My 2 Strategies For Growing Nutritious, Organic Food
This type of pesticide spraying still happens all around the world.
Our world has issues.
Corruption, environmental degradation, poverty, world hunger – the list goes on and on.
In my view, one of the biggest problems is our food system.
It’s polluting our environment and polluting us, and it’s not providing us with the nutrition we need – and that includes organic food.
I’ve heard some of the brightest minds in organic agriculture – including Dr. Arden Andersen and Dr. Elaine Ingham – say that in some cases, we’ve lost over 60% of the nutrition in our food in less than 60 years.
When we don’t provide our bodies with proper nutrition, we don’t think as well, sleep as well or treat each other as well.
We’re less happy, and of course, we’re more sick.
Our current food system is a huge problem, and it’s important to shed light on these issues, but I think it’s just as important to focus on solutions rather than spending too much time feeling down about it.
Food is life-giving. It’s part of our cultural and social bonding. It has healing abilities. There’s so much powerful opportunity in food.
My organic garden last summer – young pear tree in the foreground.
And fortunately, you can grow your own – in your backyard, on your balcony or in a community/allotment garden.
It will take a bit of work and there will be a few mistakes along the way because there are a lot of things you need to learn, but you can learn them.
To me, one of the most important ways of improving our food system and our own health is to grow our own food, and not just any food, but highly nutritious, organic food.
That’s the part most gardening experts get wrong, and what I’m going to focus on today.
Doing this means more than just using compost, more than just switching to organic fertilizers and pesticides, and more than square food gardening or any of these other trendy methods being touted in gardening books.
To do it, you need to know a little about chemistry and biology, which is the subject of the first lesson in this 3 part series…
Chemistry basically refers to the periodic table of elements and how those elements interact.
Less than 20 elements are currently considered ‘essential’ for plant growth, although some of us believe many of them are probably important for optimal plant health.
There are over 100 of them – hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and so on.
How much of each element you have in your soil is based on the underlying rock material that’s native to your area or was brought in by glaciers, waterways, volcanoes or wind.
Rain can also have a big impact by moving those elements somewhere else – downhill or down into the subsoil.
Use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides also changes the soil chemistry.
If you weren’t too concerned about which plants grew in your yard, you wouldn’t have to do anything to change the soil chemistry because odds are there are some plants that will start growing there naturally, given they have enough water.
But since we are concerned with what grows in our gardens, and we want it to be healthy, we do often need to do a little chemistry tweaking to bring our soil to a place that can grow the wide variety of food plants we want to grow.
Note that I’m not saying chemicals – just chemistry, which just means elements, found naturally all over our planet.
As organic gardeners, we aren’t particularly fond of the idea of having, say, our rock phosphate shipped from Idaho and our gypsum from California.
But we are fond of growing tomatoes and strawberries that are as nutritious as possible, and if we do get our soil into balance, we can ultimately decrease the shipping of a lot of food from around the world to our kitchen counters.
So how do you improve your soil chemistry?
I mention compost often. It’s a great start. It brings in small amounts of many different elements, so it’s especially useful to make sure you have enough of those trace elements we know less about but believe are very important.
These include elements such as selenium and arsenic (yes, soil, plants and people all need even arsenic in small amounts).
Seaweed is an excellent source of broad spectrum nutrition for soil and plants.
But you’ll probably also benefit greatly by using some organic fertilizers in the first couple of years.
You’ll do this in order to have more control over the quantity of certain elements in your soil, and in order to feed plants directly during those first years when your soil is still transitioning to being healthier.
- Broad spectrum fertilizers that add small amounts of many different elements, such as rock dust, seaweed and even ocean water. These will benefit almost any garden.
- More specific fertilizers that add larger amounts of just 2-3 elements. They are usually naturally mined rocks such as lime and rock phosphate. These should mostly be added only after you’ve done a soil test.
Some of these products may feed plants directly, but often we do this even more for the other biology in the soil, because it has just as important of a role to play…
An optimally healthy forest topsoil can be 80% microorganisms by weight! Many people who work with soil put that number at more like 5%, but that’s because they’re used to working with sick agricultural soils.
Biology refers to living organisms.
Without the biology, soil is just lifeless dirt.
But a handful of healthy soil might have more bacteria and fungi in it than there are people on the planet! And most of them are beneficial.
Through their growing, eating and being eaten, microorganisms rearrange the elements and soil particles to create a place where water and nutrients can be held, air can circulate, and animals and plants can thrive.
Plus they feed plants directly, so they’re really the link between the chemistry in the soil and in plants.
They’re a key part of getting the nutrition back into our food.
Soil microorganisms, plants and animals make up what we call the ‘soil food web.’ The main reason we work on balancing the chemistry is so the soil organisms – the biology – can do what they do.
Unfortunately, the biology is often deficient in our gardens because of past tilling, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, construction practices, drip irrigation and xeriscaping, monocultures, pollution, etc., so as with the chemistry, we may need to bring it back in.
You can learn about your soil biology by sending a soil sample to a biology lab that specializes in this kind of thing.
You can also get a microscope and learn to diagnose your soil yourself.
Doing this isn’t nearly as popular as chemistry testing, but is gradually becoming more accepted in the organic farming world and we may eventually see it as the more important test.
Once you have an idea of what you’re working with for soil biology, you can bring in the appropriate microorganisms through specific, homemade compost and compost teas, plus perhaps other microbial inoculants such as mycorrhizal fungi.
Adding regular high-quality compost is the most important part because it will have a treasure trove of beneficial organisms, but it gets even more exciting when we learn to make compost specifically for our soil and crops.
For example, if you’re trying to grow broccoli, your bacteria-dominated soil may be fine – brassicas don’t even partner with mycorrhizal fungi.
But if you want to grow tomatoes or strawberries, you’ll want to get more fungi in the soil by making more of a fungal-dominated compost and compost tea.
And of course, we want to stop doing the things which might have caused our biology to be deficient in the first place.
Pests and Weeds
Colorado potato beetle.
When a Colorado potato beetle decimates my tomatoes, potatoes or eggplants, it’s not because I’ve grown amazingly nutritious plants.
The beetles are actually there because my plants are unhealthy. So are the aphids, cutworms, scales and all other insect pests.
They can’t even digest plants that we would consider healthy.
Same with the mildews, wilts, molds and other diseases.
It’s an interesting piece of history that insects and diseases have evolved to remove the sick plants from our world in order to keep the whole system functioning.
And that dandelions, crabgrass, thistles and other weeds are there because my soil is imbalanced. They’re there to fix it. Thank you weeds!
This is a crucial lesson to learn because it helps us understand why we need to make the change from managing garden pests (e.g. IPM) to managing garden health.
The great thing about managing garden health is that we’re getting both nutritious food and pest control with the same principles.
Let’s continue our chemistry and biology discussion to see how it relates to the issue of not only nutrition but pests and weed control too…
For plants to be optimally healthy, they need access to balanced nutrition.
When they have that, not only can they manufacture their own toxins to dissuade pests from eating them, but the pests won’t even try in the first place because healthy plants aren’t food for them.
My compost bin.
In my garden, well-made compost is the basis for this balanced nutrition.
By well made, I mean it was put together with a diverse array of ingredients that bring in a diverse array of nutrients and microorganisms.
I also mean that the moisture, air, temperature and carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of the pile were all kept within ranges that promote the healthy breakdown of these materials instead of putrefaction, and the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms instead of harmful ones.
The many nutrients in the compost are responsible for a lot of important things, from relieving compaction in the soil to photosynthesis in plants to everything in between.
But a main downside of compost is that it doesn’t allow us to deliberately manipulate specific nutrients into the correct ratios with each other the way we can with specific mineral fertilizers.
At the same time, I think most of us want to produce much of our fertility onsite because it’s more affordable and sustainable, so I can relate when my Academy members are hesitant to pay for a soil test and ship in fertilizers from across the country.
So when you’re starting out, feel free to work mainly with compost, mulch and cover crops at first. Those are great amendments to learn how to make and use, and they’ll get you a long way. The soil testing and fertilizers can come when you need them.
On the other hand, if you don’t have access to good compost, there are a few fertilizers that can very affordably bring in the nutrients your soil and plants need, especially in those first couple of years when the soil is still transitioning to being healthier.
Ocean water is an excellent fertilizer.
Rock dust, liquid seaweed and ocean water are the main ones I use. Ocean fish make excellent fertilizer, too, although I’m concerned about the overfishing of our oceans, so I don’t use it as much.
In terms of specific elements, there is one worth using even when you haven’t done a soil test. That element is calcium.
Because most weeds and pests are there largely because of a calcium deficiency, getting sufficient calcium can go a long way to controlling them.
Calcium makes many good things happen. A deficiency of calcium makes many good things not happen.
That’s why I often say to add 5-10 pounds of calcium carbonate per 1000 square feet to your soil each year, even if you haven’t done a soil test.
Phosphorus is the next most important for dealing with pests, and then many of the trace minerals in compost, seaweed, ocean water and rock dust have a big role to play.
Let’s talk diversity.
First is microbial diversity.
Microorganisms bring food and water to plants, so they have a huge role to play in plant nutrition, and therefore pest control.
They also control bacterial and fungal diseases directly, in the soil and on plants.
Compost, compost tea, homemade teas, effective microorganisms (EM), indigenous microorganisms, mycorrhizal fungi and other inoculants will all bring in a different set of beneficial microbes that will keep diseases at bay.
Well made compost is the best one.
The main reasons we occasionally bring in these other inputs are because we may not have access to really great compost, and here’s where it gets interesting – compost can’t be applied to plant leaves.
What we’ve learned is if we can colonize the leaves with microbes from aerobic compost tea or EM, they can prevent and eradicate many diseases.
If we can colonize the roots with mycorrhizal fungi (not found in compost), they’ll do the same in the soil.
Then there’s animal diversity. Insect pests will be eaten by other insects and other animals if you have those other insects and other animals in your garden.
The way to attract beneficial insects is by using a wide diversity of insect-attracting plants that bloom at various times throughout the year.
Herbs are often really good at this, so my advice is always to plant as many different herbs as you can, even if just one of each – dill, cilantro, thyme, oregano, and at least a dozen others.
Many birds are also insect eaters, so invite them into your garden with bird feeders, bird baths and a diversity of food and habitat for them. Of course, you may need to protect some of your crops such as cherry trees with bird netting, but that’s okay.
Frogs, snakes, bats and more – there are many insect controllers that will help us out if we make our gardens a place they want to live.
The more diversity we have in the garden, with wet areas, weedy areas, rock piles, evening-flowering plants, etc., the more helpers we’ll attract.
My garden looks pretty wild sometimes because I plant polycultures of many species of plants all mixed together.
Then there’s plant diversity. If you plant many types of food, when your potatoes get eaten by the Colorado potato beetle (because you probably have a deficiency, in this case, of Ca, P, Vit C, Cu and Mn), you’ll still have squash and carrots right nearby in good shape.
In fact, if you plant multiple species of potatoes in different parts of the garden, odds are that if one becomes pest-ridden, the others will be fine.
It can also be helpful to plant many different species of plants close together. A simple example of this ‘companion planting’ is corn, beans and squash.
A more complex example, called a ‘polyculture’, is to plant 10-20 species all mixed together.
Some of those plants will confuse predators, while others will attract the predators of those predators.
Some will provide food for you, some will improve soil fertility, some will control weeds, some will break up compaction, and so on.
Bringing It All Together
There’s a lot to learn about getting the chemistry and biology right, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see how garden pests go away when soil and plant health are improved.
We’ll talk about pests in the next lesson. Unfortunately, these ants actually help these aphids rather than control them, but many other insects will control them both.
The most incredible phenomenon is when disease and insect pests move from your crops to your weeds because that means:
- Your plants are obviously healthier – that’s why the pests left them
- Your weeds are obviously less healthy – that’s why the pests moved to them
- Your soil is obviously healthier – that’s why the plants are healthier and the weeds are now sick because most weeds don’t do well in balanced soil
When that happens – what an a-ha moment!
My aim with SmilingGardener.com is to share the basic principles for how to accomplish this. I try to share just the right amount of detail to help people out with their gardens without overwhelming them.
My aim with my Smiling Gardener Academy is to share a much more comprehensive, step by step approach to accomplish this. It’s for the people who are willing to put in a little work and study up front to grow nutrient-dense, pest-free food for many years to come.
last year we had pea weevils in our area and they destroyed our peas and we also had a flea beetle epidemic which attacked the collards so i am watching for them this yearwe have never had these bugs before but many gardeners/growers had the same problem last year in our area
I have 2 4×8 raised garden beds in Spokane, Washington. I’ve set up PVC hoops over them with bird netting to try to keep the DEER out. I’ve started seeds for tomatoes, peppers, cherry tomatoes, and peas. I also want to grow carrots and beets and lettuce and chard and cucumbers and zucchini, and, well, I don’t think I have enough space for all that. 🙁 I do wonder about using plastic over my hoops to make a greenhouse, and how that would affect my plants. In the summer, is there such a thing as too hot? Would boosting the temperature for the whole growing season make for faster maturing or larger plants? Should I save the plastic for September when the temperature starts to drop? Can I grow anything in this plastic “greenhouse” when the ground is covered in snow? or would it still be too cold?
Great questions Leana. Yes, plastic is great in the early spring and late fall to extend the growing season. In the summer, I find it’s best to take it off to let in more light and, yes, to avoid overheating, which can definitely happen.And yes, save the plastic for September. It’s too cold for food plants to germinate when the the temperature is freezing, but in late summer, you can plant your carrots, parsnips, beets, bush beans, lettuce, kale, chard, anything in the cabbage family, and then harvest them well into the winter with the plastic on.
I am having difficulty rotating crops around a garden of four raised beds and two in-ground beds. All of the beds are about 50 square feet in size. I have a location for legumes, brassica, and nightshades. One of the raised beds will be a ‘miscellaneous’ garden for lettuce, carrots, beets, onions, etc. That leaves me trying to fit in the curcubits, and I am toying with either corn or potatoes.The problem is that the quantities of what I want isn’t the same for each plant family. As I project down the years, I’ll either get to the point where I have to violate the rules, or have more legumes than I could possibly handle. It’d be useful to know your thoughts on rotation, and what are the main ‘do-not’ things to keep in mind.
Most people consider rotation to be a best practice, and I pretty much agree, yet it’s quite unnecessary when your soil is healthy. Traditional farmers have grown the same crops on the same land for hundreds of years without rotating, by taking care of their soil, so my main advice is to do the same. My recommendation is to violate the rotation rules a bit, and keep notes on the rotations and combinations over the years to see if there are any issues. I don’t pay too much attention to companion planting rules, but I do keep track so I can figure out if there are issues.I do rotate on a 3 year basis in my garden, trying to follow a heavy feeder with a soil builder, followed by a light feeder, and so on, something like this:1. Heavy feeder – Corn, squash, cucumber, brassicas2. Medium feeder – Peppers, tomatoes3. Lighter feeder – Carrots, beets, roots, lettuce/greens4. Soil builder – Legumes (peas/beans)Corn may be a bit tricky on only 50 square feet because it needs a big enough stand to cross pollinate – if you do try it, you may want to hand pollinate to ensure you get reasonable pollination with such a small stand.
I have an indoor compost bucket in which I put all my vegie scraps.The juice from this is then used to feed my plants.Do you agree with this method??
Hi Beverley, if it smells good, it’s worthwhile. If it smells bad, you don’t want to use it because it contains plant-harming biology and the toxins they produce, but you may want to find a way to turn it into something very beneficial, by making (or buying) a worm bin or making (or buying) bokashi to help ferment the veggie scraps, or otherwise making proper compost.
I was doing the same thing as Beverley. If I buy a bokashi do I need to add worms? If so what kind. Also do you just spin it once a day when you add food scrapes?
With bokashi, you add a handful of micro-organism infused bran (www.vermitek.com) to each three or four inches of scraps. No turning required, since this is anaerobic (not needing air). Then the liquid can be poured onto plants (I dilute to about 50 parts of water per ‘tea’ part) or even undiluted into your drains to clean them. When my bucket is full, I let it sit without opening it for about 2 weeks. Then, I dig a trench 12″ deep and bury the bokashi into my garden. Wonderful compost…and no worries about green vs. brown material — all goes into the scrap bin.
As Jan said, using bokashi is a very different process than using worms, so you would use one or the other. Bokashi is a bran that has been fermented with effective microorganisms. You mix that bran with your food scraps and it ferments them, kind of pickles them. It doesn’t turn them into compost, but it does control smells and makes it so when you bury those food scraps in your soil, they’ll break down very fast.A worm bin takes more time and/or money to set up, costs less in the long run, and the worms turn the food scraps into compost that can be used on plants and soil – so it’s a very different process.
Hi Phil,I really appreciate your approach in bringing a little more specificity to gardening by tackling chemistry & biology factors at work. A few years ago i read through M. Astera’s Ideal Soil book and more recently Steve Solomon’s somewhat less complicated Intelligent Gardener book. Both of these have helped me in adding more of the right kinds of minerals and in bringing some balance to my garden soils. A Solviita biology test 2 years indicated that I had very good micro-organism distribution in my soil. My soil here started out as a heavy clay soil and despite all I’ve done it still tightens up mid to late season. MY Ca/Mg ratio is roughly 5 – 2. I’ve also in the last year or so been planting a cover crop mix of field peas, oats and forage radishes. Brix readings are in the 8 to 9 range and later in the season get closer to 10 – 12. I grow in 3′ wide beds with chip mulch paths in between. I have had trouble growing potatoes and squash, Other crops are generally OK, but not spectacular. This year I hope to broadfork more of my beds. I’ve also added some biochar. Do you have any suggestion as to what else I might try to improve my crops? Also, I wondered if you get into the energetic influences on crop growth, i.e., paramagnetic rock, structured water for irrigation and biodynamic preps. Any suggestions along these lines?Thanks very much,Ron
Great questions Ron. I occasionally use paramagnetic rock and biodynamic preps, but don’t teach them in any detail because I’m just a student of these more energetic approaches. I do think that’s where I’ll be heading with my gardening over the next 10 years.For your situation, it seems like you’re doing everything right. Obviously you still need to work on the calcium, but it’s great that you’re working on biology, too, and also that diverse cover crop mix. I do often like to double dig my beds when I first build them, but after that not anymore so as to allow the biology to live undisturbed, so you might want to consider that because the biology will do the work of relieving compaction if they have the calcium to do it, and if potassium is kept down (as you know, Mg and K contribute to compaction). For calcium, you might try some different options than lime such as gypsum and GSR Calcium.For the potatoes, maybe just plant them shallow and hill them up with soil/straw/weeds/etc. Mine do well in my clay, but I have lots of calcium.
Phil,I hope that you are well. It’s been a pleasure learning from you.We’ve had a very wet year in Tyler, TX. I leaf mulched the gardens in the fall and now have a healthy snail and slug population. Last week, I removed the mulch from the beds to give them some air and sunlight. Any recommendations for the length of time that I should expose the soil? I am also using beer traps to control the slugs and snails.Cheers!
t’s no problem to keep the leaves off for awhile, even until your seedlings are grown up a bit so they can handle some nibbling (assuming you’re growing vegetables). You’ll lose some of the benefits the leaves provide, but that’s a worthwhile compromise. As for timing, it will just have to be trial and error. Replace the mulch on part of the bed when you feel ready and see what happens. As an interesting aside, I’ve found sometimes that ‘Effective Microorganisms’ can help dissuade slugs from eating plants, but not always. Beer traps work well, too.
Hey Phil,It’s great to learn from the “ground up”, and especially since I’m about to start my first garden. My In-laws have given me a small plot (about 10 ft by 12 ft ), and am eager to start. I’ve done some research on “Sheet Mulching” or “Lasagna Gardening” and am laying down the cardboard after lunch today.(after weed whacking the grass/weeds down).I’ve been saving my compost up for a couple of weeks, in a bin. and i realize that I probably won’t have time to get enough materials to start growing soon.My Plan —–is to chop up my compost as small as possible,and build a hot compost pile.Also get familiar with the local farms to get “free compost” from near by sources, as my budget is non-existent. and maybe start sheet mulching so can start planting in the late summer — or early fall.Question—(1) Is there a way I can start growing seeds in small pots with potting soil ( then transplant when I have a descent garden bed) (2) which potting soil would you recommend ,(3) would the veggies/fruits still have lots of nutrition? (after transplanting the seedlings into my Lasagna garden )Thanks for your time,Your an inspiration to many of us sprouts ! =D
1. Yes, you can start growing seeds in small pots or trays with potting soil. If you had a budget, I would suggest getting fluorescent lights, generally necessary for starting seeds inside, but since you don’t need the plants to be ready until later in the year, you can just start the seeds outside when the time is right.2. I don’t recommend any specific brands of potting soil. I try to go organic if I can. If you’re only doing a small number of plants, it might be worth it just to buy it, but if you want to make your own much more affordably, mix 1/3 course sand, 1/3 topsoil and 1/3 quality compost.3. The first growing season in a lasagna bed can be a bit disappointing because it needs more time to break down, but if you’re prepared for that, it’s okay. Fertilizing is a big topic, but any of those broad spectrum fertilizers I mentioned above will help: rock dust, seaweed and/or sea minerals (ocean water). And if you can learn to make your own compost from a diverse mix of ingredients, you’ll get some nutrition and beneficial biology there too.
So, Phil, I should have two liters of EM brewed by Saturday. It will be two weeks then. Seems to be doing fine. Burping it every day. What specifically does it do for plants – the soil?How much and how often should I apply it?The hose sprayer that I purchased from you….. If I fill the jar……what number should I put it on?I made my first batch of Compost Tea from earth worm castings this week. I applied the 5 gallons straight to my plants- lettuce, kale, spinach, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts. How does the EM and Compost Tea differ in the way they feed the Soil Web?I have been organic gardening on a small scale for many years but have only recently discovered the Soil Food Web….was fortunate enough to attenda workshop by Elaine Ingham at the Organic Growers School in Asheville.This is mind-blowing stuff and of course has changed my thinking regarding how to build healthy soil.Can I understand the microbiology in my soil without buying a microscope?Sorry about the length.Thanks,Tom MayhughSC
The microorganisms in EM do a long list of things, but broadly, in the soil and on plants they cycle nutrients and produce many important substances such as amino acids that enhance fertility, they control harmful microorganisms and encourage other microorganisms to work more beneficially, and they break down organic matter in a positive way (as opposed to harmful putrefaction).I like to apply it monthly, but it can be applied more or less often. My calculator will help you figure that out for your garden: https://www.smilinggardener.com/sale/calculator/ Put the hose end sprayer on setting 1. If it doesn’t suck up well, which can happen when you’re combining the EM with thicker materials such as fish, move it up as high as number 5. But start lower for a greater dilution with water. The microorganisms in EM and compost tea will perform many similar kinds of tasks. EM supplies a small number of species of microorganisms that we know are especially beneficial and the nice thing about it is that it’s created in a lab setting so we know what we’re getting, while well-made compost tea supplies a much broader range of microorganisms that should mostly be beneficial, but the process is much less controlled so we don’t know exactly what we’re getting.The way to thoroughly understand the microbiology in your soil is to buy a microscope or send a sample to a biology lab, but with practice, you can learn something about your soil by observing the weeds that proliferate, and probably the soil animals too.
I am hoping to have a garden that does not require me purchasing any plastic and without supporting shipping things from one end of the continent to the other. Is it possible to have a healthy, food producing garden this way or am I going to have to bend a bit on my ideal? So far I compost, have vermicompost, and use cover crops. I did purchase your mother culture this year as well which came in a plastic bottle I will happily cut and reuse as a mini greenhouse in Spring. I have six 4’x8′ raised beds, two 2’x8′ greenhouse raised beds, and two 4’x12′ raised beds, raspberry canes and an apricot tree…so far. I also have a spectacularly short season in that we often have frosts and snow into the start of June and heavy frosts again at the start of September.
Hi Madi, great question. Yes, having a healthy, food producing garden is possible without importing products. Certainly a rainforest or prairie doesn’t need products. Of course a big difference is that these ecosystems will naturally grow the plants that are suited to the soil, over a long time frame that starts with pioneer plants and over decades or centuries gradually transitions to a mature system, whereas we are growing plants that originated all over the world in very different soils, and we want them to be healthy now, not in 50 years. So you’ll just have to be okay with the fact that some plants won’t thrive in your native soil, and that is okay – nothing wrong with that at all.Then your composts and cover crops will go a long way to improving soil biology and a little way to improving chemistry, so it’s a really great start. Indeed, while I talk a lot about organic fertilizers and microbial inoculants, it’s only a small part of what I do in my garden. Composting, mulching, cover cropping and watering are all just as important. Hope that helps 🙂
I can’t afford any in-depth tests at this point, so how do I proceed? I started with sandy loam, and have added some compost of varying degrees of goodness to it as well as some natural nitrates from, er, a natural source (me). What basic things should I add now, since I don’t really know where I am at, other than about 6.5 Ph?Thanks!
Hi Martin, in terms of affordable ways to improve soil chemistry and biology: Compost and natural nitrates are a great start. Mulching with leaves or straw is, too. A few shovelfuls of soil from various healthy ecosystems in your area dan bring in some new beneficial microorganisms. Used coffee grounds from cafes are useful as a source of nitrogen spread on the soil or composted first. The main thing is learning to make good compost with many different materials that will bring in many different elements and microbes. And no need to worry about pH – the pH changes quite a lot every day, and contrary to popular belief, pH doesn’t help with fertilizing decisions.
I have been adding homemade compost to my garden for the past 3 or 4 years. The soil is looking really nice but I have an overabundance of rolly pollies and they love to eat my seedings and young plants. They even go after my young zucchini once it starts producing. I can no longer sew seeds directly in the ground. I know they are part of the composting cycle but I need to be able to grow things for me as well 🙂 How do I control them so they don’t devour what I plant?
You can control them with many of the same techniques that are used for controlling slugs: beer in a plastic container set down into the soil, 50:50 yucca extract and water sprayed onto the soil around plants, diatomaceous earth (DE), fresh seaweed used as mulch, even spraying effective microorganisms can help. The DE and beer will kill some beneficials, too, so it’s always about finding balance.And then improving the health of the plants can really dissuade the pill bugs from eating. As for what the plants need, that’s not always so easy to tell. That’s when soil testing and fertilizing comes in, as well as spraying microbial inoculants and liquid organic fertilizers (whether homemade or purchased). I’ll talk more about this in part 2 of this series.
What is a appropriate crop to grow amongst fruit trees ( mainly Apple) ; we have been growing strawberries but now as the trees are getting bigger not as much sunlight is getting to the ground !? We are near Golden BC.
Have the strawberries stopped producing? Strawberries originated on the edges of forests, so they can do okay. You might switch to wild strawberries instead of the more domesticated garden variety. Blackberries do well, but get in the way of harvesting the apples. I have rhubarb growing under a pear and loving it.
Thanks. Will mostly there producing is low due to them being 3-4 years old; so will replace them…although they say to let the soil lay dormant for 3 years.seams like long time so thinking maybe 1 year and another 10 cm. or so of fresh soil ( peat mossish ) . Were producing lots of biochar & are excited to see the results. What is your experince with Biochar
I’ve never used biochar, always preferring good compost for the beneficial biology and nutrition. I wouldn’t bring in peat moss, as it doesn’t have all that much to offer when you look into it – compost does everything better. A small amount of good compost and fertilizer is probably what you need, along with experimenting with your biochar, which will be fun. But there should be no need to bring in huge amounts of soil or any other soil amendment.
I agree totaly about compost; although we don`t produce enough for 1 acre of garden ,& orchard. Research Biochar it is amazing ; it also recaptures carbon out of the air ; & we have put way to much up there 🙂
Yes, I’ve researched biochar. There’s a lot of hype right now. If you look at the data, we’re still not sure how good it is. It often contains plant-toxic chemicals and often doesn’t improve plant growth or plant health, but sometimes it does. I think it’s worth experimenting with for sure, but the jury is still out.
A Phil ; One of my best friends a scientist has been resarching and conducting seminars worldwide for several years :Paul Taylor, PhDEd/Author: The Biochar RevolutionTransforming Agriculture and the Environment
That’s very cool Brian. I imagine it’s an exciting field to be in right now. I’m sure Paul is well aware of these issues I mentioned and several others I didn’t, and is no doubt also interested in further research. I’ll be following along with interest myself, and would love to hear how things go on your land as you begin to try it out.
What is the purpose of planting on raised beds when there is no rain? During the rainy season. it helps to drain the water. During summer, is it not better to plant in shallow furrows or pits so that water will not spread?
If you’re growing in a place where rain is scarce then yes, it may make sense to plant in pit. The other benefits of raised beds are: when your soil is so bad that you can’t grow in it you can create your own soil in a raised bed; when you can’t bend over to the ground and want the comfortable height of a tall raised bed; the soil will warm up faster in the spring so you can plant earlier; a raised bed structure gives a place to attach a cold frame or hoop house; the structure stops weeds from encroaching from outside the bed; makes it easier to keep out animals. Personally, I mostly grow in the ground, but raised beds do make a lot of sense sometimes.
Every year my garden is decimated by fungal disease – leaf spot and mildew. I have tried baking soda spray – didn’t touch it. Garden sulphur worked a bit better but was only a delaying action. I don’t want to use anything more toxic than that, and I’m not sure what to do.
Hi Patton, sorry I didn’t see this earlier. Your issue will be the focus of tomorrow’s post. If much of the garden is hit by the diseases, it’s obviously a deeper problem that needs to be addressed. Usually it’s an imbalance of chemistry and/or biology, as I’ll explain in more detail tomorrow. It can sometimes be more of a ‘physics’ issue, such as trying to grow sun-needing plants in the shade, or positioning plants too close together thus limiting airflow, or watering at night which creates a humid environment. Neem oil can be helpful with leaf spot and mildew in the interim while you’re also troubleshooting the deeper cause.
I’ve had success with eliminating mildew by spraying the leaves with a combination of milk and 2 tablespoons of baking soda put in a feeder on the end of a hose.
Thanks Diane, yes, I’ve found that can sometimes help quite a lot.
Hi Phil, today I received my soil analysis and I don’t know where to start. Can you help me with what to work on first. Will joining the academy teach me about what has been recommended?
Yes, the Academy will teach you Lynda, and while I can’t offer soil test help to the general public because it’s quite involved, Academy members get direct help from me with their results.
Hi Phil- As Spring creeps closer in northern MN, I’m thrilled to put into practice your wisdom for the first time! I will be adding beautiful fungal compost from under the woodpile directly to the veggie garden. I have a lovely neighbor with horses across the street with even lovelier compost. My own compost pile of kitchen scraps gets picked over by wildlife all winter, so only the coffee grounds remain. That said, with all this goodness going in, why on earth do I still have early blight each year that decimates the crop- before summer is in full swing? The fungus seems to spread overnight across the garden each spring. I plan to try a foliar compost tea this year, but still unclear exactly how to remedy my nemesis! Any ideas?
It’s a bit tricky to say for sure, but it could be a biology issue or a chemistry issue. From a chemistry point of view, blight is a deficiency in phosphorus – spraying a mixture of phosphoric acid (nasty stuff – handle with care) and water onto the leaves could help. From a biological point of view, well-made aerated compost tea with a good fungal component can help with early blight, so definitely worth trying with your compost.
Hi Phil, I cleared a piece of land last fall to create a 500 Sq. foot garden. I did plant a couple rows of garlic late last fall and will be interested to see how they wintered once the snow is gone in NB. The soil seemed to be clayish in the fall so I plan to add lots of compost this spring before planting other vegetables.
Compost is a great idea – I usually keep it to max 1/4 inch per year so as not to oversupply potassium, which could otherwise cause the clay to get more compacted instead of less. To find out if your soil is indeed clay, take a small amount of moist soil in your hand and try to roll it into a ball. If it rolls easily into a ball and even out into a sausage, and stains your fingers a little bit, you have some clay there – not a bad thing at all.
Phil, I have 5 compost bins and one has ants and maggots. Do I need to throw this away or is there a way I can naturLy get rid of these. I have a neighbor who occasionally likes to add stuff to the bin and I’m thinking she might hVe added meat scraps. Help!
The ants and maggots may not be a problem (depending on which species of maggots you have). In fact, maggots can sometimes help the composting process. But yes, if you can rebuild the pile to be a hot pile, with proper moisture, aeration, and carbon to nitrogen ratio, the ants and maggots should become fewer in number.
I started a compost pile this year and last weekend I put ashes from by BBQ grill in the pile too. Since then I have read you should never put ash in the compost pile. Do I need to start over, or just keep adding to my pile and mix it well?
It should be fine. I actually prefer ash to go into the pile rather than directly onto the soil, if possible. Just mix well.
Phil, Do you have an opinion about the health of the Mittleider gardening method? It is essentially a hydroponic system in sand and sawdust instead of water. Any thoughts? ThanksDan
Hi Dan, I’ve never tried it myself, but I do have a few thoughts about it. Overall, the method doesn’t resonate much with me because:-It focuses on the weekly application of just a few synthetic fertilizers, and only a few nutrients, but plants (and we) need dozens of nutrients for optimal health. I’m more interested in creating a thriving ecosystem with diverse nutrition and biology, rather than such an artificial ecosystem.-It’s a lot of manual work that never ends. I have no problem with hard work, and certainly my followers know that my approach to gardening does take some work in the first couple of years, but in the long run I’m a big advocate of getting nature to do most of the work for us. The Mittleider method goes in the opposite direction of that.That being said, I think it can be worthwhile to play with these alternative methods, as I’ve done with hydroponics, and there may be situations in which the Mittleider method is especially relevant, such as when you want to grow in some raised beds right on your driveway and you don’t have access to real soil and compost, but do have access to sand and sawdust. I don’t think it should be imposed into an environment where it isn’t necessary to go so artificial, but I do think it would be interesting to plant a raised bed with the Mittleider method and another with a more traditional approach and see how it does.I would make a similar argument for Steve Solomon’s methods for gardening without irrigation – doesn’t make sense to me in most environments, but is very pertinent when you’re in a dry area without irrigation.
Hi Phil , hows life treating you? I get your emails and just noticed for the first time I can reply.I want to pick your brains. I moved to a new place a year ago and put heaps of trees in , and now theyre all dead. I believe the culprit is either the truckload of soil I had brought in ,( because I recently noticed water doesn’t soak in very far). OR Im surrounded by a farm which sprays round-up. Its quite distressing watching trees die, they’ve looked dead for about 6 months. Including a Mt Fuji Cherry which was a really nice tree. If the reason was soil that wont soak in water, can my trees be resuscitated? If so how? cheers Dave
I should add im in Australia and it gets hot and dry. I ran around watering them all each day .(15 acre block) but they died anyhow, with straw mulch. I thought I was accursed. But finally realised the water was only going in about 10mm if that. Also my compost attempts dont compost so I cant use compost . And yes I sound like a terrible gardener, but at my last place everything grew perfectly and compost composted.
Sorry for your troubles Dave. It is really, really difficult to watch so many trees die. My dad runs a tree nursery and has sold many thousands of trees over the years. The most common reason they die is because of water issues – typically not enough water, sometimes too much. Usually the reason is because people just don’t water them, but in your case, you were watering. I’ve never heard of topsoil that only soaks in 10mm – were you watering enough?Roundup drift could harm your trees, but wouldn’t kill all of them, so I lean to it being a water issue. If the trees are dead, obviously they aren’t coming back. If you scratch the bark on some young branches/twigs and see green, or if you try to snap off a twig and see green or any sign of life (dead twigs go very brittle), there’s still hope. I would get an arborist or the person you bought the trees from to come have a look before pulling them all out.
This year is the first year I’ll have a decent amount of home made compost and also the first fruits of a wormery I set up 15 months ago. So my first thoughts are how to prioritise when and where to use the home-grown compost and what to use the vermicompost with. I’m trying out a teaspoon of vermicompost in the final pots of tomatoes and I’ve already made some vermicompost tea for watering (although it won’t work with a traditional watering can as it blocks the holes, so I”m using it at the moment on mature plants like over-wintered cabbage, garlic and chard).My second issue appears to be how to successfully transplant modules with young plants into soil. Some modules don’t seem to hold together so well when you are trying to extract the soil, so either I need more roots to firm it up or I need to use wetter compost when transplanting the plants.My priorities for the garden overall are:1. Optimise the compost production through saving grass cuttings, building one heap a month and combining two heaps after 2 months, to create a system which will give enough compost for 50sqm.2. Collect as many leaves in the autumn to allow as much mulching of beds with leaves as possible, following the successful trial last winter.3. Try and source wood chips for mulch to be used from 2018 after 3 years of composting away from beds.4. Source a wood chipper for use in the garden to accelerate composting of both woody and herbacious materials.5. Start carrying out experiments with comfrey tea, nettle tea, compost tea with specific vegetables at specific points in their life cycles.
Growing on a slope: Would you suggest creating rows in line with the slope, from top to bottom, or the other way, horizontally? I have a new house I’m renting from this week and am allowed to plant what I like. The biggest area is where chickens used to be a year ago, so I assume it’s already nutritious soil, yet it is all currently exposed, and below the surface it is all a sand hill, basically. At some point I’m thinking to introduce chickens again…cheers!Guy
Definitely horizontally – cuts down on erosion, much better for water/irrigation, and generally easier to work with. Sounds like fun!
Oh! Thanks Phil!!
Hi I’m from India, growing edibles in containers on my terrace. Would I be able to benefit from signing up?
Hi Alice, you would definitely benefit, but it’s not a perfect fit for container growing because a lot of the topics favor growing in the ground, so I tend to tell container gardeners to only sign up if they intend to grow in the ground at some point. (By the way, I’m also growing in containers as part of my gardening this year – it’s definitely lots of fun, too.)
Stuck with building a 100% container garden on a balcony. What minimum nighttime temperature would you consider it safe to leave the containers outside.
Hi John, do you mean they’re planted already? It entirely depends on the plants of course, as some can take frost and some need it quite warm at night.
Started them in a seed starter tray inside
Ya, it depends on the plant. Many brassicas (e.g. kale, cabbage, broccoli) as well as peas and spinach can handle a bit of frost, while plant families such as the tomato and squash family need it to be quite hot. You need to figure it out on a plant by plant basis.
Planted inside in a seed starter tray
Help! We live in the northern part of Spokane County in Spokane, Wa. We are on the 46th parallel and zone 5B/6A. We are trying to start a small market farm. We are/have been trying to only use organic products and methods in our gardening. 3 years ago we planted 40 fruit trees, garlic, asparagus and many different small berries; raspberries, black berries, strawberries. We are going to be planting the vegetables in the other garden area this year. Also, this year we are going to be planting 380 blueberry plants. Because of the unusually warmer early spring this year, they have arrived much earlier than we had planned! We have been on a very steep learning curve in understanding the physiology of soil microbiology and there seems to be so many voices right now regarding this that it can be very overwhelming and quite frankly, complicated in the recommendations at times! We realize that this is happening because there has reached a critical “tipping point” of un-health in our soils because of all the conventional practices in farming and its applications. It has been very positive to be now more in an awareness of the importance of soil biology/food web but it equally seems confusing and overwhelming because many are trying to jump on the band wagon and trying to market their “magical” biology powder, solution tea, etc. Equally, there are different ideas of soil testing methods out now. This makes it hard to get an unbiased understanding of what to use, which test, which product and where to purchase it, etc. It can be confusing and very expensive!We have studied Eliot Coleman and would love to implement extending the growing season on our farm. We have tried the Back to Eden wood chip mulching method 2 years ago on our orchard that has lots of green in it and even went to go visit Paul Gautchi. He has a great garden and his vegetables taste out of this world!! We have found that this method has produced some real positive results in our own orchard but not so in the garden. Although, we are convinced that the no till method is best….we have continued researching and are realizing there are many other components to this equation for sure in restoring soil health, especially in our circumstance at our property. We then learned that weeds tell you the health of your soil and discovered Dr. Elaine Ingham and you. This has been quite a journey and have really appreciated what you have brought to the table of these discussions!! We are signed up for your newsletters and ordered your book.So here we are and we need the most practical help in chartering through all of this info. since spring has arrived unusally early here and would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations for us. Sorry for the long introduction but I have tried to share a bit of background of our experience. So, right now our situation is this. We were recommended to go to International Ag Labs and so we sent in our samples earlier this year and got our results. We have 380 blueberry plants that have to be planted. We know that these are eracacious plants and have a different symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, fungi. We want to plant them the very best organic way not using any conventional fertilizers, etc. which are always recommended with planting blueberries;sulfur, ammonium nitrate, etc. I have tried to talk to people that have an understanding of microbiology for soil health and they can give me recommendations for the garden but not blueberries. They have even scared us with saying that if we put compost, or any application of EM that is not compatible with this “acid loving” plant we could do more harm. They say that you have to use some conventional methods for certain types of plants at times and this is one of those times. I have rejected this idea. It just doesn’t make sense when you look at nature. The truth is they just don’t know and we want to know what to do. I have tried to find other blueberry farmers and talk with them and there is not any that I can find that knows how to ‘switch over’ using these naturally sustainable methods (or brave enough to try).Clues in our garden and on our whole 20 acre property is that we have a terrible issue with dandelions, witch grass, mallow and plantain….did I mention dandelions and witch grass, lots of it! 🙂 Some areas of the property have some thistle and nap weed. Amazingly, we have an incredible population of worms and night crawlers. I mean a lot. Literally, if you go out at night and take your head lamp the ground is absolutely moving with millions of worms that have come up to feast on our grass clippings that we cut when when we mow the property, because we don’t bag it but leave it to mulch the soil. This has stumped us and others when we have tried to trouble shoot our issues. We see it as a real blessing but only part of the equation to health. We have tried to apply compost in our growing areas but we want to restore soil health in all areas over time. What was revealed in our soil test from International Ag Labs was that we are low in boron, calcium, phosphorus, zinc,manganese, humid acid and that our nitrate level was a bit elevated. Our ph level is between 6.0-6.7 depending on the area we tested. (We had 3 test sites.) Trying to battle the witch grass has been very challenging and we are very concerned about this grass getting in the blueberry areas and choking out the blueberry root structure. What should we do and if these were your plants what would you do in planting them? Also, would love to hear about what products, foliar applications, etc. for our issues.Thank you,Kim
Hi Kim, sounds like an exciting project, and I can certainly understand your anxiety, and your wish to do things right. You’re absolutely on the right track though. I’m far from an expert in blueberries, so my main advice would be to keep searching for farmers who are already growing blueberries organically and try to pick their brains. Ask John at International Ag Labs and someone at Soil Food Web if they can put you in touch with someone who’s already doing it.The dandelions are no problem. The witch grass could be a hassle. They’ll both become less of a hassle when you get the biology and chemistry in line over the next few years. In the meantime, a good, thick mulch around the blueberries will help slow the grass down and make it easier to pull. I don’t often recommend wood chips, but include plenty with blueberries to encourage beneficial fungi and retain moisture, both important for blueberries.You’re right, there are a lot of opinions in the world of organic gardening/farming, and it can get very confusing. In the end, there are multiple ways to go about it. What I mostly do is combine the opinions that make the most sense. I follow most of Elaine Ingham’s strategies for improving biology, but I don’t push aside the chemistry as much as she does. I follow the Albrecht/Reams approaches to balancing soil chemistry (e.g. International Ag Labs), but I don’t push aside the biology as much as they do. I do it all.In your situation, I recommend you follow the Ag Labs suggestions as much as you can – they’ll give you organic fertilizer recommendations if you ask (perhaps you already did). Did you tell them you were growing blueberries? My understanding is that blueberries don’t want as much calcium as most other plants – some, but not as much. They do like sulfur, which you can supply without using chemicals. The downside to sulfur is that it’s antimicrobial, so not great for your soil biology. Dr Ingham would perhaps tell you not to use it, whereas the soil lab would tell you to use as much as you need. My opinion is to use just a little at a time, spreading it out over multiple applications over the years.As for the biology, even a little bit of quality compost is very helpful. I’m talking even a couple of tablespoons per plant if that’s all you have. I do encourage you to send a soil sample to Soil Food Web to see what they recommend for your biology. I expect they’ll steer you to creating a fungal-dominated compost for your berries. And again, a thick layer of wood chips will help encourage fungi, which will help reduce the pH for you, and encourage moisture retention.But speaking of pH, blueberries don’t actually love acidity – they love fungi (which tend to live in lower pH soils) and iron (which is more available in lower pH soils) and perhaps other things that tend to coincide with low pH soils. You can grow excellent blueberries in higher pH soils if you have lots of organic matter and beneficial biology and broad spectrum nutrition.So what would I do? Use the fertilizers suggested by IAL, make and add a good fungal compost (or at least spray a fungal compost tea until I can get my hands on the compost), mulch well with wood chips, foliar feed with compost and/or EM, and liquid fish and seaweed, keep the plants well watered this year, and try my best to enjoy the journey despite the inevitable setbacks that will occur. And take deep breaths. Hope I haven’t added more confusion to the pot 🙂
What if I just want to buy compost? Is it so wrong to buy compost instead of making your own? Plus, my husband and I live in town. I’m pretty sure the neighborhood would complain of our homemade compost smell. Also, our soil is somehow very sandy so I have to spend a lot of money buying moisturizing soil. I’ve had good luck planting Roma tomatoes, cucumbers, wildflowers, basil (I grow basil in pots), and Romain lettuce. I grew one stalk of corn but I only got two ears of corn from a single stalk. I grew watermelon, which grew wildly out of control. I didn’t get one watermelon from that entire plant. I grew strawberries, but I only managed to harvest five tiny strawberries from the entire plant. The only chemical I use is miracle-grow (GASP….OH THE HORROR!!). ANYWAY, would it be so bad to buy compost? And, what should I do about sandy soil? BTW, we live in NW Iowa.
No Alli, it’s not bad to buy compost. It just can be hard to find good stuff. If it looks well composted and smells good, and if they convince you it wasn’t made with sewage sludge or other toxic materials, definitely buy it. I bought plenty of compost in my life. Good compost will be a great help for your sandy soil. By the way, well-made homemade compost doesn’t smell bad at all, but yes, you can certainly buy it instead.To address a couple of your other issues: 2 ears of corn is entirely fine, but to grow corn, you generally need a bigger block because it’s wind pollinated by its neighbors; watermelon can be a bit finicky – they need hot temperatures, plenty of water until they begin fruiting and then not too much after that, lots of pollinators around, and quite fertilize soil, so if any of those are deficient, they can fail to fruit; Strawberries are perennial plants, so they can take a couple of growing seasons to get fruiting well – you should have better luck this year. Good luck!
Phil, thanks for your great emails and terrific articles on organic gardening. We started off with a 15′ x 15′ garden and each year added a little more. Now 5 years later we have a 120′ x 120′ garden with grapes, fruit tees, berries, nuts, and veggies. To share as we learn, we post to our website ctgrapes.org – where you can see the beautiful apples and grapes we grow with no pesticides (and critics say it can’t be done). We are in the process of planting 100 different grape cultivars and growing them organically to determine which will grow the best without pesticides. We have some winners from past plantings and post them. Also posted is how to make wine and how to grow microgreens so you can have veggies daily year round – it only takes a 4′ x 2′ space to have a daily large salad for two people. Also, we made an arched arbor out of cow panels for growing squash which is the best method we ever used for squash – highly productive in a small space.
Hi. my question is why do vine weevil’s attack strawberry’s in pot’s, but rarely when grown in open ground?
Great question. I’ve never stumbled across an answer as to why this is the case, but my guess has always been that it’s because the predators of the weevils are often deficient (e.g. nematodes) or lacking entirely (rodents and other small animals) in the soil of potted plants. Indeed, one reason why potted plants can be a little more tricky is because they are a rather unnatural environment when compared to soil – this offers advantages and disadvantages, but it’s certainly usually not a well-functioning ecosystem. My recommendation is to use good compost when making the potting mix, because that will bring in the nematodes. Or if necessary, they can be purchased and brought in separately.
I just moved into a house in Virginia (tropical environment). I have to start off with new gardens in clay soil this year and I know I have about 3 years worth of amending to get this clay into something workable (compost doesn’t grow on trees nor come quickly). I like to grow through holes cut in black plastic mat, not plastic sheeting (commonly called “road stuff”). My question is; because of the poor drainage of clay would you recommend mixing small rocks and gravel into the soil for drainage? Also one of the reasons I use the “road stuff mat is that the mat eliminates the weeds and keeps the soil damp. If I didn’t use the mat the soil becomes so hard the clay turns into cement when it dries. I the can water the plants right threw the mat. In the spring I remove the mat and roto till the earth and don’t get flying seeds in my soil. What is you opinion of this? Do you have any advice on clay soil gardening?
You definitely don’t want to use rocks/gravel/sand to amend the clay. That often just makes things worse. Compost is king here, as is maintaining an organic mulch – leaves are the best, straw works too. Improving the soil biology is important, and fortunately compost helps with this. If you’re willing to go through the process of testing your soil through a good lab and then fertilizing, that will help with the clay, too. Improving clay is not mainly a physical issue (e.g. tilling). It’s a biology and chemistry issue. Sometimes tilling is helpful, but it can also cause your clay to become more compacted, so it’s best to limit it to only when it makes sense, such as when you want to incorporate compost and fertilizers.
Thank’s phil for your reply, i have decided to forget the growing in pot,s now, they are all in open ground, i have mulched round with well rotted compost from my comp bin, what do you think about my theory that if the root,s are constricted, this could encourage the weevil,s to lay there eggs ?
Hmmm, I’m not sure why that would be the case, but it’s possible. Insects go after unhealthy plants, so if they sense the plants are struggling, they may be more likely to lay their eggs there.
As this is my first year growing organic, i have more problems with grubs, and some mites/other bugs under the leafs of my veggies. I tried milky spore for the grubs, and theyre still there. Killed my Loquat. Under all my kale or red russians, i have to use a ridiculous amount of water just to clean these suckers off !!! Some sort of mites/aphids/eggs that need to be rubbed off. Hopefully the herbs i planted after reading this helps. Compost tea is being made, and im adding more worm castings from my bin. Hope its more efficient !
Yes, transitioning to organic can be difficult because the soil is often so dead. A lot of people switch to organic fertilizers without realizing that it’s even more important to get the beneficial biology back into the garden. Good idea to make the tea and add the castings.
Some of these work, others do not. But I have the two best ultimate nutgrass control methods. (1) Let it sprout out then dig it out by hand or (2) poison it with plutonium.
This year after soil test and adjusting numbers I see much less of dandelions in my garden. Still some are there. Can nature be in perfect balance?
Nature is definitely dynamic, so there will always be some weeds. It’s nice to get to the point where we have the right amount of weeds to improve soil and plant health without taking anything away from our plants.
Hi Phil! I am wondering how successfully squash plants will grow in containers? I am mainly wanting to grow zucchini and spaghetti squash. If containers will work, what size and dimensions are best? I will have a couple of small raised garden beds this summer as well, but I would like to fill these up with greens, herbs and other veggies instead of using up so much space for squash plants. Any advice you have would be much appreciated! Thanks, Cathryn
Hi Cathryn, yes, squash actually work very well in containers, but they want a big container to support a root system that will in turn support their top growth. I go with a 10-20 gallon container. You might get away with a 5 gallon pail for a summer (bush) squash. I don’t think specific dimensions are critical as long as you have the overall volume. Note that they can be big drinkers, so they may need watering daily in the heat of the summer. I’ll probably grow a summer squash in a container this year.
We recently bought some of your products but have not had the opportunity to use them yet. I have a couple of questions for you. In looking at your pictures I see that your gardens are not in rows. Is gardening the way you do better for the soil? When have some square foot gardens that are about 4X8 and still plant them in rows.We have a chicken coop where I use hay in the boxes and clean out the boxes every couple of days. Can’t that soiled hay be used in the gardens? I’m sure it will need to be composted first but I don’t know how long it needs to compost before using it? Then when it has composted enough what does one do with it? put it in the soil or on top of the soil? We save our coffee grounds and egg shells for the compost too. Should we mix it in with the soiled hay? I saw your compost bin made of pallets, looks simple and not expensive to make. It looks like hay in it. We’ve never actually composted anything other than the coffee grounds and egg shells and those we just throw in the garden during the winter months.As you can tell, we are extremely new to the organic gardening scene. Thanks for the knowledge you share. We would really like to grow the majority of the food we eat so it will be healthy instead of contaminated and GMO.
Planting in rows is entirely fine, especially if you’re following the square foot layout, which makes pretty good use of space. I just like to use more of a natural approach, which has advantages and disadvantages.The composting process can take anywhere from 3 weeks to a full year or more. If you have enough materials to make a pile that’s at least 3x3x3 feet (preferably more like 5x5x5 feet), and you learn how to make a good pile, you will be able to make compost in just a few weeks. If the pile is smaller or other factors (moisture, temperature, carbon to nitrogen ratio, size of materials) aren’t within certain ranges, it will take longer. Then when it’s done, you can just put it on top of the soil or mulch. Yes, mix the coffee grounds and egg shells with the hay. One issue with hay (as opposed to straw) is that it can have a lot of seeds, so needs a well designed compost to kill those seeds, so you’ll need to do some learning on composting.Hope that helps!
Hello Phil, I am having a heck of a time with snails and also last year powdery mildew killed off most of my Cucumbers, Melons and Squash, by the time I was able to get it somewhat “controllable” it was too late in the season to get anything from my plants, I’ve been told Dolomite Lime helps get rid of snails BUT it neutralizes acidity in gardens which I need for my blueberries, onions and radishes and a few other plants…..I’ve also been told that Beer is good to use but I can’t afford it. Also a good thing to know is I will NOT under ANY circumstance use ANY herbicide or pesticide. I go natural or I do what I can with what I have. Any tips would be very much appreciated, thank you in advance 🙂
Hi Jenelle, yes, you don’t want to add dolomite unless you know your soil needs calcium and magnesium, although it’s a myth that those plants you listed need acidity, and I’m not sure why dolomite would help control snails. Did they say why it helps?Slugs and snails prefer a moist, humid environment, so the first step is to place your vegetable garden in a sunny, warm spot and don’t overwater, especially at night. Here are some things that have worked for me for controlling them:The first one is Effective Microorganisms, a beneficial microbial inoculant. Spraying it all over my plants and garden has sometimes stopped slugs from eating. They were still there, but they didn’t eat much ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/sale/effective-microorganisms-and-scd-probiotics/ ).Instead of beer, you can mix 2 Tbsp flour, 1 tsp brewer’s/instant yeast, 1 tsp sugar, and 2 cups warm water in a plastic container and bury it in the soil so the top is level with the soil. Some people put 1 tsp of salt in, too. They will crawl in and die. It’s kind of gross, but it works. Unfortunately, it attracts some beneficials, too.When I lived on the coast, fresh seaweed as a mulch worked very well, I think because of the salt. And when it dried out, the roughness was difficult for the slugs to navigate over.Mixing yucca extract 50:50 with water deters slugs from eating. Just like with the EM, they’re still there, but they don’t cause near as much problem.During the day they hide in damp, dark places at or just below soil level. You can put out some boards such as 2X6’s in the garden and they will hide there. Go out every morning and/or night, lift the boards, and do whatever you want with the slugs. As for the powdery mildew, that’s especially common on many members of the squash family. Effective microorganisms can really help with that too, as can neem oil, although it is an organic pesticide ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/sale/pure-neem-oil-for-plants/ ). In the end, if plants are optimally healthy, mildew won’t be a problem, so if you implement many of the things I talk about in this article, your situation will gradually improve.
Thank you Phil, the veggies I’ve listed are what I have found in my experience that grow best with “Blueberry” acidic soil. I use old coffee grounds for adding acidity to my soil. The board is a very good idea I shall definitely try that, for the powdery mildew I “spoil” my plants in a sense, and I kept them in mostly sun and watered as needed. I just picked up some sulfur powder to combat it. And no I’m not sure how it’s supposed to help, I just know people have told me it does, I have also been told that Copper Barrier Tape is supposed to help with slugs and snails as well, but I can’t find it anywhere in BC (Salmon Arm to Vernon), among other stuff I can’t remember at the moment. Apparently crayola chalk is a good deterrent as a barrier as the snails won’t cross a thick chalk line. Where would I find a microbial inoculant? Thank you for all the advice it will be very helpful this year with my garden 🙂
Your academy and blueprint look really good. The only question I have is about why you think pruning should be done rarely. From everything I have seen, pruning is a good way to keep plants compact and fruiting to the max. Plants like to be pruned. I do it for a living. Examples are Apple Trees, Tomatoes, and Peppers.I have a layer garden. I have never tilled my soil. I think this helped those microorganisms that help soil and plants thrive. I started by laying down 4 layers of newspaper over my lush green lawn. I topped that with a 6 inch layer of organic manure, then 6 inches of aged shreded pine (all parts of the tree). That was 3 years ago. This year I added 6 inches of raw goat manure mixed with a lot of bedding and left over food (hay, alfalfa, straw, and sawdust). Tomatoes need calcium or they get a brown spot on the bottom. Alfalfa has a lot of calcium. Last year I planted pumpkin and squash directly into this raw manure mix and my plants went crazy. I ended up with quite a few nice pumpkins and squashes.I put my potatoes in rings made from 55 gallon drums, filling with soil and pruning off the bottom leaves as the plants get taller. I hadn’t harvested all the potatoes last fall. This spring I dug the leftovers and only found 3 bad taters. I got about 10 pounds of really tasty, perfect red potatoes! Somehow the first heavy snow we got, plus a layer of straw, kept them safe all winter.This year I am making manure tea (thanks for the video), and I will use this on the plants which aren’t in the manure-mulched garden and beds. I am hoping to get some extra growth on shrubs and some baby trees.I like your idea of putting hoops over rows and keeping the clear plastic handy for nights of frost, early spring, and late fall to extend the season. I hope to be able to cover some sections like that this year.Thanks for the great tips and sharing your learned experiences with us.LJ
Hi Laurie Jo. Yes, pruning keeps plants compact and fruiting to the max, but that’s not a sign that plants like it – just that they can adapt to it. And of course if we prune properly, they can adapt very well, which is great. But it’s for our benefit, not the trees’. They’ve evolved for millions of years and know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to putting out every branch they put out.Thanks for sharing some of your strategies with us. It all sounds great. Be careful with the manure tea. Manure tea often ends up with more anaerobic microbes than aerobic microbes, and very low fungal biomass. I would encourage you to compost it first with other materials to make a more balanced medium with which to brew. Great that you have organic manure, though. Sounds like a fun project! And the spring potato harvest is awesome!
I am going towards, Xeriscaping. And for that reason is, to be able to get hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, birds to come and visit my gardens. I am incorporating, small bird baths. Some with pebbles for bees and butterflies to drink, and some plain ones for birds. Also i will have, many shrubs that will give birds a place to hide. Electric heaters to thaw bird baths for winter. Some aggregates with a smaller size dry bed. One bird feeder for winters food supply. Lots of perennials that benefit food for all. Drip hoses, throughout w/ timers. Professional grade, weed blocker, over lapping and crisscrossing the entire plot. Sorry i never have issues with pest, because 40 years of gardening, i have very healthy soils and plants. I have had minimal pest, because i hand pick them. No chemicals. 100% Organic. P.S. i have my own worm farm in my basement. European red worms. No refrigeration needed to hatch them. Vermicomposting a must.
Hi Phil. Is it possible to overuse compost? I’ve been reading a bit of Jon Frank’s stuff from international ag labs. He suggests only using compost when a soil test requires it, as it is a powerful supplier of potassium! “Adding lots of compost overtime will imbalance the soil especially in respect to calcium” You talk a bit about not adding too much without a soil test but you seem to be a strong advocate for compost use. Do you think it’s possible to put your soil out of balance by using too much compost?Cheers,Jo.
Hi Joseph, I partially agree with Jon. Just as he says, too much compost can throw your nutrient ratios out of line. Where my advice differs is that I suggest it’s appropriate to add a small of compost each year in order to ensure you have the proper biology in the soil. I suggest a maximum of 1/4 inch, and even much less is helpful. Even this may not be necessary once your soil is teeming with life, but it’s useful in the early years of a garden. And when building a new garden, sometimes I incorporate a couple of inches of compost, knowing that it may throw my nutrient ratios out of line, but will also be improving many other aspects of my soil such as water-holding capacity and biology and so on. Jon seems to lean a little to ‘chemistry’ solutions whereas I try to have a little more balance with ‘biology’ solutions.
Questions this year:1. What are the optimal planting times for various crops in my area? This year, the runner bean crop started harvesting late but did very, very well in September. This was due to nights getting cooler, since the August night-times were too warm for beans to set. i am asking whether carrots sown in April are actually any bigger at harvest than those sown on July 1st, since if not, why waste 2 months of growing time when something else could harvest by June 30th?2. What crops grow well enough with only 6hrs sunshine a day due to trees in neighbours’ gardens blocking out the sun for several hours a day? I have grown radish, beetroot successfully, whereas potato crops there lose yield and cabbages do less well also. There are 4 main beds which get much more sunshine, so this is optimising a sub-optimal area of soil, rather than being a feature of the whole garden.3. What composts/fertilisers must I use to get strong early growth of onions and leeks in modules (this year, the MPCs used were poor and I ended up planting out much smaller than usual young plants, simply because they did not continue to grow in size).4. What suite of plants should I use on borders to provide nectar for bees for the whole season? I already have grown Sunflowers and Marigolds, I would like to find about 6 – 8 which will flower sequentially from April to October to provide food all summer to attract the bees?5. After having learned to make my own seeds/select seed tubers for tomatoes, peas, climbing beans and potatoes, which should be the next crops I make seeds from next summer?6. If I wanted to have 8 step-over apple trees surrounding some of my no-dig beds, what group of strains would be a good combination to produce tasty apples from late July to Christmas?7. Having achieved a harvest of 10lb/sqm this summer after introducing no-dig gardening in 2014/5, what is a realistic target to set for 2015/16, given that variety of crop is as important as absolute yield (30 crops are grown, including fruit and pot-grown tomatoes/peppers/cucumbers)?8. Can I convince one set of neighbours to reduce their boundary hedge/trees from 20ft to 8ft to transform the hours of morning sunshine that the vegetable garden enjoys in summer?
1. Do you have any online guides for planting times in your area? We have “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” in North America. Carrots sown in April should be bigger and harvestable earlier, but yes, as you know, it is often the case that later sowing of many vegetables will catch up to earlier sowings considerably.2. It’s probably more than just sunshine there, as the soil and tree roots will play an issue, too. And obviously your distance from the equator plays a huge role, as does the density of the tree canopy. In some places you can grow wonderful tomatoes under trees, while in others they will wither away. Experimentation is called for here. I won’t create a list here because it would be huge, but herbs are my favorite plants to stick into the shadier areas of my garden.3. Onions are surprisingly heavy feeders, so incorporating a good inch or two of compost a couple of weeks before planting can play a big help, and regular soil drenches with broad spectrum organic fertilizers such as seaweed and sea minerals are very useful, too. If the soil is too cold in the spring, that delays things, so anything that warms up the soil will be helpful too.4. My favorite bee attractor is comfrey, but it’s very opportunistic, so will spread like crazy and you’ll never get rid of it. Other than that, I’m back to herbs. I try to plant at least a dozen different herbs because they’re good for me and good for bees and other pollinators. The list is huge, but I often go for two of everything :)5. Which seeds to save? How about all of them? Haha, once you know how to do a few of them, it gets easier and easier to do more. I don’t focus as much on the squash family because there will often be weird crosses with the neighbors’, but I especially love to save seeds from the plants I grow the most, which for me are garlic, potatoes, basil, parsley and tomatoes. Whatever you grow the most is the best answer here.6. As with most of your excellent questions today, it depends on where you live and what you can get your hands on. Obviously you’ll want a mixture of spur-fruiting apple trees, probably on M27 root stock if you want them to be truly step over.7. Wow, 10 pounds per square metre is really good! Of course there’s no way for me to know what you’ll get next year. It depends on your soil’s fertility and microbial balance, among other things. I find that no dig often gets better with time as long as the fertility stays up.8. Yes, tell them you’ll give them 20% of the harvest 🙂
I will start after desember..thanks for all your good lecture.
I have a 65’x65′ back yard that I want to convert to gardening….permaculture as much as I can. However, there is grass all over this area. I have a bad back and 2 new knees that do not use spades or heavy work and I am on Social Security with very limited monies. I am currently trying to start seeds inside…they are leggy and I pinched off the top to see if that helps. My main problem is…..what do I do with the grass that I cannot remove myself and the men in this town are not helpful and I have no family? I have cardboard and can get a bale of straw……..any suggestions? I am vegan and really want to grow my own vegetables.Thanks so much. Pam
Hi Pamela, thanks for your question. That’s quite a challenge you have. Sheet mulching may be your best option ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/organic-soil-management/sheet-mulching/ ), but you’ll need a lot more than a bale of straw for that big of an area, unless you decide to start with just a small part of the yard. I’d prefer to see a good sheet mulch (at least 12 inches high) on a small area rather than a poor sheet mulch over a bigger area. And it’s often best to start small with gardening projects anyway, and add to them a little each year. Some manure or compost will make the sheet mulch much better (I explain more at the above link). Growing in containers is another good option for a bad back and knees, but it seems like you want to do more than that. Raised beds would allow for more, but someone has to build them. So yes, I say start with a small sheet mulch. You can’t sow seed into it right away, but you can plant plants, and since you’re interested in permaculture, you’ll probably want to incorporate some bigger perennials like a fruit tree and some fruit shrubs. As for the leggy seedlings, that’s usually a deficiency of sunlight. You need a very sunny window to get things started, and often some additional light is required.
Hey Phil,I love your posts, thank you so much for putting such helpful information out there. I’m a relatively new gardener, and have been working and working to get my garden amended and healthy over the last three years. Our house is pretty new and I assume they plowed the whole area before they built homes because we don’t seem to have any topsoil at all. The soil is red clay and rock. I was only able to get a few inches dug down but have been hoping plants would do some of the work for me, decompacting the soil. Well, to make a long story a bit shorter, I finally tested my garden soil and what a bummer! After amending it for three years I am still low on all minerals! Booooo! I feel so frustrated, but love it too much to quit. So, I’ve amended with small coverings of compost, fish emulsion, organic fertilizer , as well as bags and bags of organic soil. It’s so expensive and apparently not working. It’s not really a raised bed, but worked into the soil itself with a border around it. I think it’s maybe about 12 feet by 10 feet. So, do you have any suggestions?Thanks so much!Kate
Hi Kate, I feel your pain. It definitely takes time, especially when you’re starting without topsoil, but even the desert can be made productive with some intelligent interventions and a bit of patience. And you’re definitely on the right track with the compost, fish emulsion and organic soil. I don’t often recommend people bring in soil, but if you do indeed have no topsoil, sometimes it has to be done. As for the organic fertilizer, that’s probably okay too, depending on what you’re using. From here, I encourage you to continue composting (or start, if you haven’t yet), and I think the best think for you would be to build a big sheet mulch. You’ll probably want to wait until the autumn because it takes at least a few months to break down enough to sow seed into it, but I’ve seen a good sheet mulch transform heavy soil into workable soil fairly quickly. Here’s how to do it ( https://www.smilinggardener.com/organic-soil-management/sheet-mulching/ ). Also stay tuned for my checklist on Saturday, which may give you some more ideas for where to go from here. Keep working on it – you’ll get there!
I just posted, but forgot to ask about pests. We have gotten hit really hard every year with a few different pests and im not really sure what to do about them. First tiny green worm things that spin silky strands and cover everything come, right about this time of year. They do a lot of damage and are so awful in our area it’s bizarre looking. Then we get tons of Japanese beetles. It’s like a Hitchcock film , they swarm everywhere and usually defoliate a good bit. We also have ants everywhere and tons of types of beetles, some of which I catch eating my plants. Also huge fatties that eat my tomato leaves. Some type of caterpillar worm thing. We have lots of wasps, and bees and butterflies too, and I saw a praying mantis last summer! Anyway, do you have any ideas about my bug problems? Thank you again, Kate
Hi Kate, my apologies, I’d unfortunately have to write a solid thousand words to answer all of these questions. The good news is that the long term answer for dealing with all of them is the same – continue improving the health of your soil and plants. I hope you have a chance to tune into the rest of the series this week for more ideas on how to do that.
Hi Phil. How do you define weeds?
It’s been a long time since I’ve looked up a definition, but my own is just “a plant growing where you don’t want it.” For example, garlic, one of the most important foods to grow in my opinion, could be considered a weed in a strawberry patch.
Thanks so much for all of your suggestions! I’ll keep reading and learning.
HI there, just reading some of the posts and reviewing some of your lessons. I get excited every year at this time as I’m hopeful that each year will be better than the year before. I am reading about crop rotations and was thinking that I’ve never really done that well as I’ve just been trying the companion planting…trying to invite lady bugs and bumble bees, keep away pests. Crop rotation after companion planting…does it matter? I moved my strawberries, garlic and pea/beans. The rest of the beds have been used for everything so do I continue?I used a tiller in the fall for some of my beds, for the first time last fall…I have 7 (3’x10′) and tilled 4.5 beds. However, I’m wondering if tilling is good, are you a fan, when should it be done, is there a specific kind of tiller to use. I was reading that tilling can ruin your “soil structure”. I’ve been looking to buy one, but don’t know what I should be looking for so I’m interested in your thoughts.
Yes, you can still start crop rotation, Kelly. Just count this as year 1 and go from there. It’s still worthwhile.As for tilling, here’s how I feel about that: https://www.smilinggardener.com/lessons/garden-tilling-soil/
I have two garbage cans that I piled ecess grass clippings, food scraps and shredded paper. The top few inches smell fine but deeper areas really stink and some are waterlogged (no drain holes). How can I salvage this stuff? I do have EM which I purchased from you. Thanks in advance. JH, California
Spread it all out somewhere for a week or so, so all of it can get some air and lose some moisture. Then, when you pile it back up again, it needs air and drainage. You could drill a bunch of holes in the bottom, sides and top of the garbage cans (and I do mean a bunch – it really needs a lot of air) or put the pile into something else that allows for more air.
Hi Phil. What a great article. I’ve searched, and I don’t think anyone has asked yet about earwigs. I gave up trying to grow most vegetables because my yard was so infested with them. It was all I could do to keep them out of the house. This was a new home and I was excited to move from an apartment to a house with a yard. The first summer I mulched with hay before discovering the earwig situation and I thought I had caused the infestation myself by importing them with the hay, knowing I should instead have used straw but couldn’t find it at the time, but a neighbour mentioned that it was a longstanding problem in that area. Any advice for dealing specifically with earwigs would be very welcome. Thanks for all of the great tips.
Hi Cathy, I actually got an email from an Academy member today about earwigs. She had tried all the basics, so I just shared a few different tips that I’ve seen work. One is to purchase and apply the nematode Steinernema carpocapsae to see if that helps keep their populations down. Another big one is to remove their hiding spots, which means the mulch – of course there are many benefits of mulch, but some in some situations, it just has to go. Another big one is to interplant with many different types of herbs throughout the garden in order to attract predators of the earwigs. What have you tried so far?
I have some citrus trees (1 orange, 1 tangerine, 1 grapefruit) that are lush and producing many blossoms right now. There are bees around and the fruit forms but drops off while still small and green. A competent arborist thinks I have been using too much nitrogen when fertilizing. Is there any way to decrease the nitrogen in the soil around the trees? They have mulch and receive occasional worm “juice”. I live in Hawai’i.
It’s hard for me to say if nitrogen is the issue. Often, it’s more to do with improper watering or extreme weather patterns (frost, drought, etc.). Sometimes it’s a nitrogen deficiency or a deficiency of another nutrient. If you feel quite certain it’s excess nitrogen, you can add some wood chips or sawdust to the pots and lightly work them into the top of the soil (if possible) in order to remove excess nitrogen. A few deep waterings will help leach some nitrogen, too.
Great information! Thank you!
You will be found out that you are RIGHT and many people don’t care. I agree with you 99%. Unfortunately, The less people on Mother Earth, the better the planet and civilization can survive.
Thank you so much …you do your job so well.!!
I tried using LeafGro as a potting soil last season for my large pots on my balcony. The results were not good with the tomatoes and peppers, though they grew tall (6ft.) but bore little fruit. Aside from limited full sunlight (they may have gotten 4-5 hrs. of sunlight per day), my concern is that the tomatoes developed deformed and curled-in leaves. This has also happened to one of my indoor potted plants.
I talked to a representative from MiracleGro and she recommended using a mix of their organic raised-bed soil with their organic potting soil to get a soil with proper compost ingredients. An extension agent from the U. of Md. told me LeafGro is like a compost with a good amount of nutrients. The company doesn’t mention the details of it’s ingredients, but she insisted it would provide the necessary ingredients. I suspect the LeafGro may be too acidic, but there may be toxins that are causing the deformed leaves. I’m leaning toward the advice from MiracleGro, who suggested taking out half the LeafGro from each of the large (24″ x 18″) pots and putting the potting soil mix on top of them.
I would appreciate your comments in regard to this potting mix issue. Should I get rid of all the LeafGro and stick to the MiracleGro (aka Nature’s Promise) blend of potting mix?
If you don’t know the ingredients of each, I can’t really give an answer, but it sounds like a big yes, give it a try this year.
Thank you for your advice! I will try the MiracleGro mix for raised beds and their potting mix.