…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

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Making the Bed

 

A tiny raised bed near my friends' front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

A tiny raised bed near my friends’ front porch with new starts for the season ahead.

When you’ve been gardening for more than a week you realize that the vigor and beauty of your plants, and the success of your planting schemes, relies entirely on the quality of your soil.

The Rodale Press gardening books I poured over as a novice in the ’80s always had chapters devoted to soil preparation.  Double digging was recommended “back in the day.”

Tilling was the common practice then, especially for vegetable gardeners.  It was years on that biologists and botanists came to realize that mechanical tilling, and even double digging, totally wrecks the ecosystem of the soil.

Countless small worms and insects are ravaged.  Long dormant weed seeds are brought to the surface and given a chance to sprout.  Delicate colonies of fungi and bacteria are disrupted.

Tilling is no longer recommended for the long term well-being of the soil; even in traditional vegetable garden culture.

Hugelkultur

Hugelkultur bed near the bottom of the ravine in my friends’ back garden.  This two year old bed grows potatoes, herbs, and an Oakleaf Hydrangea on the far right.

Double digging, done once when land is first dedicated to a garden, might be useful in some cases.

If the double digging includes the addition of lots of organic matter, and possibly some minerals such as greensand, gypsum, or super-phosphate; it can be a useful way to break up clay soils before initial planting.  Once the bed is established, annual double digging is terrifically disruptive to the soil’s ecology.

More recent practices eschew the digging entirely and focus on constructing raised beds of various materials.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now.  It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

My friend has been working on this large Hugelkultur vegetable garden for several years now. It is already planted with peas, spinach, and many types of herbs.

There is no one right way to make your garden bed.  So much depends on variables; like your soil, your climate, and what you plan to grow in a given area.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

This lovely bed, made with stones, is at Forest Lane Botanicals near Williamsburg, Va.

I learned very quickly that our new garden had terribly compacted hard clay soil over much of the property.  Nearly all of my early attempts to plant anything in this new garden left me somewhere between underwhelmed and downright depressed.

It wasn’t until I began building raised beds, and bringing home bagfuls of compost, that we began to make progress on this property.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

My Hugelkultur stump garden this spring, with its border of slate roofing tiles found at the Re-Store here in Williamsburg.

There are so many beautiful and creative ways to create raised beds.  Budget isn’t so much an issue as is imagination.

Notice the variety of matierials my friends used to form the border for this one bed.

Notice the variety of materials my friends used to form the border for this shallow bed around her Crepe Myrtle tree.

I’ve made raised beds from many different materials over the years.  I started out when railway ties, landscape timbers, and even 2×10 boards were at the cutting edge.

Soon enough someone figured out that the chemicals in all of that treated wood leached into the soil and then got into the food grown in the bed.    Building a bed of untreated wood meant a very short-lived border on the bed.

A very innovative friend introduced me to Hugelkultur.  This practice originated in Europe and incorporates downed trees, limbs, compostable materials of all sorts, and topsoil  to build very thick raised beds.

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Sometimes built into a trench, sometimes mounded high above the ground, these raised beds retain water, produce heat, and slowly release nutrients into the soil as the materials break down.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis. This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

My friend is going into her third growing season with Hugelkultur beds.  Her garden is on a steep slope at the edge of the forest.  There is an abundance of  downfall wood and stumps on her property.  She is using them all very creatively.

This Hugelkultur bed is full of healthy strawberry plants, and has peas planted on a little trellis.  This area is a steep drop off, but my friends leveled it with downfall wood to construct this bed.

A mix of vegetables, flowers, and herbs grows in this Hugelkultur bed.  My friends use netting to keep deer out.  The plants in the foreground are Astilbe.

I have also experimented with Hugelkultur, building around a stump over its root system, with a base of wood left from our downed trees last summer.  My bed is not quite a year old yet, but already I’m pleased with its progress.

The basic requirements for a good planting bed are adequate drainage, abundant organic materials, rich microbial life, and an adequate balance of minerals.   The most effective way to feed plants is to feed the soil.  Chemical fertilizers, such as “Miracle Grow” and other non-organic commercial products not only burn plants in high concentrations, but may also kill the microbial and invertebrate life required for  healthy soil.

Good soil has the loose, soft texture which only comes from plenty of organic material incorporated into the mineral content.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Another bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.

Finding earthworms living in soil is always an excellent sign.  Their digestive process helps release nutrients plants need, even as the movement of worms through the soil opens it up and creates the loose texture roots need for growth.

One way to achieve good beds, without all of the heavy lifting of building Hugelkultur beds, is simple sheet composting.

To begin a new planting bed, cover the entire area with brown paper grocery bags, plain white or brown wrapping paper,  torn cardboard from boxes, or several thicknesses of newspaper.  This initial layer smothers grass and weeds to form a barrier for those first crucial weeks, and then it decomposes into the soil.

Pile a variety of organic material onto the paper or cardboard base.  These layers can include grass clippings, coffee grounds, tea bags, chopped leaves, shredded paper,  straw, rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, and sea weed.

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If the straw is mixed with rabbit or chicken droppings, all the better.  Bags of topsoil or pre-made compost can be piled on top of the organic materials the first year to speed the process.  Although the organic materials need to be dampened,  they do not need to be turned and mixed in sheet composting.

The frame of this bed can be made from many different materials, depending on what you have at hand.  This can even be made as a rounded, raised row without a border.

One popular technique uses bales of hay as the borders or walls of the bed.  I’ve done this.  It isn’t pretty, and there are the sprouting hayseeds in the bales to contend with all season.  Eventually the hay will mold and begin to fall apart.

You eventually get good soil, and vegetables will grow well in such a bed if you keep the whole bed and hay bale wall moist.  Some organic gardening resources even offer instructions for planting into the hollowed out and soil filled bales….

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in.  This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

A container is still the easiest way to control the soil plants grow in. This is my newest hypertufa trough, planted up with a Eucalyptus tree and geraniums.

Over time, these “sheet composted” beds decompose into the original soil beneath them.  The organic materials attract earthworms, which begin to mix the soil during their travels.

The moisture in the raised bed softens the soil below, and after a season or two you have a fine bed for planting, without the digging.  Continuing to add organic mulch to the bed once or twice a year keeps these beds “cooking” and rich in nutrients over many years.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals.  This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant.  This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.

Hostas here are planted in their own nursery pots, and then the pots are sunk into this bed at Forest Lane Botanicals. This is a useful technique to control the specific soil a plant grows in, protect the root ball from insects and voles, and to provide a slightly moister environment for the plant. This is a much easier, and less expensive way to create a bed, than trying to adequately ammend the soil in a large area.  Notice the use of cinder blocks for these miniature Hostas.  Cinder blocks used as the border for a raised vegetable bed may be similarly planted with herbs, Nasturtiums, garlic, etc.

I’ve learned on my property that digging into the soil is extremely difficult.  And plants put directly into the ground may be at risk of vole attack.   I still do it, though, and did it this past week.

When I dig to plant a shrub directly into the ground, I make a far bigger hole than the root ball requires, and add copious quantities of compost. And gravel.  And I try to surround it with poisonous daffodil bulbs for good measure.

This littleAlysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil.  It will grow to 8' tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms.  I dig out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma plant tone.  I'm hoping it will grow well here.  I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

This little Aloysia virgata, or Sweet Almond Tree Verbena, is planted directly into the soil. It will grow to 8′ tall with sweetly fragrant white blossoms. I dug out a very large hole, mixed in lots of compost, and added some Espoma Plant Tone. I’m hoping it will grow well here. I will most likely build a raised bed around this site.

I was able to feel the improvement in a bed begun four years ago, when I dug into it to add some little rose bushes this week.

The texture of the soil has completely changed, thanks to regular additions of compost and pea gravel.   I found earthworms.  I dug out space for the root balls easily, added yet more compost, and planted the little potted roses, blessedly growing on their own roots.

Then I added a border of slate roofing tiles to the sides of the bed, and piled more compost into the bed as fresh mulch.

However you make your planting beds, you’ll find that plants grown in raised beds grow bigger, healthier, and more productive than beds planted directly into  the ground.

Even a bed just 4″-6″ high, made with loose organic matter, give plants a huge advantage, because the roots are able to develop more fully and find nutrients more easily.

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

 

 

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