly have to adapt the numbers some. If you can’t find one you like, I can e-mail you the list I use to plan gardens for people. Multiply the number of plants per person by the value you assigned, to determine how many plants of each verity you will need to plant in your garden. I know I slipped some math in there for you, relax, we’re just trying to get some ball park numbers.

Now we need to figure out how much space each plant needs. Every vegetable seed packet and every flat of seedlings has growing instructions that will tell you how far apart to plant each plant. You really should know this before you purchase seeds or starters and you can find this out by searching on line, one vegetable verity at a time. I have a list of this too if you want me to send it to you. Group the plants on the list by the season they grown in. This info is also listed anywhere plat spacing is listed.

Go a head and add up your square feet numbers for each seasonal group and get a total for each season. Then go to your growing space (your yard) and do the “How To Tell How Much Sun You Will Get” blog calculations. Multiply two sides of the garden space to get your square feet available. If your total square feet for each season are more than your available space, I recommend scaling back on your vegetable verities before scaling back the numbers of plants in each. Simplifying the garden makes it a little more manageable and it’s easy to get overwhelmed at first. You can add things next year.

Now we need to find some grid paper. You can just draw squares out yourself or search for “grid” under the image tab of your search engine and print one out. If your garden space is very large you may need squares about ¼ of an inch to represent a foot.  Using a pencil mark where each plant will go and how much space it will need. This can be done for each season. Knowing the light requirements of each plant and the light patterns in your garden is essential. The more you know about each plant, successive planting and companion planting the more complicated this task can get. After a few years of crop rotation, trial, and error and you will feel more confident about it.

I realize I may have made this seem way more complicated than it should be, but the more you consider each of these aspects of planning you vegetable garden the happier you will be with your harvest. Remember, one goal of this blog is to help you grow as much food as you can and a good plan is your first step towards that.

So really, even if you just muddle though this process a little, save your garden plan, and keep notes on planting and harvest dates. Keep a garden diary. It will help you immensely when you are planning next year’s garden, and for planning crop rotations.

If this seems too complicated or you don’t feel confident about it, contact me, this is what I do.
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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why You Should Grow Your Own Food

I feel like I should take a step backwards and explain why I think it’s important to grow your own food, even if I’m just preaching to the choir.

The first thing I think people notice, though maybe not the most important, is flavor. The vegetables you buy in the store have been bred to ship well, store well and look good because failing at any of those things cost producers, shipper and retailers money. They aren’t concerned with your satisfaction with the product once you get it to the table because they’ve already made the sale and they expect you to have forgotten how it’s supposed to taste and for you to season the hell out of it or use tons of condiments.  Ironically they make ship and sell those to you too.

Part of their motivation for breeding plants with those characteristics is so they can take their time with shipping (slow shipping is cheaper), ship them long distances (to higher priced markets) and store them under sub ideal conditions (because refrigeration is expensive). Unfortunately these practices destroy nutrient value long before visible signs of decay appear. Nutrient content wasn’t part of their breeding program to begin with, so they are starting the race in the rear.

Thirdly, the producers, shippers and retailers have an arsenal of chemical pesticides, fungicides, preservatives and ripening agents to aid them in the illusion of “fresh produce”. Theses weapons against decay are questionable at best in regards to human safety for the consumer and the farm workers and routinely have to be replaced by “newer and better” chemicals as long-term data concerning human exposure becomes available causing older chemicals to be banned.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the newest under researched weapons against decay, unsightly produce and small yields. Plants are altered at the genetic level to resist herbicides and to even to produce their own pesticides. Early use of this tactic was for the production of animal feed, which resulted in the poisoning death of huge numbers of livestock (Google it if you don’t believe me on any of this. I’m too lazy to add links to the proof). Today some 90% of soybeans, 50% of corn and a good amount of other grains (feel free to correct my numbers. I’m just throwing them out there now) intended for human consumption are GMOs.

Other interesting reading can be found by searching: The X Gene, Monsanto (try putting in the word “evil” next to it), GMO corn contaminates Mexican native corn fields, Food inc, banning of seed saving in Iraq by Bush, Percy Schmeiser, and

These issues can be debated ‘till the corn walks home. The one thing that both sides could probably agree upon is that it is totally unnecessary and completely avoidable if you have backyard of any decent size (sht, grow in the front yard if you’re low on space), have the gumption and the know-how to grow it yourself.

Please leave a comment to let me know your thoughts, thanks,
-Rik clay soil, fix clay soil, amending clay soil, planting in clay soil, gardening in clay, clay, soil, vegetables, vegetables in clay, organic vegetables, soil amendments, compost, composting, making compost, vegetable gardening, organic gardening, Merced clay, Merced gardening

Saturday, April 30, 2011

How To Tell How Much Sun You Will Get, Without Standing In Your Yard All Day

Space is usually the first concern with new gardeners. While that is important, let us start with the sun. Light is of foremost importance because dirt in the dark will only grow mushrooms (and/or mold). Getting your bearings (N.E.W.S.) is the first step. The sun tracks east to west in the southern sky in the spring, and here, the sun tracks overhead in the summer. So, any obstacles (shade) in the south will give you a late planting. Any obstacles to the east will shorten light during the cool part of the day. Any obstacles to the west will shorten light during the heat of the day. Did I lose you?  Obstacles are bad! We can work with it though.

Now, most of the popular garden plants like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers…need at least six hours of sun light a day. Some other plants like lots of light but can’t take the heat. Check in with future blogs about placement of plants. There is an easy way to calculate how much sun a particular spot will get without standing in your yard for 6 hours.

 Sorry about the fuzzy crude drawing. That blob on the left is a tree.

Because the sun travels around (360*) the Earth in a day, we can look at its path as a 24 hour clock. Every number can represent 2 hours if that helps. Therefore, ¼ of the clock (90*) equals six hours. If the picture on the right is your view facing north in your yard, then line “A” represents the eastern most spot that can receive 6 hours of sun between your obstacles. “B” represents the western most spot. “C” would represent the area that garden plants that like “full sun” could be planted in.

South obstacles are a bit trickier to calculate as the seasons change, but a good rule of thumb is to position your garden to the north, away from southern obstacles.

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself “I only have a western facing balcony outside my apartment”, still try this method to calculate your light and we can find plants and methods to adapt. You may be limited to what you can grow, but you can always grow more than you need and trade your harvest with your friends.

Well that’s it; my first blog. My plan is to post future blogs discussing other elements of garden planning and then move on to methods, plant types, tips and tricks... Please post comments so I know how I’m doing and to encourage me to continue trying to encourage you.

-Rik clay soil, fix clay soil, amending clay soil, planting in clay soil, gardening in clay, clay, soil, vegetables, vegetables in clay, organic vegetables, soil amendments, compost, composting, making compost, vegetable gardening, organic gardening, Merced clay, Merced gardening