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Posts Tagged ‘compost’

Organic, Sustainable Automatic Soil Mixer for a Kitchen Gardener

For owners of small kitchen gardens, mixing soil can become a springtime ritual. If you grow annual vegetables in containers, it’s good practice to collect the containers, mix together the soil from them, add some nutrition, and fill containers with the mix for a new growing season.

This is a minor chore that I enjoy because it’s one of my earliest gardening projects and it contributes to my feeling that winter is finally behind us. Historically, I’ve used a shovel to mix my old potting soil with compost, but this year things are way easier. I’ve invested in a fully-organic and sustainable automatic soil mixer. This short video demonstrates the amazing, cutting edge technology. Please enjoy and share your opinions:

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Mulch Your Small Kitchen Garden with Lawn Clippings

In 9 days my pile of lawn clippings had shrunk. On top, it looked as though all the grass was drying out.

I’ve explained in earlier posts how I add humus to my small kitchen garden; a task that every kitchen gardener should perform at least annually. In a post titled Small kitchen Garden Soil Preparation 2, I explained how I usually excavate only where I’m going to plant: a full row for seeds, or individual holes for seedlings. To the holes and furrows I dig, I add compost.

But this meager compost-application isn’t the only way I add humus and nutrition to my soil. I explained my composting and mulching activity in a post titled Compost for my Small Kitchen Garden: I explained that I mulch around my vegetables with lawn clippings.

Miracles of Mulching

Mulch is awesome… and a heap of lawn clippings can do a lot of work for you. Here’s an example of the power of mulch:

Nine days ago, weeds in my kitchen garden bed were in fine shape. They had grown unchecked since the ground thawed, and many were in full bloom. Amazingly, there were forget-me-nots in full bloom; seeded, apparently, from a bed a quarter of the way around the house from the vegetable garden.

When I raked the mound of clippings aside, I revealed very dark, decomposed material. The clippings were already breaking down into the soil. In some years, I’ve added clippings whose original depth would have totaled four feet. By the time I finished in the garden in the fall, those clippings were nearly completely gone: rotted away while the vegetables grew.

Also nine days ago, I mowed my lawn for the first time this season. The grass and weeds were tall, and I ended up creating a pile in my garden that was about two-and-a-half feet deep, three feet across, and eight feet long.

Here’s the point: I made the pile of grass clippings directly on the weeds growing in my planting bed. I didn’t cut the weeds; I didn’t stomp them down; I simply piled on the clippings.

Yesterday and today, I started tilling. The pile of grass clippings had shrunk to about half its original depth. I used a rake to move the heap aside so I could dig, and lo, the weeds I had buried only nine days earlier were all but gone! Better still: the clippings had already decomposed significantly!

This is, of course, the whole point of mulch: it keeps weeds down and it decomposes slowly, releasing nutrients into the soil. It also holds in moisture: When I tilled where the grass clippings had been, the soil was moist and easy to work. When I tilled soil that hadn’t been covered, it was drier and harder to dig into.

Mulch Your Small Kitchen Garden

If you’re one of the lucky who doesn’t have enough lawn clippings to mulch your garden, look for a reasonable substitute. I’ve seen people lay down old carpet, cardboard, newspaper, and black plastic in vegetable gardens to suppress weeds around the desirable plants. Leaves will also work, though it’s best to shred them before applying them as they may move around easily in heavy winds.

Whatever you choose, mulch! If for no other reason than to reduce your need to weed, mulch!

Two caveats if you use lawn clippings as mulch:

  1. When it rains, the clippings will throw off a distinctive odor. The odor doesn’t arise from older, decomposing clippings… so you won’t get the odor if the clippings sit for a few days before it rains. In any case, the odor goes away in a day or two.
  2. Grass clippings stick to your feet. Leave your gardening shoes outside, or brush them off thoroughly before you go inside!

Some other discussions involving mulch:

  • Frugal Backyard Landscaping Ideas » Blogging Away Debt – The other day, I asked if you had any questions for me in regards to how I keep our costs low. I received a question on whether I had any frugal backyard ideas and I do! 1.) Use old things and turn them into landscaping …

  • As the Garden Grows | Do you put mulch on your garden beds? – Do you put mulch on your garden beds? Posted in Garden Maintenance, Garden Tips, Home and Lifestyle, In The Garden, Plant health, Summer in the Garden on Aug 14, 2007. If you’ve been reading my garden stories you know I …

  • Sea grass mulch – We got the idea of using it as mulch from our friend Jess, who wrote about her mulching technique on her blog, Dame de Fleur. We figured she and her dad couldn’t have taken it all, and there was probable enough left for …

  • Mulch types – GardenBanter.co.uk – I’ve got a bit of landscaping needing a little mulching. I’ve laid down 4 or 5 layers of news print and topped it with some dyed mostly pine bark.

 

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 3

I’m fortunate to have a heap of mature compost accumulated over 13 years from lawn clippings, leaves, weeds, and kitchen scraps.

Preparing to plant a small kitchen garden in a classic raised bed should be very easy to do. Actually, whether raised or in-ground, the issue is more whether you walk in the planting bed. If you don’t walk in the planting bed, you don’t compact the soil (much) so you don’t need to dig deep and turn the soil as you do in a traditional in-ground planting bed.

The classic raised bed is narrow enough that you can reach every point in it without putting weight on the soil—usually not more than 4 feet across at its widest point (assuming you can reach into it from both sides). Depending on your sensibilities, preparing a narrow planting bed can resemble the low-till preparation that I described in my last post, or a traditional preparation as I described two posts back.

I “manage” compost in a heap. I say “manage” because there are only two procedures I follow: 1) Add organic matter as my yard, garden, and kitchen produce it. 2) Occasionally, toss a bit of soil from the garden onto the heap (this often comes as clumps of soil attached to roots of weeds I remove from the garden). My compost might take a year or longer to break down, but I’m not in a hurry. The liability of a compost heap is that it nurtures weeds; my heap grows mostly dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass. So, when I harvest compost, I pick through it looking for roots. On the left in this photo is a section of root from elephant grass; left in the soil, it’ll send up a gorgeous stand of grass leaves… and it’ll spread quickly underground. I can’t identify the root on the right, but it looks hearty; were I to plant it in my garden, I’m sure it would grow into something annoying.

Spread three inches of compost or manure evenly over the entire surface of the raised bed.

Ideally, autumn is when you start preparing raised beds for planting, but if you’re just getting started in the spring, things should work out just fine. Here are steps you can take to prepare your soil for planting if your beds are small enough that you never walk in them:

1. Excavate all weeds from the planting bed. A soil knife is ideal for this as you shouldn’t need to pry out large, cohesive blocks of compacted soil to get at the tap roots of weeds.

2. Cover the bed with a layer of organic matter. Ideally, use mature compost. Alternatively, use manure or mushroom soil. If you were preparing your raised planting bed at the end of your growing season, I’d encourage you to spread six inches of manure over the entire bed; rain and snow will leech nutrients into the soil and the organic material will break down a bit before spring.

However, if you didn’t add material in the fall, spread only about three inches of organic stuff on your raised bed in the spring. For the most part, you’ll leave this material in place; it will serve as mulch, and will feed a rich bath of nutrients to your vegetables’ roots during rainstorms and watering.

Measure along the retaining walls of your raised bed and attach twine (or yarn) to delineate planting zones. A one-foot by three-foot space might hold a “hedge” of lettuce, a small forest of spinach, or a jungle of pea vines… what to plant, and how much space to reserve depends on your tastes and your sensibilities. Upcoming posts will make specific suggestions about planting in raised beds.

If you need tools heftier than a hand trowel or a soil knife to work the soil in your raised beds, it may be because there’s too much clay in the soil. Add sand and humus and mix it in well to reduce the soil’s tendency to clump. If you’re installing raised beds this spring, fill them with soil that is at least 40% sand. Add humus every season.

3. Stretch twine to mark planting zones in your raised vegetable bed. You can set nails or staples in the tops of the raised bed retaining walls, or sink stakes in the soil as you would in an in-ground bed.

In a narrow bed, rather than restrict planting to rows, plant in zones. For example, in a 4’ X 4’ bed, a zone might start at one retaining wall and stretch for one foot into the bed. You could distribute lettuce plants evenly within this one-foot-by-four-foot zone. Or, divide the bed into 2’ squares, planting a particular type of vegetable in each square.

4. When you’re ready to plant, your technique will differ depending on whether you’re planting seedlings or seeds. An upcoming post will discuss how to plant in a narrow bed that’s covered with compost or manure.

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2

My last post provided rationale for working the soil in your small kitchen garden. Sure, you can dig a hole and drop in a seed, and a plant will probably grow. However, conditioning the soil to improve drainage, PH balance, and nutrition significantly increases your chances of success. It also improves the yields of your vegetable plants.

That said, I’m lazy. I’m not excited about spreading manure and I don’t have a power tiller, so my soil preparation has evolved into a minimalist procedure. My raised vegetable bed is large enough that I must walk in it to prepare it, plant it, weed it, and harvest from it.

Extracting a dandelion from your walk-in garden bed employs the same technique you’d use to turn soil: Push the garden fork in to the full depth of its tines, pry the soil out of the ground, and turn it over. When I remove dendelions, I sometimes insert the fork on four sides of the dandelion before prying the plant out of the ground. This loosens the soil and decreases the chance of breaking off the tap root deep underground. After lawnmower noise, my least favorite sound in the garden is the dull thud of a snapping dandelion tap root that runs deeper than my garden fork can reach.

Low-Till Planting

Here are the steps I follow to prepare my raised vegetable bed for spring planting. This approach has been very effective, and it’s most appropriate for modest gardens in which the soil gets compacted from foot traffic through the growing season:

This year I’m using apple sticks (the bounty of pruning season) and pink yarn to mark rows in my garden. I tie the yarn three or four inches above the ground so I can easily work under it with a hoe.

1. Decide where to run a planting row.

2. Turn the row of soil over. I prefer to use a garden fork. I dig a fork’s width swath from one end of the row to the other, plunging the fork in to the full depth of its tines, prying the fork-full of soil out of the ground, and turning that fork-full over so the soil that was on the surface ends up at the bottom of the hole from which I removed it.

3. Remove all weeds and their roots from the soil you turn over, and excavate all other weeds from either side of the row you’re working.

4. Break up soil clumps with a garden rake, and smooth over the surface within the fork-width row.

5. Set a stake at each end of the row, and stretch twine between the stakes. This provides a guide to ensure a straight row so you can accurately match your planting to your plan for the year’s garden.

6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.

If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.

Using a low-till method, I’ve turned and raked the soil (top-left) before I cut a furrow about six inches deep and as wide as the hoe. From years of gardening, the soil is in decent shape, but the mature compost on the shovel looks obviously more organic than the soil. Whether using compost or manure, I use a hoe to mix it with soil that I scrape off the bottom of the trench (bottom-left). I’d plant directly in this compost/soil mix (bottom-center), but if it were a manure/soil mix, I’d cover it lightly with soil (bottom-right) before planting.

7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes along the rows in which to set the plants. For seeds or seedlings, dig at least three inches deeper than you intend to plant the seeds or the seedlings; this leaves room to add compost or other humus.

Because the dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.

8. Dump three inches of compost, manure, or mushroom soil into the trench or into each hole. If you’re adding sulfur or crushed limestone to adjust the PH for a particular type of plant, do so at this point.

9. Mix the organic stuff with the soil that’s in the bottom of the trench or hole.

Being in a slightly raised planting bed, my garden soil drains quickly. So, I deliberately finish planting rows and holes to be two to three inches below the normal soil level. A plant’s-eye view shows a finished row with young spinach plants just poking through. If my planting bed drained slowly, I’d mound the soil before cutting planting rows or digging holes. Each row would sit above the natural soil level, turning a row into its own raised bed garden.

10. If you’ve used raw organic stuff such as horse or cow manure or mushroom soil (which is partially composted), sprinkle a half inch to an inch of soil over the compost layer; you’ll plant seeds or seedlings on this layer of untreated soil. Providing the cushion gives the roots a chance to get established before coming in contact with rich, possibly acidic humus. Also, heavy watering you’ll do to start seeds and seedlings will leach salts out of raw humus before the roots reach it.

If you’ve used mature compost as the organic matter, plant directly in the mixed soil and compost. The mixture will be equivalent to that of a fine potting soil; a great medium to get new roots growing quickly.

Concerning Raised Planting Beds

What distinguishes the classic raised vegetable bed is that you can work the bed without ever setting foot in it. A traditional raised bed is no more than four feet across so you can reach to the middle from either side. You needn’t build retaining walls to get some of the benefits of a raised bed. If you limit your in-ground beds to four feet across (any length is fine as long as you can walk along both sides of the bed), you’ll be able to work them without walking in them, just as you would raised beds.

Preparing soil in such narrow beds and laying out crops in them allows very different strategies than you’re likely to use in a traditional walk-in garden bed. In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about how to get narrow beds ready for planting, and explore ways you might lay out your vegetables in them.

 

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Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 1

It’s planting season in hardiness zones 6 and lower. But before you plant your small kitchen garden, it’s important to prepare the soil. Approaches to soil-preparation vary considerably, but they all have a few things in common:

Loosening soil

Benefits of loosening soil include:

  • Improved air circulation to roots of plants.
  • Faster penetration of water into soil… and better drainage
  • Better environment for earthworms that improve soil quality by breaking down organic solids.
  • Eased raking, hoeing, planting, and weeding
  • Improved penetration of soil additives applied on the surface during the growing season.

Adding humus

Reasons to add humus include:

  • Mixed into soil, humus helps keep the soil loose.
  • Humus retains water, releasing it gradually for plant roots.
  • Humus provides nutrition for plants; it reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Humus feeds—and may even provide—microbes that are beneficial to your plants

Adjusting PH

Controlling your soil’s acid content can improve the production of vegetable plants. Unfortunately, some vegetables prefer acid soil, while others prefer neutral or even alkaline soil. For simplicity’s sake, I encourage you to work toward neutral PH in a vegetable bed; most crops will do fine, and you can make adjustments locally when you plant something that prefers higher or lower PH.

A slightly raised 16-foot-square bed needs the same treatment as a traditional in-ground planting bed: Add humus, turn the soil, rake it, mark planting areas, and cut trenches or dig holes.

To learn about manipulating your small kitchen garden’s PH level, find a Cooperative Extension office in your county, obtain a soil test kit from them, and submit the required soil sample(s) and paperwork. The analysis they provide for a fee should include guidelines for adjusting the PH; if it doesn’t, ask someone in the Extension office to provide you with guidance.

Absolutely get the soil tested if you’ve just created a planting bed, or if you’re about to plant in an existing bed where you’ve never planted. After making amendments according to the results of your soil analysis, you really shouldn’t need to test the soil again—people grew vegetables for thousands of years without getting the soil tested.

However, if you have problems growing some types of vegetables—especially if the problems recur from year-to-year, a new soil test is in order; you may discover the PH needs further tweaking to assure healthy crops.

Traditional In-Ground Planting Beds

Months ago, I defined a traditional in-ground planting bed as one that is simply a soil patch in which you garden. The patch is large enough that you need to walk in it to till, plant, weed, and harvest. Here are the steps to prepare a traditional planting bed as we prepared the family vegetable garden on my parent’s farm when I was a kid:

1. Remove any large items that you might not have removed in the fall—rocks, tomato stakes, plant cages, trellises, tools…

2. Cover the entire garden bed with six inches of raw horse manure. Alternatively, use raw cow manure. Ideally, use mushroom soil or mature compost.

If you’re hand-raking your garden, I hope it’s no larger than about 14 square feet. Alternatively, use a low-till approach as I’ll explain in my next post.

3. Plow and disc the garden bed. Our kitchen garden was large enough that plowing made sense, and the neighbor farmer generously stopped by each spring with his tractor to do the job. Your small kitchen garden probably won’t accommodate a tractor, so you might resort to a power tiller—or even a shovel—and finish by raking. In either case, you may need to use a thinner layer of organic dressing than I suggested in step 2; one goal of tilling is to work the horse manure into the soil, and it’s hard to work six inches of manure into the soil by hand. Many gardeners recommend three inches of organic matter, and that’s a good amount if you aren’t using machinery.

4. Pick weeds and rocks out of the loose soil.

5. Mark the rows where you intend to plant.

6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.

If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.

7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes in which to set the plants. The dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in. Consequently, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.

Upcoming posts will discuss other ways to add humus to your soil. We’ll also talk a bit more about adjusting PH for specific types of plants.

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Prepare to Plant Your Small Kitchen Garden

Manure for a Small Kitchen Garden

I’ll be carting many garbage cans full of horse manure from the stable where my daughter rides to the kids’ abandoned sandbox. Tomatoes will thrive on a rich mixture of fresh manure and sand.

It’s planting time in my small kitchen garden! Actually, the weather this year is not in any hurry for my garden to get started. By mid March, the soil was thawed and workable, but there have been many nights with the temperature as low as 24F degrees. Cold weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions, could all have gone in in March.

But immediately after the soil thaws, it’s usually quite wet. I get no joy from working in mud. To boot, seeds planted in mid-march may get a head start if the weather cooperates, but they may also languish until April before putting on serious growth. Peas planted here in mid March (hardiness zone 5b or 6a, depending on who you ask), may mature only a week earlier than peas planted in mid April. So, I say, “don’t rush.” Plant cold weather crops when you can work the soil, when it’s dried out a bit, and when it’s not unbearably cold. Oh, and if you wait a few weeks, you give weeds a chance to show themselves so you’re more likely to remove them when you finally do start working the soil.

Basic Soil Preparation

I’m about to post a series about planting various types of vegetables. The procedures for planting any one type are remarkably similar to those for planting other types. In fact, preparing the soil for planting is a sequence of steps that you’ll repeat for everything you plant.

Different types of planting beds allow different styles of soil preparation. As well, a gardener’s experience, enthusiasm, and influences lead to unique preferences. With that in mind, please consider what I say to be suggestions rather than rules. The methods I describe have been effective in my experiences. After that, you’ll have to decide which are right for you.

Mushroom Soil

Pennsylvania grows some 40% of the mushrooms produced in the United States. Commercial growers assemble a growing medium that contains a lot of stuff that’s good for your garden—horse and chicken manure, straw, mashed grapes, and urea, for example. A batch of this mushroom soil is good for growing mushrooms just once.

After harvesting a crop from their secret mushroom soil mix, growers sell the spent soil which eventually becomes available through garden stores and landscapers throughout Pennsylvania. Gardeners love the stuff as mulch, and many mix it straight into their garden beds.

Here’s the trick: mushroom soil, like raw manure, isn’t ideal for emerging plants. If you’re going to use the stuff, you’ll have best results if you spread it on your garden bed when you finish harvesting in the fall. Let it steep over the winter, and mix it into the soil in spring. This gives salts time to leech out of the soil and make it more accommodating to your seedlings.

The bottom line: don’t plant directly in mushroom soil or manure. If you’re applying it fresh in the spring, mix it in well with your garden soil before you plant. Better still, bury it an inch or two below planting depth so the roots of your vegetable plants don’t reach it until it’s had a chance to leech out salts.

Please follow this link for more of the story about mushroom soil: Extension Service Garden Hints: Mushroom Compost – Use Carefully

My next few posts will outline soil-preparation in three scenarios:

1. Traditional in-ground planting beds using traditional methods

2. Low-till planting in traditional in-ground planting beds

3. Planting in narrow beds including raised vegetable gardens

In the meantime, a few thoughts about soil composition:

Soil for Your Small Kitchen Garden

I once heard a master gardener admonish readers never to amend clay-heavy soil with sand. He encouraged people always to add only organic matter to break up clay. I argue that you should cut clay by adding sand. True: humus will help retain moisture, break up clay, and provide nutrition. On the other hand, humus breaks down in time and may leave no trace; in the next season you could be right back where you started.

If I were building a garden bed from scratch and filling it with soil of my design, I’d get a mixture of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt. I’d layer this soil with organic stuff—ideally, mature compost—but I’d be happy using raw horse manure or mushroom soil (see box).

If I excavated a garden bed, expecting to plant vegetables in my lawn, and I discovered clay, I’d add sand. Sand helps prevent the clay from clumping and improves drainage. I’d also add humus to improve nutrition and keep the worms happy.

However you start out, to keep a planting bed productive you need to add humus each growing season. If your humus-free soil naturally remains loose because it includes a generous percentage of sand, then adding humus is light work compared to that of working in a clay-rich garden bed.

This season, I’ll be reclaiming my kids’ childhood sandbox. The box itself has rotted and collapsed, and the sand has supported an assortment of weeds for the past few years. I plan to cover the sand with six inches of horse manure and blend it as well as I can by hand. Then, I’m planting tomatoes.

 

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