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Autumn Leaves into Cold Compost

2015 leaves spending the year composting

2015 leaves spending the year composting

Autumn leaves are falling. It is time to turn those leaves into ‘black gold’ known as cold compost, and improving our soil.

It was not very long into my Heath gardening career that I met Larry Lightner of Northfield. By the time I met him he was retired from the Mt.Hermon school where he had worked with students to create and maintain some of the school gardens. He still had his own productive gardens and had produce to share. He also had skills to teach and share. Lightner was a promoter of ‘cold compost.’ Most of us know that when we make a compost pile it should be comprised of green and brown materials that will eventually heat up and decompose.

Hot compost is the standard way we all learn about compost. Lightner made good use of the wealth of autumn leaves to make cold compost. He made wire fencing frames of many heights and depths and sizes. Many of his cold compost frames were circular and about two or three feet or so high. Into those frames he packed his leaves. It is amazing how quickly fall leaves break down, and how many leaves can be added over time to such a frame.

Lightner said his cold compost piles could be made high enough to act as a big raised bed making gardening easier for those who had trouble getting down on their knees. My first cold compost piles in Heath were set up inside the stone barn foundation after the barn itself burned down in 1990. After the fire the debris had to be bulldozed and carried away.  The soil such as it was, was not what anyone would call good garden soil. Nothing would grow in it.

The answer was to fill the space by creating a series of wire fencing frames about two feet high and filling them with leaves, packing them down until the frame was filled. I made many trips to Greenfield collecting the bagged leaves that many people left by the side of the street. In the spring I made small indentations in the packed leaves, filled that space with a quart or so of soil and then planted vegetable starts. The important thing to remember about these planting beds is that they did need consistent watering. Rotting leaves do not hold water the same way that good soil does.

By using cold compost planting beds for four years, I actually built up soil that would grow plants, and the frames were put aside.

Last fall we had no need of begging for bags of autumn leaves. Our Greenfield garden was full of leaves. We still had some wire fencing and built a five foot high ring about four feet in diameter. All fall we dumped our raked leaves into that frame, packing them down harder and harder as the pile got deeper.

Releasing the cold compost

Releasing the cold compost

Last weekend we asked our good neighbors, Andrew and Ritchey to help us lift the frame and release the cold compost for us to spread on our garden. Then we would be able to start filling the frame again with this year’s crop.

Ritchey’s parents, Mike and Susan Ritchey, were visiting and on hand to photograph our efforts. We brushed aside the outside leaves, and everyone was amazed to see the beautiful black gold compost that filled the frame. What a lesson about the riches of a new fall harvest.

The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed

The cold compost looked finished, but alas, the center of the pile was only partially decomposed

However, after Henry and I were left alone to spread the cold compost we realized that the pile had not decomposed fully all the way through. It turns out that even cold compost does need air and more water than our pile got, to decompose thoroughly. We had done a really good job of packing those leaves down hard. No air and very little water made it to the very center of the pile.

We spread the compost and rotting leaves anyway, wetting everything down. I also sprinkled a little soil and mulch over the less composted leaves. The soil will be richer for it in the spring.

Leaves can also be ground up with a mechanical leaf shredder, or you can run your lawn mower over leaf piles. The shredded leaves can be spread over the gardens as mulch and will almost have disappeared by springtime. However leaves are  handled, they return organic material and nutrients to the soil. Don’t miss this chance to enrich your soil.

I also want to let you know that the University of Massachusetts Extension Service Garden Calendar is now available. The 2017 UMass Garden Calendar features info about successful gardening during a dry season, as well as special tips for container gardening and extensive lists of suggested drought tolerant annuals and perennials for New England gardens. You can logon to to see calendar images and useful information all year long.  The photographs are a selection of plants chosen by the UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery & Urban Forestry staff for pest resistance, adaptability to specific growing environments, and seasonal effectiveness.

The calendar is $12. If you order before November 1 shipping is free. After November 1 there is a shipping charge of $3.50 for the first calendar and $2 for each additional calendar up to 9. There are bulk buying rates as well. If ordered by November 1 delivery before Christmas is guaranteed. For faster delivery order online at  You can also go online to get order forms to fill  out and mail with a check.

Time to Compost – Harvest the Biomass on the Ground

Front yard leaves - biomass

Front yard leaves – biomass

As far as I am concerned the leaves that fall in the fall tra-la are as welcome as the flowers that bloom in the spring. When I lived high on a windy hill in Heath all the leaves blew away. I helped a neighbor rake leaves, and took them away to my compost pile. I loved picking up a few bags of leaves that people left in front of their houses when I came into Greenfield to shop. I needed leaves for my compost pile. Now that I live in Greenfield I no longer have to go begging for autumn leaves.

If you have never set up a compost pile there are books like Let it Rot by Stu Campbell devoted to composting; many garden books give information about composting; and locally we have the Franklin County Waste Management District to give us directions about composting online at

After reading all the instructions my advice is not to worry about details too much and just begin. Compost is all about rotting organic material. Fast or slow the result is the same. So, just begin.

Don’t worry about ratios. Some directions seem to imagine us building a compost pile after we have been collecting enough green material like fresh grass clippings or spent annuals or other clippings, and sufficient brown materials like manure or dead leaves before we start our compost pile. Meat and bones are always forbidden. A compost pile should measure at least four feet high and wide. Sufficient size is necessary to build up heat in the rotting pile that will help break materials down and kill harmful pathogens and weed seeds. Explicit instructions like that have been known to stop me in my tracks.

Leaves - Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Leaves – Biomass in the backyard November 10.

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile because dried leaves, spent annuals and all the trimmings from cutback perennials make a good start for a compost pile. Alternate layers if you have green and brown materials, but don’t worry about it. Be sure to water the pile. A moist pile, not a drenched pile, will break down more quickly.

Compost directions always say to turn the pile periodically and that is certainly good advice, if not always easy to carry out. Some gardeners have the space and the forethought to build a three bin compost pile made out of cinder blocks or chicken wire or wooden slats. They begin the pile in space number one and when the space is full they turn the pile into space number two.  When number one is again full, fork number two into number three, and number one into number two. Then start filling number one. By the time number one is full again the composting materials in space number three should be ready to spread or dig into the soil. Continue in this manner forever.

I have seen an inexpensive compost aerator tool that you plunge into the pile. The tool has a long handle with little paddles at the bottom. When you pull the aerator out of the pile the paddles loosen and stir up the compost, letting in some air.

I have admired many compost piles, but mine have never been lovely or organized to look at. However they have made completed compost that helped me improve my Heath soil for over 30 years. Now I am beginning to improve my very poor, very heavy Greenfield soil.

I started with compost that I bought and we are lucky that we have Martin’s Farm right in Greenfield that composts on a major scale and sells compost, mulch, compo-mulch, and loam. Nearby is Bear Path Farm in Whately, also selling good compost. I needed to get my new garden off to a good start; compost and mulch were the way to do that.

Now that it is fall I am starting my own composting efforts in earnest. This summer I bought an Earth Machine compost bin at the Greenfield Transfer Station. I began by putting in weeds and kitchen scraps. Now I’m adding leaves that provide some real bulk. We also had some scrap fence wire and used it to build a special leaf compost container. It is about five feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. It is full of leaves, but they are already breaking down and we can keep adding leaves.

Cold compost pile

Cold Compost pile

Many years ago when Larry Lightner of Northfield was still alive and gardening he taught me about what he called cold composting with leaves. He made wire rings about three to four feet high and as large in diameter as he wished. He filled and refilled these rings with leaves over the course of the fall. In the spring the pile would have  shrunk substantially. He added more leaves if he had them. Then he would make an indentation in the leaves, fill it with a quart or so of good soil and plant vegetable or flower starts. It is important to keep plants in a cold compost bed well watered.

Lightner’s cold compost beds were essentially raised beds. They provided plenty of nutrition for his chosen plants. He could even plant and stake tomatoes on the outside of the wire ring. Their roots found plenty of sustenance from the nutrients going into the soil as the leaves broke down. The raised beds also kept neighborhood dogs and cats out of his garden beds.

I have another friend who told me she has an electric leaf shredder. Shredding leaves will certainly help leaves break down more quickly. She wants to use those shredded leaves as winter mulch on her garden beds. In the spring she told me they have pretty much turned into soil. Not much is left of the leaves at all.

There are many ways to make and use compost. It is a never fail project. It is a rewarding project. It is a project that benefits the garden, and keeps material out of the landfill or incinerator. Compost!

Another good link

Between the Rows   November 14, 2015

Thank you all for bearing with me while we hammered out the technical difficulties that kept the commonweeder off line for a few days.

School Gardens – Innovation and Discovery School


Discovery School Garden

Discovery School Garden

When I arrived last Thursday afternoon the scene at the school gardens of the  Discovery School at Four Corners were enjoying controlled chaos. Several teachers were staying after school to divide and pot up perennials from the butterfly garden.

“Is this Echinacea or a rudbeckia?” one teacher asked and her spade bit into the center of the clump.

“Don’t pot the dill! It an annual,” another shouted.

“Are you sure these are all bee balm?” another asked looking at a huge clump of wilted and frost-blackened stems.

All of the newly potted plants, as well as kale and potatoes from the garden, were to be sold at the Harvest Sampler the following day. Funds raised would go to the school gardens.

I have visited many school gardens, but never have I visited a school where the garden was a driving force in the curriculum. The DiscoverySchool at Four Corners (K-3) was one of the first Innovation Schools created by a program instituted by Governor Deval  Patrick in 2010. Innovation schools have a theme; the teachers and parents who came together to design this new program chose gardening, with a broad environmental focus.

Kathy LaBreck, one of the teachers who was a moving force in getting the Innovation designation said that the nine acre site of the school was a big inspiration. “We thought the kids would be very interested in plants and that would be a great benefit. We see the children are so proud of their very concrete achievements, and their pride is a validation of the program.”

On the day I visited several of the raised garden beds were nearly finished and ready for the final harvest. Others already showed a sturdy growth of winter rye, a cover crop that will be tilled under in the spring to fertilize the soil and add organic matter.

My neighbor, and teacher at Four Corners, Kate Bailey told me the kids love the gardens, and the harvest. She has her own reasons for loving the gardens. “It is very easy to integrate the gardens, and cooking the produce, into the curriculum. When we planted the rye we talked about grains. When we cook, and we’ve made a lot of muffins with our harvest, we need many skills. To cook you need to read, follow directions, and of course handle lots of fractions,” she said.

For the Harvest Sampler Bailey said each grade made dishes with their own vegetable. She had to explain that the kindergarteners had been studying apples in particular so they made apple recipes. The school also has a dehydrator and making dried apple rings has been very popular

The first graders have been studying tomatoes. Lots of salsa has been made.

The second graders have been studying carrots which leads to carrot salads, muffins and cakes.

The third graders have been studying potatoes. Potato chips!

Bailey explained that volunteers from Just Roots, the GreenfieldCommunityGarden who helped set up the garden in the beginning, have been coming in every week to talk about Healthy Snacks.

In fact the desire to teach children the importance of a healthy diet was one of LaBreck’s goals. “Children who work in the garden, and grow their own vegetables are more willing to try new foods,” she said.

Teacher Anne Naughton stopped potting up plants long enough to tell me how excited she is about working with children in the garden. “The kids love the gardens, and they love the butterflies, and all the insects. They are so curious and interested. Their curiosity leads us into our lessons. We follow life cycles of plants and insects, and seasonal cycles. The first scientific skill is careful observation,” she said.

Suzanne Sullivan, the school principal, said the whole nine acres are used for instruction. The vegetable beds are producing, as is the strawberry bed, apple and pear trees have been planted, and pollinator plants help provide the insects needed for study. There is even a nature trail created by an Eagle Scout Patrick Crowningshield in 2011. “The goal is to foster an environmental awareness in the children, even beyond the gardens, she said

“The teachers have been very collaborative,” Sullivan said. “The students have been responsive and are so engaged.  We do focus on very hands-on learning.”

At Friday night’s Harvest Sampler, held in the school yard near the gardens, it was clear that there is great support for the program. A huge turnout of parents arrived bearing their own contributions to the Sampler, more apple, tomato, carrot, and potato dishes. Who imagined learning could be so delicious?

The Massachusetts School Report Card shows students the DiscoverySchool at Four Corners have high levels of proficiency or better English Language Arts and Mathematics. It’s clear the teachers at the DiscoverySchool at Four Corners all get high marls themselves.


The 2015 UMass Extension Garden Calendar is now available. This excellent, and beautiful, calendar contains excellent information about plants and garden chores throughout the year.  To order send $12 payable to UMass, to Garden Calendar, c/o Five Maples, 78 River Road South, Putney, VT 05346. Add $3.50 for the first calendar and $2.00 for each additional calendar. Think of all the gardeners in your life you could make happy.

UMass Extension Garden Calendar 2015

UMass Extension Garden Calendar 2015

Beetween the Rows   October 25, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener – July 17, 2014

New bean rows

New bean rows

Dear Friend and Gardener: Where do I begin? With these new bean rows that I put in early this morning? Contender bush beans that promise to be ready for harvest in 50 days, on August 31?  We’ll see.  But, they should be bearing well before frost. The rest of this bed separated by a pile of mulch, and two hills of Lakota squash which are coming along very slowly. We have had fairly good rainfall, but we have not yet had many hot days.

Milkweed and peas

Milkweed and peas

Or I  could begin today’s story with this milkweed row – er – I mean sugar snap pea row – er – I don’t know what row. Here is the question. Do I  give up the pea harvest in the hopes of welcoming hungry monarchs?  We used to have clouds of monarchs in August feeding on a mint field. They do like mint a lot. But of course, they need the milk weed for their caterpillar babies.  We rarely see monarchs any more, but there seem to be lots of other butterflies that like milkweed so it stays. I may get a few peas. What would you do?

Summer squash

Summer squash

This squash hill is doing better than Lakota. I can’t actually remember if this is the zucchini or crookneck yellow squash. The other hill is not doing well either. I really do think we need more heat.  This squash is planted at the end of a bed of cippolini onions. They are doing fine.

Garlic and lettuce

Garlic and lettuce

The garlic has done well and should be ready for harvest soon. I did cut off all the scapes, cut them into tiny pieces, put them on a cookie sheet and froze them for an hour before putting them into freezer bags. I can use these in cooking in lieu of a chopped up garlic clove. Using the scapes this way doubles the garlic harvest.  On the other side of the row is lettuce and self seeded cilantro. I pulled out the last of a patch of spinach this morning.

tomato plant

tomato plant

On May 20 I planted four substantial tomato plants that I bought at Andrews Greenhouse in Amherst. I think this one is Mortgage Lifter, an heirloom. All of them are looking good.

Grafted Jung tomato

Grafted Jung tomato

This is a grafted tomato sent to me by Jung seeds. It looked nearly dead when it arrived. It has perked up substantially, but it doesn’t look very enthusiastic. It is growing in the same bed as two of the other tomatoes so there is no difference in the soil and the garden is in  the sun from 10:30 am on.

Grafted pepper from Jung

Grafted pepper from Jung

Jung also sent a grafted pepper to test. It looks much happier than the tomato and they are growing side by side.

Red raspberries

Red raspberries

Of course, there is more to the edible garden than veggies.  Red raspberries are just starting to ripen. I got these from Nourse Farms, an excellent local nursery.

Blueberry bushes

Blueberry bushes

The blueberries will be ready to start harvesting by the first of August.  Blueberries and raspberries are the easiest and most delicious crops to grow.

We have been eating our own lettuce for the past month, and spinach, too. It turned out I really didn’t know how to handle rapini, so most of that early crop went into the compost bin. I do get to use our own fresh herbs – chives, sage, basil, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, tarragon, oregano and thyme, all of which can be harvested now and into the fall. If you are a cook, you really can save a lot of money by planting an herb garden for using fresh, or drying yourself. Many herbs are perennial, but even if you buy a six pack of basil you’ll have enough for the summer and to freeze for little more than the price of one bunch at the store. One gardener told me she chooses which crops to plant depending on how expensive it is to buy. Berries are expensive, so are bunches of herbs, or garlic. Something to keep in mind.

Except for the herbs and lettuce, I haven’t been harvesting much so far, but broccoli, cauliflower, pole beans and those squash plants are slowly coming along.

Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts

Do you think I allowed enough space between my Brussels sprouts? They are growing in a specially fertilized bed – lots of compost – after last year’s failure.

How is your vegetable garden coming?

I want to thank Dee Nash for hosting Dear Friend and Gardener, a wonderful virtual garden club where we can share our tips, triumphs, and those less than triumphant moments.

Forbes Library Garden Tour June 14 in Northampton

Forbes Library Garden Tour

Forbes Library Garden Tour

Time for the Forbes Library Garden Tour June 14 10 am – 3 pm.

The time comes for many of us gardeners when we think we cannot carry on with our gardens, or houses, as they are. We are older, the children have gone, and we are not quite so energetic or willing to toil for hours in the summer sun over our weeds and slugs. The time comes to think about a smaller house and a smaller garden.

Something more than five years ago, Maureen McKenna had huge gardens in Leeds, children that needed to be chauffeured here and everywhere and a big house. She was getting weary. She and her husband sat down and realized they had to do something to make a change.

The change is the departure of older children, a smaller house, with a smaller garden on a much smaller lot in Northampton. It is one of the seven gardens on the tour to benefit the Forbes Library on Saturday, June 14 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Most of the gardens are small urban gardens so this is a perfect opportunity for those of us who are not in our first youth to experience the varied delights of a small garden. In addition there is one expansive garden in a country hideaway on this tour.

I asked Mckenna if it was hard to leave a house and garden where her children had grown up. Her response? “Not really.”

“The gardens in my old house had been left by the former owner and were huge,” she said. “I had to do a lot of hard work to make it my own – and even then . . ..” So, with only one child claiming a broken heart, they moved to where they could do more walking and less driving.

In her new smaller garden she has managed to have a little bit of everything, a sunny garden, a large shade garden, vegetables and berries.  It is all very pretty and very manageable. Her house divides the property from the street to the back property line and separates the sun and shade.

Shade Garden

Shade Garden

The front door is on the shady side. McKenna says guests never go to the front door even though she wishes they would. I think the shady woodland garden seems quietly formal so I can understand the appeal of the sunny backdoor for neighbors and casual company. She said they splurged on this garden. When they were arranging with the landscaper for compost and mulch, he said they could do a plan, as well. The plan involved giving some dimensionality to the long flat space by creating a gentle slope to the front section of the garden and curves in the back section.

The shade is created by an enormous maple tree, a smaller Japanese maple, and a large conifer in the back corner. Underplantings include tiarella and ajuga, both in flower in early spring, as well as iris cristata, sedums, a variety of hostas, large and small, and golden hakone grass. The pale leaves of a variegated five leaf aralia light up a dim corner near the rear wall.

Between the back door and the street is a raised sunny garden where a small tree is underplanted with astilbe, hellebores, iris, marguerite daisies, tiarella, bleeding heart, lady’s mantle, creeping phlox, a hydrangea and some sage and thyme. This is a garden that says welcome to all.

On the other side of the back door is a small sheltered patio between the wall of the house and the side wall of the garage which is softened by a narrow garden of roses and other perennials and a burbling fountain.

Forbes Library Garden Tour - Raised vegetable beds

Forbes Library Garden Tour – Raised vegetable beds

The other side of the driveway includes raised vegetable beds and gravel paths. “We had the soil tested at UMass and there was a measure of lead so we thought raised beds would be a wise decision.” The McKennas also have a community garden plot where they have grow more vegetables, and raspberry and blueberry bushes, but these raised beds allow them to pick a fresh salad, or strawberries or raspberries for breakfast. I was surprised to see some raspberry canes growing so happily in a large container.

Forbes Library Garden Tour - strawberry bed

Forbes Library Garden Tour – strawberry bed

A final shady section of the garden next to the garage is being redesigned and replanted to eliminate even this tiny bit of lawn.

In this one garden are many examples of the way a small space can be arranged to accommodate our desire for beauty and sociability as well as fresh veggies, fruit and less maintenance.

For me visiting other gardens gives me a chance to imagine myself in very different spaces. Garden tour season is beginning, giving all of us the chance to see new and interesting ways of using space, new techniques, new plants and the way passions and unique personalities are expressed in our gardens. I expect to get a lot of new ideas over the next month.

Tickets for the this tour are $15 in advance sold at Forbes Library, Bay State Perennials, Cooper’s Corner, Hadley Garden Center and State Street Fruit Store.  And $20 on the day of the tour, sold only at Forbes Library and garden #1. There is also a raffle and a chance to win organic compost, gift certificates, garden supplies or a landscape consultation. Raffle tickets are 2/$5 or 5/$10 and are available at Forbes Library through the day before the tour as well as garden #2 the day of the tour. For more information contact Jody Rosenbloom at or 413-586-0021.

Between the Rows   June 7, 2014

Garden Planning II – What Does the Garden Need?


Green and wax beans


For me garden planning is difficult because I am always rushing about with a new idea for a new project. Things work out in the end, but I understand the unfettered enthusiasm that a new gardener, or a gardener with a new space, feels as she looks out at that space. However, I know that the best way forward is to move thoughtfully, and maybe with a pad and pencil in hand.

            First, inventory your new site. Make a rough sketch, don’t worry about scale, that will indicate the space the house and any outbuildings take, as well as any other permanent elements, trees, shrubs, fences, and paving.

            On your sketch note the aspects, north, south, east and west. This will give you a basic idea of the sunniest and shadiest parts of your site. It will really take a year of careful observation to understand how shade moves across your site. Indeed, if you can keep yourself in check for a whole year, it is a good idea to see what plants are already in the landscape, as well as the movement of light and shade.

            “Form follows function” is one of my favorite quotes. What functions will be performed in your garden? Do you need play space for children? Do you enjoy meals in the garden? Do you enjoy entertaining in the garden? Do you want vegetables and other edibles? Or flowers? Do you want to eliminate lawn?

            I am not really talking about garden design here, which is a very big topic, but if you think about the ways you need, or want, to use your space you can begin to think how your garden planning might arrange those elements into a harmonious whole.

            After you consider what you need and want, you must consider what any garden needs and wants. The first need is a fertile soil. In our neighborhood you can generally assume that you have acid soil. You can buy a soil testing kit that will measure the pH or acidity. You can also get a full soil test from the University of Massachusetts that will not only give you the pH, but also a measure of your nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as well as vital trace elements. After many years I did a full soil test for my vegetable garden in 2012 and found that all the years of adding compost, lime to raise the pH, rock phosphate for phosphorus, and greensand for potassium really paid off. Now I have good fertile soil with nine percent organic matter. My efforts always go into feeding the soil.

            Since your soil needs organic matter, and your garden will ultimately give you substantial organic matter, find a place to put a compost pile. Compost will not attract pests as long as you only put in vegetable matter. No meat scraps!

            Fortunately you can buy beautiful compost locally. A truckload is a luxurious way to begin a new garden. Martin’s Farm and Bear Path Farm are excellent local sources.

 I have had great success starting a new bed by using the lasagna or sheet composting method. First, mow or clear the space as cleanly as possible. Give it a deep watering. Then spread four or five inches of good compost and water again.

            On top of the compost use a layer of cardboard. Some use several layers of newspaper, but I prefer cardboard. Since you will probably be using several pieces of cardboard make sure there is plenty of overlap. Wet and soak the cardboard.

            Top the cardboard with soil or a mixture of soil and compost. The quality of the soil matters very little because the roots will be growing through the rotting cardboard and into the layer of compost. Once you have your lasagna bed you can just maintain it with annual fertilization.

Of course, you can just dig your bed and till in compost and fertilizers. I always use organic fertilizers and more compost because I am feeding the soil. Healthy soil is filled with living organisms that will give you healthy crops and beautiful flowers. A healthy plant is more resistant to both pests and disease. A healthy plant in healthy soil.

Raised beds inside a frame are very popular now, but I warn you, that even a raised bed with enriched soil will eventually need weeding.

            Water is absolutely essential especially if you have a vegetable garden. An ornamental garden can be left to itself in a drought, and will recover fairly well when the rains come, but vegetables require regular and adequate watering.

            Soaker hoses work well in the garden. The black hoses are almost invisible as the plants grow. They efficiently put the water near plant roots where it is needed. Using a sprinkler is fine, but then watering must be done early in the day so foliage will dry before evening. Most of us try to use water efficiently because in town wasted water has implications for the water bill, or for the sustainability of the well in the country.

            Water is essential for plant growth. It is also a desirable ornamental element. With small submersible pumps available, some that solar powered, it is easy to set up a fountain or even a tiny stream or pond. What luxury to sit in the garden and hear the burble of running water.

            We are edging into the realm of garden design now. Next week I’ll be talking about the mixed border, and lawns.

            Between the Rows   January 11, 2014

Life Under Our Feet – and Fruit Over Our Heads

There is life under our feet. I have talked about living soil from time to time, but in his New York Times essay yesterday  Jim Robbins says that “One-third of living organisims live in  soil. But we know littel about them.” Well, of course I know about worms and  bugs and the mycellium that I can see, and I know the soil is full of microbes, but to think that one-third of ALL living organisims live in the soil is mind boggling. Research is going on about all this life and some of it is going on in Central Park.

“A teaspoon of soil may have billions of microbes divided among 5,000 types, thousands of species of fungi  and protozoa, nematodes, mites and a couple of termite species. How these and other pieces fit together is still largely a mystery.” What a revelation! It makes it clearer to me that it is really important to garden organically, putting food, as in compost, into the soil to feed all those organisims., and helping to maintain a healthy system.

The Sunday New York Times  also included a story by Patricia Leigh Brown talked about ‘fruit activists’  who are “using fruit to reclaim public land and expand ideas of art.” It seem apprpropriate to me that both these articles appeared on Mother’s Day, when we should also celebrate Mother Earth and think about the riches she showers upon us, and what we owe to her in gratitude and responsibility to care for and share those gifts.

The life under our feet, and the fruit over our heads are all gifts! Celebrate every day.

F is for Fertilizer on the A to Z Blogger Challenge

Fertilizer – compost in the making

F is for Fertilizer  on the A to Z Blogger Challenge – and Fertilizer means another three more letters, N-P-K. If you look at bags or bottles of fertilizer you will see three numbers on the label, like 5-10-5.  This is a statement about the ratio of the three major nutrients that plants need. N is for Nitrogen, P is for Phosphorus and K is for Potash (otherwise known as Potassium). Each of these elements is important for different aspects of a plant’s growth and health.

Nitrogen helps plant foliage to grow strong. Phosphorous helps roots and flowers grow and develop. Potassium (Potash) is important for overall plant health.  These elements need to be in balance. For example, too much nitrogen can encourage lush foliage, but not fruit or flowers. Phosphorus stimulates root growth and helps plants set fruit or flower buds. While phosphorus works best in  soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8, lots of organic matter in the soil will moderate that requirement. Fertilizers for blooming plants will have an NPK ratio where the P is higher as in 5-10-5 or 2-3-1.  Potassium is important for general plant health and vigor.

However, there is more to a plant’s nutritional needs than NPK. Calcium,  magnesium and sulphur are important in smaller amounts. Then there are the very tiny amounts of Trace elements that are needed. These include boron, copper and iron. A bag of 5-10-5 fertilizer will not include these lesser nutrients.

Compost made with a variety of materials will enrich your soil and improve the texture of the soil by adding all  those organic materials. This is an important way of feeding your soil. In addition to making your own compost you can buy compost in bags at the garden center, or if you are really lucky you can find a local source of  commercial compost. In our area we have compost from Martin’s Farm or Bear Path Farm. The Bridge of Flowers is working with the Franklin Country Waste Management District and the Shelburne Falls Compost Collaborative. We put all our weeds and trimmings in a compost dumpster which is picked up and taken to Martin’s Farm – and will ultimately be returned to the Bridge as nutritious compost. I just found an excellent website from the University of Illinois about different composting techniques.

In my own garden I have used lime (calcium) to raise the pH on my acid soil. I also use greensand to add potassium to my soil. I have also added rock phosphate, not the fast acting super-phosphate. These organic fertilizers act slowly. There is no chance of burning my plants which can happen with some commercial fertilizers. The best thing to do is to get a good soil test. I had a soil test done at the University of Massachusetts last year. It came back saying – No more nitrogen!  I think that is because my homemade compost has a lot of chicken manure in it.

F is also for FIRE. We are finally able to burn our 3 year old brush pile.

Carefully monitored FIRE.

To see what else begins with F click here.

Compost: Feeds the Soil and the Oppossum

Possum in the Compost Pile

This opossum has been a regular evening visit to our  compost pile. I don’t think it is heating up at this time of the year but at least s/he is loading up on nutrituous peels.

ADDENDUM – I had forgotten that oppossums are Marsupials – just like kangaroos. Only smaller, of course. Lots of fascinating information about oppossums here from the National Oppossum Society.

Green Manure, Winter Wheat and Turnips

Fall planted 'Hakurei' turnip seedlings

Green manure is a crop that is planted in the fall; its purpose is to improve soil fertility and tilth in the spring. I have just seeded a fall green manure mix from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in three of my newly weeded and watered (thanks to the rain) garden beds.

This mix contains annual seeds like crimson clover, annual rye grass and yellow peas, as well as winter rye and hairy vetch that will go dormant but begin growing again in the spring. The annual crops will die and rot in place; the rye and vetch will need to be cut down and then turned under.

Green manures serve several functions. First, they are called cover crops because they cover the soil during the fall and winter seasons and prevent soil erosion by wind or heavy rain.

Second, cover crops suppress weeds by covering the soil so wind borne seeds cannot find a place to germinate. They also help crowd out weeds. This is especially important to me this year because the droughty summer of 2012 was the weediest year I have ever endured

Third, they provide nutrients to the soil. Legumes like hairy vetch, yellow peas and crimson clover fix nitrogen in the soil making it available to the crops that will follow. Non-legumes like rye will add organic matter to the soil. I never have enough compost for my garden so by growing a cover crop I will get the additional organic matter I want. This organic material improves soil structure, helping both sandy and clay soils.

Fourth, the deep roots of cover crops help break up compacted soil and bring nutrients closer to the surface where it can be used by the next crops.             .

Fifth and finally, cover crops act as a part of the crop rotation plan. It is always important to rotate crops from season to season, letting light feeders like lettuce follow heavy feeders like squash, and preventing crops from the same family, like potatoes and tomatoes, from following each other because they are susceptible to the same diseases and insects.

That’s a lot of benefit from a $6 packet of mixed seed. Cover crops are an inexpensive way of sustainably maintaining soil fertility and tilth, and keeping down weed growth which will mean less work for me over the course of the season. I have known about the benefits of cover crops, but have never tried to plant them before because of my own misunderstanding.

I did not understand that not all cover crops need to be cut down in the spring. Annual crops are winter killed. Nor did I understand that the young tender growth of winter rye could be cut and turned under with relative ease, and that the tender growth would rot quickly. I envisioned myself digging up, armed only with a spade, great heavy clods of grassy rye that would make planting all but impossible. Now that I have a better understanding of the process I am eagerly trying cover cropping. I might only learn, this first time, what misunderstandings on my part I have not yet uncovered.

I have also just learned about a new cover crop. Tillage radishes. The familiar daikon radish can act as a cover crop when planted in late August. My friend, Rol Hesselbart, has planted one of his wide garden beds with these radishes and the new growth has nearly covered the ground already.

Tillage or forage radishes supply all the benefits of other annual cover crops, but their long fleshy roots rot quickly in the spring and provide an early supply of nitrogen, as well as other nutrients, and a good helping of organic matter. No tilling is needed in that bed in the spring because the radishes have died over the winter. The bed is ready for spring planting without any further work. Sounds like a pretty good deal. I will be watching Hesslebart’s experimental bed to see how it does.

I am not only planting cover crops this fall. Fall is as important a planting season as spring. I will plant my garlic in October and mulch the bed heavily with straw. Garlic will begin to grow again early in the spring and will be harvested in July. That will leave me with a very weed free bed to plant with crops like beets, broccoli, turnips that will ripen before the first hard frost. My garlic did win second prize at the Heath Fair this year.

I also going planted one wide vegetable bed with Rouge de Bordeaux, a winter wheat that will also be ready for harvest in July. I bought my ounce of seed from the Heritage Wheat Conservancy. Thinking of harvesting wheat I am feeling a bit like the little red hen who planted wheat, threshed it, ground it, and then baked it into a beautiful loaf of bread all by herself. I am not nearly as worried about growing or even threshing my wheat as I am about grinding or milling it. I may end up with a very dense loaf of bread. I’ll just call it rustic.

The wheat will also act as a cover crop. It will keep down weeds, and the rotting roots will enrich my soil after the wheat is harvested. I’ll also have a little bundle of straw to use as mulch and, of course, I’ll have my wheat. I love multi-functional plants!

Between the Rows  September 1, 2012