Category Archives: The Garden

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden Mulches

A Brief Guide to 13 Common MulchesYou don’t have to read many gardening books or websites to catch on that mulch is highly recommended for all gardens. But knowing that you ought to mulch your garden and deciding what to mulch it with are two different things.

First off, it is important to recognize that everyone’s circumstances are unique. Factors that will affect your choice of a mulch include:

  • Your purpose for mulching.
  • The types of plants you will mulch.
  • The materials available in your area.
  • The cost of the different local materials.

Therefore, it is a good idea to know going in exactly what you are trying to accomplish, whether that is weed control or soil improvement.

Once you have a clear objective for mulching, then it’s time to choose the material, or perhaps several materials for different beds and purposes.

You are ready to weigh the pros and cons of the most common mulch materials.

Straw

Straw and hay are not the same. Straw is simply crop stubble, while hay is the entire grass plant, including seed heads. Straw is an effective weed barrier, while hay is primarily a simple mechanism for introducing a host of new weeds to your garden. Make sure you mulch with straw, not hay.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Generally cheap.
  • Generally attractive.
  • Controls weeds well if applied thick enough.
  • Protects plants from frost.
  • Cools the soil in hot weather.
  • Improves soil texture.
  • Retains soil moisture extremely well.
  • Prevents soil erosion.
  • Decomposes slowly.

Cons:

  • Attracts rodents.
  • May attract slugs in cool, wet climates.
  • May contain weed seeds.
  • May contain mold.

Best Application: General-purpose vegetable garden mulching, summer through winter.

Lawn Clippings

Lawn clippings should be used with care. They should be applied only when dry and preferably in conjunction with coarser materials to avoid forming a heavy, moldy, anaerobic mat. Also, if accepting bagged lawn clippings from other people, always check to make sure that they do not use herbicides, as accidental contamination can spell speedy death to your flowers and vegetables.

Pros:

  • Readily available for free.
  • Adds nitrogen to the soil.
  • Controls weeds well provided it does not contain weed seed.
  • Conserves soil moisture.

Cons:

  • May be contaminated with herbicides and other chemicals.
  • May contain weed seed.
  • Molds readily if applied too thickly or when damp.
  • May produce odor if applied too thickly or when damp.
  • Forms a water-repellent mat if applied when damp.
  • Decomposes extremely quickly.

Best Application: Mulching summer vegetables with high nitrogen requirements.

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden MulchesLeaves

Leaves can improve your soil texture and nutrient profile in an amazingly short amount of time. Unfortunately, they can also be difficult to manage in the garden, as they blow away when dry and form heavy, waterproof mats when wet. Want to avoid some of the problems associated with using leaves as mulch? Shred or partially compost the leaves before applying them. As a final word of warning—do not use walnut leaves, as they are toxic to many plants.

Pros:

  • Readily available for free.
  • Protects plants from frost.
  • Cools the soil in summer.
  • Retains soil moisture very well.
  • Improves soil texture.
  • Adds many nutrients to the soil.
  • Promotes earthworm health.

Cons:

  • Tends to blow away.
  • May contain plant diseases, depending on the source.
  • May form a water-repellent mat after rainfall.
  • May deplete soil nitrogen in the short term unless partially composted.

Best Application: Protecting and enriching vegetable garden soil over the winter.

Pine Straw/Needles

Pine straw is just pine needles used for mulch.

Pros:

  • Free or cheap.
  • Attractive.
  • Controls weeds effectively.
  • Improves soil texture and drainage.
  • Prevents soil erosion.
  • Permits water penetration.
  • Decomposes slowly.

Cons:

  • Painful to handle—wear gloves.
  • Makes soil too acidic for many plants.
  • Inhibits earthworm activity.

Best Application: Mulching acid-loving plants such as blueberries, hydrangeas, or rhododendrons.

Wood Chips or Bark

There are many varieties of wood mulch to choose from, all with their own unique benefits. Cedar even provides a certain level of protection from insects. Just watch out for toxins—if you purchase your wood mulch, stay away from mulches containing dyes. Also, never use black walnut, as it contains toxins lethal to many garden plants.

Pros:

  • Readily available, sometimes for free.
  • Attractive.
  • Controls weeds effectively.
  • Retains soil moisture fairly well.
  • Adds nutrients to the soil in the long term.
  • Decomposes very slowly.

Cons:

  • Sometimes contains dyes.
  • May float away during heavy rainfalls.
  • Depletes soil nitrogen in the short term.

Best Application: Ground cover for perennial beds.

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden MulchesCompost

Don’t have your own compost pile? You can purchase bagged compost at garden centers, but commercial compost is typically made with only a couple of ingredients and is thus less balanced than homemade compost.

Pros:

  • Can be made at home for free.
  • Improves soil texture considerably.
  • Provides valuable soil nutrients.
  • Builds the soil microbe community.

Cons:

  • May contain plant diseases unless produced using the hot composting method.
  • Provides only partial weed control.
  • Breaks down quickly.

Best Application: Feeding garden plants of all types under another mulch material.

Peat/Sphagnum Moss

Peat moss is harvested from peat bogs. It has some unusual characteristics that can be either good or bad depending on your requirements. For one thing, it can absorb water like a sponge, which improves boggy soil considerably but may allow plants to dry out in hot, droughty weather. For another thing, it makes the soil more acidic, although typically not enough to present a problem.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Improves soil texture and drainage considerably.
  • Decomposes very slowly.

Cons:

  • Prone to blowing away if dry.
  • Provides no soil nutrients.
  • May hinder water penetration if applied too thickly.

Best Application: Improving heavy soils that drain poorly.

Sawdust

If you do plenty of woodworking, sawdust is definitely a mulch you should consider. Just be careful about what sawdust you use—dust from treated lumber can add toxins to your soil.

Pros:

  • Can be obtained for free.
  • Controls weeds well if applied thickly enough.

Cons:

  • Forms a water-repellent crust after a rain.
  • May make the soil too acidic for some plants.
  • May deplete soil nitrogen levels.
  • Breaks down quickly.

Best Application: Mulching acid-loving plants for cheap.

Cardboard

Cardboard is the go-to mulch if you have a serious weed problem—nothing can penetrate it! Keep in mind, though, that cardboard can be a pain to deal with. You will want large sheets to cover as much surface area as possible without leaving cracks for weeds to grow through, and you will want to cover it with straw to keep it in place but out of sight.

Pros:

  • Readily available, often for free.
  • Controls weeds extremely effectively.

Cons:

  • Extremely unattractive unless completely covered by another mulch material.
  • Makes it impossible to add new plants without removing the mulch.
  • May cause boron toxicity due to glue; soak in water before using, then discard water (or use it as a fertilizer for strawberries).

Best Application: Putting the brakes on heavy weed infestations in perennial beds when used in combination with another mulch material.

Newspaper

While many gardeners avoid mulching with newspaper for fear of lead contamination, newspapers phased out lead-based inks long ago. Black-and-white newsprint is perfectly safe for the garden these days; colored inks may still contain some heavy metals. Note that newspaper is prone to blowing around. Cover it with another mulch, such as straw or wood chips, to avoid inadvertently trashing the neighborhood.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Cools the soil in summer.
  • Controls weeds effectively.

Cons:

  • Hard to keep in place.
  • Very unattractive unless thoroughly covered.
  • May contain heavy metals if colored ink was used.

Best Application: Preventing weed growth between rows in a vegetable garden when combined with straw or another mulch material.

Pea Gravel and Crushed Rock

A rock mulch is about as permanent as it gets, and it can be very attractive in landscaping. Keep in mind, however, that rock works best with heat-loving plants. It is a popular choice of mulch in cactus gardens.

Pros:

  • Fairly cheap.
  • Attractive if done well.
  • Allows water penetration.
  • Lasts a very long time.

Cons:

  • Will scatter unless contained with edging.
  • Provides no nutrients to the soil.
  • Makes improving the soil underneath impossible.
  • Provides only partial weed control.
  • Makes pulling weeds that penetrate the mulch more difficult.
  • Cooks shallow-rooted plants in hot weather.

Best Application: Around woody perennials or in desert landscaping.

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden MulchesPlastic

Plastic mulches come in several different colors. Black plastic is effective at warming the soil. Clear plastic warms the soil even faster, but has the disadvantage of permitting weed growth. Red plastic reflects certain wavelengths of sunlight onto the plants, enhancing the yields of tomatoes and other summer vegetables. Whatever type of plastic you use, remember that rain cannot penetrate to the soil, so you will need to combine the plastic with soaker hoses or a similar form of irrigation.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Warms the soil by 5 to 20 degrees, depending on the color.
  • Makes an effective weed barrier, depending on the color.
  • Retains moisture extremely well.
  • Increases the yield of heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers.

Cons:

  • Will blow away unless weighted down.
  • Provides no nutrients to the soil.
  • Makes improving the soil underneath difficult.
  • Prevents water penetration.
  • Overheats the soil in hot weather.
  • Creates an anaerobic environment toxic to plants.
  • Becomes brittle when exposed to sunlight unless covered with another mulch material.

Best Application: Warming the soil in the spring, particularly around warm-season vegetables.

Landscape Fabric (Geotextile)

Landscape fabric should be covered with another mulch material for both looks and longevity. Keep in mind that some weeds can grow through the fabric.

Pros:

  • Permits air and water to enter the soil.
  • Suppresses most (but not all) weeds.
  • Lasts many years if protected with rocks or wood chips.

Cons:

  • Expensive.
  • Makes adding new plants to the landscape more difficult.
  • Makes pulling weeds that penetrate the fabric more difficult.
  • Inhibits earthworm activity.

Best Application: Around landscaping perennials.

Top 10 Plants for Beginning Kitchen Gardeners

Top 10 Plants for Beginning Kitchen Gardeners
Egyptian walking onions

Growing your very first kitchen garden this year? Congratulations!

You are probably already aware that it’s best to start small. But if you are starting small, one of the questions you may have is what to grow in that limited space. The first and most important rule of thumb is to grow things that you enjoy eating. Once you have a list of favorites, however, you may decide to pare it back still further this first year based on what is easiest to grow.

While the easy-to-grow list will depend largely on your climate, soil, and local pest population, there are some staples that belong in every garden. There are also a few plants that are particularly adapted to the vagaries of the Kansas climate, and still others that recommend themselves everywhere due to their minimal maintenance requirements.

Here are 10 favorites that may be worth a try in your first year’s garden, along with a few tips for success.

10. Asparagus

Asparagus may seem daunting to beginners at first, since it is a perennial, is frequently started from crowns rather than seeds, and cannot be harvested the first year.

But even with these limitations, asparagus is still an excellent plant for beginners—once it is established it requires relatively little care. Weeding, watering, and cutting down the old tops annually are all that is required. As an extra bonus, asparagus will be one of the first things you will get to harvest each spring!

9. Carrots

Carrots are not as difficult to grow as many gardening guides would leave you to think. The two main keys to growing long, straight carrots are loosening the soil before planting and using a generous layer of mulch to keep soil moisture levels even. The rest is purely patience.

As a final note, for best flavor, select a variety bred for fresh eating rather than storage.

8. Tomatoes

No garden would be complete without tomatoes, and with hundreds of varieties to choose from there is definitely a variety bound to grow well in your area. One choice you will have to make is between determinate (bush) and indeterminate (vine) varieties, depending on whether you want to support the plants with a cage or a trellis. Another decision you will need to make is whether to grow only slicing tomatoes or to plant a few of the extremely easy-to-grow saucing varieties for homemade salsa and the like.

Three tips for successful tomato growing—strictly observe the recommended indoor planting and transplanting dates for your area (see our vegetable guide), use plenty of mulch, and water the plants deeply in hot weather.

Top 10 Plants for Beginning Kitchen Gardeners7. Radishes

Radishes are famous for being easy to grow. Furthermore, they are ready to harvest quickly—you should be able to grow multiple crops of radishes every spring and a few more in the fall!

There is very little to say about the minimal maintenance requirements of the radish. About all it needs is regular watering.

6. Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes grow more or less like weeds once they are established. The easiest way to get started with sweet potatoes is to buy slips, or young plants. If you keep them watered well during the first few critical weeks, they will require relatively little attention thereafter.

One final tip for harvesting sweet potatoes successfully—dig away from the base of the plant to avoid hitting the delicious sweet potatoes. If you damage the potatoes with a fork or shovel, they will not keep.

5. Arugula

Arugula is actually much hardier than lettuce, and the fact that it is a gourmet specialty green makes it particularly appealing. Arugula is a guaranteed confidence-booster for the novice gardener!

This plant is quite cold-hardy, but it will tend to become bitter as the growing season progresses. Err on the side of planting it a little too early rather than too late.

Top 10 Plants for Beginnign Kitchen Gardeners4. Jalapeños

Jalapeños are arguably the easiest of the peppers to grow. They love hot summers and are tolerant of neglect.

No major growing recommendations are in order here. Just be careful when working with the peppers and their spicy oils in the kitchen. Wear clean plastic gloves when cutting jalapeños, and do not touch your face when handling them!

3. Lima Beans

Lima beans are known for thriving in all but the coldest, wettest climates. They are also more versatile than they are typically given credit for. If you don’t enjoy old-fashioned butter beans, try letting the pods mature and harvesting the seeds to use as dry beans. They cook much quicker than black, kidney, or pinto beans.

There really isn’t much to say when it comes to lima bean maintenance. Bear in mind that watering too much is far more harmful to lima beans than watering too little.

2. Garlic

Garlic really belongs in every garden, as it is so easy to grow and so essential in cooking. There almost isn’t a way to mess up garlic. You can plant it in the spring and pull it during onion harvest, or you can plant it in the fall and let it overwinter in the garden for nice big bulbs in the spring. If you do decide to overwinter it, you can grow it in a cold frame or polytunnel for an earlier harvest. But this is not necessary for success—garlic will grow just fine out in the ground under a layer of straw mulch.

The easiest way to start growing garlic is just to buy a generous-sized, healthy-looking bulb at the grocery store and plant the individual cloves. After harvest, save one or two of your best homegrown bulbs for future planting.

As for watering, err on the side of drier soil. Garlic will rot if overwatered, while the worst effect of underwatering is usually just smaller cloves. Always give the surface of the soil time to dry out between waterings.

1. Egyptian Walking Onions

This plant can make the worst gardener look like a seasoned green thumb! It propagates itself, it requires almost no attention, and it tastes delicious. It will satisfy your green onion needs without all the hassle of dealing with seeds or sets. And, with a healthy, generous patch, you should be able to harvest onions in all but the hottest summer and coldest winter weather.

The main requirement of Egyptian onions is a periodic hand weeding. An occasional watering will encourage growth. Harvest is simple—just snip off a few branches with scissors, or pinch between your thumb and index finger. Always leave each plant a couple of healthy branches to promote vigor and propagation.

While Egyptian onions do a fine job of spreading all on their own, you can expand your patch even more quickly by collecting the mature bulbs from the tops of dry plants and planting them yourself.

Helpful Resource

VegetablesVegetables
More information on growing popular garden vegetables, including planting, care, and harvesting instructions.

Black Gold Organic Potting Soil

Black Gold Organic Potting SoilFor whatever reason, finding quality potting soil is very difficult anymore. Most brands seem to harbor diseases, weed seeds, and bug eggs. And the nonstandard brands frequently appear to be nothing more than poor-quality topsoil dug up from the “manufacturer’s” backyard!

In light of this dilemma, we currently recommend Black Gold organic potting soil. Not just because it is organic (although that is certainly a plus), but primarily because several years of use have yielded satisfactory results in the form of healthy plants without unexpected weeds or small swarms of gnats flying around the seedlings.

Peat moss and forest humus provide a light, loose texture that works well for starting seedlings indoors. Compost and screened earthworm castings add just a little bit of all-natural nitrogen for a good start (of course, potted plants will still need to be fed periodically).

Shop around a bit before you buy—the prices do fluctuate and sometimes (but not always) a bigger size is a better bargain.

How to Prune Blackberries

How to Prune BlackberriesAs winter continues to linger, some of you may be taking the opportunity to prune the orchard, including the small fruits, while the plants are dormant.

But before we tell you how to safely chop away at your blackberries, let’s address the different varieties of blackberries. Traditionally, most blackberries have borne fruit on two-year-old canes, called floricanes. Recently, however, some ever-bearing varieties have been developed; these bear fruit on one-year-old canes, or primocanes.

Primocane varieties have the potential to bear two crops—one in the summer from the second-year canes and one in the fall from the first-year canes. This is why they are considered ever-bearing. While this initially sounds like an advantage, fruiting on the first-year canes is typically only beneficial in northerly climates with late springs. Fruit from primocanes gets off to a later start start than fruit from floricanes, enabling it to ripen in the cool fall when moisture is abundant. After harvest, the canes are typically cut to the ground, as northern growers generally do not want to deal with the sparse summer harvest of the second-year canes.

However, primocane blackberries typically suffer in quantity and quality in climates where summer temperatures hit 90°F. Under these conditions, floricanes have the advantage due to their greater heat tolerance. This is probably why K-State blackberry variety recommendation lists typically only include the tried-and-true floricane varieties.

Therefore, we will only address the pruning needs of standard floricane blackberries in this post.

 

You Will Need

  • Pruning shears.
  • Lopping shears (good for tougher wood and reaching into brambles without getting scratched).
  • Gloves (thick ones if you are dealing with thorny varieties!).

 

Instructions

Winter Pruning
  1. Cut down all dead, diseased, or weak canes. Make sure your cut is as close to ground level as possible.
  2. Thin out the remaining live, healthy canes to leave about four to six inches of space between every cane.
  3. Trim lateral branches back to a length of 12 to 18 inches. Err on the shorter side if you frequently have problems with breakage. Not only does this part of the pruning process result in sturdier branches, but it will encourage the plant to put more energy into growing big, luscious berries rather than longer branches.
Post-Harvest Pruning
  1. Cut down all canes that bore fruit during the summer. They will not bear again, and removing them immediately after harvest can reduce the risk of disease. You should have no difficulty identifying the canes that bore fruit, as they will likely have evidence of old flowers and fruits remaining on them. They will also have very hard, woody stems. Make sure your cut is as close to ground level as possible.
  2. Cut down all canes that have escaped the beds.
  3. Trim new canes (thick, fleshy, greenish canes that did not bear fruit during the growing season) back to a height of four feet. If the first-year canes are less than four feet tall, just nip off an inch or two of the tip. This encourages the growth of lateral branches, which is where the next season’s fruit will grow. It will also cause the cane to thicken up and become stronger and less top-heavy.
  4. If you are using a trellis, this is a good opportunity to train the canes.

 

A Few Final Tips

If your blackberry plants are healthy, feel free to compost the pruned material. Just be sure to chop up anything hard or unwieldy to encourage faster composting. But if your blackberries are suffering from any disease issues, you will probably want to burn the pruned-out canes to avoid the spread of disease.

Regularly cleaning your pruning shears is advisable when dealing with diseased plants. Use a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

 

Helpful Resource

Raspberries and Blackberries
Handy illustrated report from K-State that includes pruning directions.

Basic Principles of Breeding Heirloom Vegetables

Basic Principles of Breeding Heirloom VegetablesThe world of heirloom vegetables is a fascinating one, full of unique colors and traditional flavors.

While saving seeds from heirloom plants can be as simple as collecting whatever is available, best results will be obtained from attention to good breeding practices. Proper selection of breeding stock will ensure generations of vigorous seeds that produce delicious harvests.

 

What’s Your Goal?

There are two main purposes for breeding heirloom vegetables:

  • To preserve a rare or historic plant variety.
  • To raise plants adapted to your unique situation.

It is important to determine your purpose right at the beginning, because each objective requires a different focus when selecting the plants that will produce the next generation of seed. Preserving a variety requires a conservative approach, taking steps to avoid altering the gene pool in any way. Raising adapted vegetable genetics requires a progressive approach, actively shaping the gene pool to meet your needs.

 

Preserving a Variety

If variety conservation is your goal, then your breeding philosophy must be to avoid altering the historic gene pool in any way. This can be surprisingly challenging, as there are many ways to inadvertently shift the genetics. The tendency of this shift will be toward plants that are adapted to your specific gardening conditions in the specific year that the parent plants were grown. While this adaptation process has advantages, it also has disadvantages—you may need different genetics in a different year, or you may wish to share seeds with gardeners with different growing conditions. Either way, a broad gene pool with a great deal of variation is desired for conservation purposes.

To maintain a broad genetic base, you must start by choosing a variety already well adapted to your conditions. A variety not suited to your environment or gardening practices will likely have a high mortality rate. The surviving plants will only be those with adapted genetics, thus altering the gene pool.

You will need to grow many plants in each generation to ensure a broad genetic base and avoid inbreeding problems. You may only need five plants for a healthy generation of self-pollinating species such as peppers, while tricky species prone to inbreeding like corn may require you to grow over 100 plants. Each plant must be nurtured to maturity and allowed to produce a crop of seeds if at all possible.

Culling must be kept to a bare minimum. Only cull the following plants:

  • Those that are clearly diseased and thus will likely spread infection to other plants.
  • Those that are not true to type and thus not representative examples of the variety.

To avoid inadvertently giving preference to some plants, equal amounts of seed should be saved from each individual plant.

 

Raising Adapted Plant Genetics

Heirloom vegetable varieties can easily be selected for better performance in your garden with no need for hybridizing. All you have to do is create your own strain within the variety.

A good way to start when developing a locally adapted strain is by making a list of characteristics that you want to see in your plants (for best results, start with only two or three traits max). Such characteristics might include:

  • Drought tolerance.
  • Pest or disease resistance.
  • Resistance to bolting.
  • High yields.
  • Uniform fruits.
  • Excellent flavor.

When choosing the parent plants, cull those that do not display the characteristics that you desire. Deliberately expose your plants to climatic vagaries to allow nature to sort out the best low-maintenance plant genetics (just be sure to allow them to recover in time to produce a healthy seed crop). Mark the most adapted plants with pieces of ribbon so that you can identify them when it is time to collect the seed. Favor exceptional plants when saving seeds—well-adapted plants will typically produce the most seed anyway.

However, be careful not to narrow your vegetable gene pool too quickly, or the plants may start to lose vigor due to inbreeding. If you select too aggressively, you may accidentally make your plants less adapted to years with unusual climatic conditions. There are several easy ways to keep the gene pool broad and healthy without sacrificing your objectives:

  • Start with a variety that has a great deal of genetic variation to begin with.
  • Raise numerous parent plants in each generation.
  • Include a few seeds from the original strain in every planting.

 

A Few Final Hints

To keep your motivation levels high, start simple and give yourself some leeway to learn about plant selection and seed saving. Begin with only one or two varieties, and choose those from species that are easy to work with. Plants that mostly self-pollinate are ideal. Some good plants to practice with include:

Keep good records. Mark your rows and label your bags and envelopes of seeds. This is particularly important if you grow more than one variety of the same species.

Most importantly, only grow plants that you enjoy. If you don’t like eating beets, don’t grow beets. If indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans are just too much hassle for you, it won’t matter that they have superior flavor. Trade them in for determinate tomatoes and bush beans—there are still plenty of tasty varieties of those plants out there!

What is Vermicompost?

What is Vermicompost?Vermicomposting is the process of creating compost with the aid of earthworms. While all composting relies on microbes to do much of the work, vermicomposting allows worms to come to their assistance.

The worm starts the composting process by ingesting organic matter and breaking it down with digestive enzymes. However, the digestive system of an earthworm is rather inefficient, only absorbing about 5% to 10% of the food the worm eats. This is good news for vermicompost, because the rest of the organic matter, now moistened and considerably broken down, is excreted and offers a rich buffet for hungry microbes.

Note that vermicompost and worm castings are not the the same. Worm castings are simply the excrement of the earthworm. Vermicompost includes worm castings, but also worm bedding, food, and remains in various stages of decomposition, all supporting a vibrant community of microbes.

 

How Vermicompost is Made

Vermicompost is typically made in a “worm bin” filled with bedding (usually shredded paper) and organic material for the worms to eat. A suitable worm habitat is further created by keeping the bin dark and moist.

Two worm species are typically used:

  • Red wiggler (Eisensia fetida).
  • Red worm (Lumbricus rebellus).

The red wiggler is particularly popular because it is easy to care for and produces castings quickly and efficiently.

Of course, you can theoretically dig up any old earthworms in your backyard to populate the worm bin, but there is no guarantee that you will find effective compost-building species this way. A surefire solution is to order red wigglers online.

Finished vermicompost looks very much like high-quality soil, but it is incredibly rich in microbes.

 

Feed the Worms

Most kitchen scraps and waste paper products make good worm food. However, you will want to avoid anything that produces a foul odor, especially if your worm bins are indoors. That includes meats, oils, dairy products, onions, garlic, potatoes, and anything in the mustard family, such as broccoli. Also note that worms are not a replacement for the neighborhood recycling facility—they cannot process plastic or aluminum.

 

Benefits of Vermicompost

  • Quick and easy. Vermicomposting does not require the precision or labor that hot composting requires to turn out a successful batch. And it has a distinct advantage over cold composting methods—it’s quick!
  • Year-round composting. Worm bins can be kept inside in the winter, allowing you to make compost for use first thing in the spring.
  • High in beneficial soil microbes. Microbes thrive where worms work, and they are particularly abundant in worm castings. Adding vermicompost to depleted soils can yield dramatic results in garden health.
  • All the benefits of organic matter. Soil that has been amended with vermicompost will not dry out quite so quickly in the hot summer sun, and it has improved texture and nutrient content. (Note that this is true of all forms of composting.)
  • A good use for kitchen scraps. Well-fed worms will repay you by improving your garden soil, which in turn will bring more (and healthier) produce into your kitchen.

 

Some Drawbacks

  • Expense. Remember, you will only have reliable results with certain worm species. This means you will likely have to buy worms, adding to your gardening costs. (You will also need to purchase a bin the first time out.)
  • Small quantities. Regular composting methods can produce more compost much quicker than earthworms can. You will want to use your vermicompost selectively to feed the plants that need it the most.

 

Making the Most of Vermicompost

Vermicompost is equally suited to trees, vegetables, flowers, and potted plants.

Because vermicompost is made in relatively small quantities, gardeners will want to use it wisely. A good rule of thumb is to use it to fuel rapidly growing plants.

The best place to apply vermicompost is around the drip line of the plant. Imagine a circle on the ground around the plant roughly marking its circumference. This circle is called the drip line because, if you were to spray the plant with water, this is where the water would drip off of the leaves. Many hungry roots are waiting just below the drip line. Spread the vermicompost on top of the soil along the drip line.

So will vermicomposting meet your needs? Likely not if you have a large garden. For a small garden (or for a good hands-on science project), however, it can be a quick way to improve poor soil.

C:N Ratios of Common Organic Materials

C:N Ratios of Common Organic MaterialsThe carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio is often considered to be of utmost importance in composting, particularly hot composting. If the C:N ratio is too high, the compost will break down extremely slowly. If the ratio is too low, the pile can produce a displeasing smell as excess nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere in the form of ammonia.

While many gardeners probably obsess over C:N more than is strictly necessary (and those who use cold composting methods typically do not need to worry about it at all), attention to the C:N ratio of your compost pile can keep it working smoothly and quickly. And it may be useful for troubleshooting!

Experts disagree on the optimal C:N ratio, but most scientific literature typically recommends something between 25:1 and 30:1. Higher ratios are fine if a slow composting process is acceptable.

 

The C:N Ratio List

Here’s a list of the average C:N ratios of common compost ingredients, pulled from a variety of sources:

  • Swine manure: 6:1.
  • Aged chicken manure: 7:1.
  • Hairy vetch: 11:1.
  • Fresh-cut alfalfa: 12:1.
  • Table/kitchen scraps: 15:1.
  • Used poultry bedding: 15:1.
  • Fresh cattle manure: 15:1.
  • Sheep manure: 15:1.
  • Legume hay: 17:1.
  • Fresh grass clippings: 20:1.
  • Coffee grounds: 20:1.
  • Clover: 23:1.
  • Horse manure: 25:1.
  • Vegetable scraps: 25:1.
  • Mature alfalfa hay: 25:1.
  • Wood ashes: 25:1.
  • Rye cover crop in a vegetative state: 26:1.
  • Freshly pulled weeds: 30:1.
  • Garden waste: 30:1.
  • Used horse bedding: 45:1.
  • Peat moss: 60:1.
  • Leaves: 60:1.
  • Fresh corn stalks: 60:1.
  • Oat straw: 70:1.
  • Wheat straw: 80:1.
  • Pine needles: 80:1.
  • Rye straw: 82:1.
  • Shredded newspaper: 175:1.
  • Hardwood bark: 223:1.
  • Sawdust: 325:1.
  • Shredded cardboard: 350:1.
  • Wood chips: 400:1.
  • Softwood bark: 496:1.

 

Using C:N Ratios

Gardeners often simplify matters by thinking in terms of color—materials with a C:N ratio higher than 30:1 are browns, and materials with a ratio lower than 30:1 are greens. (Note that high-nitrogen materials can actually be brown in color and vice versa.) However, a compost pile that has a ratio of 30 parts brown material to 1 part green material actually has a disproportionately high amount of bulky carbon. If you are using browns:greens instead of C:N, you will want to use the ratio 1:1 or even 1:2, both of which take bulk into consideration.

Do the math to see why 1:2 works. Let’s say we’ve chosen to use one part leaves for our brown and two parts fresh grass clippings for greens:

  1. Add the ratios of each part (60:1 + 20:1 + 20:1 = 100:3).
  2. Reduce the fraction to find the C:N ratio of the mixture (100:3 = 33:1).

This C:N ratio is slightly on the high side, but with patience should come out just fine. The mathematics will work on any other combinations of ingredients we choose to evaluate.

Also of interest is how the C:N ratio applies to plant residues left on the surface of the ground to protect the soil. The same 25:1–30:1 rule applies. If the ratio is lower, soil microbes will eat up all of the available carbon too quickly and leave the soil bare. If the ratio is higher, the microbes take a long time to eat up the high-carbon materials, leaving a great deal of chunky debris in the soil. Furthermore, the microbes will need to absorb more nitrogen to balance their diet, and this will have to come from the soil—leaving less nitrogen available for growing plants.

The practical implications? Often the best cover crop is a blend of high-carbon grains and high-nitrogen legumes. This mix, highly favored among organic gardeners, works because it keeps the C:N ratio close to optimal.

The C:N ratio will also affect the mulch you use. Wood mulches are attractive in ornamental gardens, but they pull a great deal of nitrogen out of the soil to balance out their high carbon levels—not good for growing sweet corn. For a vegetable garden, something a little closer to the optimal C:N ratio will foster healthier plants.

Pros and Cons of No-Dig Gardening

Pros and Cons of No-Dig GardeningAre you looking for new ways to improve your garden soil faster? Have you thought about ditching the rototiller?

No-dig gardening, no-till farming’s little brother, offers an exciting way to improve soil with less labor of the back-breaking variety. It also presents a far more natural way to garden—after all, Nature doesn’t own too many rototillers.

Are there pitfalls? The answer is yes. Even so, no-dig gardening may be right for your garden.

Let’s look at the pros and cons to determine the situations where no-dig gardening will be most effective.

Pros

  • Easier on the back. Digging and tilling are hard work. Eliminating those two steps is a great choice for gardeners who are elderly, have back problems, or are a little bit lazy. Add a raised bed or planter to bring the plants up to knee or waist level for even more comfortable gardening.
  • No damage done to soil life. Rototillers tend to disrupt the lives of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms as they work. While these soil communities will recover before the season ends in organic gardens, the traumatic event is a setback to their work. No-dig gardening fosters life in the soil without interruption.
  • Reduced soil compaction. This one may come as a surprise to you. After all, tillage is supposed to be the way to loosen up the soil in the spring. However, at the farthest depth that the blades can reach, they actually stop turning the soil and start packing it down. If tilling continues at the same depth every year, the soil immediately below the tillage zone turns into hardpan. No-dig gardens will not suffer from compaction as long as the soil health is properly attended to and clearly defined footpaths are provided to avoid trampling the soil.
  • Soil aeration. No-dig gardening is precisely how plants thrive in nature. No wide-scale tillage and subsequent exposure of bare dirt occurs. Organic matter such as fallen leaves and dead grass lies on top of the soil and decomposes over time. Why is having the organic material on the surface important? Because it encourages earthworms to come up from beneath to reach the material, and worm tunnels promote soil aeration.
  • Better use of rainfall. Tillage leaves large areas of bare soil exposed to the sun, wind, and driving rain. The combined action of the baking, the evaporation, and the pounding results in soil with a hard crust on top. This crust in turn prevents rainfall from readily soaking down to the roots. Soil that has not been tilled stays friable, and the layer of mulch on top further aids in the capture of moisture.
  • Fewer weeds. Tillage brings weed seeds up to the surface of the ground to germinate. This can be used to advantage by tilling repeatedly during the same season, allowing several weed crops to germinate only to meet their demise at the hands of the rotating blades. Unfortunately, a lapse in the tillage routine can create a disaster. No-dig gardening keeps piling layers of soil and mulch on top of the weed seed bank, preventing it from ever sprouting and smothering the few weeds persistent enough to attempt germination. Unless you are introducing new seeds from an outside source, you will end up with fewer and fewer weeds the longer you no-dig.
  • Fewer pests. Another counterintuitive effect of no-dig gardening. Tillage is often recommended to expose insect eggs and larvae to the elements (and any helpful chickens that happen to be around). But many gardeners feel that, when done with an eye toward soil health, no-dig gardening seems to attract fewer of the bad bugs, probably because the plants are far healthier overall and have more stable connections with soil lifeforms that offer protection from attack. (The only exception is slugs, as we will see in a moment.)

Cons

  • Scale limitations. No-dig gardening implies the use of mulch and compost. Unless you have the ability to produce industrial quantities of these two ingredients, no-dig gardening will be nearly impossible in a large garden. Going no-dig works best in combination with intensive gardening methods such as square foot gardening.
  • Difficulties with starting in seriously compacted soil. For example, former driveways. Ideally, you will choose a different site for your garden and avoid this problem altogether. If this is not an option, you will probably need to till at least once, likely more than once. The good news is that in this case you will not disrupt the soil community since the odds are pretty high that there isn’t one. (Do not be fooled by naturally clay soils that have not been abused; these are still often quite suitable for no-dig gardening with some care.)
  • Need for designated pathways. No-dig gardening makes it doubly important that people and animals do not traipse through the beds. This can be hard to prevent in some garden plots. If this is your problem, consider a raised bed.
  • The need for plenty of mulch. With no-dig gardening, mulch is absolutely essential to keep the soil healthy and the weeds in check. (The good news is that mulch is strongly recommended for any style of gardening anyway.)
  • Slower soil improvement process. Tilling in soil amendments can create perfect soil instantly. Building the soil layer by layer takes longer at first, although it promotes healthier soil structure in the long run.
  • Slugs. If you live in a wet climate, you will want to be careful with the types of mulch you use, as a stable layer of decomposing straw or grass will invite slugs to move in. This should not be an issue in dry climates.

Conclusion

Yes, no-dig gardening is a very natural way of building good soil. However, it requires an investment.

These two tips may make the transition easier for you:

  • Keep your garden small. Except for those who engage in serious canning, most gardeners can grow all the produce they need in a remarkably limited space provided they use it efficiently. Consider Mel Bartholomew’s advice from All New Square Foot Gardening—plan on 48 square feet for every adult and 27 square feet for every child in the family, the space to be evenly divided between salad vegetables, dinner vegetables, and vegetables for preserving, giving away, or trying out for the first time. A large no-dig garden is hopelessly unmanageable for most gardeners.
  • Consider using straw as your primary source of mulch. High-carbon mulches like wood chips and cardboard have to absorb a great deal of nitrogen from the soil to decompose, leaving less available for your plants and increasing the risk of insect pests, not to mention reducing your harvest. Straw breaks down much quicker, keeping nutrients available in the soil where they belong.

6 Tips for Keeping Plants Going Through the Summer

6 Tips for Keeping Plants Going Through the SummerSummer can be a tough time to garden. The heat is challenging to many plants. Coupled with dry weather, it pulls the moisture right out of the ground and wilts leaves and stems. Paired with humidity, high temperatures may stress plants and foster fungal diseases.

But never fear! Gardens can continue to be productive in the hot summer months!

Here’s how to keep your plants in peak health despite the heat:

  1. Water deeply and infrequently, but regularly. It stands to reason that plants will need regular watering in the heat of summer. However, it is important to avoid weakening them by watering shallowly and thus encouraging their roots to grow near the surface. By watering deeply and allowing the surface of the ground to dry out in between waterings, the plants will put down extensive root systems less prone to damage from rapid soil moisture evaporation.
  2. Mulch. Mulch helps the soil retain moisture longer. This will allow to you water less frequently, and will help protect the plants from stress due to water deprivation. In a hot, dry, windy summer, an unmulched garden may literally require watering every day, and even that may not keep it alive.
  3. Protect cool-season plants with shade cloth. Still have broccoli or lettuce persisting through the summer heat? Increase your chances of a successful harvest and give these cool-weather plants a helping hand by shading them from the intense sun. Shade cloth is sold specifically for this purpose.
  4. Avoid excess nitrogen. Heat and humidity promote plant diseases, and so does excess nitrogen. A quick boost of nitrogen will indeed result in large, lush plants, but there are hidden side effects. The new cells grow very quickly, resulting in soft tissue susceptible to the invasion of pathogens. If your plants need nitrogen, apply it in a slow-release form, such as compost or well-rotted manure.
  5. Grow vines vertically for better airflow. Not only do sprawling vines take up space and promote weed growth, they are prone to disease and attract insect pests looking for a hiding place. Growing vertically exposes the entire plant to light and air. While this means that it will require more water (again, a mulch is recommended here), the trade-off is typically beneficial because the plant is healthier overall.
  6. Pull dead and dying plants. Not every plant will be able to keep going through the summer. Leftover cool-season plants will succumb, and even some hot-weather plants, such as bush beans, will eventually reach the end of their productive lives. Trying to keep dying plants going through the summer rarely produces miracles—in fact, it typically just attracts pests. Do the rest of your garden a favor and remove sickly vegetables.

With these tips in mind, your garden can continue to produce bountiful harvests throughout the summer.