soil

Corn Channels

One of the best ways to ensure that your corn retains the moisture it needs for good development is what I call “corn channels.” Basically, these are deep grooves formed in the soil where I then plant my corn seeds. Simple! First, my husband tills the garden with his tractor and then I follow-up with my hand tiller.

tractoring dollar

I could use the channels formed by his tractor, but then my corn plants would not be spaced as I prefer.

deep-channels-for-corn-planting

Corn likes to snuggle. It keeps them safe from high winds. Remember this scene?

corn by storm

Not a pretty day in the garden when your corn sisters have fallen over after a windy day. By planting them closely together, I’m actually protecting them from this very threat. That’s why I pack them tightly together, about 8 – 12 inches apart down the row and also from bed to bed. I place walkways every second row of corn and align my sprinklers accordingly.

corn-in-progress

I think these babies look pretty happy! Next, I’ll interplant lettuce between the corn. The two seem to work well together (remember: lettuce loves everybody when it comes to companion planting!) and will help conserve space. I’ll also be adding hay mulch once my corn becomes better established.

How To Solarize Soil

Now that its summertime and the family and I are consumed with thoughts of frolicking through rolling waves and sparkling pool water, my garden is at rest. July in Central Florida is simply too hot to grow most fruits and vegetables so we gardeners go dormant. Not completely, mind you. Peanuts and peppers thrive in the heat, but most beds have been closed.

But closed doesn’t mean “off-duty.” Quite the opposite. As any savvy gardener knows, work WITH Mother Nature and you will reap plentiful rewards! What are we doing this July?

heavy duty black paper

We’re solarizing our garden. Using heavy black paper, we cover our empty beds and allow the sun to do the work. What work?

Ridding our soil of microscopic varmints. Nematodes, to be precise. The kind that devour plants from beneath the surface. They’re a horrible nuisance in the garden. Absolutely horrible.

However, not one to despair, I vow to rid my garden of every last beast if it’s the last thing I do. I’ve got a fall garden to think about and I WON’T be put off.

So I’m solarizing my garden. I’m covering every last row with heavy black paper and using the power of the Florida sun to cook the beasts out of hiding.  If they want to survive, anyway, they’ll have to “abandon garden” and flee for safer—cooler—soil.  Solarize is the technical term. Basically it means to cover your beds with plastic paper–I’m going with hot black–and leave it in place for six weeks.  The heat gathering beneath the paper will cook the soil and whatever is underground will cease and desist.  Simple, eh?

effective paper weights

I do love simple. Key to remember in this process is to secure the paper. Florida summer means heat but it also means afternoon thunderstorms. Winds pick up and if you haven’t secured your paper in place, Mother Nature will whip it up and away and into shreds. She’ll toss it everywhere but where it was supposed to be. Remember: work WITH Mother Nature, understand her ways, and you can succeed. I used heavy white tile, miscellaneous rebar—whatever is heavy enough to keep the peace (read: the paper in place).

mound of dirt beneath paper

Occasionally one must be wary of other underground pests such as moles. Those babies can move a lot dirt and re-shape your paper. Be vigilant. You will prevail.

Come fall, everyone will be happy. Mother Nature will have cooled off, the varmints will have cleaned out, and my soil will be ready for seeds. Wunderbar!

Squashing Compost Myths

“Compost piles stink. I would never have one. because I couldn’t tolerate the stench, I don’t have the time, and I DON’T want the rodents.”

black gold compost

Forget the black gold that a compost pile will deliver. Forget the organic treasure trove of nutrients this soil amendment will provide for your plants. Forget the health of the planet. Composting is crazy.

compost cross-section

Ever heard this sentiment before? I have. Often. And it’s because many people have a misconception about composting. It doesn’t have to be stinky and messy, attract bugs and wildlife. Quite the opposite. It’s an easy, simple, very worthwhile endeavor. Not only do the plants in my vegetable garden love it, my pile grows a few of its own veggies for me! Look at this gorgeous pumpkin plant. I didn’t do a thing to grow it, except dump the Halloween pumpkins onto the pile. Amazing.

compost pumpkins

Remember the incredible sweet potato I harvested from the pile a few months back? Stupendous. More

Carrot Balls?

I always talk about soft dirt. Plants like soft dirt. And I worked very hard to make my carrot bed very soft. However, something has gone awry. My carrots look comfy and cozy in their raised beds…

row of carrots

But alas, when I harvested them this weekend, a few did not fill out as intended.

carrot balls

They look more like carrot balls than finely-tapered carrots! ACK. Ugh. The trials of gardening. I don’t have an answer for this one. Carrots right next to them were beautiful. These were stunted. Cute, but stunted. No worries! I’m going to chop them all in my Cuisinart and make a lovely carrot cake.

light and fluffy slice

At that point, no one will care one iota about their shape when they came out of the ground. Ta-da! Gorgeous, isn’t it? Fluffiest Carrot Cake ever!

It’s Not Too Late

Just because January 1st has come and gone, that’s no reason you can’t make a New Year’s resolution to start that compost pile you’ve always wanted. There’s nothing to it, other than a trip outside. Really. No turning, twisting, flipping over raking–unless you want to. And it doesn’t stink, despite what you’ve heard. This is where Mother Nature is your friend. You’re very best friend.

backyard compost pile

All that’s required is desire and effort you’re already making. Raking leaves? Dump them onto the compost pile out back. Tossing out leftover food? Toss it onto the compost pile. Want to recycle those paper towels, napkins, and newspapers? Place them on the compost pile instead of the recycle bin. All of these items work perfectly and produce excellent, non-toxic organic results.

compost cross-section

And the dirt you’ll reap from your efforts is superior to anything else for your garden soil. And it’s free! Of course, if you don’t have a backyard, you can always buy one of those handy-dandy contraptions to hold your compost.

black gold compost

They do work and with excellent results. For your kitchen, you can make a cute compost bin to hold your kitchen leftovers until you’re ready to make the trek outside, complete with carbon filter hidden in the lid to absorb the smell. Unlike your outdoor compost pile, your indoor compost bin WILL stink. Bad.

kitchen scraps get covered

My kids painted this one at one of those clay-glaze places, although we’ve since changed over to a simple stainless steel version. Less breakable (hint, hint). So what are you waiting for? Start resolving and get composting!

Your garden will thank you.

My Secret Weapon

When it comes to gardening, there’s nothing better than amending your soil with compost. Not only does it feed your plants, but it aerates the soil, invites the worms to slither in and generally keeps the environment in balance. However, there is ONE thing better than my backyard compost and that’s mushrooms.

Mushroom compost, to be exact. It’s inexpensive (when you buy it straight from the farm – Monterey Mushroom Farm – $10 for a trailer-full), readily available at most warehouse garden stores, but stinky. What makes it stinky?

I’m guessing there’s a fair amount of composted manure in it. From what animal? I can’t be sure. It’s just a guess on my part, but make sure you grab those gloves before you head out. And while it looks nearly the same as cow manure compost, I think my plants actually prefer the mushroom stuff over the cow stuff. 

Some of the biggest fans are squash and zucchini. I’d bet cabbage and broccoli would benefit, too, but the squash family shows the most improvement. Come to think of it, I bet my corn would love some mushrooms. I mean, they are heavy feeders, same as their squash friends!

found a big one

What else am I growing this fall? Tomatoes, green peppers, jalapenos, lettuce, carrots, peas, red beans, black beans and soon to be garlic and sweet onions. How about you? What are you growing?

 

Recycling Gone Amuck?

Call me a waste-not-want-not kinda gal, but this is a motto I can live by, but I think we can all agree there’s no sense in waste. From frugal consumption to garbage disposal, we should all practice clean living habits, using the old instead of increasing our dump sites and generally be good stewards of our environment. I mean, even a dog knows better than to soil his living space, shouldn’t we humans?

We should. And we gardeners know better than anyone the value of leftovers and waste—we collect it and build gorgeous compost piles with it! From our veggie omelet to our lawn clippings, we reuse everything. And for good reason. We’re building piles of black gold, a.k.a. organic soil for our gardens.

But how about your coffee? Sure, we use old coffee grounds to decrease the pH of our soil, scattering them among the blueberries, raspberries, potatoes, azaleas and gardenia (don’t fight kids, there’s enough for all of you!). My rose bushes, too! Some plants simply thrive in acidic soil. But what about the coffee I didn’t drink? Need I pour it down the sink?

coffee-grounds

Absolutely not! Save that old coffee and dilute it with water for a most effective spray against insects. Whiteflies abhor the stuff, but your plants don’t mind a bit! And don’t forget that newspaper you’re reading. When you’re finished, use it as mulch in your garden, maybe beneath the more beautiful hay or pine needles? More

Have You Exercised Your Soil Lately?

Soil is key to healthy plants.  Duh. But with spring upon us, it’s an important concept to keep in mind. Healthy soil = healthy plants. What makes a healthy soil? Fertilizer? Water? While these two ingredients certainly help, to have truly healthy soil, you need to aerate. Aerate basically means to turn your soil, or add “air” into the compacted ground by redistributing the soil, making for better decomposition. However, one must take caution when aerating established garden soil, because you don’t want to disturb the microorganisms and/or beneficials (good creatures) living beneath the surface. Think worms. You want these little guys to remain happy in your garden and poking them with the sharp blade of a tiller or spade will not make them happy.

gorgeous-worms

How do you aerate your soil in a compassionate manner? Depends on the current condition of your soil. If you’re preparing an area for the first time, your best bet is to go full speed ahead using a push tiller.

rent the tiller

Your goal is to turn up the soil, introduce air, loosening the dirt several inches deep. You can also use a spade for this process. Stab the blade in, dig up the soil, turn it over–stab, dig, turn–over and over. It’s a tedious process but provides great exercise. Hah.

stab shovel both sides

For established gardens, avoid the push tiller and opt for a spade or a hand tool. For example, between planting seasons — I have two here in Central Florida, fall and spring — I turn and till as I work through established beds using a hand fork or shovel, whichever is handy. As I do so, I’ll add compost to increase beneficial organisms into the soil which in turn aids decomposition, aka, more organic compost! Additionally, throughout a single growing season, I’ll poke around my plants with a hand tiller/fork to ensure they’re not becoming compacted by say, heavy rains and the like. We do tend to get torrential downpours.

my beds are formed

Aerating soil not only facilitates the decomposition process of healthy soil, it also ensures light, fluffy beds for your plants. And remember, plants prefer light fluffy beds of dirt because it enables their roots to grow and spread freely. It also allows them to soak up those nutrients you’re “folding” or “tilling” into the soil in the form of organic fertilizer.

loosen and till as you go

Caveat to aeration? You’re turning up weed seeds embedded deep in your soil. Not good, because you’re basically replanting them, encouraging/enabling them to sprout. Ugh. But as every gardener knows, weeds are part of the deal. Some of us are meticulous when it comes to weed removal in and around their plants. Others (like me) have accepted that a few weeds around the garden don’t hurt that bad. They merely look bad. Which brings to mind an old saying along the lines…an immaculate house means a dull life. Loosely translated: I have other more exciting things to do than weed!

Now that you have that spring in your step, head outside! The sun is shining, the temps are warming (or will be soon), and there’s no place you’d rather be than outdoors.

Check, Check & Check!

With spring upon us—well, some of us, anyway—it’s time to finalize your garden plans.  Getting a head-start on the growing season will ensure you have a bountiful harvest. After my fall tomato experience, I’m certain spring is going to be even better and have already started my tomato sprouts. (Positive thinking will get you everywhere!)

sprouting tomatoes 2015

By being positive and prepared, you’ll be certain to be ready for YOUR first day of planting, when all threat of frost has passed.  While this day varies from region to region based, most gardeners can plan on March-April to begin their outdoor festivities. 

But why wait?  Do like I did and get those seeds started now!  Which brings us to the first item on the checklist:

1 – Order seeds.  Grow what you’ll eat—not what’s easy.  I know it’s tempting, but there’s no sadder day than the one when you witness perfectly good food withering on the vine because no one wanted to harvest it. The “excitement” factor was missing. The “ah-ha” moment, if you will. Rule number one: Gardening should be fun!

2 – Design layout.  If building container beds, get your lumber now.  I don’t know about you, but my husband likes a bit of notice before he’s asked to perform.  Getting your creative juices warmed and flowing now will help speed the process later.  “Oh, honey…  About that little favor I mentioned! “

3 – Sharpen your tools.  Or simply clean them off, know where they are, organize them.  You get my drift. The last thing you need is to be searching for that trowel when you need it.  Mine is indispensable because it weeds (its primary function), digs, buries and levels.  You gotta love a multi-tasker.  Other essentials include gloves, hat, sunscreen and water bottle. 

For you serious gardeners, you might want to add a long-handled hoe (I prefer the triangular-shaped head) for the job of cultivating your rows.  Not me.  I’m a busy gal with a bad back — “till as you go” is more my speed!

4 – Turn your compost.   You do have a compost pile, don’t you?  It’s too easy not to—just toss, pile, and turn.  Easy as 1-2-3! Seriously, composting is easy and productive. Why just look at these gorgeous potatoes my compost served up for me.

compost potatoes

Love a generous compost pile, in and out of the garden.

5 – Organize your rows/containers based on companion planting.  Like people, plants do have their favorites, so keep them close.  Besides keeping the harmony, it provides a natural pesticide helping ease your workload.  The sooner you break out the excel program (my preferred garden journal), the sooner you’re planting seeds and keeping track.  Bear in mind your crop rotation as well—unless this is your first time playin’ in the sunshine! 

6 – Check your water supply.  Now’s the time to fix those leaky drip hoses or grease any squeaky sprinkler heads.  And if you can’t fix them–replace them–before spring fever hits and they’re scooped from the shelves by other eager beavers.  Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency in the eyes of the store manager.

7 – Gather your mulch.  Discarded newspapers, lawn trimmings, hay, pine straw and bark…  All of these lend themselves well for use as natural mulch, though be sure to wet your newspaper down (or layer it with another form of mulch for a good thick cover).   Trust me.  Your neighbors will not be happy when your “mulch” blows across their lawn. 

8 – Prepare soil.  Remove weeds and add compost.  100% organic, it provides an excellent soil amendment, rich in the nutrients your plants need.  Also, till your beds ahead of time.  This will introduce air into the soil and accelerate bacteria activity, which in turn helps release nutrients into the soil.  Word to the wise:  after you’ve taken the time to remove weeds from your soil, be sure to cover your beds with row covers (or a hefty dose of mulch).  Otherwise, you’ll be wedding again before your seeds/seedlings arrive on scene.  In my house, that’s call for mutiny.

corn gluten

Also, consider ordering a bag of corn gluten now so you’ll have it on hand come season. Once your seedlings have sprouted and are on their way, you’ll want to sprinkle corn gluten on the soil around them to help keep the weeds at bay. Those tiny golden granules are amazing.

9 – Soil test.  If you’re not sure what shape your soil’s in, take a sample to your local garden store.   I take mine to the seed and feed and they test it on the spot.  You do-it-yourselfers will prefer a home test kit.  They’re simple to use and give a good idea where you stand soil-wise.  Then, depending on what you’re planting, you might want to adjust the pH (acidity-alkalinity) by adding lime to raise pH, or peat/pine/sulfur to lower it. 

10 – Dream.  Until your seedlings are ready to hit the garden, sit back and wistfully dream of the day when your beds will be lush and full, and flourishing with life.

It helps to pass the time until planting season really begins!

 

Tami’s Garden is Doing Terrific!

Wow, what a couple of weeks will make.  Just look at how much progress she’s made!  Soaker hoses are in place and keeping the plants happy. 

A couple of things to keep in mind when using  soaker hoses is placement and hose material.  When plants are young, be sure the soaker hose is close to the plant, as their root system has yet to spread out.

When plants grow larger, looping it around them (like she did with this cucumber plant) will work fine.  Not only does it get the water where it needs to go, it wastes less.  A good thing.

Also, Tami found she prefers the lightweight soaker hoses.  They’re more flexible which translates into easier handling.  A closeup for the stiffer hose can be seen here, in the photo below. 

The more flexible hose appears below.  She keeps it in place using a small metal anchor.

As I’ve never worked with soakers in my garden, I’m glad for the tip.  It’ll save me from myself later when I head to the hardware store and dither over which is best!  Another new concept to me is the use of oak leaves for acid-loving mulch as opposed to pine.  At the moment we’re talking about her blueberry and strawberry plants, but I imagine the same can be used anywhere in your garden to achieve the same results.  For example, acid-loving azaleas seem to delight in living beneath oak trees.  And since blueberries like acid, shouldn’t it be reasonable to assume oak leaves will work for them, too?

Yes, and no.  According to one gardener, the research is still out on this one.  He says oak leaves may be acid when “fresh” but turn alkaline with time.  Who knew?  And pine needles?  Seems the same applies and as they compost, their acid-producing benefits are neutralized.  Well, live and learn!  I say we observe how well her berries do and THEN decide.  (Too much of what I read in regard to gardening “how-to” turns out NOT to exactly the case.)

Speaking of mulch, one excellent way to retain moisture in your soil is to line the dirt with newspaper, then cover with hay or leaf mulch.  Not only will the newspaper decompose well and prove harmless to you and your plants, it’s a great way to recycle those old newspapers.  I do love a multi-tasker!

Where Tami lives, mulch is extremely important because a few days without water and no rain can really spell disaster.  Just look at this poor baby bean leaf.  Now I’m only guessing here, and I’ll take any advice from the experts, but this looks to me like leaf scorch — the product of too much sun and not enough water. 🙁  Bad combination.

One only has to glance at these little pumpkins (term of endearment — these used to be watermelon sprouts) to realize the effect one day of missed watering can have on your plants.  Devastating. 

But sprouts are fussy that way.  Without enough volume of dirt and sun shelter, they are susceptible to your bouts of memory loss.  Once in the garden though, they stand a much better chance. With a bit of mulch and deep even watering once every other day or so (depending on what you’re growing), your babies should be good to go!

And remember:  these plants are like your babies.  You must care for them until they can care for themselves.  And you must keep predators away.  While this part of her project is still in progress, she has secured her pipes to the outside of her beds.

All she has left to do now, is wrap this mesh around the corner pipes and she’s golden!  Or neon orange—but who cares?  The rabbits will be forced to go elsewhere! 

Don’t worry.  They’ll be fine.  As in Tami’s garden.