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
• 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.
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.
- 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.
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.