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5 Ways to Put Your Garden Beds to Bed for Winter

14_08559 14_08554 11_11388 Rake On The Wheelbarrow

Prepping your garden beds for winter will make it easier to get a jump start on planting in the spring because working in a soggy, spring bed is a difficult task! It’s far smarter to do that work in the fall when the beds are dry and the weather is nice.

So, if you’re wondering how to tuck your garden beds in for a long winter nap and have them wake up refreshed, start with these five tasks:

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DIRT, can you dig it?

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Ever thought about the importance of dirt? You know, that stuff you walk on every day. In the hustle and bustle of life, we often fail to notice the significant roles that the Earth’s various elements play. We all know how important water is but Dirt, despite its endless functions, is literally overlooked. Dirt is the anchor for building foundations, the preventer of floods, the vessel for wells, a buffer against metals buried deeper in our planet’s crust, and the sustainer of all our food sources.

As a gardener, we’re certain you consider dirt more than most. With your hands dug in, you’ve probably cursed clay, hated sand, been thankful for a good rainfall, and maybe even laboriously composted your way to a rich soil full of recycled nutrients. That’s where we come in. After a lifetime spent getting dirty in the garden and on the farm, we knew our flowers and crops were yearning for an easy alternative to composting and yet a safer way than harmful man-made soil additives – our family and our Earth deserves better.

So we did our research (lots of it) and we set out to find a living soil. With our daughter in tow wearing her rain boots, we trudged through a wetland of peat moss and discovered the overwhelming benefits of a renewable bog. We worked with a harvester in the midst of Canada’s lush landscape to develop and license BogBits. And we created a line of products, enthused with love (& some plant probiotics) that we feel great about. Our potting mix and soil conditioner improve porosity so roots can breathe while increasing the soil’s innate capacity to capture and maintain just the right amount of water; all the while, using our Earth’s naturally occurring nutrients to benefit soil instead of potentially harmful chemicals.

The name is simple and our promise to users is as well – a sustainable soil that will produce a successful planting season. Why are we so passionate about dirt? Because gardening cultivates more than just plants; for us, it is a way of life and time spent outside, is food for the soul. With respect for the Earth and what we put back into it, we’d like to invite you to try GOOD DIRT and let us know what you, your family, your pets, and your garden think of it. We hope you dig GOOD DIRT as much as we do.

Sincerely,
Al & Suzy Newsom
Founders, GOOD DIRT

Lettuce and nasturtiums

3 Hacks to Grow Organic Veggies in a Small Space

What is Intensive Gardening?

Gardening in small spaces uses an intensive or close spacing that is not the traditional spacing like you see on the back of your seed packets or use in the traditional row garden. It is designed to fit a lot more plants into a smaller space than would normally be required if traditional spacing were used. To be successful, this approach relies on optimum soil texture and fertility so that plants do not find it necessary to compete with each other for the nutrients they need to grow and produce fruit. Using raised beds makes this easy as it keeps the amended soil contained.

Good Soil is the Secret to Success

For some time now we have recognized that there is a whole world beneath the soil; small microscopic organisms that are necessary for the life and health of plants. These organisms are responsible for creating an ecology that enables the plants to feed and take up water; so we must protect that system by doing no harm to these organisms. By avoiding toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and practices like excessive tillage that are harmful to soil organisms and using natural amendments, we allow the plants to excel.

Good texture provides soil that is loose and friable and allows plant roots to penetrate through it easily. This is accomplished by the addition of organic matter, which also increases the soils ability to take in and store water.

The Root of Intensive Gardening

Each type of plant has its own distinctive growth habit above ground, which we are more familiar with. We know that by tucking in the smaller plants such as radishes around some of the larger plants like beans, we can make better use of space and light, but did you know there are also distinctive growth pattern of roots underground that are common to each type? Some plants have deep growing roots, and some plants root grow very shallowly. Some plants root spread wide and far, and some are narrow and compact. If you take these growth patterns, for example, pairing a medium rooting bush bean plant, a shallow rooted onion and a deep rooted sweet potato there is minimal competition for water and nutrients at the same soil level. By combining the above and below ground habits, you can create quite a mosaic in each of your beds increasing your harvest in a small space and keeping the weeding, watering and general labor at a minimum, saving your back. I’m all for having more leisure time to enjoy the harvest!

Good Soil = Good Growing

The One Acre Vegetable Garden has gotten off to a roaring start this spring thanks to unusually warm temperatures and, the secret to success, good soil.

In keeping with our green mission we use organic soil in the gardens at the Retreat. This is especially important in the One Acre Vegetable Garden because everything we grow there is edible.

Our soil is a blend of compost, sand, and chicken litter mixed in with the existing soil. To sweeten the acidity we also add some lime. Most vegetables like a pH between 6 and 7.

I usually prefer to vegetable garden in framed, raised beds because I get to custom blend the soil to make it just right. A mix of two-parts bagged soil (no amendments such as fertilizer or water retentive polymers) to one-part well-rotted manure and one-part compost will do the trick.

Amending Clay Garden Soil

The foundation of successful gardening is good soil. I
always tell beginning gardeners that if they get the
soil right they are two-thirds of the way to a beautiful
garden. Unfortunately, few of us move into a home where
the soil is already perfect. When I began digging my
garden I was faced with a thick layer of highway grade
gravel that was left over from when the then vacant lot
was used as a community park. In order to remove all the
gravel it was necessary to take with it most of the
arable topsoil. That left me with a heavy, clay-based
subsoil that was harder than a terra cotta pot.

Few things can strike fear into the hearts of gardeners
like heavy clay soil. It is almost impossible to grow
anything in the stuff. It is gooey when it is wet, and
brick hard in the summer.

Why is Clay Soil So Troublesome?

The problem is that clay particles are very small in
comparison to others found in the soil. For instance,
if a clay particle were the size of a baseball, the
average grain of sand would be, relatively speaking,
the size of a Greyhound bus. Because clay particles
are so tiny they pack together easily and become very
dense, virtually impermeable to water and air, which
are essential for healthy soil.

Use Humus to Improve Clay Soil

Now if you have clay soil, there is no reason to call
in a backhoe or a D-9 dozer to dig it out. A better
idea is to simply amend it. This will help break up
the clay particles so water can trickle through and
delicate roots can grow in the air pockets. The best
way to separate these particles is to integrate coarser
or larger particles such as humus. Humus is any decayed
organic material like leaf mold, old ground up pine bark
or compost. If you do not have a compost bin you can
purchase bagged soil conditioner or even have it
delivered by the cubic yard.

Get to Digging

Begin by loosening the clay in the area where you want to
create a bed. Dig down about 12 inches. Once the ground is
broken up add 3 inches of bagged garden soil, 3 inches of
compost and 3 inches of ground, decomposed pine bark.

Once you have added all the amendments, till the ground until
everything is well-blended. If you do not have access to a
tiller you can do this by hand with a garden fork or
shovel. It just takes more effort.

You will know that you have the texture right if you can
squeeze a moist handful of soil in your fist and it easily
falls apart when you open your hand.

Add Manure to Your Soil

Now to further improve your soil, add some well-rotted
manure. Not only does it help the composition of the soil
but it brings nutrients as well. When you purchase a bag
of basic commercial fertilizer like 13-13-13 you get
13% nitrogen, 13% phosphorous and 13% potassium but
nothing else.

Granted these are staples that plants need, but they also
need other trace elements such iron, boron, and magnesium.
Manure has all these trace elements plus a heaping dose
of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. For plants,
manure is like a well-balanced meal and a multi-vitamin
all in one.

I recommend purchasing manure in bags from your local
garden center. Typically bagged manure has gone through
a heat process that sterilizes any weed seeds that might
be lurking in there and it helps to deodorize it. Also,
you do not have to worry about it being too fresh and
burning your plants. Check the back of the bag for
recommend rates of application.

Once you have the texture just right and have added the
manure, top the soil with 2 to 3 inches of wood mulch.
I prefer pine bark chips, but any wood mulch will do.
As the wood decomposes it will supply your garden with
plenty of organic matter plus reduce weeds and retain
moisture.

Good to Know:

Sandy soils can be amended too. Simply till in 2 to 3
inches of humus such as manure or compost to help bind
the soil. This will improve water retention as well
as add nutrients.

Three Steps to Improve Garden Soil

Soil, sun, water, and plant selection are the key components for successful growing. Get these four things right and you are on the road to a beautiful and productive garden. Of these elements, soil seems to be the most puzzling. Perhaps it is because all the action takes place underground where we can’t see it. To remove the mystery think of soil as a “living” part of a garden that needs nurturing to keep it healthy.

So what is healthy soil? A healthy soil has a loose structure that allows for the free movement of water and air and is alive with microorganisms and plant nutrients. How do you create healthy soil? Soil testing, organic matter and organic fertilizer will turn sandy, clay and poor soils into a home where any plant will thrive.

Test Your Soil

There are two types of soil testing I recommend. One is a test for nutrient composition and the other is for texture.

Healthy Garden SoilYou can test the composition of your soil with a home soil kit or for more thorough results contact your local extension service. One of the things you will find out is your soil’s pH. Put in the simplest terms, soils can range from alkaline to neutral to acidic, and this is what determines its pH. Most garden plants enjoy a pH level that’s closer to neutral rather than being extremely acidic or extremely alkaline. A soil test will also tell you about your soil’s fertility, nutrient deficiencies, and mineral content. Knowing the composition of your soil will help determine how to amend it.

The next test is for texture and it’s pretty simple. Squeeze some dirt in your fist and then open your fingers. If the dirt stays in a tight clump, you’ve got too much clay. If it falls apart completely, it’s too sandy. You want it to crumble. Clay soil has tiny particles, which increases the density. Sandy soil has large particles making it too porous. Good soil is comprised of different sized particles allowing air and water to flow freely and fostering an ideal environment for microorganisms. Microorganisms help break down organic matter and make it available to plants as enzymes and nutrients.

Good to Know: Microorganism Population Boom
Out at the farm we use Jobe’s Organics Granular Fertilizers to increase the population of microorganisms. Their products contain three essential microorganisms – bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and a unique species of Archaea. Archaea sets Jobe’s apart from other microbial fertilizers because it is so aggressive, quickly breaking down material into nutrients for plants. Our tests of Jobe’s resulted in better looking plants, with increased resistance to weather extremes.

Correct the Chemistry of Your Soil with Organic Amendments

Once you have the results of your soil test you can set to balancing out the chemistry. If your soil is too acidic add wood ashes or lime; too alkaline add aluminum sulfate. Cover crops such as soybeans and cowpeas are excellent for adding nitrogen back to the soil. We use greensand at the Garden Home Retreat to increase the potassium and soft rock phosphate is an excellent source of phosphorous. And you can’t go wrong with aged cow, horse, or sheep manure. Not only will it increase the fertility of your soil, it helps with the texture too. When applying any type of fertilizer follow the manufacturer’s instructions. You don’t want to over correct.

Improve the Texture of Your Soil with Organic Matter

Compost or humus is excellent for improving the texture of soil. The nice thing about it is that you can’t over apply. Using a garden fork, work the organic matter into your garden beds about six inches deep. Do make sure that the material is well broken down. I’ve learned from experience that under “ripened” compost can actually leach nutrients from the soil.

The Secret Life of Soil

Did you know that the soil in your garden is home to billions of microorganisms, insects, worms and fauna? According to Soil Science Society of America ” a handful of soil has more living organisms than there are people on planet Earth.” This secret society plays an essential role in soil health by adding nutrients, increasing friability and absorbing and releasing essential elements like oxygen and nitrogen. One microorganism, mycorrhizal fungi, even facilitates the movement of water and nutrients between the soil and plant roots. Another, archaea, speeds up the decomposition of organic matter into food for plants to take in.

Keeping this subterranean universe in fine fettle is essential to plant vigor and productivity and while it might seem like keeping the billions of inhabitants happy, there’s really nothing to it.

Garden soil

There are a few steps you can take to encourage the development of beneficial organisms:

  • Water consistently – these bacteria require a damp environment
  • Add organic matter and organic mulch every spring and fall – to provide food and maintain the damp environment
  • Avoid excessive roto-tilling – excessive roto-tilling can destroy the bacteria
  • Avoid plastic sheets under mulch – the plastic limits water and air movement discouraging microorganism activity

Rose Garden Soil

Whether you grow them in beds or in containers, roses appreciate soil that’s loamy with a pH of about 6.5. Just what does that mean and how do you achieve it? Read on and I’ll tell you.

What is Loamy Soil?

A loamy soil contains three particle sizes in relatively equal proportions – clay, sand and silt. This mix makes the soil just porous enough to allow good water retention and drainage as well as air and nutrient circulation.

So get to know the composition of your soil. Is it sandy? Heavy clay? Grab a handful and squeeze it in your fist. When you open your fist what happens? Good soil will crumble not clump (too much clay) or slide off your hand (too sandy).

What is Soil pH?

Soil pH tells you the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. A pH of 3.5 is highly acidic and 9.0 is extremely alkaline. Roses prefer a soil pH closer to the middle, around 6.5. You can determine your soil’s pH with a home soil test or send samples to your local cooperative extension for more thorough results.

Getting the Soil Right in Your Rose Garden

So how do you transform what Mother Nature supplied you into something that will make your roses happy?

If you’re planting roses in containers or raised beds, you’re in luck. Just mix up a batch of this rose soil.

    1/3 potting soil
    1/3 compost
    1/3 bagged manure

Amending garden soil will take a little more effort because digging is required.

    1. Dig 12 inches deep into the soil, setting the removed soil to the side.
    2. Mix 2 parts garden soil with 1 part compost and 1 part bagged manure.
    3. Return the soil to the area as you plant your roses.

Good to Know

Organic matter releases nutrients into the soil as it decomposes. To kick start the process, enhance the soil with Jobe’s Organics Rose and Flower fertilizer. It contains microorganisms that aggressively break down materials into basic nutrients and trace elements that plants can readily absorb. Good stuff for the garden!

What is Well-Drained Soil?

I keep reading about plants that need well drained soil. How can I tell if my soil fits that description?

When selecting a plant for your garden it is important to note not only the hardiness zones in which it will survive but also the growing conditions that it needs. Choosing plants that are best suited to the growing conditions that exist in your garden can mean the difference between success and failure. For instance, if you want to grow peonies you will need to provide them with fertile, humus rich, moist but well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. The light requirements are pretty self-explanatory, but the soil descriptions can seem a bit vague, especially well-drained. After all how can you have moist soil that also drains well?

This term refers to more than just how water behaves in your garden. It is somewhat of a catchall for healthy soil. Well-drained soil has a loose structure that allows for rapid movement of water and air through the soil particles because along with moisture, plant roots need plenty of oxygen to survive.

I have heavy clay soil in my garden. Clay particles are tiny and pack together easily so my soil is very dense. Without amendments, my soil retains too much moisture and excludes the oxygen that both plants and beneficial micro-organisms need.

Alternatively some gardeners have sandy soil that does not retain any moisture. Both clay and sandy soil can be amended to improve its capacity to grow healthy plants.

An added benefit of well-draining soil is that it warms up faster than wet soil in the spring. This allows you to get a jump start on the growing season.

Soil Secrets from an Expert

It’s often said that the secret to successful gardening is good soil. But what’s the secret to getting good soil? I asked Jen Neve, President of Oppenheimer Biotechnology, to shed some light on the mystery.

I first met Jen in 2011 when she spoke to a group of garden writers at Moss Mountain Farm. Her company specializes in growing the microorganism Archaea. Archaea is like the Incredible Hulk of microorganisms. Aggressive, fast and tolerant of harsh conditions, it is used at oil spills to recycle contaminants into natural compounds. The microbes break down complex materials into basic nutrients and trace elements that are beneficial to plants. For this reason Archaea is also a great soil amendment, which is why you’ll find it in fertilizers offered by my friends at Jobe’s Organic Fertilizers.

While she was at the farm I noticed how Jen was able to take fairly complicated information and translate it into something we could all understand – sort of like Archaea! I thought she’d be the perfect person to explain the nature of good soil.

Here are the questions I posed to Jen and her responses.

Allen: A common mantra in gardening is “feed the soil, not the plants.” What does this mean and how can gardeners feed the soil?

Jen Neve: Plants get most of their nutrients from the soil – so the way to have a healthy plant is to make sure your soil is healthy. When you start your garden make sure you use sand, compost and organic fertilizer and mix it into your existing soil. Microbes are hugely important and often chemicals can harm them so they may not exist in sufficient numbers in backyard soil. I suggest using an organic fertilizer that has beneficial bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and especially Archaea. Plant whatever you want, mulch, and once or twice a year apply organic fertilizer then leave it alone. Too much digging and fiddling disturbs the root system, in fact it disturbs the whole soil structure and can harm your plants. I know I started that way – dig, dig, dig…fiddle, fiddle, fiddle – it was just more work for me without really helping the plants. So my gardening mantra is now “get it established and leave it alone.”

Allen: How can a gardener tell is their soil is healthy? What do you consider to be the most important elements of healthy soil?

Jen: I think the best way to tell if your soil is healthy is to take a look at the soil. Soil is a complex assemblage of decaying organic matter, stable organic matter, fresh residue and many living organisms ranging in size from the tiny bacteria, Archaea, algae, fungi, and protozoa, more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods, to the visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and even plants. The most important elements are signs of life and non-uniformity. By signs of life I mean can you see little creatures in it? Are there bits of plant matter (green as well as decaying)? Can you see grains of sand? Tiny rocks? Perhaps some leaves and sticks? Contrast that to sand in the desert – yes, it’s pretty but it’s uniform & for the most part lifeless.

Allen: How does Archaea contribute to soil health? How is it different from mycorrhizal fungi?

Jen: Within the soil the mycorrhizal fungi establishes a symbiotic relationship with plant roots by penetrating plant root tissues and surrounding root mass to more effectively take in needed nutrients. The Archaea are microorganisms similar to bacteria that work in the soil to release greater amounts of nutrients so the plant can take in nutrition as required. There is a natural cooperation developed between Archaea and beneficial bacteria making them more effective as a group. Archaea also breaks down organic matter into usable forms that plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi can identify, absorb, and ultimately incorporate for new growth. There has been some interesting research in Europe indicating that Archaea have an important role in the nitrogen cycle, one that is completely different than the traditional role limited to bacteria only.

You can think of the mycorrhizal fungi as an extension of the plant roots allowing the plant to use more of the nutrients the Archaea have made available.

Imagine a family all sitting around the dinner table with different kinds of food all along the center of the table – where most of the food is in unopened cans. The Archaea are the can openers, allowing the food to be available but only to the people right in front of the food. If you hand some of the people 2-foot long forks (aka mycorrhizal fungi) they can grab food from anywhere on the table – allowing them a more varied diet and therefore a healthier life.

Allen: Beyond good soil, what’s your best tip for a successful garden?

Jen: Plant what grows & be patient. Seems simple but we all try to make plants grow where WE want them NOW. I always scour all the local nurseries and even big box stores looking for plants in small pots (lots of native plants) and then plant several different kinds all in one area and wait a season to see what happens. Then I buy & plant more of what thrived without extra attention from me. If a “weed” happens to grow and looks pretty then I leave it in the garden. I happen to love the wild English garden look so this method works for me. My friends all say I have a green thumb but actually, I just plant more of what has grown for me. Also, as I mentioned earlier – get the healthy soil established and just leave the soil alone.