I’m Talkin Dirt!

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Spring has arrived here on Thompson Street Farm. My raised beds are finally defrosted and the rain has stopped, we’ve been busy cleaning out winter debris and prepping the soil for planting.

Maintain good soil health: One of the most important parts of being a successful gardener (or in my case farmer) is maintaining good soil health without dumping expensive fertilizers that are bad for your health and environment. Soil is a biological system which has millions microorganisms living in it that needs to be cared for. Understanding what is in your soil and what is not, will determine how successful your garden (or farm) will be.

I’m not a biologist and to be perfectly honest, soil biology is one of my weakest areas in my farming operation. I’ve read extensively on the subject; however, for me personally, I need things broken down in easy to understand language. I need a recipe of sorts specific to my land. There is so much information out there most of it doesn’t apply to my situation and I am frequently confused and frustrated.

I’ve learned I’m not alone. Finding soil amendments in small quantities can be hard for small plot growers. Some elements are only sold by the ton. In other situations when I could find smaller quantities (e.g. 1 lb. bag); it was too expensive to buy in the numbers I needed (e.g. 50 bags). This was my problem with bloodmeal. In the end, I resorted to ordering a 50 lb. bag from Amazon, paid the shipping fees because it was cheaper than buying (50) 1 lb. bags from my local garden store.

Use a good lab for soil testing: Last year I hired a soil fertility expert to help me figure out what to do with farm land I am leasing. My first year, I had very little seed germination. I knew I needed a soil test, but I wanted help translating the results and help sourcing a reliable retailer who would sell me soil amendments in the quantities I needed.

In our first meeting I explained I used my states university lab and I was frustrated on how to interpret the information. They use a general rating system:

• Below Optimum
• Optimum
• Above Optimum

In the recommendations section on every lab result regardless of what was rated they recommended 10-10-10 fertilizers. I started asking myself why do soil a test if the recommendation is always going to be the same? I knew the lab wasn’t explaining my test results accurately. They knew I was an organic grower, so why were they always recommending the use of commercial fertilizers.

I learned from my soil specialist some soil labs are better than others. He strongly recommended I stop using my state lab and use a lab that will give me the actual numbers of each element.

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Test your Soil: Standard recommendation is once every 3 years in the fall.  However, if you need a starting point don’t worry what time of year it is – just do the test.  This will be your baseline.

Collecting your soil sample:  If you have multiple beds (I have 22 raised beds) save some money by taking a sample of dirt from all your beds.  Mix the dirt in a container and remove 1 scoop and send it off to the lab.  This will give you an overall baseline of your soil make up.

If you want to know what’s going on in each bed take samples from different sections of the bed and mix together and remove a single sample.  But be aware this can be expensive.

If you are growing in the ground, take samples from several different locations in your growing area.  Mix together in a container and pull out 1 sample.

Soil Testing Check out Dan Kitterage YouTube Video introduction on soil testing

According to Dan Kitterage from the Bionutrient Food Association in MA he recommends your base minerals should be as follows:

  •  Sulfur – 75ppm
  • Phosphorus – 75ppm
  • Calcium – 60% – 75%
  • Magnesium – 12% – 18%
  • Potassium – 3% – 5%

For more detailed information on soil biology I recommend you check out Dan’s website www.bionutrient.org

Manure vs leaf compost/mulch:  Once you have addressed your soil mineral issues there is the question of organic matter.  How much, what kind and how often?  An old friend of mine is always telling me “You need nitrogen and lots of it!” “Use whatever you can find! That will really get you going.”  My response is always “Not so fast my friend…..”

As an organic grower dumping manures in my beds or field is not the magic cure to all soil ailments.  There has to be a balance between minerals and organic matter.  In addition, manures are often mixed with the animals bedding which tends to be higher in ammonia verses nitrogen and other nutrients because the bedding is soaked with urine.

What kind of manure matters:  Chicken, cow, horse, rabbit, goat, pig etc.  Not all manures are the same.  They all have different nutrient levels.  Is the manure mixed with the bedding?  If yes, what kind of bedding did they use?  Stay away from wood shavings and sawdust bedding if possible.

Wood shavings and saw dust are often sprayed with chemicals which will leach out into your soil.  Add the additional high levels of ammonia and you have a potent mixture that could burn your plants.

I realize finding manure free from the wood bedding maybe difficult but if you check around you may find someone who doesn’t use that type of bedding with their livesstock.  If the bedding is straw then it’s ok because straw doesn’t absorb urine and breaks down quickly.

How old is the manure?  Never ever put fresh manure on your soil.  Last year a new gardener at our local community garden put several inches of her daughter’s newly made horse poo on her bed.  Her rational it’s organic and free!  What could go wrong? The result was she killed everything.  That was a hard lesson for her to learn.

One year or more is best as it has time to rot a little, cool off so it won’t burn your plants.  In addition, a little goes a long way, especially in small spaces.

How often should I put down manure? If the manure is composted (which is different than pure manure) you can put it down every year.  If it’s straight manure its best to add it on your field and let rest for 1 month before planting.  There is no information available on adding straight manure every year is wise.  I recommend you consult with a soil fertility expert.

BEWARE of Toxic Manure: Not to be an alarmist, but sourcing your livestock manure is important.  It’s what the animal digests and comes out the other end is the concern.

Some farmers spray their hay fields with herbicides to keep the weeds down.  The hay is baled, sold or fed to the farmer’s livestock.  When the cow or horse, for example, eats the hay, the residue from the herbicides passes through the animal and there you have it – toxic manure.  It can stunt, mutate, or kill whatever you are growing and now you have a bigger problem – you have toxic soil.

Grass clippings collected from lawns that have been sprayed with herbicides and composted can also pose a similar danger.  As much as I would love to ask for grass clippings from local landscapers, I don’t.  In my neighborhood, we have a lot of those white and green trucks with tanks on them spraying Lord knows what on people’s lawns.  My concern is the long term effects from the large number of residences that use these companies will be on our ground water. I doubt anyone’s monitoring this.

To learn more about this issue click here 

Using Manures as a soil amendment:  Several sources recommend finding farmers that feed their animals with clean feed and use the manure solids minus the bedding.  The challenge will be finding a source that will give you just the manure.  It can be done.  One gardener told me she asked an organic farmer friend if she could collect his cow patties in his pasture. Even though he gave her a strange look, he told her to knock herself out.

Another farmer friend recommended I check into large chicken producers who are overflowing with chicken poo and will deliver it by the truckload.  Large producers often don’t use bedding in their operations. The chickens are in cages and the waste drops to a space below them and is shoveled out.  In addition, owning chickens myself, I know there are a great many benefits other than collecting their eggs and/or eating them.

Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and is considered a great amendment according a by USDA Agriculture Research Service study

“They found that cotton yields peaked 12 percent higher with organic fertilizers (sic. specifically chicken litter), compared to peak yields with synthetic fertilizers…”

Manures are not sterile: As wonderful manures are, you need to be aware there are pathogens in manure that can contaminate your produce if it hasn’t been properly composted.  It can have some pretty nasty bugs such as E-coli, Listeria and salmonella just to name a few.  As a commercial grower I have be very careful what I put on my soil as the last thing I want is contaminated lettuce from manure not properly composted.

For my piece of mind, unless I’m guaranteed the manure has been sitting for a few years, I will only use it on my open field.  For my permanent raised beds I use leaf compost.  In addition, I only recommend trucking in manure if you are farming ¼ acre or more.  Anything smaller I recommend leaf compost.

Leaves are easy to find.  I discovered last fall some people were more than happy to collect and bag leaves if I hauled them away verses the homeowner hauling bags to the town dump and paying a dump fee. In addition, ask your neighbors to blow their leaves into your yard.  I was lucky last fall my neighbor was more than happy to blow his leaves down the hill in-between our houses.

I run my leaves through a leaf mulcher which gives me nice chopped mulch ready to be put on my beds.  I recommend about a 1 to 2 inches of mulch on top of your beds or growing area in the late fall and leave there over winter.  Come spring, I mix whatever is left into the soil and as long as I don’t have to add any rock minerals I’m good to start planting.

Since its spring now, check if you have leaves hanging around from last year and go ahead and put them in your garden or if you’ve already planted side dress your plants.  It will help retain moisture and keep weeds down.

Recap: 

  •  Test your soil in the fall every 3 years. Or test now for a baseline.
  • Use a lab that breaks down everything by the numbers verses using general terms such as Below Optimum, Optimum etc.
  • Use leaf compost/mulch on less than a ¼ acre or in raised beds. If you want to use animal manures, try to use manures that are bedding free (i.e. wood shavings or sawdust), and are fed clean herbicide free feed.

Resources:

  • Logan Labs , LLC  www.loganlabs.com
  • BioNutrient Food Association  www.bionutrient.org

      • Educational Youtube videos and webpages explaining soil biology in easy to understandable language.
      • Soil consultants ready to assist you with your questions (for a fee) if you are like me and don’t have a science background or just need help.

Product Review: Topsy Turvey Upside Down Tomato Planter

 

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One of the great things about being a SPIN (Small Plot IN-tensive) Farmer is many of us like to share short cuts and new time saving products that we find useful. For example, one of our tools in the “tool kit” is growing vegetables in all kinds and sizes of containers. One of best ideas is using wading pools for toddlers. Drill holes in the bottom and sides for drainage and aeration fill it with a good quality potting soil and you’re good to go!

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However, there are some containers and gimmicks that are not worth the money or effort. I’m a firm believer of learning from other people’s experiences and this product is one of them. I have several good friends who purchased “The Topsy Turvy Upside Down Tomato Planter” (“As Seen on TV!”) and were nice enough to share with me their experiences.

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Based on my interviews, this product gets my lowest rating which is a sad face. Their warning is buyers beware! This product does not live up to the expectations as advertised.

My first interview was with my neighbor’s Bob and Sue. Bob and Sue purchased their planter at a local discount store and put everything together themselves. The kit included the bag, basic instructions on how to fill and hang the bag and a packet of fertilizer. Soil and tomato plant were not included.

My friend Gail purchased her planter from a local farm and garden supply store in her town. It was already assembled and planted with a tomato plant. All she had to do was buy it and hang it when she got home.

Here is what they said about this product:

Brenda: During the summer we know you love fresh tomatoes and for years you grew tomatoes the normal way, in a pot, planter or in the ground with success. So why did you buy this product?

Bob and Sue: It was advertised that it was easy to use and could be put it anywhere in the yard. Our yard has lots of shade and we wanted to be able to move the planter around the yard to the sunniest spaces throughout the day.

Gail: I work a lot of hours and I don’t have time to garden anymore. I wanted something simple and care free. When I saw it all put together ready to hang in my yard, I couldn’t resist.

Brenda: How was it to assemble and install?

Bob and Sue: It wasn’t easy. Once I filled the bag with soil it was really heavy. We looked for weight requirements and there was nothing listed in the instructions. I wasn’t sure if I was putting it together right or not.

When I finally got it filled with potting soil and then planted the tomato plant, it was a big mess. Soil kept leaking out all over the place it was incredibly heavy.

Gail: I didn’t have any problems hanging it up. I just hooked it on the railing on my front door stoop.

Brenda: During the growing season, how easy was it to care for the plant?

Bob and Sue: It didn’t go well at all. The reason we purchased the planter was so we could move it around our yard with little effort so it can always have sun. The planter ended up getting so heavy we had to buy a heavy-duty shepherd’s hook hanger and anchor it to the ground with heavy-duty wire. Moving it around wasn’t an option anymore.

The other problem we noticed was that the plant didn’t grow straight down as they advertised. The plant wanted the sun and wasn’t getting it hanging upside down. Instead it curved up and grew up the bag.

When the weather got really hot the soil in the bag dried out and my plant started to wilt. Some days I had to water it several times just to keep it alive.   Then there was always the fear of the bag ripping or the hook breaking after watering because the bag was so heavy.

Then there was the question of what to do with the fertilizer that came with the kit. There were no instructions on what to do with it. Over all, it was a lot of work to keep that plant alive and very frustrating.

Gail: Honestly, I really didn’t pay that much attention to it. I had it hanging off my front stoop railing. I did notice a few times after watering that the weight of the soil and plant was putting a lot of stress on the bag, but I wasn’t too concerned about it. If it broke it broke.

 However, now that I think about it, watering was actually a problem. Watering from the top meant the water then flowed down and out the holes never reaching the bottom vines. Watering at the separate holes didn’t allow enough water for the plant.

Brenda: How did the tomato plant grow? Did it give you the quantity that you expected?

Bob and Sue: After all the work that went into putting it together and the amount of care it required the output of tomatoes was minimal. It certainly didn’t give us the bumper crop that they advertised in their commercials or on the box.

Gail: For the first few weeks my plant was producing enough tomatoes to satisfy me.   Then I ran out of tomatoes and the plant didn’t produce anything for almost 3 months. Then right before a hard freeze I noticed the plant flowered again and it looked like I was going to finally get more tomatoes. Unfortunately, the freeze came, and then snow and that ended everything.

Brenda: Did this product meet your expectations and deliver what it promised? And would you recommend it to your friends and family?

Bob and Sue: No and No. It was a waste of money and I’m concerned about how they advertise this product. I don’t think they are being truthful. My biggest concern is if an elderly person bought this product. How would they be able to manage assembling this thing and care for it.

Gail: No – I didn’t get a consistent amount of tomatoes as they advertised. And if you think about it, what plant can grow upside down? Mine, defied gravity and turned up and grew up the bag and it was in full sun all day. I don’t recommend this product – this is a buyers beware product.

 

Kitchen Counter Garden

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Spring is days away and it’s been so cold the snow has turned into solid ice. My cat has lost his mind from not being able to go outside. To pass the time of day he has resorted to playing fish on my daughter ipad. Although I think he knows something up with this “pond” – he keeps shaking his paws thinking they are wet and but they are dry, and then there’s no smell.

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As a farmer, I cannot wait for warmer weather to start digging in the soil again.  In January, I completed all my shopping for seeds, and on March 1st, the new season began I started planting my new seedlings in trays.  The best part is my new aquaponics system is finished and I am excited to see how well the system works.  This system was designed to grow hundreds of lettuce and herbs.  In another week or so, the fish should be arriving and that will really boost the system.

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While talking to a friend recently, she mentioned she couldn’t wait to start eating fresh local greens.  I suggested she start a small kitchen herb garden on her counter – it’s the fastest way to get fresh greens and in less than 10 days she can be cutting fresh greens for her salads.

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Start with any kind of container.  I personally like the containers our Chinese food come in.  They hold enough soil to do the job.

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Gently poke holes in the bottom of container.  An easy way to do it is using a board underneath the container and hammer the nail through the bottom.  For those who want a higher tech method, a drill with a small bit will work fine.  Just make sure there are enough drainage holes in the bottom so the water can drain.

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Moisten the potting soil prior to filling the container.  The soil should be wet enough to make a meatball size clump – but not soaking wet where there is water dripping from your hand.

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Sprinkle your seeds over the top of the soil and cover with plastic wrap until the seeds sprout then remove the plastic.  If the container has a lid, gently close it but don’t seal it tight.  The goal here is to keep the soil moist until your seeds sprout.  Remove the lid completely and water when soil appears dry on top.

Easy Kitchen Garden Varieties:

Arugula

Basil

Chives

Garlic Greens – (need a deep container for this) just peel a few garlic cloves from the grocery store and plant.

Parsley

Happy Spring!