Underfoot, Lofty: Good Soil for a Healthy Planet (P. 2/3)

To recap P. 1, building healthy soil in the garden means taking care of the billions of living organisms underfoot. It’s not as big of a job as it sounds. In our small community garden plots, we can adjust our practices easily and work less by retiring old methods like double-digging and other strenuous soil churning. Easing up on soil disruption protects its complex ecosystem and makes for happier plants.

Soil for the Planet

If that’s not enough to convince you to put down the shovel, consider the climate. One of the key drivers of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, but did you know that some modern agricultural practices–including tilling–also have released significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere?

Where is that carbon coming from? It’s right there in the soil, everywhere.  It’s in the roots of plants, in decaying leaf mulch, in earthworms, in sugars released by plants, and in long threads of fungal networks. Around 50%  to 58% of the organic matter in soil is carbon.

Unfortunately, our cultivated land has lost around half of its organic matter, from 5% levels of soil organic matter down to less than 3%. We want that carbon back! Soil life is built from carbon and depends on it to survive, which makes soil a great reservoir for carbon. In the soil it can do good things for us, whereas too much of it in the atmosphere contributes to climate change.

Regenerative agriculture or carbon farming aims to do just that–to put carbon back into the soil using a variety of practices, including no-till farming. It’s not a straightforward process. Some of the systems at work in the garden naturally put carbon back into the atmosphere no matter how carefully we tend our soil. For example, all of those wonderful soil microbes expire carbon dioxide when they break down organic material. Microbes in an acre of corn can expire as much carbon dioxide as twenty five active men.

In very rough terms, it’s a two-step-forward/one-step-back kind of a process, which means that the goal of carbon farming is to put more carbon into the soil than is released. Here’s where things get a little tricky and controversial, figuring out the best agricultural practices to sink the most carbon and keep it in the soil. Soil scientists have paid attention to a substance called glomalin, produced by fungi, which acts like a glue holding soil particles together in aggregates. (Remember, that cottage-cheesy, pebbled texture?) Some scientists think glomalin may tie up 27% of soil carbon for as long as 40 years.

Soil scientists have also paid attention to humus, the carbon-rich, coffee-colored, fertile part of soil. It’s hard to define humus exactly because it’s not clear how humus is formed; some think it’s a product of decomposition of organic matter, while others think that it’s a built-up product of soil organisms utilizing the sugars exuded by plants. In any case, the important quality of humus is that like glomalin, it’s considered by many to be recalcitrant, meaning that it’s likely to stay in the soil for a long time. These are the kinds of long-term storage we need to draw down the imbalance of carbon in the atmosphere.

Farmers worldwide are already using regenerative agricultural practices, in no small part because they improve productivity and in the long-run, make economical sense. Green America is cheering on home gardeners to do the same.  Their idea is this: our individual plots may be small, but collectively, we might be able to make a difference, similar to the way victory gardeners of WWI and WWII grew up to 40% of the fresh produce consumed in the U.S..

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The posters above were published by the U.S. Food Administration, created by Woodrow Wilson by executive order in 1917. Leading the newly-formed administration, Herbert Hoover had the power to act as “food dictator,” but strove to design “an effort that would appeal to the American sense of volunteerism and avoid coercion.” (I know I’m getting a little off track here, but I think this is interesting stuff and definitely relevant to the question of how to get large groups of people to act quickly in helpful ways for a common cause–like climate change.)

Bottom Line?

Ditching some of our old gardening methods may not only build the soil for our plants, but also may make a positive impact on the planet. I’m convinced at the very least that  strategies that support soil life yield more productive, sustainable, and healthier gardens. As we’ve said before at PPCG, our only organic gardening rule that we enforce is  “no synthetic agricultural chemicals.” But I hope you’ll consider making some changes in how you tend your plot, if for no other reason than you’ll get better results. For more info, take a look at the links below.

Up next, since I know we’re all itching to get in the garden: regenerative techniques we can use in our own gardens.


For More Info…

For starters, a nice graphic comparing “regenerated soil” vs. “dead dirt,” from Green America.

Here’s another good place to start. This short video explains regenerative agriculture in easy-to-understand language, from Kiss the Ground. And here’s a scripted version with some added details.

Another accessible piece–on fungi and their role in the carbon cycle–from NPR.

From Green America, understanding the complexities of soil.

From Northeast Farming Association (NOFA), really helpful white paper on soil carbon restoration. Read this if you want to go into more depth on this topic. It’s written for the general public and covers a lot of ground.  NOFAMass has become my favorite go-to source on soil-building.

From the New York Times Magazine, an article on changing agricultural practices to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. (Local readers: if you don’t have a NYT subscription and have used up your free monthly articles, our local library offers free three-day passes. Here’s a link to digital media.)

The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson (2014). I haven’t been able to get a copy of this book yet, but it looks like it’s available through Boston Public Library.

From nature.com, a relatively short, but more technical presentation of soil carbon sequestration. This was the first piece I read that helped me understand the balance of carbon inputs and outputs. Also covers some aspects of carbon sequestration such as soil mineralogy and land topography.

SOS: Save Our Soils. Very interesting 2015 interview with Dr. Christine Jones, soil ecologist. Some of this material was not fully explained for the general reader, but it covers a broad range of topics.

Want more posters? (I love this stuff!) Google ‘victory garden posters’ and ‘women’s land army.’

 

PPCG 2019 Plot Plan & Spring Shade Map

For PPCG members, our 2019 plot map with garden assignments is linked here.

The below diagrams show the shade patterns on our plots in spring, for garden planning purposes. You won’t have much shade at all until around the first week of May, when leaves start to fill in. Please note these sketches were drawn roughly last year at broad intervals and may not represent all of the sun/shade in your plot. I noticed even ten minutes can make a difference. Also, shade does shift throughout the growing season.

Here’s a guide for plants and their suggested light levels.

Happy gardening, everyone!

 

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Underfoot, Lofty: Good Soil for Healthy Plants (P. 1/3)

Let’s talk about soil. I made this pitch last spring and since then, I’ve learned more about soil and noticed a lot of interest in it in popular media. (See links below.) So I’m recharging my appeal this year: before we get into our gardens this spring with shovels, stop and consider the soil in your plot and how to protect and make good use of it.

Organic

A simple rule in our organic community garden is that we don’t use any agricultural chemicals. This one’s easy. We all know that products such as Roundup and Sevin aren’t healthy for us or the environment in many ways.

But organic gardening is more fundamentally about supporting nature and working with it. With regard to our soil, even the act of digging into it can mess up its natural beneficial processes. In some ways, less is more. Stop disrupting your soil, and it will thrive and work better for you.

Home Soil

Last fall when I dug a shallow trench to plant my garlic, I felt bad about displacing a handful of earthworms. Those critters were just the obvious living organisms in my garden. A teaspoon of good quality soil is populated with more microorganisms than people on earth. That’s billions of algae, fungi, bacteria, yeasts, protozoa, nematodes, and more. Scientists are only beginning to understand the complex ecosystems in soil and how they support plant life.

Here’s a simplified description of the relationship between your plants and microbes:

  • Plants take in carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis, use the carbon atoms to form sugars.
  • Some sugars are released into the soil through the plants’ roots, providing food for microbes.
  • These microbes, in turn, provide important nutrients right to the root zone of the plant.

Microbes act like home delivery food service. Sounds good, right? Here’s another point to understand: good soil with organic matter holds together in small clumps (aggregates) separated by open pores. Microbes thrive in this kind of environment; in fact, they depend on good soil structure for critical functions. Taking a shovel to it is like bulldozing their natural habitat. And destroying their home means your plants are going to be deprived of the little guys that nurture them. Your plants themselves like good soil structure for other reasons, too.

Soil Care

How can you tell if your soil has good aggregation? A handful of well-aggregated soil has the pebbled texture of cottage cheese. Soil that is poorly aggregated, in contrast, doesn’t hold together at all, or if you gently squeeze it, forms into larger chunks that don’t crumble nicely into pea-sized pieces.

Other bad consequences come from churning up your soil. For example, “tilling soil causes pore spaces to collapse and seal over, causing more rain to run off than sink in.” Your plants aren’t getting that water and worse, water run-off carries away your garden soil. Tilled soil is also lower in organic matter.

I like this description, relayed by Sharon Gensler, the Soil Carbon Outreach Coordinator at NOFA/Mass. “Poor soil is like a mound of flour, which sheds water poured on top rather than absorbing it. On the other hand, water poured over a stack of sliced bread is easily and quickly absorbed. The bread has crumb and texture, with many pours available to absorb and retain the moisture, while the flour is dense with very little porous space for absorption of air or water.”

Last summer, I took over a plot that another gardener couldn’t use. The plot had grown

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Once I pulled all of the purslane from this garden, water pooled on the surface and ran off rather than being absorbed by the soil.

“weedy”  with purslane (an edible plant, though not my favorite), so I set about clearing the entire plot. My thinking went like this: I’d clear the purslane so it wouldn’t compete with my garden plants for water and nutrients, and then I would cover any bare areas with compost and mulch to protect and build the soil.

Once all of those plants were cleared, however, I found I was left with dry, dusty soil that didn’t hold water well. Have you ever had a problem with hydrophobic soil? You might have experienced it when you let a flower pot filled with a peat-based mix dry out. No matter how much I watered the cleared garden, the soil seemed to repel, rather than absorb the water.

I went ahead as planned and covered the soil with compost and wood mulch–which helped with the watering problem, eventually–but I would not have had to remediate so extensively if I had selectively left some of that purslane in place. In many cases, a living root is better than compost and mulch. To be clear, I’m not advocating for letting any weed run rampant in the garden; certainly some weeds will outcompete garden plants. But in this case, I should have thought of that purslane itself as a garden plant–not only because it was edible, but also because it would have been a good friend to my garden, protecting the soil from erosion, supporting microbial life, and helping to retain water.

Bottom Line?

Start with soil! Make friends with the billions of organisms living underfoot, and they’ll do a lot of heavy lifting for you and your plants. Setting the shovel aside is just one way to keep your soil zoo happy. I’ll talk about what I’ve learned about no-dig and other soil-building methods, but up next in Part 2: Good Soil for a Healthy Planet.


For More Info…

From Green America, understanding the complexities of soil.

Interesting fact sheet from the USDA on soil health.

The Zoo Beneath Our Feet, from the Washington Post.

What is humus? From National Geographic.

Got worms? Earthworms can be an indicator of soil health. From MSU Extension.

How to Turn Dirt Into Soil From Yes! magazine, home gardeners share their experiences.

A deeper dive into soil aggregation. From the Soil System Sciences (SSS) Division of the European Geosciences Union(EGU).

 

 

How’d It Grow? Premium Peas

Are you getting ready to plant peas? It’s still too early here in zone 6, but I thought I’d mention this variety while there is still time for ordering from seed catalogs.

Description and Source

Premium is the name of the pea, which can be a little confusing if you go looking for it online since ‘premium’ is also used by seed companies as a descriptor. This particular variety is available exclusively from Johnny’s.

Premium is open-pollinated and resistant to Fusarium Wilt.

Please note that Johnny’s sells both untreated and treated seeds, the latter of which is coated with a fungicide to protect them from diseases such as damping off. When I contacted Johnny’s about the treatment, the representative indicated that treated seeds are not approved for organic growing.

Planting and Growing Notes

Last year on April 1, I sneaked into the garden on that one flashy warm day we had here in MA and got these guys planted in a nine-foot row under a mini grow tunnel (with a plan to remove it as they grew). Using Johnny’s intensive spacing guidelines, I planted them in a 3-inch band, 1 1/2″ apart, around 25 per foot. These peas do not grow tall, and although a trellis is not needed, I set up supports at the time of planting to keep space for other plants and to help make picking easier.

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‘Premium’ also grew well in a pot. Supported on twine and bamboo, they were easy to pick. Following this crop, I was able to fit in a crop of scarlet runner beans.

Soon after I planted them, the temperature dropped precipitously, down into the twenties. And then we had a long spell of cold, wet weather. I’d been hoping that the grow tunnel was going to warm the soil and help them move along, but those pea seeds didn’t budge for nearly three weeks, for so long without a sign that I thought I’d lost them. Around the time they sprouted, I put in another crop of peas in a pot on my front sidewalk, and those guys matured only a day or two later than the ones I planted  on April 1.

Harvest

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After shelling, I had about a pound of peas from a 9-foot row.

Most of them were ready for picking around mid June. Even if I account for that cold snap right after I planted them, they took a little longer to mature than the 51-day average noted by Johnny’s. Still, I was able to get my next crop in the garden easily while they were finishing up.

The nine-foot row in my garden yielded a little more than 1 pound of shelled peas.

How’d they taste? After eating Premium my teens decided that they do like peas after all. The flavor was fresh and sweet, not metallic or bitter, even for ones that I missed and left on the vine a little too long.

The ones that I blanched, froze on a paper-towel-lined tray, and then stored in freezer bags held well for a few months.

Bottom Line?

I’m planting these again in 2019, probably  a week or two into April depending on weather trends. My portable grow tunnel might have saved the peas from rotting, but didn’t warm up the soil enough to make planting worthwhile so early in very cold temperatures.

Though some peas like Bistro may offer higher yields, I’m generally interested in moving things along to fit in a succession of crops in a short time. I hear Strike is another good one to try for early yield.

Best of all, they tasted good and got my teens to change their minds about peas.

 

Deer Vs. Gardeners II

I used to say that while we had a few deer visitors every year at PPCG, the humans always took home more from their gardens than the deer did.

And then last year happened.

Going into our 2019 growing season, I’m going to assume that if we want more harvest than heartbreak, we’re going to need to start off with active defenses. The good news is that many of us found some reasonable solutions that worked well for us.

For more info about deer control, see this post. Here I’m going to focus on the methods that seemed to work well for our gardeners, along with a few sources and best prices. (If you find some better options, please share!)

Repellent: Plantskydd

At least one of our gardeners, Gary  (plot 31), had good luck with this product, which is sprayed on plants. OMRI-listed, it’s main ingredient is dried animal blood. For the best results, you’ll want to spray it early in the season, before deer get a taste of what’s in your garden. 

Pros:  One of the least expensive options in terms of initial outlay. No need to struggle with fence installation. Allows you to keep your garden open and easily accessed. Doesn’t wash off in rain. Organic.

Cons: Needs to be applied to new growth, so you do have to keep up with it. Since its main ingredient is animal blood, it (1) may not be an option for vegetarian gardeners and (2) will add nitrogen to your soil, which you may or may not want. Also, although the product specifies it’s safe for garden vegetable plants, you can’t spray it on any part of the plant that you intend to eat, such as lettuce leaves or tomatoes. There’s also a granular formula that you can sprinkle around your plants.

Available at: Amazon for $23.99 for a 32-oz. spray bottle or at Park Seed for $21.95. Check here for local dealer locations. You can also buy larger quantities in powder concentrate that you have to mix and a granular formula for sprinkling.

Fence Option 1: Multi-Purpose Netting

IMG_20180503_103531591.jpgJun (plot 24) and I (plot 30, photo right) used this product by Tenax with good success. At 4-feet tall, it’s an easy jump for deer,  but I’ve read that deer don’t normally like to jump into enclosed spaces as small as our gardens. For extra measure, I put a few obvious tomato cages inside my plot to clutter up the landing zone.

This product is sturdier than the netting described below, but not really sturdy enough to support  vines such as cucumbers. I installed it using 60-inch u-posts, slipping the fence onto the hooks on the posts as I wrapped it around the garden. 

Pros: Sturdy. Should last a few years. Relatively easy to install; I was able to do it myself. Most difficult part for me was pounding in the u-posts. Allows easy access to gardens–just unhook the netting from the posts. (The whole garden can be opened quickly and easily.) Even though it’s thicker than the deer netting below, it’s still unobtrusive and doesn’t cast significant shade. Can also be purchased in 7′ x 100′ rolls, enough to keep out jumpers from two garden plots. 

Cons: Costs about $24 for the netting plus $27 – $45 for 6 – 10 u- or t-posts. Not a good choice for folks who don’t want to go to the trouble of installation or who don’t like enclosed garden spaces. Not tall enough to prevent jumpers or “leaner-overs.” The 7′-tall fencing will need sturdy, more expensive posts to be installed properly.

Available at: Lowes in Weymouth and on Amazon.

 

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Fence Option 2: Deer/ Wildlife Netting

Product Image 2A few gardeners used a product like this one, which is finer and less stiff than the multi-purpose netting above. They installed it using bamboo or green plastic garden posts, attaching the fence to them with twine, zip ties, or tomato Velcro. I’ve also seen recommendations to hook the netting onto nails, screws, or cup hooks fastened to wooden garden stakes, which then could function a lot like the netting above.

Pros: Tall enough to keep the champion jumpers out. Reusable. Lightweight and unobtrusive. No problems with product casting shade. Depending on how it’s installed, it can be removed easily if you need better access to your garden for maintenance, etc.. The cost of the netting itself is reasonable, around $20.

Cons: Must be secured properly. Potential tripping hazard. Does a number on our lawnmower. Ideally, should be marked with flagging tape so deer see it and don’t blunder into it. Could be chewed or torn. A little fiddly to use. Best installed with a second set of hands. To make full advantage of the height, you need tall support posts, which may cost more than the netting itself.

 

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Barrier Cover: Bird Netting

Bird netting is similar in weight to the wildlife netting above, but sold in dimensions that allow you to drape it over large sections. This option is a good, inexpensive one if you want to protect certain plants or sections of your garden. 

 

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Pros: Perhaps the least expensive option. Allows you to section off areas of your garden, leaving open access to other areas. 

Cons: Like the wildlife netting, it’s fiddly to use. Must be secured properly! (I used clothes pins, attaching the netting to twine stretched between stakes.) Potential tripping hazard. Gets tangled in our lawnmower. Depending on how it’s installed, can make garden access annoying. Your plants won’t like bumping up against it, so your netting supports have to be taller than your plants at full height.

 

Available at: Lowes in Weymouth and Home Depot in Quincy. (See photos below.) 

 

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Final Thoughts…

Repellents, fencing, or cover netting…there’s no perfect solution here, but we managed to find a few workable options that allowed us to recover last summer. Pick the one that works best for you and go for it–early in the season. It’s better to set up your repellents and barriers as soon as possible, before deer get a taste of the good stuff  in your garden.

Happy gardening, everyone!

 

Getting Started at PPCG (Part 6): Maintaining Your Garden

After you’ve planted, you might be surprised by how much attention your small garden will require, sometimes on a daily basis. You’ll also be surprised by how much it yields if you put in the effort.

Watering

Those baby seedlings and transplants can’t be abandoned; one hot dry day will do them in. Once they’ve been established, you’ll grow healthier, stronger plants by watering less frequently and more deeply, which encourages root growth beyond the surface of the soil. See more Watering Tips.

Mulching

The benefits of using mulch in your garden include:

  • regulating soil temperature
  • maintaining moisture
  • suppressing weeds
  • adding organic matter to your soil
  • protecting crops from soil-born diseases that can be splashed onto your plants when you water

Types of organic mulch include straw, salt hay, wood chips, seaweed, chopped leaves, buckwheat hulls, stubble-harvest-straw-agriculture-158198.jpegand grass clippings. But take note:

  • Leaves can form a matted, water-resistant barrier if they are not chopped or composted first.
  • And thick layers of grass clippings can turn into a stinky, slimy mess.

In addition, some gardeners like using plastic mulch.

Keep the mulch away from the base of your plants. I usually put down mulch in my walking paths first, then fill in with more mulch closer to my plantings as they get established. The goal is to smother weeds, not your plantings.

Last summer, I applied a thick layer of newspaper topped with wood chips. The worms loved it. Most newspaper dyes are okay; check if you’re not sure. The Boston Globe, for example, offers this info. I’ve also heard that lawn refuse bags make great weed barriers.

Gary makes use of free seaweed, collected from beaches. Louise (plot 25) favors buckwheat hulls. And I noticed that Marie (plot 11) uses salt hay.

We do not use the composted leaf mold offered for free by Braintree because we cannot guarantee that the product is free of chemicals and other unwanted matter. For this reason, we’ve started our own leaf compost pile in our garden.

Fertilizing

It’s difficult to talk about fertilizing without knowing your soil, so here’s one more pitch for getting your soil tested. Before throwing down any fertilizer, if you know exactly what your soil needs, you won’t be making blind guesses that can be detrimental to your garden, the environment, and your wallet.

Depending on the needs of my garden at the time, I’ve used products like Garden Tone, composted manure, blood meal, bone meal, kelp meal, and compost from my home composter.

Want more information about organic fertilizers? Here’s a good place to start.

Pests and Diseases

Heads up, gardeners: the deer are active at PPCG this spring.

I’m not sure there’s much we can do to protect ourselves from determined deer because we cannot exclude them with tall fencing around our garden perimeter. In this case, it’s helpful to think more in terms of deterrents and “acceptable losses.” On a more positive note, I will also say that in every year I’ve gardened at PPCG since 2010, I’ve always harvested more than I’ve lost.

In the past, I’ve sprinkled my plants with cayenne pepper and dangled old CDs from

string around the perimeter of my garden. I’ve seen other gardeners use pinwheels. And Louise (plot 25) has covered her lettuce and pea shoots with bird netting (available at Home Depot). If you notice forks growing out of Gary’s plot, it’s because he’s hoping the sharp tines will deter rabbits. With all of these efforts, there’s not much to lose except a little bit of our time.

IMG_20180423_075227139.jpgThis year, I tried inter-planting lettuces with bunching onions and bordering my garden with shallots, leeks, and garlic. Maybe the scent of allium will deter rabbits and deer from chowing down on my lettuce. It’s worth a try, and if nothing else, this particular inter-planting makes good use of space. (Update: the deer did, indeed, skip over my lettuce, but chowed down on a perennial flower and trampled carrot seedlings. I counted myself lucky he didn’t eat the peas and decided, not without pause, to install a fence around my plot. He can still jump over or wiggle under the 4′ plastic mesh–and if he does, he’s going to cause a lot of damage–but at this point, if he gets my plantings, he’s earned them.)

Want some more ideas for deterring wildlife? Try here.

Regarding insect pests and diseases, we have a new gardening resource (stored in the shed) that will help us identify them in our garden. It’s also available here online.

  • Consider using hybrid plants as a front-line defense against common diseases.
  • If you have any diseased plant material, please bag it up and remove it from our site to protect other gardeners.

Specific insect problems at PPCG

  • Vine borers have plagued some of our squash crops.
  • Some of the gardens along the treeline bordering the park have been affected by winter moth caterpillars dropping from the trees overhead. If you garden in one of these spaces with trees favored by this caterpillar, you may want to use row covers over your leafy greens until their season passes. Remember to remove the covers if you have plants that need to be pollinated.
  • In 2017, we also had a localized infestation of earwigs, which the gardeners controlled with a trap (buried bottles filled with oil and soy sauce).
  • If you notice that one or more of your plants looks like it’s been snapped off at the base, you may have cutworms. There’s a simple remedy for cutworms, but you have to act before they do their damage. See the following fact sheet link.

Here’s a good fact sheet with more info on general insect management and here are more fact sheets on specific pests, but please remember that we do not permit synthetic products.

Happy gardening, everyone!


In case you missed it…

Part 1: Organic Gardening and Soil

Part 2: Our Growing Season and Gardening Resources

Part 3: Garden Design

Part 4: Plant Choices and Sources

Part 5: Planting