Friday, April 27, 2012

Making Amends Part 2: Making Minerals

Adding organic material to your garden is a great start. There is more that you can do to support the health of your soil and it doesn't have to cost very much. They are items that are commonly found around the house or picked up at the grocery store:

Epsom Salt: Yes, the stuff you keep on hand for soaking wounds. This is magnesium sulfate and will help your plants grow strong and green. You can mix it well into the soil in the spring to help get plants started, or dissolve with water in a hose-end sprayer and spray the plants every few weeks.

Ammonia:  This can be nasty stuff in large quantities, but a little goes a long way in the garden. Ammonia is nitrogen, one of the most important substances to having a healthy garden. Master gardener Jerry Baker calls ammonia "thunderstorm in a bottle." Mix two ounces with a gallon of water and apply to soil. For larger coverage, one cup in a hose-end sprayer to apply to the entire lawn and garden every few weeks. The caution here is to not overdo on fruits and vegetables or you may end up with great looking, leafy plants that are not bearing. It is a case of a little is good, but more is not better.

Coffee Grounds: Used coffee grounds make a great soil amendment for nitrogen. If you are a coffee drinker this is a great way to recycle all of those leftover coffee grounds. If, like me, you are not a coffee drinker many coffee houses are quite happy to save grounds for you. The Starbucks in my grocery store will save grounds for me. One of their employees lives in my neighborhood and has dropped grounds off for me. Any grounds I still have beyond soil amendment go into the compost bin. If you really don't like anything about coffee, be forewarned, your garden will smell like coffee for weeks.

Baking Powder: This is a great, simple way to add calcium to the soil. This is especially for plants prone to blossom end rot. For me and my neighbor this has been an ongoing issue with our tomatoes. So far the jury is out on how well this works, so I am placing this particular soil amendment into my "experimental" category for another year.

As I mentioned in my previous blog on soil, much of my garden is in patio pots. It may have been noticed by some that I did not mention using potting soil for this. One of the reasons that I do not use commercial potting soil is because I can mix my own to the specifications I select, and I can alter them from pot to pot based on what I will be planting.

The agricultural extension office for Colorado at Colorado State University has an excellent article on soil amendment.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why The Story Garden?

I am a writer, poet, essayist, journalist, and author. To me, stories are as essential as breathing. If you look at the picture on my blog you will see me sitting, Buddha-like, in my garden. To the left you will see a garden area with some statuary. This is my "pond." Being that I do not have a great place to have an actual water feature, I have created a representative one in the form of a garden bed. There you will see Huck Finn fishing and the Frog Prince just hanging out. In other areas of my garden you will find Aslan, the lion, and his lamppost, the tortoise and the hare, Peter Rabbit, and others. Thus, I have a "story garden."

My sister-in-law, Nancy, was thrilled at the sight of a sun dial in a bed of golden thyme. She is the only person I know, besides myself, who had read "The Thyme Garden" by Edward Eager. A lovely book about children who manage to travel through time by using the many types of thyme growing in a garden.

There is also a gazing ball to represent the book Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp. A second gazing ball is in the paws of a cat, to represent the cat books I have read. There is a tree with a face on it with several yellow bricks lined up beneath to represent that wonderful place called Oz. I have a mushroom statue that I would one day like to find just the right caterpillar to go with for Alice in Wonderland.

At the back of the garden on a bench is a statue of a little girl reading a book. To my mind, all of what is happening in my garden is what this girl is reading.

Turning a portion of my garden into my "urban farm" is an homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books.This is my "Little House in the Valley."

One day someone stopped by to admire my garden and I explained the theme to him. Thinking he would catch me off guard, he asked, "What about Walt Whitman?" I grinned and pulled up a small handful of lawn, "Leaves of Grass!" I replied.

Just to be contrary, there is the statue of a crane. I have named him Frasier After all, I do like well-written television too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Making Amends: The Dirt on Soil

Once again yesterday and today I spent hours amending the soil in my garden. The health of the soil is crucial to being able to grow strong and healthy plants. This sounds like a simple concept to us these days. However, less than a century ago people thought that soil was an infinite resource that could never be depleted. It was upon this foundation that the United States agriculture policies were based. It led to the greatest ecological disaster in our history. The rich top soil that it had taken Mother Nature thousands of years to perfect was plowed up and turned into farm land. Crops were planted, grown, and harvested year after year with the belief that they could do this in perpetuity. Then drought struck the nation in the early 1930s. Nothing could grown on these lands since irrigation was also largely unknown. Dry winds picked up the depleted soil and blew it across the country, creating what became known as Black Blizzards. They would often rage for days on end. Killing humans and livestock alike by clogging lungs with the dirt. People lived, ate, and slept with the dirt of the Dust Bowl, as the affected region became known. This occurred in conjunction with the financial collapse of the world economy.

It would take years of soil conservation, including things like crop rotation, fallow fields, and soil amendment to bring back the richness of the farm lands. So you little garden or urban farm may not seem to rate on the same scale, but your soil is just as vulnerable as if you were working the north forty.

Since I live in a mobile home park, much of my urban farming is done in pots, more than thirty-five of them. Growing depletes the soil, as does watering in being able to wash away the nutrients with the pot drainage. So amending my soil is crucial. I start each year by emptying all of the pots and remixing the soil. This is because some of the plants are heavy eaters, while others are fairly light eaters. There are some plants that are also known as caterers. These plants actually deposit nutrients into the soil. Most notably this comes from peas and beans. So by remixing the soil I am basically "rotating my crops" by planting different things in different  "fields." At the same time I generously mix in additional organic material in the form of manure and compost. I generally buy this locally. If you can get fertilizer direct from someone with cows, horses, or sheep, the manure needs to be aged for several months before it can be added to the soil. Raw manure it too "hot" to use right away.

I also tend to buy the cheaper amendments, which often come loaded with wood chips in them that have not been completely composted. I take the time to sift the material through a colander and save the wood chips to use as mulch on top of my pots and raised beds. There are supposed to be some more expensive brands that are less prone to wood chips, but I have yet to come up with them.

Of course, keeping your own compost heap is a great way to recycle yard waste and vegetable scraps into lovely organic material that your garden will love. Many people refer to it as "black gold." However, that is a subject for another time.

You can also purchase hay or straw to use as mulch to conserve moisture. In arid and semi-arid climates like Colorado, moisture conservation is also crucial. The organic matter added to the soil also helps maintain moisture around the plants roots. On some of the hotter, drier days of the year, I will need to water twice.

Once the soil is completely remixed and refreshed, it is time to start planting.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Welcome to My Garden

Welcome to my new blog. I will be sharing my garden adventures past and present with anyone who bothers to read. It not just about the growing. It is about the trial and error, the abundant wildlife, the neighbors, the weather, and the things that go on in my head while I garden.

It happened again today. That weird thing. A woman came riding by on her bicycle while I was out gardening I thought that she had just ridden on by, but a moment later there she was, off her bicycle and standing at the edge of the patio telling my how much she loves my house and garden. She said that the whole reason she chose this route through the city was so that she could come by here often. I am always a bit startled by how effusively people compliment my garden and that they will go out of their way to tell me. I thanked her as best I could. I am never quite certain how to respond, but I try to be open, friendly, and gracious. I do love that they find as much pleasure is seeing it as I do in creating it.

Spring is unnervingly early this year. It has already been over 80 degrees, everything is growing and in bloom weeks ahead of schedule. The Chinese Trees of Heaven are leafing out more than a month ahead of normal. The main concern behind this is that we could suddenly still have a huge snowstorm that would damage the plants. An early heavy snow last October already decimated the trees around here.

My butt is freezing right now from sitting on the front patio working on the pots that I will be planting in soon. I am amending the soil with sheep manure and mushroom compost. I have already planted beets, lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, red cabbage and cilantro. Still so much to do. I have onion sets, garlic sets and seed potatoes for planting in the raised beds. I will also plant cauliflower in with the potatoes since they are supposed to make good companions.

I gave up and came inside when Naomi came and told me it was time to go inside for a nap. She loves the garden and spends as much time as possible there. She loves it even more when I am out there working. The only thing better than that is when one of the neighbors stops by to chat while I am working there. She will also will waylay strangers in the street just to say hi.

In my head today: Ideas for the novel I plan to write in November for the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) later this year. It feels like an awesome idea that has a lot to do with my garden. Not telling what the actual idea is, but it will be funny. And it will be unlike the novel I wrote last year, which I am still procrastinating about getting edited and rewritten. But now it is spring and Mother Nature beckons.