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

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Planting continues

We have now got tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, green beans, yard long beans, summer squash, zucchini, luffa gourds, pattypan squash, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, sunflowers, and some winter squash planted. We still need to plant dry beans and some more winter squash, and we will be done with the main season planting. Late, but hopefully not too late, if we get a reasonable autumn. We will be succession planting green beans, summer squash, cucumbers, and lettuce all summer. Cool weather crops will be planted in late summer.

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.

Trees planting: notes from the work day, April 23rd

We got our trees planted today! The weather cooperated, with a nice even cloud cover. We planted three standard pears (Moonglow, Stark Honeysweet, and Starking Delicious), five semi-dwarf apples (Candycrisp, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Enterprise, Goldrush, and Co-op 31 Winecrisp, ) two apricots, one standard and one dwarf (Harglow and Stark SweetHeart), two semi-dwarf plums (Stanley Prune and Green Gauge), A standard nectarine (Stark SunGlo), and a standard peach (Redhaven.) So with the addition of a five in one apple and a five in one plum planted earlier, there are now 16 fruit trees on the property. We will probably be planting two cherry trees as well. We bought bare root trees, which tend to have better root systems, and soaked them in kelp emulsion, which contains growth hormones and trace minerals. We did not use any fertilizer, which tends to spur trees into rapid growth before their root systems can handle it. We added inoculant to start the growth of mycorrhiza, beneficial fungi which grow into the roots of trees. Most trees have fungal allies of this sort, and need them for survival. The fungi spread over wide areas and act as a vast transport network, joining trees and other plants together into one functioning root system. This greatly enhances a new tree’s ability to take up water and nutrients, especially phosphorus.

 

Notes from the Work day, April 16th

Our fruit trees have arrived! Three standard pears, five semi-dwarf apples, a standard apricot, a dwarf apricot, a semi-dwarf nectarine, three semi-dwarf plums, and a semi-dwarf peach. We will probably buy some cherries to add to this collection. We are also looking into trees for the wetter areas of the property, possibly including pawpaws, hawthorn, and serviceberry. The trees will be planted at the next work day, Wednesday the 23rd.

At this meeting we planted 200 snap peas in our sheet mulch beds. We will be planting more in future work days. At a member’s house we have started 500 tomato plants.

We finished cutting up a tree felled at the last work day.

Notes from the work day April 2nd

At this work day, we got a new compost pile started, and cleared an area to start building permanent compost bins out of the wire we have salvaged from the fence. We began lining our keyhole beds with stones to define them, and building mini terraces across the slope with the larger rocks and concrete chunks we have dug up. These will stop the sheet mulch beds from gradually migrating downhill. We discussed renting a pole chain saw and large chipper to turn unwanted tree limbs into mulch.

Notes from the Work Day, March 29th

At this meeting we started rebuilding our compost pile for the spring. We got more logs and branches out of the ditch, and more tree trimming done. Half the fence along the North side of the property is now clear of the old wire and debris, and the posts have been dug out and straightened, ready for the new wire. Our logo has been painted on our new sign, so now we just have to set a post and get a hanger for it. We set dates for upcoming projects, and discussed tree planting, fence repairs, bed edging, compost bins, and other topics. A load of deciduous tree mulch was delivered, and another of evergreen mulch. We will be using the evergreen mulch immediately for paths, and mixing the deciduous tree mulch together with manure to create a hot compost pile, since this will kill any borers present in the chips (if any.)

Notes from the Work day, Wednesday March 22nd

At this meeting, we planted cabbage, kale, broccoli, and Swiss chard in our greenhouse, under row cover material. We formed the sheet mulch bed into a sort of basin, to retain water and keep seeds from washing out. Hopefully we will be transplanting them into the main bed in mid april.

We also took down a lot of the old fencing and straightened out the posts, so that they would be ready to receive the new wire mesh we will be installing. We will be waiting to put up the new wire until we have finished removing some trees, so that falling limbs will not crush the fence.

 

Demolition of Shed and operation of Greenhouse; Notes from the Work Days March 20th and March 23rd

There was an old run in horse shed on the urban farm property. Due to age and improper construction, it was beginning to fall apart, and was, in any case, too small for our purposes. So we decided to pull it down, salvage what lumber we could, and build a new shed.

Here are some pictures of the project.

The shed as it was, a few months ago.

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The walls starting to come down. We still have to remove all the stuff that had been stored in the shed over the years.

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The roof collapses after being disconnected from  the back posts.

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After this point, we used a vehicle to pull down the front posts which the roof was leaning on, dropping it to the ground. (Unfortunately, we did not get a picture of this step.)

At the next meeting (March 23rd) we broke up and cleared away the roof and other debris, and dug out the posts.

At these meetings we also eliminated poison hemlock from the areas where we will be working, and tidied up the property. Our greenhouse vent arm seems to be working well, and lettuce is growing inside. As you can see, there was still some snow on the ground from the most recent fall, but the temperatures inside the greenhouse were warm and steamy, triggering the vent’s arm to pop open. At the next meeting we hope to plant Brassicas and other cool weather crops in the greenhouse for transplanting to the main gardens in April.

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notes from the work meeting, March 15th

We got one length of the wire fence up, which runs across the width of the property. It should keep out rabbits and groundhogs, and, with the addition of an electric wire, it will help keep out raccoons and squirrels. We still need to deconstruct and replace the fencing on the other three sides.
The fruit trees have now been ordered. They should arrive in the first week of April.
We got a lot of work done on the next set of planting beds. These will be hugelkulture/ raised beds. We are digging down about six inches, and then piling on lots of sticks, putting the dirt and sod on top of them, and layering on leaves, manure and wood chips. It will basically be a big thick sheet mulch. Since they are being built on a slope, we will edge the downhill side with rocks to form a sort of terrace. Unlike our last hugelkulture, it will not have a deep trench in the center, and it will be under two feet deep.
We are still removing trees and brush along the bottom of the property, generating firewood, and piles of sticks for hugelkultures.
There are two problems with our greenhouse. The beds tend to dry out too fast, so the batch of lettuce we planted germinated erratically. We will be solving this with a combination of more watering, clay seed balls, and self watering planters. And the entrance does not close well. So we will be attaching weights to the bottom of the flap door, and installing a PVC pipe and clamps along the vertical edge. However, it is much warmer inside than out, and the automatic vent seems to be working well.