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Two Ways to Stretch the Seasons

Early garden bed in front of house

In March we had May weather, and now we are having March weather. We gardeners know that the weather is always unpredictable but this year Mother Nature is really keeping us on our toes. I confess. I could not resist the lure; I direct-seeded greens in my Early Garden during that March heat wave. Then what?

The soil was cool enough that my seeds, radishes and lettuces, did not germinate very quickly. By the time they did the weather had changed with temperatures in the 30s or even lower at night and still no rain. One of the virtues of the Early Garden is that it is right in front of the house where I can keep it watered. Regular watering is essential to get seeds to germinate.

However, with such cool temperatures and brisk breezes I realized that I really needed to protect those newly germinated seeds, even though they are very hardy. A floating row cover was what I needed. Row covers are available at most garden centers; I got mine at Shelburne Farm and Garden. I bought a 5 by 25 foot package of fabric, but you can also buy row covers that come with metal hoops and staples to hold the row cover firmly to the ground.

See how light the floating row cover is.

My row cover is very light, but it is wide enough to cover my planting bed doubled over and laid flat, but loosely enough to give growing plants a little room. Instead of using staples or other kinds of tacks designed for the purpose, I  used rocks, some old bricks and a length of wood to hold my doubled row cover in place. It is not very pretty, but I have lots of rocks, and broken bricks and even lengths of lumber lying about.

I did water the bed before I laid down the row cover, but this fabric is permeable. Rain, sun and air will go through it. As will any watering I might have to do if this dry weather continues. Row covers do come in a range of weights. All are permeable, but the heavier weights allow less sunlight to penetrate.

Row covers have benefits other than protection from the cold. They do help warm the soil, and protect the soil from washing away during a heavy rain. They also protect plants from insects like flea beetles and aphids and the damage they inflict. For this reason some crops can be grown under row covers almost until harvest. In that case, the row covers can be lifted to give the growing plant more room. You can drape the fabric over wire hoops, ones you buy or ones you make yourself out of heavy gauge wire, or straitened out wire hangers. Just remember these are floating row covers and they do not really need the support of a hoop at all. The lightest weight of row cover is sufficient for insect protection.

Row cover doubled - for now

I am also hoping that by using row covers I will foil the rabbits who ate a good portion of my garden last year. We’ll see.

I do not expect to use my row covers all season. However, as they protect the seedlings from frost, cold and wind in spring, so they can protect mature crops from frost in the fall, extending the season on both ends.

At the same time I was direct seeding one bed outdoors, I also started seeds indoors. By now I thought I would be able to transplant them into the garden. However, the weather has been so unpleasant that I have been timid about doing this. I brought them in and out of the house for a few days for the regular hardening off process, but then realized that I could put them out in my very makeshift cold frame.

We put the cold frame together last spring, using extra cement blocks we had and a Plexiglas skylight that was damaged in shipping when we built the Cottage Ornee. The company sent a new skylight, but we got to keep the damaged one. It lay idle until last spring when it turned out to be perfect, if slightly eccentric, for a functional cold frame.

There hasn’t been much sun since the day I set the seedlings out in the cold frame. Even so temperatures are slightly warmer and the plants are protected from the brisk winds that have been blowing. I am hoping that within another week or two I will be able to transplant them into another bed in the Early Garden where a row cover will protect them from the rabbits!

It is easy to buy a cold frame kit these days, but it is also easy to create a makeshift arrangement even if you don’t have cement blocks or a skylight. Hay or straw bales can act as protective sides, covered with a window or two, depending on the size you choose. Just remember that the air inside a cold frame can get hot, and you will need to adjust the windows every day to let in some cooling air. You will also need to watch and water your seedlings every day or two.

When the weather is settled cold frames and row covers can be taken out of service. Unless you are still protecting plants from rabbits. ###

Between the Rows  April 7, 2012

 

My Soil Test Reveals All – Not Bad!

Newly planted onion bed

I had not yet received the results of my soil test from UMass when my onion sets arrived from Dixondale Farms. I wanted to get them right in the ground, but I was worried about my soil pH. Dixondale says onions prefer a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. I feared my soil might be too acidic for optimum results so I tilled in another couple of handfuls of lime before I planted the onions.

Two days later I got my soil test results. I was quite amazed. My pH is 6.6. I hope I didn’t make the s oil too alkaline with that extra lime. No more liming the vegetable garden for a while!

I also have high levels of phosphorous and potassium. I guess those occasional and undocumented additions of rock phosphate and greensand over the past couple of years paid off. The recommendation was to add nitrogen. As it happens I have a 4 pound bag of dried blood – and that is exactly the amount for 100 square feet of planting beds. I actually bought the dried blood to sprinkle around beds attractive to rabbits.

The final important result of the soil test is the calculation that I have 9% organic matter. The recommendation is to have between 4-10% organic matter. Hooray! All that compost is working.

Early garden in disarray

This morning when I looked out at the Early Garden I saw the row cover pulled aside. I know we have had a lot of wind, but the row cover is pinned down with rocks – also disturbed and moved. Could it have been the rabbit I saw jumping off the bank when I drove in last night in the dark? I’ll have to buy another bag of dried blood to sprinkle around the Early Garden beds, in addition to the row covers which I  thought would be deterrent enough. Good news and a warning. More rabbit deterrents. At least he didn’t have a chance to eat anything.

 

Feed the Living Soil – Soil Test Needed

Preparing soil sample for testing

Soil is alive. It is more than sand, silt or clay particles. It is even more than rotted organic matter. It is full of bacteria and all kinds of fungi, good and bad. Soil is alive and it needs to be fed.

Some people go to the garden center and buy bags of 5-10-5 fertilizer. The numbers stand for the ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium or potash (K). This kind of fertilizer is soluble and will provide your plants with the three major nutrients that they need. They will not feed the soil. In fact, if only chemical fertilizers are used on soil, the soil will eventually die.

Soil, and our garden plants need more than nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. They need trace elements like calcium, copper, boron, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum and zinc. Soils that have sufficient organic matter will usually have sufficient trace elements, because only small amounts of these elements are needed for strong plant health. The safest and best way for us gardeners to provide essential trace elements is by regular additions of compost.

If trace element deficiencies are severe enough you can often make a diagnosis of the problem by looking at your plants. For example, yellowing of leaves while veins remain dark green can indicate an iron deficiency.

While all the macro and micro-nutrients might be present in the soil, they need to be made available to the plants. This means the soil cannot be too acid, or too alkaline. When soil is too acid or alkaline those nutrients are locked up. Many gardeners have found that simply by liming their acid soil their plants do better. That is because when the pH is higher those nutrients are available to the plants. Most garden centers sell pH test kits, and while the assumption around here is that our soil is acid, we need to know how acid. We also need to know if it is too alkaline, which can also make nutrients unavailable.

With all those nutrients present and available, what do bacteria and fungi do for the soil?

The fungi are possibly the most important and there are three types. The first type of fungi are the decomposers that digest organic matter and make it usable for plants. They are also important in retaining nutrients in the soil, and storing and recycling carbon in the soil.

Then there are the mutualists, the mycorrhizal fungi, that colonize on plant roots and bring the plant nutrients and even water.

Finally, there are the pathogens and diseases. Verticillium is one of the fungi that can cause problems for the gardener, and the farmer. Fortunately there are now hybrid plants that resist verticillium as well as other fungal diseases.

Soil is complex and if we are going to have healthy plants without depending solely on 5-10-5, we need to feed our soil.

I have not been very scientific about feeding my soil. I spread manure and compost to provide nitrogen and trace elements. I have added greensand to provide potassium. I’ve added rock phosphate to provide phosphorous. Greensand and rock phosphaste (not super phosphate that is soluble and available immediately) break down slowly over time, providing nourishment for a long period.

I have spread lime from time to time, as well as my wood ashes, but I fear my soil may still be more acid than is desirable. Therefore I am going to get a soil test from the UMass Soil Testing Laboratory (http://www.umass.edu/soiltest/list_of_services.htm, For $15 I can get a measure of pH, nutrients and organic content, with recommendations for improving my soil.

To prepare a sample according to their directions I will get 10 or 12 vertical slices (being sure to reach into the root zone) of soil from random areas in my vegetable garden with a clean trowel and put them in a clean container. Mix well. Then take one cup of that mixture and dry it on paper. When dry put it in a zip lock bag. If you send several bags make sure each is identified: veggie garden, front lawn, flower garden, etc. There is a cost for each sample. Send to the Soil Lab with your check and in about two weeks from the time the sample arrives you will have your results.

There are full directions on the UMass website for taking soil samples along with a downloadable form. I will reveal the results of my test when it arrives. Wish me luck.

*******************************************************************

Tomorrow is Earth Day. Take care of your earth.

 

Feed Your Living Soil – Soil Tests Needed

Soil Sample

Soil is alive. It is more than sand, silt or clay particles. It is even more than rotted organic matter. It is full of bacteria and all kinds of fungi, good and bad. Soil is alive and it needs to be fed.

Some people go to the garden center and buy bags of 5-10-5 fertilizer. The numbers stand for the ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium or potash (K). This kind of fertilizer is soluble and will provide your plants with the three major nutrients that they need. They will not feed the soil. In fact, if only chemical fertilizers are used on soil, the soil will eventually die.

Soil, and our garden plants need more than nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. They need trace elements like calcium, copper, boron, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum and zinc. Soils that have sufficient organic matter will usually have sufficient trace elements, because only small amounts of these elements are needed for strong plant health. The safest and best way for us gardeners to provide essential trace elements is by regular additions of compost.

If trace element deficiencies are severe enough you can often make a diagnosis of the problem by looking at your plants. For example, yellowing of leaves while veins remain dark green can indicate an iron deficiency.

While all the macro and micro-nutrients might be present in the soil, they need to be made available to the plants. This means the soil cannot be too acid, or too alkaline. When soil is too acid or alkaline those nutrients are locked up. Many gardeners have found that simply by liming their acid soil their plants do better. That is because when the pH is higher those nutrients are available to the plants. Most garden centers sell pH test kits, and while the assumption around here is that our soil is acid, we need to know how acid. We also need to know if it is too alkaline, which can also make nutrients unavailable.

With all those nutrients present and available, what do bacteria and fungi do for the soil?

The fungi are possibly the most important and there are three types. The first type of fungi are the decomposers that digest organic matter and make it usable for plants. They are also important in retaining nutrients in the soil, and storing and recycling carbon in the soil.

Then there are the mutualists, the mycorrhizal fungi, that colonize on plant roots and bring the plant nutrients and even water.

Finally, there are the pathogens and diseases. Verticillium is one of the fungi that can cause problems for the gardener, and the farmer. Fortunately there are now hybrid plants that resist verticillium as well as other fungal diseases.

Soil is complex and if we are going to have healthy plants without depending solely on 5-10-5, we need to feed our soil.

I have not been very scientific about feeding my soil. I spread manure and compost to provide nitrogen and trace elements. I have added greensand to provide potassium. I’ve added rock phosphate to provide phosphorous. Greensand and rock phosphaste (not super phosphate that is soluble and available immediately) break down slowly over time, providing nourishment for a long period.

I have spread lime from time to time, as well as my wood ashes, but I fear my soil may still be more acid than is desirable. Therefore I am going to get a soil test from the UMass Soil Testing Laboratory (http://www.umass.edu/soiltest/list_of_services.htm, For $15 I can get a measure of pH, nutrients and organic content, with recommendations for improving my soil.

To prepare a sample according to their directions I will get 10 or 12 vertical slices (being sure to reach into the root zone) of soil from random areas in my vegetable garden with a clean trowel and put them in a clean container. Mix well. Then take one cup of that mixture and dry it on paper. When dry put it in a zip lock bag. If you send several bags make sure each is identified: veggie garden, front lawn, flower garden, etc. There is a cost for each sample. Send to the Soil Lab with your check and in about two weeks from the time the sample arrives you will have your results.

There are full directions on the UMass website for taking soil samples along with a downloadable form. I will reveal the results of my test when it arrives. Wish me luck.

Between the Rows  April 7, 2012