Gardening Tips ...

Thoughts on Organic Gardening 

There was a time when Organic growing was an old-time practice.  However, in our modern age when we think of ways that we can improve our stewardship of this planet, those old-time practices are creeping back into our vocabulary and desire.  Why burn leaves when they are wonderful little fertilizer factories, just waiting for an invitation to return to the soil all of the nutrients that their trees have claimed from deep in the earth.  Any why spread manufactured mulch when nature provides plenty of this valuable covering in abundance, ready for us to chop and use at our discretion. A deep layer of newspapers covered by chopped leaves makes an attractive and nutrient rich mulch that will stop weeds from sprouting and break down in a year’s time to encourage earth worms and break up hard packed soils. 

Many of us rush out to buy fungicides at the first sign of black spot or mildew.  A cheaper alternative would be to reach in your kitchen cabinet and haul out a box of baking soda.  Mix one Tablespoon with a gallon of warm water, add a Tbs. of a surfactant such as Neem oil (recommended) or other horticultural oil, or even just dish washing soap.  Spray all of your mildew prone plants with this once a week.  Spray this mix on all tomato plants, lilacs, garden phlox and roses and you will seldom be bothered by fungus. It is important to do our spraying early so that the sun and wind will dry the leaves before sundown. 

A companion thought: be sure to do all of your leaf-wetting early in the day, and indeed, rather than using a sprinkler, we can eliminate much of our fungus by watering only at the roots, rather than overhead systems.  And it’s good to give our green friends a deep watering only as needed.  Daily watering serves to encourage shallow root systems. 

Because healthy plants begin with healthy soil, let’s explore this subject a little more: On the Plateau, we’ve not got a lot of soil, but what we do have basically consists of two structure types: clay or sandy. Clay Soils stick together when you squeeze a lump of it in your hand.  They don’t drain well. Sandy soils drain rapidly and dry out quickly. Surprisingly, the remedy for both extremes is to add organic matter.  This can be in the form of compost, rotted leaves, tilled-in cover crops or manure.  

The science of composting is not rocket science, it’s just natural decomposition.  It’s going to happen anyway, we just speed up and control the process.  The best time to begin a compost pile is in the fall. Pick a sunny spot.  Rake up your leaves and run over them with a lawn mower or run them through a chipper/shredder.  This makes for more surface area for decomposition.  This step also chops up the material so it won’t mat up in the pile and prevent proper decomposition.  

You can layer the leaves (carbon material) with other wet or green materials such as fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed egg shells, grass clippings or weeds.  Place a layer of chopped leaves, about 6” thick, on the ground, then layer green material on top to about the same thickness.  Continue this layering until the pile is no taller than 4 or 5 feet.  

Turn the pile once a week with a pitchfork to aerate and keep the bacteria working.  Keep the pile slightly moist (not too wet though).  If it dries out, or is not turned often enough, anaerobic bacteria will take over and cause the pile to start smelling.  In periods of drought, make the top concave so it will catch water.  When it doesn’t seem that it’s ever going to quit raining, cover with a tarp. 

When the pile turns dark and looks like dirt, it’s ready.  Good compost will not smell and has a relatively neutral PH.  It will “make” quicker in the heat than in cold weather.  

You can make compost using only leaves.  After shredding them, just pile leaves up in an out-of-the-way place.  They will rot on their own but if you turn them every week or so, the decomposition time will be far shorter. Temperature and moisture have a lot to do with the amount of time it will take to “make” but generally a pile of leaves left alone will take a year to rot on its own. If you leave it alone any longer than that you’ll find the pile had many, many feeder roots from any nearby plant that has discovered it.   Gardeners frequently voice concern about using acid leaves such as oak but as this material breaks down, it becomes neutral and can be used for most garden applications.  This is a popular medium, perhaps mixed with a little sand, for ferns or wildflowers.  

I’m sure you’ve all been “mulched” to death, but Master Gardeners are strong proponents of mulching and most wouldn’t even consider gardening without it.  Mulching has many advantages:  moisture retention, worms like it and when it decomposes it adds rich organic matter to the soil.  A favorite thing about mulch is that it can be added at any time of the year, extending the gardening calendar and giving us something to do on those wonderful winter days when we hit a warm spell.

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