Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Oh dirt, yes dirt, that lovely, lovely dirt.  You think I've gone mad. Go on, admit it.

I was beating the weeds back in the garden today (around the beds, not in - those are behaving quite nicely) and found that my compost pile has composted rather nicely.  The texture of soil produced by two years of kitchen scraps, ash from the stove and the discarded weeds with bits of dirt attached have combined to make some really fine and outstanding dirt.  I'm really looking forward to turning it into a new bed once I get the initial digging done.

Composting is a terrific thing to do if you have a home garden or lack naturally richly textured soil.  My parents live in the woods and own a strip of grass along side.  The dirt there is the composting of every bag of leaves, twigs, ash and kitchen scrap they've produced over many decades.  Their garden soil is simply the most amazing you'll ever see.  Any garden vegetable will grow there and provided the deer don't get to it, be enjoyed at their table.

So what's with dirt? Why can some people coax forth bounty while others kill everything they plant?  Well, it's the dirt and the planting that matter.  Planting to the proper depth for the plant, shrub or tree in question is essential.  I planted a new $25 dwarf semi-sweet cherry tree about two inches too deep in heavy clay.  Then it rained for 4 weeks.  The tree died a slow drowning death.  I learned of the proper depth after complaining to my horticulturalist co-worker.  You'll notice that everything you buy comes with a suggested planting depth.  Pay attention to this - and if your plant isn't a water and alkaline loving sort, go a shade shallower in heavy clay.

I've talked about clay in the past - how to break it up mechanically or naturally (you should use a spading fork or let Swiss chard do the job - tilling makes potters clay and it will harden quickly in rain) and what to amend with.  Dirt, or more appropriately soil, is a complex thing.  It's alkalinity as well as its composition can vastly affect the health and success of your plant and shrubs.

I planted some hearty figs this year.  They love the alkaline clay and are growing like mad.  My two little blueberry shrubs, though, prefer it more acid and more sandy.  I turned equal parts sand, Canadian sphagnum moss and clay into a coarse mix and worked in a cup of Holly Tone which is an iron additive made for acid loving plants.  The blueberries went into wide holes half full of this mix and then filled over with it.  The plants are doing tolerably well.  If I were to PH test the soil and further fin tune it, I might get a bit more vigor out of them.  As is, I'll need to feed them with Holly Tone (also see Ironite) annually.

In my woods, there is a fair amount of detritus to help the clay be a better soil, but the honey suckle that grows thickly there robs so much shallow nutrients that hardly anything else grows.  Breaking out the honey suckle (hawthorn) at the root crown has allowed this soil to be generous to walnut, maple, wild cherry, ash, box or wax cedar, hosta, periwinkle (myrtle) and Japanese painted ferns.  Thinning has been the balance.  Eliminating also helps but then the shade value is lost and other trees take some time to restore it with their own growth, so I have been carefully mulching and feeding in these areas to help the soil have enough nutrients available, in only the spots I want, to keep my ornamental plants healthy.

Mulching and feeding are topics all their own, but they are critical parts, along with proper composition maintenance, of creating and fostering productive dirt.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Timing is Everything

Nice, old cliche to start us out today - timing is everything.  Funny, since time is linear and you are either on time or you are not... it's not like there's any margin for error, though sometimes you get a second chance.  But, I digress.  Timing this spring has meant riding the crest of the wave of wild weather.  God help those who have lost their homes this spring.  Here in Ohio, we've had one of the wettest springs I have ever witnessed.  I measure the relative "wettness" of spring here in Central Ohio by how high the creek gets in the heaviest spring rains.  A couple of years ago it crested into the farm field behind us for the first time in my notice (a time spanning just 11 years at this location).  Last year it did so once again.  This year, it partially flooded the farm field more than 5 times! ! !

The soil was so very wet this spring that by the last week of may, a time nationally where we usually see 85% of the corn and soybean crop planted, only around 12% was in the ground.  See, the problem with wet soil is that if you disc or till it, that which has high clay content tends to squeeze like a sponge and not rebound.  It gets more tightly packed and holds this shape.  Once the soil dries out, it is less air and water permeable in this compacted state and is much less friendly for growing crops in.  Not to mention, driving a 6 ton farm tractor through a muddy field is likely to get you stuck. 

A few weeks back, I waited for two precious sunny dry days to pass before I tried to turn the soil in my garden with a spading fork.  It was a bit wetter than I would have liked and clumped a tiny bit.  If things had dried out slowly, I might not have wound up with gravel - but as it is, the sun came out and we haven't had rain very much since, at least not here.  The sun instead baked the roughly turned soil and turned it into rock-like chunks which I had to break up with the garden rake and hoe.  Timing.  If I had waited a few more days to turn the soil, it might have been just a but harder to turn, but it would have crumbled instead of clumped. 

Sometimes, though, we don't have to be at the mercy of timing - we can make our own.  Last year I purchased a timer for our garden hose.  It has a number of modes like, manual (time adjustable period of time), rain delay (in days), start time and run duration.  I set it up to automatically water the now planted garden for 30 minutes each morning before the sun crests over the trees.  I don't have to remember, I don't have to wander out in the morning dew, I waste less water as there's much less evaporation, and the tender plants will be much less susceptible to scalding or wilting.  Wilting or scalding can be increased when water droplets magnify the suns rays and cook the leaves of your plants.  Watering early in the morning allows the water time to soak into the soil and run off or evaporate gently from tender young leaves.

Now the major bit of timing left is patience for my seeds to sprout!