Know Your Soil and the Top 3 Myths

When most gardeners think about their garden, they picture big beautiful blooms or perfectly ripe tomatoes…I think about what’s underneath: Dirt. (Sidenote: I would bottle that scent and wear it if I could!)

But first things first, test your soil. The importance of soil testing cannot be overstated. Most vegetables prefer a pH of 6.5, but without a starting point you won’t know whether you need lime to raise it, or sulfur to reduce it. Your results also tell you which amendments to add if you want to grow brassicas, nightshades or something else. Soil test kits are available at your local extension office and for a nominal fee you’ll get all sorts of helpful information (it’s worth the investment).

Don’t scrimp on soil. I saw it time and again when I worked in the nursery, weekend warriors trying to save a few bucks on inferior soil, while spending huge amounts of money on dahlia tubers, new seeds or bright, colorful annuals and perennials. This ADES (All Dirt Is Equal Syndrome), affects many new (and experienced) gardeners, and can be disastrous in the garden! Let’s dispel soil myth #1 first: topsoil is not the answer. All “topsoil” means, is, that that dirt was scraped from the top, including troublesome weed seed. It doesn’t indicate if it has organic matter (which you want) or what percent of sand, silt and clay is in the bag. What you really want instead is loam. Loam has just the right balance of soil particles, giving you excellent drainage and improved nutrient and water-holding capacity (yes!). Look at soil bag descriptions and look for something that drains well.

Every year I start with a soil test to determine what my plants are going to need and add accordingly (blood meal for foliage, bonemeal for flowering plants and lime/sulfur to adjust the pH). Just follow the directions on the bag and apply.

A note on digging. Unless you are starting a brand-spanking new bed, DON’T DO IT ! This is soil myth #2: rototilling mixes your soil. No. It doesn’t. Actually, it breaks apart your soil’s structure and kills the beneficial microbes and worms living in your garden. Instead, top dress your beds with a few inches of compost and let the earthworms do the work. It’s what those little, slimy things want to do anyway and they’re good at it. They’ll sense that delicious, nutrient-rich compost ladled on top of your garden bed and crawl up, around and down as fast as they can to digest nutrients, leaving castings and distributing nutrients throughout the soil. Why would you want to mess with the natural order of the universe?

Garden Bed Topped with a couple inches of compost

For new raised beds, fill them with a 50/50 mixture of garden loam and compost, topping it with a few inches of straight compost. Otherwise, all the same principles for amending and no tilling apply.

Soil myth #3: you need to aerate your soil. Wrong-o. While you want some space in your soil for air, water and roots to tunnel through and reach nutrients, let the soil microbes handle that. This is why good soil structure is so important (remember that mix of sand, silt and clay we talked about?). You don’t want too much sand because that will cause all your water and nutrients to drain away before plants can get a hold of them, and you don’t want too much clay either, which causes root rot. With the right blend of soil particles, earthworms and microbes not only till, but they aerate as well, leaving behind hundreds and thousands of channels as they slide, inch and wiggle their way through your garden.

Once your bed has been made (ha!) and planted in, try to avoid stepping on and compacting the soil. Each time you compress the soil, you’re squeezing out all those air channels and suffocating the roots.

As you plant into your beds and notice an increase in earthworms, that means you are doing something right! Unpleasant as they are to look at, earthworms are a sign of healthy, biological activity in your soil. If you don’t see as many worms as you like, you can add casting to help improve the fertility, buy actual earthworms and toss them into the garden or raise your own in a homemade earthworm bin (there’s lots of free plans available online).

Personally, I use drip tape and landscape fabric (rated for 12-15 years) with holes burned into them, and plant directly into these little pockets to help control the weed situation. Most of us hate weeds because they make the garden look sloppy, but they’re extremely dangerous because they steal all that organic matter goodness and water from your plants, and overcrowd your garden. To make it look more aesthetically pleasing you can cover the fabric with wood chips, straw or gravel.

For more information on soil, its amendments and nutrients, compost, as well as everything you can (and can’t) imagine about organic growing and the kitchen garden, pick up a copy of Kelly‘s book, The Backyard Gardener, available on Amazon, Barnes+Noble’s or get your signed copy on her site, Bowery Beach Farm.

To Seed or Not to Seed?

Propagation is one of my favorite garden tasks. It’s just a big word to describe a couple simple techniques for starting new plants.

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There’s seed (which I’m sure everyone is familiar with), cuttings (think of it as cloning, but all you need is part of a stem, leaf or root to do it) and layering. Since layering is a technique that is used on actively growing plants, I’m going to ignore that one for now and just focus on starting baby plants.

Sowing is the traditional way to grow plants. 

Just follow the directions on your seed packets and you should be fine. A good rule of thumb when sowing is to plant the seed only as deep as its diameter. 

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There are a few seeds that are dormant and need a little help breaking dormancy. In that case you can soak, nick or freeze your seeds for a specified amount of time. Few seeds require treatments like that, so unless your seed packet indicates otherwise no worries.

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Not all seed is created equal. Yup, you heard me. 

Some plants are sterile and don’t produce any seeds, while others which do, don’t come true to seed. This phrase “not true to seed” refers to planting seeds from a single plant, but the emerging seedlings show wide variation in color, form and/or growing habit. When this is the case, you should take cuttings. 

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I take cuttings for rosemary, tarragon, lavender and my scented geraniums in the fall so they have a good start before the following growing season. And even though you can take cuttings anytime, spring and fall are best.

Use clean, sharp snips or a razor to sever a 3-6″ long stem or leaf from the mommy plant just above a node. Then, trim the bottom to just below a node–your cutting will root quicker from there. Sometimes rooting hormone is useful, others not-so-much, but stick your cutting in a light potting mix and firm up the soil. Most cuttings root in 3-4 weeks. 

And whether you are starting from seed or cuttings, a heating mat is invaluable! 

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Cuttings are also useful when you see a plant at your friend’s house that you want to steal covet. It’s less of an imposition to ask if you can just snip off a stem rather than tucking the whole thing into your bag when no one’s looking and giving “innocent eyes” when someone discovers the plant is missing.

For more on sowing seed, cuttings and the organic kitchen garden, check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

Compost, the Black Gold

Every gardener’s compost pile aspires to the almighty ‘black gold’. Full or nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, it feeds your vegetables, herbs and flowers so much better than any fertilizer can and the best part of it is, it’s FREE!

The hardest aspect of composting for me is the patience. I have none.

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It takes at least 6 months to turn your garden’s leavings from garbage into gourmet food.

You can make compost in a pile in the corner of your yard or homemade bin. If you are using wood, just be sure that is it not pressure-treated. You don’t want those nasty chemicals leaching out into your compost and then into your food. There are a number of materials that can be used to make great compost, including: plastic, wire, wood, pallets or fencing.

The key to happy, healthy compost is heat and the right amount of brown and green material. 100908_4354

Heat is generated by keeping your piles to a manageable size (3’x 3’x 3′) and turning it weekly. The ingredients are the other half.

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Shredded newspaper, pine needles, dried leaves and cardboard are all good sources of carbon (or brown) materials, while vegetable scraps, grass clippings and other green things are good nitrogen sources. The rule of thumb is for every one bucket of nitrogen, use two of carbon.

Since carbon materials can be in short supply in the growing season I’ll bag up a bunch of leaves in the fall and store them in the shed for use in the summer.

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Once your pile smells nice and woodsy, it’s time to spread it out in the garden. And don’t be stingy! Use a good 3-4 inches and your garden with thank you.

For more on composting and the organic kitchen garden, be sure to check out my new book, The Backyard Gardener!

Spring is in the air!

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The calendar says it’s spring, but the snow outside my window gives me serious doubts. Still, I know the white stuff will disappear in a few days (hopefully less) due to our unseasonably warm weather. My garlic, chives and comfrey are all awake and I’ve been running flats of herbs and scented geraniums wrapped in frost blankets between the hoop house and potting shed. Even thought Mother Nature is teasing me, my plants and my garden, I will not let her get the best of me.  

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Aside from my little tirade about the weather, there are many lovely things happening and growing at Bowery Beach Farm. We have a new four-season greenhouse going up next week, the base of which is finished. This past fall we received our official mail-order nursery certification and our spring orders are already rolling in. And last, but certainly not least, my first book, The Backyard Kitchen Gardener, will be published by Lyons Press next Spring (2017). Their senior editor contacted me last fall and I signed my first very first book contract.

Needless to say, we’ve been quite busy, but also quite grateful!

By |April 4th, 2016|Bowery Beach Farm, My Life as a Gardener, My Life As A Gardener, Writing|

Hellebores are here!

Hellebores | Bowery Beach Farm

There are not many plants that thrive in the winter, but Hellebores are one of them!

I love these plants so much I cannot get enough of them. In fact, last year I started my very own collection of these pretty girls in one of my garden. And I just bought two new additions this winter that I plan to plant out in the spring. First is the traditional white Helleborus niger that currently is residing in our guest bathroom.

Hellebores | Bowery Beach Farm

Then there is this green-flowered hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius, that I’m crushing on. Can’t wait to see how it stacks up against the Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) – which by the way does NOT stink – and the purple flowered hellebore from Slovenia, Helleborus atrorubens.

By |February 10th, 2016|Cut Flowers, Growing & Gardening, My Life as a Gardener, My Life As A Gardener|