‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2: Feed!

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Most plants grow larger and fuller, have better color, and produce more flowers when they are well fed.  Well-fed plants always reflect well on the gardener, because they look healthy and robust. 

Many sources of gardening advice admonish that one must ‘feed the soil, not the plant.’  And this is generally true for trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Anything planted directly into the ground performs better in fertile, well prepared soil.  Compost is the most important thing to dig into a bed or planting hole to enrich the soil.  Adding an organic mulch, which attracts earthworms, further enriches and improves the soil.  The more worms, the better the soil.  Additional fertilizer rarely is needed once one ‘gets the soil right.’  That said, heavy bloomers benefit from an annual application of an organic fertilizer such as Espoma’s Rose Tone.

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However, most potting soils are basically sterile mixes of coir or peat, perlite and/or vermiculite.  There isn’t enough nutrition to support healthy plant growth.  Some potting soils come fortified with worm castings or pelletized fertilizer and advertise that they will feed a plant for several months.  Some gardeners recommend mixing a little compost into the pot; but this is generally not enough to encourage lush growth.

To support vibrant growth coming from a relatively small pot, there needs to be a lot of minerals available for those crowded roots to absorb.  When preparing a pot for a fresh planting, I thoroughly mix some balanced organic fertilizer, like Espoma’s Plant Tone, into the potting soil before adding any plants.  This feeds the plants long-term, but is released very slowly.  It also includes helpful strains of microorganisms to help plants use the minerals.  After adding the plants, I sprinkle the smoothed soil with a timed-release pelletized fertilizer like Osmocote, which also includes important trace minerals.  Some soil mixes already have the Osmocote mixed in.  This is a timed release fertilizer which is activated whenever the pot is watered.

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Finally,  I’ll mix some very quick release Neptune’s Harvest in a watering can to water the plants into the soil.  This is a foliar feed, easily absorbed, and offers some protection while the plants establish.  It truly does ‘feed the soil,’ and improves soil texture and its ability to retain water.  It is also a good ‘pick me up’ if a plant ever starts to look a little dull.  Now, you might think that feeding a potted plant so much fertilizer might burn or kill it.  I’ve never had any problem, probably because these are organic products and have relatively low nitrogen.  The plants begin growing quickly, have good leaf color and produce sturdy new growth.

Why it works:  Although plants make their own ‘food/fuel’ from water, oxygen and sunlight, they need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous for healthy growth.  Lacking any of these, the plant will be stunted and sickly.  In addition, plants also benefit from a variety of trace minerals like copper, iron, magnesium and zinc.  These can be absorbed from many garden soils, but are lacking in potting soil.  Access to these important minerals is essential to productive plant growth.  Think of a plant as a living chemistry lab.  Many elements are needed to keep the bio-chemistry of life fueled.

Woodland Gnome’s Caveat:  My guilty secret for abundant flowers, especially on indoor plants during winter, is water soluble Miracle Grow Orchid Food.  This is not an organic product, but a tiny bit mixed into the usual water, every month or so, produces fabulous results!  Our ‘Christmas’ Cactus, Schlumbergera, bloomed non-stop from November through May with monthly feeding.

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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams. 

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

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June 20, 2016 garden 019

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot Bound Roots!  by J. Peggy Taylor

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3:  Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #10: Understand the Rhythm

June 20, 2016 garden 022

 

 

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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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