Sunday, February 27, 2011

Still shoveling snow but getting ready to plant

This weekend I went on a date with my wife to look for gardening supplies. Yes, I know that that doesn't sound very romantic, but when we both enjoy working in the yard then taking our time, strolling through Home Depot and holding hands without the kids is a romantic event. It is fun to dream about what we would like to do and buy a few things that we can afford to get us going in that direction.

My sweetheart still has a bunch of seeds from last year that she wants to use again, but we wanted to get enough supplies to take one of our garden boxes, add enough soil amendments to get it jump started, and then cover it with plastic to create a makeshift greenhouse. I have a lot of questions about this particular garden box, and I don't know if the plants will grow well there, but I feel that it is worth the risk to try. In this particular box I had chickens living in it for a few months last summer. In anticipation for using it this year, I moved them out so that the manure would have time to compost.Unfortunately this soil has a lot of big rocks so I brought in top soil last year. But good quality top soil for gardening is difficult to obtain around here (Utah is a desert, after all) but at least the top foot or two of dirt has been screened for rocks. Since this new alkaline soil has a high clay content, I knew that I really needed to figure out what to do with it.

I recently read Gardening When It Counts, by Steve Solomon, and got some good ideas. I referred to his table on Carbon-Nitrogen ratios and realized that the shredded paper that I was using for chicken bedding has an extremely high Carbon content (175:1) where the optimal ratio for growing vegetables is closer to 12:1. He says that soil humus has a C:N of 12:1 in every climate, in every soil, so that should be our target for amending soil. If the C:N is higher than this optimal ratio, the microbial population will "burn" the carbon for fuel until the C:N is reduced to match the surrounding soil.

If this comes from added organic material, the level of humus in the soil will be increased, the soil will be healthier, and it will have better tilth. At this point, the Nitrogen in the soil will be available to the plants that need it.Thinking about our garden box, if I still have much uncomposted material mixed into the soil, the microbes will be busy breaking down that carbon and won't release the nitrogen that is needed for the plants until this is complete. (My compost piles haven't been terribly productive with the local deer and our chickens helping themselves to most of what I can add from kitchen waste.) At this point, unless I can rake the paper back out easily, I'll just leave it in the soil and take my chances.

Here are the amendments that I bought for my 5'x20' garden box:
  • four bags steer manure (hopefully this will be about a 1/2" layer, C:N about 12:1)
  • one bag peat moss (helps add organic material to soil as well as acidifies it a bit)
  • one bag perlite (helps in clay soils by preventing compaction and water loss)
  • one bag sulfur (acidifies soil... need to calculate actual amount to add)
  • one bag bone meal (great source of Phosphorus... need to calculate actual amount to add)
  • one bag blood meal (great source of Nitrogen... need to calculate actual amount to add)
  • one bag Plant-tone (I have never heard of this product before, but caught my attention because it adds natural soil bacteria with a bit of natural fertilizer to get it started. Hopefully this will help balance the relatively sterile soil that we have here)
Again from the book by Solomon, he suggests adding seed meal as an alternative source of Nitrogen and kelp meal for its excellent balanced source of trace minerals. The kelp meal is also supposed to be really good for laying hens, so I probably will want to get extra for them. I haven't found a local source of either product, so I might have to order them from outside the area. (Agriculture Solutions seems to have reasonable prices for kelp meal as long as you are willing to buy in bulk, but shipping certainly adds a lot to the cost.) From their web site:

  • Contains over 60 trace elements utilized by your plants
  • Plants develop more extensive root systems
  • Greater resistance to nematodes, disease and pests
  • Improves seed germination
  • Stimulates soil bacteria
  • Increases plants stem strength
  • Helps plants deal with stresses of drought, high temperatures, and frost
  • Increase nutritional value of fruits and vegetables
  • Increases shelf life
  • Encourages better aerification of soil
  • Improves moisture retention
  • Helps normalize soil PH
  • Improves soil structure

1 comment:

  1. I thought that it was interesting that the soil mix offered for Square Foot Gardening now includes Kelp Meal. It also includes compost, peat moss, vermiculite (like perlite), worm castings, and bat guano.