Posts Tagged mulch

Soil Secrets Revealed

Key ingredients.

Key ingredients.

The pile on the left consists of aged wood chips — all that’s left of the great Northern Red Oak that once grew in my backyard. The pile on the right is a load of mushroom compost that was delivered about three weeks ago. Both sit on thick black plastic (tarps work too) to prevent plant roots from invading my supply of soil-improving goodness.

I can tell by the search strings bringing folks to this blog that many new gardeners are hoping to grow vegetables this year. Hurray, I say! And welcome to the sisterhood/brotherhood of folks who grow at least a bit of their own food. It’s clear you have many questions, and today, I wish to address one of the key factors that separates successful growers from black thumbs — soil.

Clay soil challenges

In the southeastern Piedmont region of the US, our native soils are mostly clay. Here in North Carolina, we call it Carolina Red Clay, although I hear folks in Georgia put their state’s name in front of the Red Clay portion of the moniker. Contrary to common belief, clay is not low in soil nutrients. If it were, our Piedmont native forests and fields would not be so lush.

But clay is not ideal when you want to grow vegetables. Veggies prefer loamy soils rich in organic material. The organic material improves drainage and the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. It also provides a home for the zillions of beneficial soil organisms that facilitate the transformation of soil nutrients into forms accessible to the root systems of veggies and other plants. Soil organisms range from visible participants, such as earthworms (You can’t have too many!) to beneficial fungi and bacteria. Healthy soil is jam-packed with life.

Invest in raised beds

In my decades of experience, the only reliable way to create rich, healthy garden soil from red clay is to add as much organic material as you can. To make this practical, you must create raised beds. Yes, this is hard work in the beginning, but once created, you will reap tasty rewards for decades to come. Trust me on this. Raised beds improve drainage and help you build deep, rich soils suitable for growing root crops like beets and carrots.

The raised beds in my garden don’t look very raised, because they aren’t enclosed by boards or stone. Wonder Spouse and I created them by digging out the paths between beds, adding that soil to the beds to make them higher. We fill the paths back up to their original levels with wood chips. The chips suppress weeds and act as a moisture reservoir from which plants in the beds can draw as needed.


I am an organic gardener. I think chemical fertilizers are always a bad idea, because too much of what is applied — especially to lawns — washes downhill and into our streams and water reservoirs.  Most of what washes is excess nitrogen, which creates massive disruptions in the ecology of our streams and lakes. The resulting pollution requires considerable expensive treatment before that water is safe to drink.

Because I’ve been adding compost to my beds for twenty years, the soil is quite healthy and contains many nutrients. But vegetable production is nutrient-intensive, so I do add organic fertilizers to my veggie beds. For members of the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes), I use a mix specially formulated for them. It seems to kick flower production into high gear, and since you can’t have tomatoes and peppers without flowers, I give these plants a boost.

For squashes, beans, and spring greens, I rely on a balanced organic fertilizer with a relatively low nutrient load. I’m looking for balance here, and just a bit of a boost to the soil already there.

Root crops — in my case, beets and carrots — seem to require a trace nutrient or two that my soil is low on. When I use an organic fertilizer specially formulated for these crops, I get much larger beets and carrots.

Follow instructions for these fertilizers. More is NOT better.


Mushroom compost

Mushroom compost

I do make my own, but it is never enough, not by a long shot. Resources abound with instructions for making compost. Your favorite search engine will tell you all you need to know.

Although I never make enough compost for my needs, a number of nearby suppliers offer excellent compost options. They will deliver partial truckloads, or if you have a pick-up truck (or a friend with one), they’ll load it for you. If you have neighbors, consider sharing a truckload.

The compost above is used by local organic mushroom growers. They mix a variety of organic components together for growing their mushrooms, but they discard it after one crop to prevent disease issues — much the way I rotate my crops annually, only they discard their growing medium.  This year’s batch seems a bit more fibrous than last year’s, so I’ve decided to use it to mulch my veggies. It’s fibrous enough to suppress weeds, while it retains moisture and slowly allows nutrients to seep into the soil.

Aged wood chips

Aged wood chips

I’ll use these wood chips to mulch ornamental beds that aren’t close to my house (termites love wood chips), and to top off any paths in the veggie garden that have low spots. In my yard, wood chips usually last about three years before they break down into soil.

Soil for container-growing and seed-starting

I am of the opinion that potting soil offered in bags at home improvement stores and many garden centers is lousy. Now such merchants are pushing potting soil that already contains fertilizer to “save you time.” Please, I beg you, do not be fooled. First, these fertilizers are not organic, second, one size does not fit all when it comes to fertilizer, and third, while you may get initial rapid growth, the poor quality of the actual soil provided will eventually cause your plants to suffer.

If you are trying to grow veggies in containers on your patio, I recommend that you make your own soil by purchasing top-quality topsoil and compost from a local provider. Find such a person through recommendations from seasoned gardeners. All providers are not created equal.

My seed-starting secret weapon

My seed-starting secret weapon

If you are hard-core and have the time, you can create your own seed starting mix by baking good soil you created yourself in an oven to sterilize it. Personally, I don’t have the time, and I think it’s probably hard to ensure you kill all potential contaminators. I rely on a professional-grade soil mix that I’ve been buying for years from a local garden store. They are going out of business, alas. So next year, I’ll pay the extra cost of having it shipped in. It will totally be worth it.

The Metro-Mix soil blends are ideal for seed germination. I am certain they are the reason I achieve almost 100% germination from every flat I plant. These mixes contain no added nutrients. You don’t want fertilizers in the soil when you sow seeds. Seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate and initiate plant growth. After a week or two, I start adding a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed when I water them. This is all the seedlings need to flourish until it’s time to transplant them to the garden.

These greens are ready to transplant as soon as their beds are ready.

These greens are ready to transplant as soon as their beds are ready.

This blog entry grows long, so I’ll stop for now. I hope this helps all you garden newbies out there. I can’t emphasize enough the critical importance of excellent soil. If you’ve put in the time and resources to create good soil, almost any plant you grow will flourish, whether you grew it from seed yourself or bought a flat of seedlings from a local garden center. But if your soil isn’t healthy, your plants will not thrive.

So get out there, and get dirty, people! 🙂

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How to garden during a 100+-degree heat wave

Little Ladybirds Cosmos

Don’t.  Seriously, don’t try to do any gardening when it’s as hot as it is in my part of North Carolina right now. We are predicted to see — and feel — a string of at least five days with highs hovering around 104 or so; humid nights may drop into the upper 70s if we’re lucky. No rain, of course,  barring the iceberg’s chance in Hades of a random thunderstorm.

I chose the photo above, because the warm colors of the Cosmos flowers provide at least a faint reflection of the sun’s intensity. They have turned out to be lovely little annuals; I hope they survive the heat wave.

Several visitors to my blog have lately found their way here by searching on how to garden in this heat. My advice follows.

  1. Seriously, don’t try to do anything significant when it’s this hot. That means, no weeding or planting. Don’t do anything that will disturb the soil, because such disturbances will release soil moisture into the air and harm roots of plants you’re trying to help.
  2. Do all your watering and harvesting before 7:00 a.m. If this means you must get up an hour early, so be it. Plants will best be able to withstand handling from picking before the sun reaches full power. Watering just after dawn gives the plants time to absorb the moisture before the searing sun compounds the stress they’re under. Watering late in the day in this heat and humidity increases opportunities for fungal diseases and visits by snails and slugs. Water in the early morning, period.
  3. Water plants deeply and not every day. Although it’s labor-intensive, the best way to water during heat waves is by hand. You take the end of the hose, position it at the base of a plant, and add water until the ground stops absorbing it. That’s the ideal. If you are like me and water is a limited resource, time the amount of water each plant gets, and give the most water-sensitive plants more water than the tougher plants. In my garden, squashes and beans need more water than tomatoes and peppers, and peppers need less than the tomatoes. My remaining squashes (I’m down to four now) get 1.5 minutes of water; beans get 2 minutes; tomatoes are surviving on 1 minute; peppers have been getting 30 seconds of water every other day.
  4. Don’t overwater. Now that the heat wave is fully here, I plan on cutting back watering to every third day. In this kind of heat, vegetables go into a holding pattern as they fight to simply survive. Tomato flowers and other veggie flowers don’t set fruit when daytime temperatures exceed 90 degrees. Fruits won’t expand much beyond their current sizes; the plants just don’t have the resources to grow.
  5. Be proactive about harvesting. Fruits that reached a mature size before the heat set in will continue to ripen if the plants can hang on. It’s important to pick the fruits as they are ready to reduce the likelihood of fungal diseases and insect invasions.  By harvesting just after dawn, you minimize stress on plants, and maximize the viability and nutritional value of the fruit.

If you didn’t mulch your vegetable garden, you are going to have a hard time keeping your plants alive. Old-fashioned row gardening, in which you hoe the weeds between rows, may have been how your grandmother did it, but it is not good for the soil, your plants, or your back. With the increasingly erratic weather patterns we now experience, and especially because those patterns tend to extremes like drought, heat waves, and floods (if you’re in Florida), the best way to ensure a productive garden is by using raised beds with mulched plants.

Mulching plants is hard work, I admit. But it is spring gardening work, when our weather is still bearable. The best mulch for a vegetable garden is last fall’s leaves. If you have a big yard full of trees like me, you can simply rake and save your own leaves. But if you live inside a city and have a smaller lot, every city I know of in my area collects leaves in the fall. In the spring, citizens can go get as many loads of composted leaves as they can carry, sometimes for a small fee, sometimes for free. When Wonder Spouse and I lived in Raleigh some 30 years ago, that city would deliver an entire dump truck load of leaves to your door — for free!

Gardening is always an act of faith, and sometimes, despite doing everything right, weather disasters happen, plants mysteriously die, a herd of rampaging deer storms and shreds your garden. You can never be sure that your hard work will pay off.

That unpredictability is part of why I remain an engaged, obsessed gardener after over 40 years of bumper crops and total losses, exquisite flowers and slimy slugs. I cherish the beauty intrinsic to the natural world all the more because I know it is fleeting.

Mother Nature is a temperamental teacher, and she does not tolerate fools. During this southeastern US heat wave, stay indoors where it’s cool, stay hydrated, and complete your essential garden tasks by dawn’s early light.

Rain dancing — although optional — is highly recommended.

Ornamental Care in the Heat

I’m adding this addendum to yesterday’s post, because I can see from the searches hitting my blog that folks are frantically trying to figure out how to keep their ornamentals alive. Here’s my quick-and-dirty advice.

If you are a lawn lover, don’t mow yours until the heat wave breaks. If that means it’s a little shaggy in spots, that’s still better than exposing freshly cut grass to the searing heat we’re getting. Stick to your regular watering schedule if your lawn is accustomed to supplemental water.

If you planted trees, shrubs, or perennials this spring, they will need supplemental water during the heat wave, if the ground around them is dry. Our clay soils hold water a surprisingly long time. Stick your fingers below the mulch layer to assess the moisture content of the ground around the plant. If you didn’t mulch these newbies, do so as soon as you can. Without mulch, they don’t have much hope of surviving.

If your new ornamentals are planted in full sun, they will wilt in the mid-day heat no matter how well-watered they are. This is an adaptive mechanism of the plants. If they have healthy, moist root systems, they will perk up when the sun goes off them. If your new plants aren’t adapted to full sun but they are getting a lot of sun, try improvising some shade for them somehow. It might improve their survival chances.

Don’t fertilize any plant during a heat wave. The roots will be damaged. Don’t spray any plant during a heat wave. You will do the leaves more harm than good. Your goal is to minimize the stress they are under by protecting them from the sun if you can, and by watering deeply once a week to encourage deep root growth. Shallow roots arise when plants are watered frequently for short periods. Such root systems are much more easily damaged during heat waves/droughts.

Good luck, folks!

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