Gardening Class Summaries

2016 - The Kitchen Garden through the Year

October 20, 2016: Putting the Garden to Bed + Potluck Party

(see the handout for more info).

In addition to enjoying a wonderful array or dishes, we reflected back on our journey, shared our experiences and floated ideas for next year. And Suzi shared her insights on how to prepare the garden for the cold season. 

This is the time to test your soil. No need to do every year but good to do if you’ve never done it before. Two good sources are Logan Labs and Cornell University (they both include instructions for sample collection, preparation and shipping). A professional test will measure pH and also tell you about what nutrients may be low in your soil. Most soils get acidic over time and is usually a good bet that they’ll be in need of lime, which breaks down slowly and usually only needs to be applied every 2 or 3 years.

If you still have crops growing (at this point mostly greens), it’s important to protect them from early frost if you want to extend their life for a few more weeks. If there’s a chance of frost, you may want to cover them with a special fabric.

When your annuals are done, don’t pull them out—cut the above-ground portion and leave the roots intact. If the plants are not diseased, you can chop them and leave them on the ground as mulch. If not, cover with mulch (e.g., leaves or straw).

Do uproot any perennial weeds if you don’t want them coming back.

You can still plant garlic. Hard neck variety is best than soft neck for this area.

You can also plant overwintering crop seeds such as kale, lettuce and spinach. They may germinate now, which is great. If not, they may germinate in spring. Worst-case scenario, the seeds will rot, but it’s worth a shot at having greens very early next season! The key is to mulch several inches. Then in March or April, pull out the mulch in stages to avoid a temperature shock (first pull out all but one inch and a week or so later take the last inch).

When your garden is done, make sure it’s mulched in some way, for example with chopped leaves (make sure they are chopped and not whole!), or wheat cloth (a type of tarp).

September 15, 2016: Preparing for the End of the Season + Applesauce Making

(see the handout for more info)

  • Any type of fertilizer becomes available to plants after being processed by soil microorganisms.
  • The best way to have a healthy soil is actually to grow plants, which release sugars through their roots to feed microorganisms.
  • Cover crops are also a good way to avoid having naked soil.
  • Two types of cover crops:
    • Winter kill: the crop dies off in the winter and becomes mulch for the next season. This is preferred where you know you’ll be planting in early spring.
      • The only winter kill cover crop for which there is still time to plant now is oats. If you have mulch, move it to the side, broadcast the seeds generously, tap them a bit (you need good contact between seed and soil for germination) and cover with mulch again.
      • Field peas will do fine if we have a late frost. They add nitrogen to the soil.
    • Overwinter: it survives the winter and regrows in the spring, when it’s cut for use as mulch or green manure. This is best for summer planting areas.
      • These are to be planted in October.
  • When soil needs extra help, triticale (a wheat variety) or rye are good options because their large root systems help loosen hard soil. With these it’s important to kill the crop in the spring; otherwise the seeds will take over and you’ll end up with a lawn.
  • Other cover crops include forage radishes (also good to break up hardened soil), clover and peas (these two are Nitrogen fixers).
  • Clover is a great cover crop.
  • White clover can be underplanted with large crops like tomatoes and used as a living mulch.
  • Red clover is huge and is best planted as an overwintering cover crop.

Other things to try in the garden:

  • The only crops that can reach maturity before winter are greens like mesclun, mash, baby kale, and lettuce.
  • Plant overwintering crops like spinach, carrots and some lettuces. Plant and apply 3-4 in of mulch to attenuate freeze-thaw cycles. In the spring, pull back the mulch and may cover with black plastic to heat the soil and accelerate sprouting.
  • Garlic and shallots can be planted the 1st or 2nd week of October. Do not use store-bought because it’s usually treated to avoid sprouting. Choose varieties suited for our climate at the garden store. Plant 3-4 inches deep and 4-5 inches apart. Cover with 3-4 inches of mulch.
  • One month before frost, remove all tomato and squash blossoms so the plant focuses its energies on the existing fruit.


There are two basic ways of making applesauce:

  • Cut up whole apples and cook them down until they are mushy and then run the mix through a food mill that strains out peel, seeds, etc. This results in a very smooth applesauce.
  • Peel and core the apples first, then cook them until they are part mush and part chunks. This is how you get chunky applesauce.

We prepared chunky applesauce following these steps:

  • We started heating water in a canner (a large pot also works).
  • We used a couple of fruit peeling devices to peel and core the apples, then chopped them.
  • We placed the apple chunks into a solution of water with ascorbic acid (citric acid can be used as well), to prevent browning.
  • Then we transferred the apples into a large pot with a bit of liquid (can be water or apple cider) and cooked until the apples started to soften. Honey, sugar, cinnamon, etc can be added to taste.
  • We rinsed the mason jars and then filled them with hot tap water in preparation for pouring the hot applesauce (to avoid a sudden temperature change that could break the glass).
  • We put the jar seals into a bowl and covered with boiling water to sterilize.
  • One by one, we emptied the jars of water and filled them with the very hot sauce, leaving a bit of space on top and swiping the rim with a paper towel (so the seal would fit properly).
  • Using a magnetic lid lifter we “fished” the seals from the bowl and placed them on the jars. Then we screwed the bands “finger tight” (to allow air getting out in the next step).
  • The last step is to place the jars in the canner or large pot so they are submerged and covered by at least one inch of water (if using a regular pot, put something like a fabric kitchen towel between the pot base and the jars so they are not directly in contact with the pot base). Jars are boiled for 20 minutes, which lets the air in the jar escape, sealing the jars and causing the lid to depress, making a clicking sound. Once the jars cool down they are ready to store at room temperature!

A few things to keep in mind when preserving:

  • Purging the air out of the jars prevents aerobic bacteria from growing and spoiling the food.
  • Botulism is the big fear in canned foods because it actually grows when there is no air, but the apples’ inherent acidity plus the added ascorbic or citric acid result in a low pH where these bacteria cannot grow.
  • Follow a tested recipe to ensure that the product is safe (a classic resource is Ball’s Blue Book).

June 17, 2016: Victories and Challenges

For additional info, please see the handouts on pests and natural spray recipes.

We held the class outside at the Kitchen Garden. Suzi provided useful information and answered questions about pests and problems encountered by gardeners. In addition, she showed us how to prune tomato plants.

Some highlights about pests:

  • The first line of defense is plant nutrition and hydration. But avoid concentrated and synthetic fertilizers—they can be compared to energy drinks that provide a spike of highly available nutrients in a single shot. 
    • When the plant has this excess nutrition, it can produce too many carbohydrates, which act as an advertisement attracting insects. Something similar happens with an excess of nitrogen that is not absorbed. 
    • Organic fertilizers have lower nutrient content and in a form that becomes available slowly, providing more even nutrition. 
    • Commercially available fertilizers are labeled with the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N-P-K). For example, fish emulsion is 2-3-1 (2% N, 3% P, 1% K). A typical organic fertilizer will have a sum of N+P+K of less than 20%. 
    • Foliar sprays are a good way to provide nutrients. Kelp concentrate (liquid, not the solid) is a great ingredient. It’s expensive but lasts very long. 
  • The second line of defense is observation: when you see the damage and/or bug. If you can identify the bug you have more information to choose an intervention. 
  • Possible actions, starting with the least damaging include: 
    • Repel bugs/ make the plant less tasty with various sprays such as garlic or pepper. 
    • Trap or remove bugs; e.g., using sticky paper, but usually these methods will kill both damaging and beneficial bugs. Or wash with soapy water and a sponge. 
  • Good to know your pests and tell beneficial insects from pests. E.g., Good Bug, Bad Bug guide with pictures. 
  • Mexican beetles affect beans pretty much always. Only way to deal with them is to keep washing them off. Worse infestations happen in June & July. Another option is to plant beans early and late in the season but avoid having a crop in June and July. 
  • Squash & all cucurbits have two types of pests: 
    • Beetles.
    • Vine borers (these cause the worse damage). If you see something resembling sawdust at the base of the stem, that’s plant material drilled by the bugs. Consider placing a circle of aluminum foil around the base of the stem (like a skirt) and rubbing petroleum jelly on the stem. 
  • Little (and cute) white moths are the ones damaging cabbage and other brassica. You can spray them with hair spray. 
  • Tomatoes are almost invariably affected by a fungal wilt that turns leaves yellowy. Check the handout for a fungal spray recipe with milk, which breaks down the spores. Also make sure to remove any leaves that are touching the soil, as that’s where the fungus will infect the plant. 
  • Some plants naturally repel bugs, such as: 
    • Borage (but do not let it go to seed or it will take over) 
    • Dill 
    • Chrysanthemums 
    • Onion family (flowers attract predators, so you need to let a few plants flower) 
    • Marigolds (but only certain varieties) 
  • Beneficial nematodes are expensive and they do not act immediately, so it’s often hard to say whether they are effective, and they usually die over the winter. 
  • Birds are good predators—consider a birdhouse. But be aware that you need to protect the seeds when planting.

May 19, 2016: The Garden in Full Swing

Get the handout for additional info.

We started the class in the garden and Suzi gave us tons of tips, advice, and practical demonstrations. Here are some of the highlights:


  • The most important consideration is planting time. Nighttime temperatures should be at least 50 or 55° F, which usually means the 3rd or 4th week in May. Most people tend to plant them too early.
  • Plants should be planted quite deeply; normally remove the lower sets of leaves and plant a couple of inches deeper than it is in the starter container. The portion of the stem that goes underground will develop roots and make for a stronger plant. The stem can be placed sideways (especially if it’s impractical to dig a deeper hole); it will straighten up in a few days.
  • Soil should be nicely prepared to provide all needed nutrients and minimize transplanting shock: dig a hole, add 1-2 tbsp bone meal (to supply nitrogen and phosphorus), 1 tbsp Epsom salt (for magnesium), 1 tbsp kelp meal (trace minerals), 1 tbsp Espoma Bio-tone starter (has some microbial goodies). Mix well, water the planting hole, and transplant the tomato plant (also water the plant a few hours before transplanting.
  • After the plant has settled, remove any leaves that are touching the soil to avoid spreading diseases.
  • Plant 3 feet apart. May plant 2-2.5 ft apart in rich soils, if plants are kept pruned.
  • Determinant plants (those that produce all fruit at the same time are not too tall) do well with cages. Indeterminants keep growing and producing (cherry tomatoes are usually indeterminants) and it’s better to use stakes or structures that can be made taller as needed.
  • The larger the tomato, the more heat it needs.
  • Now is a good time to plant them
  • There’s two main types:
  • Pole beans: are good for greater production in small spaces, do well in cages and produce all summer (until beetles get them, which will happen sooner or later)
  • Bush beans: grow more rapidly and only produce for 2 to 3 weeks and then are done (at which point you can cut and tuck the tops under the mulch, leaving the roots intact). For continual production you can plant every 3 weeks or so.
  • Are susceptible to a variety of beetles.
  • When planting, sprinkle kelp meal around seedlings. Do this every 10 days to repel bugs.
  • Need huge amounts of water; much more than other veggies.
  • A trick to provide plenty of water reaching deep in the ground is to cut off the top of a 1- or 2-Liter bottle, poke 3-4 holes in the bottom and bury it in the ground (leaving the open top exposed) close to the cucumber plants. When watering, fill the bottle with water and it will be released slowly.
  • Best to grow on trellises so they spread up. Cucumbers are better formed, greener, and easier to see and harvest.
Summer Squash
  • Amend the soil heavily with extra compost
  • If planting seedlings, you may want to spread Vaseline on the stem, or to wrap it with plastic foil. This makes it unattractive to vine borers.
  • You can start your zucchinis inside and transplant in about a month. At that time, you may want to saw some zucchini seeds to get additional plants going.
Seeds to Plant Now
  • Carrots, beans, beets, lettuce (look for heat resistant varieties and/or plant in partially shaded areas; e.g., between peppers).
  • Check out the previously shared planting calendar/guide.
  • If you plant warm weather crops now (e.g., tomatoes) consider using cloches to create a warmer microclimate. These come in various sizes and materials and are sold at most gardening supply stores.
  • Once you’ve planted everything, make sure to mulch. You can apply other amendments prior to mulching. Avoid leaving soil exposed.
  • Can use straw or salt hay (NOT regular hay, which is a grass that provides little nutrition).
  • Do NOT use wood or bark chips as they will change the soil pH (see Feb 26 summary for more on pH).
  • Can use newspaper, covered with leaves to keep it in place.
  • It’s hard to overemphasize the important of thinning, which is removing some seedlings when we have too many of them too close together. While it’s hard to kill some of the plants you have seeded, the fact is that overcrowded plants will be competing with each other and will not grow well.
  • Use scissors to clip the plants (do NOT uproot them because you’ll disturb the neighboring root systems).
  • Thin in stages. Start thinning enough so you can tell the plantings apart. This is still too close together but it’s an “insurance policy” in case bugs eat some of the young plants.
  • When it’s time to thin further, you can cut the plant and use as salad greens.
Harvesting tips
  • Lettuce: if you need the space, remove the whole head. If not, you can snip the leaves close to the ground and the plant will regrow to produce an additional harvest.
  • Spinach will not regrow if you cut the whole plant, but you can snip individual, outer leaves and the plant will keep growing and producing.
  • Chives: can cut a bunch close to the soil. When buds come up you can remove them (cutting about 1 inch from the top); it’ll flower again later on. You can also eat the flowers.
Foliar Sprays
  • These are liquid fertilizers applied to the leaves (which absorb nutrients readily) and it’s a good time to start applying them.
  • Spray 1 week after transplanting a seedling to help with transplant shock and to supply nutrients.
  • The fertilizer must be watered-down properly.
  • DIY foliar spray: stir about ¼ cup kelp meal in 1 gallon of water. Let it brew for 2-3 days. Stir it periodically to avoid stinky anaerobic fermentation. Strain and transfer to spray bottle. Drench leaves, preferably in the morning, and don’t forget to spray the underside of the leaves, which have more stomata.
  • Compost tea: more complex to make, brew 4-5 days and use bubbler to avoid stinky odors. Can be made with a variety of nutrient-rich leaves, such as comfrey and nettles. Can put them in a blender with water.
  • It’s best to water in the morning so water falling on the leaves will evaporate. When watering at night the water will tend to remain on the leaves, which can make the plants more susceptible to certain diseases and pests.
  • Most people water too frequently and too briefly, which leads to shallow roots.
  • Most plants veggies need about 1 inch of water per week. And you want water to penetrate at least one inch into the ground
  • Best to water close to the soil and count to 20 or 30.
  • Can also water a bit, let it soak so the soil swells a bit, and then water again. This will help with water retention.
  • Watering by hand provides an opportunity to observe the plants and discover what’s going on.
  • Strawberries are easy to grow. On the first year it’s best to take all flowers off so the plant puts its energy in growing bigger rather than producing fruit. Grow better surrounded by mulch.
  • When buying or transplanting nightshades, if you notice any flowers, remove them (it’s not flowering time yet). Stop snapping them by the 1st or 2nd week of June.

April 21, 2016: The Season Begins

Get the handout for additional info and make sure to check out the companion planting guide, which will tell you which plants and flowers promote or inhibit growth of various crops and/or which pests they deter.

We started at the Kitchen Garden, where Suzi shared lots of info and many useful tips.

  • Suzi showed a convenient way of growing potatoes using a potato bag as the container: the bag is filled with 2-3 inches of compost + potting soil mix (garden soil is too heavy), the seed  is placed on top and completely covered with enough mix (potato "eyes" that should be dried for 24-48 hours to avoid mold). As plants grow you’ll keep adding more soil to the bag (e.g., when plants are 6” tall, add enough soil to leave only 3” of the stem), allowing potatoes to grow throughout the container. Make labels first and include name of crop, planting date, and days to maturity. You can re-purpose a variety of items to produce your labels, such as old blind blades. Paint pens are best (sharpies don’t last). Suzi generously donated the potato bag and additional seed to the Kitchen Garden.
  • When starting from seed:
    • Plant 2 to 3 times the number of seeds you need as they may not all sprout. Be prepared to thin the extra ones.
    • Gently tamp the soil so there is good contact with the seed and it can absorb water, swell and sprout.
    • Transplant when you have 2 sets of true leaves (the first two to appear are cotyledons). Pick seedlings from the leaves rather than the stem, as this is easily damaged.
    • Remember that plants started indoors should be hardened off before moving out.
    • If planting directly outdoors, consider laying a screen (e.g., an old mosquito mesh) on top of the seeded area to avoid splatter when watering or raining. Also using row cover (a fine fabric-like material) helps maintain moisture and protects from birds, resulting in a better germination rate.
  • When growing peas and legumes, first soak in water if you can, for up to 24 h. It’s best to inoculate the seeds: prepare a slurry of inoculant in water and stir seeds in. Then plant 1 to 2 inches apart, depending on seed size.
  • You may want to protect spring crops from cold and frost with cloches, which act as mini-greenhouses.
We then moved indoors for the rest of the class where Suzi provided additional info and answered questions. Here are some of the things we talked about:
  • Crops that can be planted now (seeds or seedlings): brassica family, lettuces & greens, peas, radishes, potatoes, onions & shallots.
  • Interplanting makes good use of space:
    • Tomatoes with radishes, mesclun, basil (these are gone by the time tomatoes grow large).
    • Spring peas in the middle of the bed with zucchini planted at the ends.
  • Succession planting also increases production. E.g., replant lettuce after 3 weeks when the weather is cool so you have another crop going shortly after you harvested the first one.

March 17, 2016: Planning and Preparing the Garden.

Get session 3 handout.

We started this third session with some planning basics, including sun requirements (if gardening area gets less than 6 h of sun daily, you can still grow that require less sun such as beans, lettuce and arugula), ideal bed orientation, etc (see handout). If you use raised beds, ideally you want a soil depth of at least 8 inches.

Suzi explained the importance of rotation to avoid diseases that run within plant families. In particular, if you plant nightshades (tomato, pepper, eggplant, potato), cucurbits (cukes, melons, squash, zucchini), or brassica (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.), make sure to plant something from a different family the next season.

  • We talked about the differences between different types of seeds (organic, heirloom, open-pollinated, hybrid). Note that hybrid seeds are produced with traditional breeding techniques that have been around since the beginning of agriculture (crossing similar species). This is very different form GMOs (genetically modified organisms) where genes from totally different species, and even bacteria and animals are forced into the genome of seeds (the issues with GMO go beyond whether they are safe to eat--see this summary of GMO myths and truths and Bill Moyers interview to Vandana Shiva). See handout and Feb 25 summary for more details.
  • Check date on seed packets--you normally want this year's seeds; otherwise a large number of seeds may not germinate. If you have older seeds you can test them by placing them on a moist paper towel and putting inside a plastic bag and see if they germinate within a few days.
  • Seed packets should have lots of useful info such as planting depth (usually 2 to 5 times seed size), days to germination, days to maturity (i.e., harvest-ready), etc. This info will help you plan when to plant so you'll have a steady supply of produce through the season.
  • Check out the handout for more on starting seed indoors and planting seeds outdoors.
 Other useful info and tips we learned about:
  • A soil thermometer is a good investment and quite inexpensive.
  • Minimize tillage/soil disturbance as this would disturb soil biology. Use a broad fork or garden fork (not a pitch fork) to aerate soil. Stand on a chunk of plywood to distribute your weight and minimize soil compaction.
  • If you start seed indoors, before planting outside you should harden them off by taking outside for increasing periods. E.g., start with an hour or so in a protected location and add 1 hour per day. 
  • In areas where you won't be planting until later in the season (e.g., mid-May for tomatoes) is best to saw a cover crop.
  • Consider intercropping; e.g., peppers can be combined with fast-growing crops that do not mind shade (lettuce, scallions). Can plant peas on a trellised row with lettuce or arugula in parallel rows; later you can plant a zucchini plant at each end of the trellis.
  • Explore companion crops. Some examples include broccoli with cucumber, cabbage with tomato, carrot with onion.
  • Can use floating row covers (a light, spun material) to cover species like brassica that could be eaten by bugs.
  • Check out this handout on plant spacing and this one on cold season flowers that you can plant now.

February 25, 2016: Healthy Soils, Healthy Plants.  

Get session 2 handout.

We started this second session by sharing where and what we grow or would like to grow. Then we delved into the topic of the day: soils--it's not just a growing medium; what happens in the soil affects plants.

1. Soil composition. Soils are made of four components, ideally in this proportion: about 45% minerals (weathered rocks), 50% porous space that can be filled with air or water, and 5% organic matter. Organic matter is derived from things that are or used to be alive, like roots, leaves, manure, etc. These things break down until they reach a stable form called humus.

2. Soil Texture. Determines how the soil hangs together and it’s determined by the size of its mineral particles. Sand particles are the coarsest and helps create breathing space while silt is much smaller. Clay is microscopic and negatively charged, so it plays a key role attracting nutrients that will be later absorbed by plants. The “ideal” gardening soil is called loam, made of roughly 30-40% sand and silt, 20-30% clay, and 5-10% organic matter. Normally you cannot change soil texture, but adding organic matter helps. Soils in the Northeast are relatively young and are usually sandy loams, which is pretty much what we want.

3. Soil pH. Stands for potential of hydrogen and is a measure of acidity. 7 is neutral, lower values are acidic and higher are alkaline. For most plants & vegetables we want pH between 6 and 7. This is a very important soil property because it determines whether nutrients will be available to plants (too high or too low pHs can lock certain nutrients in the soil, making it impossible for plants to absorb them). There are inexpensive and easy tests to measure pH.

4. Soil Biology. The soil web of life is essential for plants to thrive. E.g., nitrogen-fixing bacteria (that live in legume roots) take nitrogen gas from the air (which is abundant but unavailable to plants) and transform it into soluble forms that plants can plants absorb. This is also a much more efficient way to get nitrogen to plants; if we apply inorganic fertilizer, it’s like a sugar rush, which negatively affects the plant (and the environment, as it requires huge amounts of fossil fuels, among other negative impacts). Other bacteria, fungi and protozoa that live in the root zone will extract nutrients from soil minerals and make them available to plants. Soil life can be increased by adding compost and growing cover crops. Unlike what has been “conventional wisdom” until recently, it is important to disturb the soil as little as possible so as not to disrupt this web of life and the structure they help create. Tilling or turning the soil will break roots and fungi filaments, and will move organisms to areas of the soil where they cannot live (e.g., surface bacteria moved deep into the soil and vice-versa). No-till is best, use broad fork for aeration. In the spring it’s also very important NOT to work the soil until it’s dry enough.

We then talked about what we can start doing now—start seeds inside using seed starter (not potting soil, which is too heavy). In addition to seed sources mentioned in January, other good ones are Fedco, High Mowing, and Kitawanza Chef Gardens (for unusual/fancy edibles). We talked about seed types. Heirlooms tend to be flavorful but difficult to grow. Hybrids can have advantages like disease resistance but you cannot save seed (offspring will be totally different). Open-pollinated seeds will give something similar to the parent plant. Go for what you like; e.g., when you find something tasty at the farmers market, ask what it is. When choosing tomatoes, determinant varieties will produce all fruit at about the same time, which is good for preserving (you want to do it once in the season). Non-determinant varieties will fruit throughout the summer, which is good if you want to use them continuously.

January 21, 2016: Partnering with Nature in the Garden

Get session one handout.

This was the kickoff of the 2016 series of gardening classes. It was a very lively gathering, attended by around 25 people. We shared our experiences and desires for gardening and heard about Roots & Wings' vision for expanding availability of community garden plots, as well as some potential opportunities.

Then Suzi talked about the issues with "conventional" or industrial agriculture; the importance, benefits and limitations of organic agriculture; and how growing some of our own veggies is even safer. Participants shared their own approach to providing healthy food for us and our families. 

A few interesting facts: 
  • organic produce is 40 to 50% more nutritious than "conventional" produce, because it tends to be fresher and because it grows in healthier soil which contains higher levels of a wider range of nutrients.
  • even organic produce contains pesticide residues.
  • most of the pesticides used are systemic, which means they will be found in the whole veggie (i.e., you won't get rid of it by rinsing or peeling).
We also discussed how we will be getting ready to garden and what will be covered in future classes. Specifically, in January, we can start thinking about the types of veggies (and/or flowers & other plants) we would like to grow. This is the time to obtain seed catalogs (Johnny's Seeds, Hudson Valley Seed Bank, and Park Seed are some good ones). It's also a good time to learn more and read gardening books. Some suggested literature includes The New Organic Grower by Elliot Coleman and How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons.

2015 - The Kitchen Garden through the Year

October 15, 2015

As we start putting the garden to bed, now is the time to test the soil and add any needed amendments so the soil is in good shape at the start of the next growing season. A professional soil test is the best tool to determine if you're lacking any nutrients and how much you would have to add. At a minimum, you should test the soil pH, which can be easily done with affordable and easy-to-use commercially available kits.

  • pH Test: See Sept 24 summary for the importance of soil pH. We took soil samples from several areas in the garden. Suzi brought a pH kit to test the pH. After mixing a bit of soil with water and a pH indicator, we compared the color to a pH scale and determined that most areas have a pH of around 7 (neutral). It is more common to find acidic soils (below 7) in which case you may need limestone to increase to optimal level. In our case we may have to add a sulfur compound (such as iron sulfate) to bring the pH down. If your soil is very far off the optimal value of 6-6.5, it may take several years to correct.
  • Other Amendments: 
    • It is usually a good practice to add green sand, which contains a lot of micronutrients, which are needed in very small quantities but are essential to healthy and nutritious plants. Not much is needed; in our case, about 1 or 2 cups per bed. 
    • Also recommended to add compost to incorporate beneficial microorganisms, organic matter and some nutrients to the soil. A good quality, organic, imported compost (such as from the coast of Main) is recommended, as home-made compost is likely to be lacking certain nutrients.
  • Protecting the soil. As a general rule, it is best to disturb the soil as little as possible and the soil should never be left bare. Roots should stay in the ground as they hold the soil in place. Also fungal strings (hyphae) are broken if we turn the soil. The less we disturb the soil, the healthier the soil life (beneficial fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms) and plants will be. 
    • Seasonal plants should be cut at ground level, chopped and left on the soil. Roots should be left as they are. Same should be done with weeds, but expose the roots for a couple of days do they do not regrow, and remove any seeds. Next season you'll just plant through the plant remains. (If you have a lot of plant material, you may want to first add soil nutrients and then chop and drop).
    • If needed, add soil to your planters on top of the residues.
    • If needed, add any nutrients next.
    • Soil should never be bare. If needed cover with 2-3 inches of mulch.
  • Caring for your tools: get all the dirt off. Rub metal parts with cheap vegetable oil to prevent rusting. Rub wooden handles with linseed oil.

September 24, 2015

  • Soil Texture: How it hangs together. Soil is typically composed of 50% air and water, 45% minerals, and 5% organic matter. There are three types of mineral particles: sand, silt, and clay (from coarser to finer). Best soils for gardening are typically loams, which have about 1/3 of each. You can tell the texture of your soil by feeling a moist sample in your hand--the garden soil was a loam, with a friable texture. Suzi also performed the "jar test": she shook a shovelful of soil in a jar filled with water. Larger sand particles settle first, then the silt, and finally the very fine clay particles sit at the top. There are also professional tests that can tell you exactly your soil composition.
  • Soil pH. It's a measure of acidity. pH goes from 0 to 14, with 0 being the most acidic. Each number increases acidity by a factor of ten. Neutral pH is 7. Rain water is slightly acidic (6 to 6.5) because of dissolved carbon dioxide. This is also the ideal pH for growing most plants except blueberries. If you only test one thing, test your soil pH! Certain nutrients are available to plants only within a narrow pH range. To raise pH you can add crushed limestone or wood ash.
  • Organic Content. This is very important because as organic matter decomposes, it releases nutrients into the soil that feed the soil biology and the plants. The end product of decomposition is humus, which has a neutral pH and chemical "stickiness," which means it absorbs and holds water. Organically rich soil holds 4 times as much water as poor soil.
  • Minerals. Plants need 16 specific elements, or nutrients. These need to be present in soil for optimal plant growth. The elements that plants need in the largest quantities are those used for photosynthesis: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Macronutrients are those needed in the largest quantities are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Nutrients needed in smaller amounts are called micronutrients: iron, manganese, boron, copper, zinc, molybdenum, chlorine, and nickel, all of which occur in very small quantities in most soils.

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