Fall Gardening

Friday, November 14th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • Japanese maples and snowball bushes are some of the most colorful shrubs in the fall. Plant them now and give them a head start on spring.
    • Check houseplants for insects. Spray leaves with insecticidal soap and wipe them off to leave them clean and insect-free.
    • Empty birdbaths and fountains and cover them for the winter, to prevent water freezing and cracking the bowls.
    • Transplant shrubs that need to be moved this month. It’s also a good time to transplant natives.
    • ‘Tete a Tete’ Narcissus are the cute little yellow daffodils that are popular in pots. Plant some now for fragrant blooms next spring.

Wood Ashes in the Garden

Cool fall mornings call for building a fire in many homes. And at some point that means there will be a bucket of wood ashes to dispose of. Should these ashes be dug into the garden or the compost pile? That’s a question with a complex answer.

Wood ashes contain nutrients, specifically calcium, potassium, magnesium and other trace elements. Hardwoods produce three times as much ash per cord as do softwoods and five times as many nutrients, although the amount of major nutrients is small in either case. Wood ash has a very fine particle size, so it reacts rapidly in the soil.

But more importantly, wood ashes are very alkaline. They contain about 25 percent calcium carbonate, a common liming material, and have a pH of 10.4. So a little goes a long way, and adding large amounts can do more harm than good.

The pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of soil measured on a scale of 1 (acid) through 7 (neutral) to 14 (alkaline). Nutrients are most readily available to plants when the soil is slightly acidic, with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. As soil alkalinity increases and the pH rises above 7.0, nutrients such as phosphorus, iron, boron, manganese, copper, zinc and potassium become chemically tied to the soil and less available for plant use.

The majority of food crops prefer a neutral or slightly acidic soil. Some plants, like potatoes, blueberries and strawberries, prefer more acidic soil and plants in the broccoli and cabbage family prefer alkaline conditions. Wood ash should never be used on acid-loving plants, or in areas where potatoes will be planted since wood ash can promote potato scab.

Specific recommendations for the use of wood ash in the garden are difficult to make because soil composition varies from garden to garden. Acidic soils (pH less than 5.5) will likely be improved by wood ash addition, and soils that are slightly acidic (pH 5.8 to 6.5) should not be harmed by them. You can apply up to 20 pounds per 1000 square feet annually, working it into the top 6 inches of soil.

However, if your soil is neutral or alkaline (pH 7.0 or greater), find another way to dispose of wood ash. If you don’t know your soil’s acidity or alkalinity level, you can test it or have it tested for pH.

The best time to apply wood ash is in the spring when the soil is dry and before tilling. Wood ash that has been exposed to the weather, particularly rainfall, has lost a lot of its potency, including nutrients.

In compost piles wood ash can be used to maintain a neutral condition, ideal for microorganisms activity. Sprinkle ash on each layer as you build the compost pile. This is especially good if you have oak leaves or pine needles in your compost heap.

Use wood ashes with care, or bury them where you don’t plan to grow anything.

“Let the good earth produce.”

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 by Jenny Watts
    • The “Wave” petunias make wonderful hanging baskets for full sun. They come in purple, bright pink, reddish-purple and pale “misty lilac.” They can also be used for a colorful summer ground cover.
    • Cover cherry trees with bird netting to protect your crop.
    • Attract hummingbirds to your patio this summer with hummingbird feeders, so you can enjoy their iridescent beauty and charm.
    • Azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons can be pruned now without sacrificing next years bloom. Ask at your nursery if you need help.
    • Spray roses every two weeks with Neem oil to keep leaves free of black spot and mildew.

The Good Earth

Dirt gets no respect. When we’re not ignoring it, we’re walking on it, or doing our best to wash it off. Look up ‘dirt’ in the dictionary and you’ll find words like filth, grime, and muck.

You might even say that dirt gets treated like, well dirt. But gardeners know better. Gardeners give dirt the reverence it deserves, because they know that the right soil can make the difference between sparse, sickly plants and a thriving bumper crop.

The stuff we call dirt—more formally, soil—is actually made up of two distinct types of material: minerals (the main ingredient) and much smaller amounts of organic matter (living things and their decaying remains).

A typical soil is over 90 percent mineral, made of tiny fragments of broken-down rock, and less than 10 percent organic matter. Good soil is a mixture of clay (to retain water), sand (to drain water), and organic material (for nutrients).

Soil is alive. It is full of useful bacteria and fungi, which turn organic matter into useful humus, and make nutrients available to plants. Healthy soil is home to earthworms who eat decaying vegetation, and excrete worm castings that are rich in plant nutrients. In the process they aerate the soil allowing water and air to penetrate to the roots of plants.

If you find it necessary to grow your vegetables in containers in order to keep them on your deck away from the deer, for example, then you’ll need to fill your containers with potting soil. Garden soil just doesn’t work well in containers. It doesn’t drain well enough and it tends to pull away from the sides of the pot when dry.

Most potting soils are made up largely of peat moss, bark, and perlite. They may also include compost, vermiculite, sand and crushed lava rock. So potting soil isn’t really soil at all.

Actually, “soilless” potting soil helps make an interesting point: You don’t really need soil to grow plants. Hydroponic gardeners grow plants using only nutrient-rich water. In place of soil, inert substances such as perlite may be used to provide aeration and structural support for roots.

Modern potting soils are excellent at providing the support and nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. But potting soils are not sustainable. Sustainable gardening produces abundant food without depleting the earth’s resources or polluting its environment. Filling containers with potting soil to grow your vegetables is not sustainable, unless you are making your own potting soil from your own materials.

Sustainable gardening means not requiring outside inputs. It means working with the dirt in your garden to improve it so that it will sustain healthy plants year after year. If you can only do one activity in preparing or maintaining your garden for lasting results, then creating healthy soil is it.

“Let the good earth produce.”