Potting mix considerations

I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about potting mix recently. For one thing, it is only four months till we start seedlings for 2016! (And only a month or so before we winter plant seed for perennials.) For another thing, I am thinking about using lots of wicking planters for greens in the upcoming year to improve their survival in our dry climate. Finally, a movable greenhouse has many benefits. I have been considering making our hoop house on the Littleton farm moveable. That way, we could start hardy spring greens, and then, once they were going and the weather was a bit more moderate, I could slide it away and start summer seedlings on the new site. Right now, spring plants languish in the increasing heat in the house, while delaying the summer tomatoes and peppers, and the tomatoes keep out the Fall kale and lettuce. However, a movable greenhouse is a big investment, and it might be better to just plant everything in containers, and then move and swap those. An unproven idea that we might try.

Anyway, there are lots of reasons for me to be considering potting mix strategies right now. For the past ten years or so, I have been using compost/ peat/ perlite type potting mixes. They are a logical extension to my organic gardening philosophy of feeding the soil, not the plant. However, I just now did some research and found a forum thread where a member was advocating a bark/ peat/ perlite mix, with the ratios being 5 1 1, very light and airy. They then add some commercial slow release inorganic fertilizer. The reasoning behind this is that a pot of fine grained potting mix contains a perched water table, where the natural attraction of the water to the soil particles is greater then gravitational pull. This zone becomes airless and is off limits to roots. So, some advocate separating the two functions of potting mix; structural support, and the provisions of nutrients.  Of course, this is just what conventional farmers do; they view the soil as an inert medium for holding plant roots, and then douse the soil with chemical fertilizer. However, since the pot is already an artificial growing area with different conditions then the soil, it makes sense that a different approach might be warranted. As an organic gardener, I would use organic slow release fertilizer, or a liquid fish/ kelp product if I switch over to a coarse grained medium.

I may do some experiments to compare the two approaches.

I also may include a small pot or bag of worm castings in larger, long term pots, which would provide fertilization without gumming up the whole pot.

Here is a link to the forum thread that got me interested in this: http://forums2.gardenweb.com/discussions/2842847/container-soils-water-movement-and-retention-xxii?n=329

The year in review; plans for the year ahead

A frost on September 12th damaged the Lakewood farm gardens, though some outdoor plants and the greenhouse continue to produce well, as the weather has continued warm. We have started cleanup, and will be rebuilding many of the beds. We have also planted some fall crops.

At our planing meeting a few days ago, we discussed many topics, among them the following.

Sheet mulch works really well here. It seems to hold water, once it get really wet. If it is built dry, it can stay that way. It also does a lot better if it is started a few months before planting. Some seeds seem to need mineral soil on top, not just compost. Greens are difficult to start in a rough mulch. Paths should be raised up to form borders around the mulch beds, especially on a slope, to keep water in. Chunks of wood and sticks seem to improve a mulch. The mulch should also be deeper the a foot, more like two feet. By spring, the foot of mulch we laid had turned into something more like six inches.

Our labeling system (plastic with permanent marker) broke down. Even if the marker was permanent the labels were not and they soon disappeared in a jungle or got pulled out. This lead to a number of problems: difficulty in seed saving, inability to harvest green when ripe tomatoes, difficulty telling if a bean was a green bean or a dry bean, or if a squash was a winter or summer variety. At very least, different types of the same plant should be segregated, so as to avoid this problem.

To solve this problem, we will be spending some winter meetings inside wood burning labels into some stakes.
Cherry tomatoes were a waste of time, since they were too difficult to pick and ended up smashed on the way home.

Planting a second batch of zucchini and cucumbers in July is well worth it.
Watering by hand was a huge chore. Pulling the hoses around ran the risk of damaging plants and was a big hassle. As well as increasing water storage in deeper mulch, we may switch to using an oscillating sprinkler on a tall pole for most of the garden. If the pole is seven feet high, it will clear trellises, tall plants, etc. This would only require one hose and could easily be activate and left on for the required amount of time. For many plants in an arid climate, overhead watering is beneficial. Tomatoes, dry beans, and some seed crops will need to be watered from below. For these, we will be setting up soaker lines. This would also eliminate the problem of over and under watering.
We really need trellises for tomatoes. Without them, the plants did wonderfully, but finding the tomatoes was so difficult that many rotted on the ground or were eaten by slugs.
The farm was not set up so that members could come and help out on their own schedule. We will be having a numbered sign in each bed, with a corresponding white board chart in the shed, showing what is planted in each, and what has to be tended, harvested, etc. We will also set up a logbook for member’s use. This will greatly increase our efficiency in use of volunteer hours.
Distribution of produce was more difficult then we thought it would be. We need drop-off/ pick-up points, each with an evaporative cooler or refrigerator. That way members could pick up produce on their own schedule, while avoiding spoilage. This will be important if we grow more greens, which members have requested. At the same time, each pickup point would have a member in charge to inventory produce and send out alerts as to the amount on hand. One member voiced concern as to a child potentially getting stuck in a refrigerator. To avoid this we would lock any refrigerators.
We have many projects planned, among them the following:
Mushrooms started in our sheet mulches would improve the conditions for our plants. Fall would be the best time to do this, and we will probably use oyster mushrooms, which have the best symbiotic relationship with garden plants.

Over the winter, we can get our beehives and swarm traps finished and set up. We will continue to salvage wood for these. If we build enough, we may try selling them.

We will add thermal mass and insulation to our hoophouse to extend its useful season. One of the members can get bubble wrap for this.

The members want to raise more flowers in the gardens next year. There are many edible, medicinal, and habitat providing flowers for us to use.

We may start raising geese on the Lakewood farm, rotating them through cover cropped sections of the garden.
There are lots of indoor building type projects we can purse over the winter, such as solar applications, aquaponics setups, alternative cooking devices, and many more.
Bare root fruit bushes, grape vines, asparagus, and other perennial plants can be installed this fall. Geese are used as weeders in orchards and strawberry fields, and thus fit in well with this.
Next year, if we are more organized, we can save more of our own seed, and work on breeding our own plants.
To get our Lakewood farm ready for next year, we have many things that need to get done this Fall. Among them are: starting some big compost piles; rebuilding all our sheet mulches so that they are two feet deep; building our shed; setting up an irrigation system and trellises; upgrading some of the fencing; general cleanup; and reworking our entrance area. We will probably use concrete reinforcing wire for tomato trellis.
We will be hosting an Advent wreath crafting event at OLMC parish in Littleton to raise funds for the SIS. This will be held towards the end of November.
And finally, we have a new farm site in Littleton, near Broadway and Littleton Boulevard. If you want to come and help please contact me for the address.

Farm update for July

We got all of our spring planting done, but some things were put in very late. We will be using row cover to hold off early frosts, so hopefully we get a yield from everything.

Squash and zucchini are doing well, and we have already harvested a few. Our best variety is Costata Romanesca, which has constantly done well for me here.

Our tomatoes are looking pretty good. There is a small amount of fungal disease, but overall the plants look healthy, and are loaded with green tomatoes. We have harvested a few ripe ones so far. We never got around to staking or tying most of them, so some of the tomatoes will probably be lost to sitting on the ground. Then again, some sources claim that in a hot dry climate, letting tomatoes sprawl helps keep them from drying out and getting sun scald!

Our peppers and eggplant in the greenhouse are growing like crazy! They really like the tropical conditions in there.

Our beans, melons, and cucumbers were heavily damaged by bugs. Some melon plants survived, but we were already late planting them, since a first planting failed to germinate. So they don’t have that good of chances. We replanted cucumbers, and our third try, surrounded by cut-off yoghurt containers, is doing well. Either the cups kept off the pests (possibly pill bugs) or a natural balance had kicked in. (Due to a very wet spring, pill bugs and sow bugs have gone crazy, and did a ton of damage in my home garden. Due to the fact that we are not on the farm site at night, we can not actually assign blame to them there, but the damage looks similar and there are lots of pill bugs about. Pill bugs damaging plants is a much debated topic on gardening forums and websites.) We replanted beans. The bush beans are still struggling, partly because the mulch and compost we planted them in went hydrophobic. We sprayed soap to correct this. The pole beans are taking off.

All of our trees have survived so far, and are doing well, with the exception of a struggling nectarine. Fire blight hit surrounding mature trees heavily this year, probably due to the wet spring.

We had a beehive placed on the property, but it died. We will be trying again next year. Hopefully we will have our top bar hives done by then.

Despite the wet spring, watering has been a huge chore. We are experimenting with small scale PVC watering devices, donated drip hose, and Ollas; traditional terra-cotta watering devices. An Olla is basically just a unglazed pot buried in the soil. It wicks water out depending on the dampness of the surrounding ground, and the plant’s needs. We are also building some waffle beds, and using rocks as a lithic mulch. These are techniques used by native tribes in the desert southwest.

The heavy storms in the Denver metro have mostly bypassed us, with only a small amount of damage to the site. The lines of trees along the fences and creek have done a good job breaking the winds, sustaining a fair amount of damage in the process.

We are beginning planting for the fall. We are planting peas directly in the ground, and starting cabbage, broccoli, kale, and brussels sprouts at a member’s house.

Weeds have been a constant problem, especially bindweed. The bindweed was  not stopped by our sheet mulch, but it was slowed down considerably.

WIth the main planting done, we have been working on organizational projects. We have been setting up tool racks, sinks for washing up, and a work station. We hope to build a solar hot water heater and a reed bed for one of the sinks.

We are finally beginning to see a bit of produce coming in! There is not much yet, just a few cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and some greens.

Problems with sheet mulch/ farm update

We have installed lots of sheet mulches on the Lakewood farm. Sheet mulching involves laying an overlapping layer of cardboard to smother weeds, and then piling on a foot or more of organic matter, ideally weed free, and with a balanced ratio of nitrogen to carbon. There are lots of benefits to this: less weeds, more organic matter, and, after the first year, less work, since the beds are never tilled again. For more information, see this post.
However, we have discovered two potential problems with sheet mulching.
First of all, sheet mulch does NOT stop bindweed. Those long twisting roots easily wend their way around the cardboard and through every crack, to emerge triumphantly at the surface. However, nothing else really kills bindweed either, and sheet mulch at least makes bindweed easy to pull. And the sheet mulch killed off the grass, thistles, dandelions, mallow, and other weeds on our site fairly well.
The second problem is more serious. When we planted the tomatoes, we just opened a hole in the mulch, stuck the tomato in, and pushed the mulch back together. Some of the beds were full of a light, fluffy mixture of grass clippings and mulched leaves. We then got a lot of rain, and occasionally people would step on the beds (our paths are not that well defined.) The mulch compacted and sank. Soon the tomato root balls were sticking out of the mulch, where the peat in the potting mix acted like a wick to dry out the roots. The fact that the grass clippings were very porous did not help matters any. We first noticed the problem when a lot of the tomatoes looked sick, with curled and yellowing leaves on a hot day.
Hopefully, we have solved the problem by laying a layer of rough compost from the pile we built last year over the beds. This will cover the root balls and hold water.
So, if you want to build a sheet mulch:
Don’t expect it to kill bindweed,
Try to mix dried grass clippings with other, more compact and water retentive material,
Lay the mulch much thicker than you think necessary, and plant deeply,
Carefully pack mulch over the root balls of transplants,
And ideally, build the beds in the fall, so they can decompose and compact over the winter.
The tomatoes in our hugelkulture/ sheet mulch hybrids are doing splendidly so far. I will continue to report on the success or failure of our systems over the next year. And now we will know how to avoid this problem for the future.
We are almost done planting. We have also got a fence built on the perimeter of the property, set up plant supports, and done a lot of weed mowing on the site over the last few meetings.


Work day notes

I have fallen behind in posting updates about the progress on the farm. In the last few meetings we have: reorganized what is left of our brush piles after renting a chipper, turned our compost pile, laid out quite a few beds, planted some potatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and peas, got rocks and concrete laid to outline some of the beds, moved some of the tomato transplants out to the greenhouse,  repaired two of the wheelbarrows, mowed parts of the field, done a lot of cleanup, set stakes to protect the new trees from pedestrians and vehicles, dug up some concrete, planted lemon balm around broken concrete in the irrigation ditch (to help stabilize it), continued work on the fencing, added a second automatic vent to our greenhouse, (with only one, the greenhouse overheated severely,) and continued the work of using up our many piles of mulch, leaves, and manure.
Our greenhouse survived the late snows earlier this week, and the tomato transplants inside are all safe. However, one of the heated frames at my house, which still held over two hundred tomato plants, malfunctioned, and we have lost over a hundred of them. Depending on what members want to do, we may buy replacements, or do without.
Then new vent opener is at the bottom of the greenhouse, on the opposite side from the existing one, to create a chimney effect.
To plant potatoes, we laid out cardboard, and built sheet mulch beds in the usual way. But we included potatoes in the bottom layers. As they grow, we will be adding more mulch, instead of trenching and hilling. We used some actual seed potatoes, (which are less likely to contain disease organisms that can kill or stunt the crop) but the price was too high, so most of them are just organic potatoes from the store. After much searching online, it seemed that most people can get away with doing this. Also, a disease can still show up in other ways, even with certified seed potatoes. A disease showing up is much less of a disaster for us then for a commercial farmer, who is depending on potatoes.

Notes from the meeting of January 11th/ Swarms and Swarm traps

Honey bees (and their wild relatives) are in a lot of trouble. Beekeeping has never been easy, and is now extremely difficult. We hope to be part of the solution, by keeping bees naturally, thus reducing the stress they are exposed to. Of course, this will not help if they are poisoned by the dangerous chemicals our society is addicted to. (See this post.)

At this meeting we started work on our swarm traps. Swarm traps are a method of getting a free swarm of bees. Also, the bees in a swarm might represent valuable genetics. There is no guarantee of this, but at least they represent a cultivated or feral hive which was strong enough to overwinter successfully in the local area. To explain how the traps work, I will have to go into how a beehive works.

A beehive for all practical purposes is one organism, composed of a queen, who lays the eggs for the colony, drones, which are males, and workers, who run the hive and only live for a few months at most. (The queen lives for several years.) An individual worker (or queen for that matter) are helpless on their own. If there is good weather in the spring, a strong hive will raise a few new queens. The old queen then leaves with a large group of workers, known as a swarm, while the remaining bees rebuild their numbers. The swarm finds a convenient branch or post to settle on, and forms itself into a “ball” of bees. Then scouts head out in a five mile radius. They inspect cavities, looking for a new home. They then return to “report” to the swarm, in a special “dance.” The swarm then leaves their temporary resting place and flies to best of the cavities found by the scouts, where they began building comb, in which they store honey and the queen lays eggs.

A swarm trap provides an attractive location for a swarm to start building. It contains top bars, which are interchangeable with those in the top bar hive, for the bees to build on. It has only one easily closable entrance. They are generally hung in trees, and often contain lemon grass essential oil, which attracts bees and make them feel at home.

Once the bees move into a swarm trap, and have built some comb, the entrance is blocked at night, when all the bees will be at home, and the trap is moved to the location of the hive. Then the top bars are placed into the hive. The bees will stay with their comb, which forms the ‘skeleton” of the bee hive super-organism.

To improve our chances of getting at least one swarm, a large number of traps must be placed.  Of course, with the bee population dwindling, it is likely that even with a good number of traps we will not get any swarms. In which case we will buy a nucleus or a split to get started.

Heirlooms, hybrids, OPs and GMOs

There is some confusion about what all these words actually mean, so I am posting this to clarify things.

”Open Pollenated”, or OP, means that a plant will come “true” from seed; the next generation will look reasonably like the last, so seed can be saved from them. Wild plants are generally this way, as are most traditional plants.
“Heirloom” means that the OP strain in question is about sixty years old. Every heirloom plant was new once.
“Hybrid” means that two OPs were crossed to grow the seed. If a zucchini and a pumpkin were planted next to one another, and the seed was saved, it would almost certainly be hybrid seed; bees would have crossed it. The seed you planted next year would all come up looking alike. If it was better than the originals in some way, the gardener might decide to do it again on purpose. If, however, seeds were saved from the plants grown from the hybrid seed, every resulting plant would be wildly different. Selection over may years could then create a new OP variety which would come true from seed. Most heirlooms were once hybrids. So there is nothing wrong with a hybrid. The problem comes from their modern use. Since nobody else can duplicate a hybrid, companies dropped all their traditional heirloom varieties and switched over to them, thus greatly diminishing vegetable diversity, making famers dependent on bought seed, and setting the stage for disasters similar to the Irish Potato Famine ( at that time there were only two potato varieties in Ireland.) Also, modern varieties of any sort, OPs or hybrids, are suited to modern agriculture, and need large amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and perfect growing conditions. Heirlooms are better suited to low input methods.

You might be interested to know that apple seeds do not come true, since almost all of them are hybrids. You need two different trees for pollination to occur successfully.

GMO are a whole different matter. They are created by scientists in a Lab, and are dangerous on many different levels. Currently they are used to increase the control of large corporations over the food supply. However, unlike hybrids, which can be used rightly, GMOs have their own inherent risks.

I think that Heirloom varieties should be saved, because they represent the wisdom of the past; that small farmers should breed their own new OPs and hybrids, to adapt to changing conditions and methods, and to bring unique products to market; and that GMOs should be opposed in all situations.

Notes from the meeting of October the fifth/ bindweed

At this meeting we got another hundred and fifty feet of sheet mulching done, and repaired a mistake we made in our hugelkulture last time. We had built a mound of sticks, only to realize that many of them were from a willow tree; and willow branches sprout if stuck in the ground. So we would have had a thicket instead of a raised bed. We removed the willow branches and built a new pile of Siberian Elm and Green Ash. At the next meeting we will add some more wood and cover the pile.  (Willow can be used in Hugelkulture; it just has to be thoroughly dead first.)

Our neighbor to the east cut down a line of Siberian elm along the fence, giving us even more branches to clean up, and a lot more light in the morning. He will be planting evergreens there, but they will take a while to grow.

We took soil samples to do some basic testing on, and some lead testing, since parts of our site were filled in the past. If lead is found in certain areas, we will take steps to tie it up, and only grow fruiting plants there. (Fruit, unlike leaves or roots, does not accumulate lead.)

We found that bindweed had infiltrated our pile of manure from the ground underneath and all the little snippets of root we had accidentally moved to the sheet mulch with the manure were sprouting ABOVE the cardboard. Fortunately they are not well rooted yet, so we are carefully pulling them out now. But I decided to do some more research on it, since some will almost certainly make it through our sheet mulch.

Bindweed is literally a superplant. Its seeds last for fifty years in the soil. A plant can grow twenty-five feet in a single season. Drought, compacted soil, and heat make no difference to it whatsoever. Some say that a root system can be two miles long! While this might be exaggerated a bit, it definitely possesses enough root resources to outlast almost any gardener’s pulling efforts.  It can outcompete many garden plants, tangling them up till weeding is impossible. A tiny piece of root or stem will grow a new plant.

The roots are brittle, making removal difficult. They are herbicide resistant, hard to smother, and can’t be solarized in this climate.

There is dispute about their medical value. Some say they are poisonous, others say they are a useful anti-cancer medicine and tonic. And there is no doubt that they help heal damaged soil, and that cows love them.

But, we don’t have cows, and I think we can improve our soil just fine without this plant. So, what to do?

There are a number of ways to weaken bindweed.

  • A deep mulch, especially when backed with cardboard, will kill some plants and weaken any which make it through. It will then be vulnerable to persistent pulling action when small, as the roots will come easily out of a loose mulch. This will starve the plant.
  • A rye cover crop secretes substances which temporarily suppresses bindweed. A traditional sequence of cover crops is rye and vetch overwinter, then buckwheat, then rye and vetch again for another winter, and then vegetables the next spring.Loosening the soil with a digging fork disadvantages bindweed, whereas tilling just encourages it;  disturbed soil increases its growth, and the tiller spreads root pieces to fresh ground.
  • Since bindweed is a pioneer plant, it thrives in a poor soil. If the soil is improved bindweed becomes weaker.Geese, chickens, and pigs eat bindweed. A ‘chicken tractor” moved across land may destroy the plants.
  • Plants can be coiled up and placed beneath a rock, or in a bag. This cuts off sun from the leaves, but is more effective then pulling. Breaking the plant releases a hormone which increases its growth.They can be liquified or fermented and used as fertilizer.
  • Some Sunflowers, squash, legumes, Mexican marigold, and alfalfa are allopathic to bindweed, though they will not wipe it out. So are a few weeds; dandelions, and Lambs-quarter. We don’t want any more dandelions, but some lambs-quarter might be good, since it is edible. (Dandelion is too, but we have enough of it around.)
  • A deep cedar mulch kills bindweed.
  • They need an alkaline soil; if the soil is acidified, they weaken and disappear.
  • Horticultural vinegar can kill the leaves.
  • Some bugs can be released which EAT bindweed. However, these don’t do as well on irrigated sites

We will probably employ a number of these strategies. We are already laying down a heavy mulch; in the spring, we will plant allopathic plants anywhere the bindweed comes back, do a lot of hand pulling, and maybe get some hungry chickens.

Hugelkultures: the raised bed of Permaculture

As most readers of this site already know, Permaculture mimics creation, copying the work of God, the greatest designer. Here are two more natural patterns for us to follow.

In old forests, rotting, mossy logs slowly crumbling into the earth are a common sight. Small trees often root right on top of them, and surrounding vegetation and fungi tap them for water. Even late in a dry summer, rotting wood is still moist. They also trap soil, keeping it from sliding away, and nurture a vast community of beneficial life. Rotten logs enabled the ecosystem of Mount Saint Helens to quickly rebound after lava flows and mudslides.

Old growth forests tend to have a pit and mound topography. This is caused as large trees fall, turning up their root balls. They then rot away, leaving a mound of rich, well drained topsoil and crumbly wood, and a moist, shady pit with mineral subsoil exposed at the bottom. Both pit and mound have a sunny side and a shady side. This diversity of terrain creates a diversity of wildflowers on the forest floor, as many as fourteen species to the square yard. The diversity of plants then promotes a diversity of insects and a more stable system.

We can mimic these two patterns by building a hugelkulture. To build one, a shallow trench is dug, and the topsoil and sod are set aside. Then a mound of woody debris; brush, logs, rotten firewood, etc. is piled into the hole or trench. Manure, straw and other organic matter is placed on top, and then the soil is placed over all. They can be built in any shape, but are generally formed in long ridges, between three and seven feet high, running east-west, so that they each have on North and one South face.

The advantages are numerous.

  • The mounded shape is able to fit in more plants than a flat bed with a similar footprint would be able to do, effectively increasing surface area. (This is imitating another natural principle; in creation, surface area is often maximized to utilize resources, in this case garden space, effectively. The human lungs have an interior surface area the size of a basketball court.
  •  The spaces between the sticks, and the raised position of the bed, insure well aerated soil, and prevent flooding damage to crops.
  •  The rotting sticks hold a huge volume of water, so the plant’s roots can always access sufficient quantities of both water and air.
  •  The wood holds on to nutrients and keeps them from leaching away.
  •  The decay process provides a gentle heat which stimulates plant growth.
  •  This strategy maximizes organic matter.
  •  The wood feeds fungi and other beneficial organisms, which are often lacking in traditional gardens.
  •  The south face warms up early and has a much warmer microclimate then the surrounding area. This allows production of crops which need a lot of heat, and are typically difficult to grow in Colorado, such as melons and sweet potatoes. At the same time, the north side stays cool and shady, and helps lettuce and similar crops avoid bolting in the heat of summer. (This is similar to the diversity of wildflowers mentioned above.)
  •  If laid on contour, the hugelkultures catch water running down a slope.

We will be building a number of hugelkultures, both in the annual vegetable gardens and in the orchards.