Don’t Call It Dirt!

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I’m going to be writing a short series on the importance of, and how to build, healthy soil.  Most newbie gardeners don’t see it as a sexy part of gardening – it’s not colorful or pretty but dirty and, sometimes, icky.  Because I can geek out over the lovely, rich, dark stuff and become as passionate about it as if it were chocolate, I’m hoping I can change a few minds.

One of the best, if not THE best, pieces of gardening advice I ever received was that before I spent a dollar on a plant, I should spend a dollar on the soil that plant goes into.  Now, that came from Austin’s organic gardening guru, John Dromgoole, a man with a highly successful garden centre that sold a plethora of organic soil amendments but it still makes good sense.  Soil – my first soil science prof in college always became outraged when any of us newbie landscapers called it ‘dirt’ – is, for most plants, its nutrient system, its physical support system, its home; how healthy that soil is determines how healthy that plant is, how well it can fight off diseases, how drought-tolerant it will be, how quickly it can recover from insect damage, and how delicious its produce will taste.

That point was illustrated for me when I started my lemon basil, peppers, and tomatoes this year.  I made a quick run to the big box store for my seed starting mix – my local garden centres not being open for business yet – and was only able to get potting mix.  (For the record, there is a difference between seed starting mix and potting soil.  Generally, the seed starting mix is fluffier with less, or no, large chunks of wood, and has added fertilizer for seedling growth.)  The label on the potting soil bag said it was an “organic mix” of peat moss, compost and perlite, not an ominous sounding combination, although coir is becoming the new hot substitute for peat moss because it’s a far more renewable product but still, I didn’t think I’d have many problems.

But all compost is not created equal and the percentage of perlite in the mix, used for loftiness, was negligible, resulting in a wood-splinter-heavy and dense medium that I wasn’t sure my little seeds would have the strength to break through.  More than half of the lemon basil and half of the peppers never did but that could be because the seed is getting old.  There’s no excuse for the tomatoes though, since I used fresh seed, and they were extremely slow getting on.

So, disappointed and worried with the results so far, having spent all my dollars on seed and not wanting to jeopardize that investment, I dashed off to the (Edmonton) local gardening guru’s garden centre (now open), and queried them about seed starting mix.  Never use it, they said, have you tried these pellet thingamajigs?  I explained that I like to make my own newspaper pots for starting my seeds in and asked them what they use in the greenhouse to start seeds.  I was shown a lovely fluffy mixture that they market as potting soil, a blend of sphagnum moss, perlite, dolomitic lime, trace micronutrients, soil-wetting agents, and slow-release fertilizer (enough for 3 months). 

I promptly bought 40 litres, planted more basil, peppers, and tomatoes, and nervously watched the results.

No discernible difference between the tomatoes started on March 17 and those started on March 25.

No discernible difference between the tomatoes started on March 17 and those started on March 25.

The seedlings had no problems pushing through the medium, resulting in a much faster emergence, probably by about a week!  They’re green and healthy looking, although I have been feeding them a half-strength naturally sourced liquid fertilizer, because I’m not sure what type of or in what proportion, the nutrients are present in the potting mix. 

This uncertainty about what’s in a bag of potting mix has me frustrated!  And if I, a professional gardener, am frustrated, I can’t imagine how a less experienced gardener feels, so here’s some advice based on what I’ve learned to date…

  • Don’t purchase potting mix or any kind of soil or compost mix from a big box store unless you’ve used it in the past and been happy with the results.  I purchased my potting mix from a big boxer because I thought it was my only option but, had I waited until my local garden centre opened, I wouldn’t have wasted my money – live and learn.
  • Read labels.  Personally, I think soil, compost, potting mix, etc. should all have a list of ingredients – and even the source of those ingredients but, since we can’t even get source labelling on our food, I know I’m dreaming to think we can get it on something we don’t immediately put in our mouths.  The label should, at least, tell you what you can expect to see in the bag but even that’s not a guarantee.  For example, it has consistently been my experience that the cheaper the compost, the more wood chunks are in it – you don’t want a lot of wood in your compost since it throws off the carbon/nitrogen balance.  If there’s no label, as is the case for bulk soil and amendments, or you think the label doesn’t provide enough information…
  • Ask questions.  Ask if they can open a bag and show you what you’d be buying.  Tell the staff what you’re using the mix for and ask if it’s appropriate.  And if they can’t tell you what is in the stuff you’ll be growing your food in, walk away.

What we grow our plants in is important.  A good potting mix allows seeds to germinate easily, doesn’t dry out too quickly, or compress when watered and remain soggy.  Potting mix isn’t, technically, soil, since it is composed of soilless ingredients.  But it’s the first growing medium that many of our cultivated plants first encounter –  get it right and you’ll have less problems down the road.

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Because I Dared To Dream…

Friday, April 9th, 2010
As you can see, we're tweaking the garden. I didn't want to unveil the new design until everything was perfect but I thought you might like to see what I'm ranting about.

As you can see, we're tweaking the garden. I didn't want to unveil the new design until everything was perfect but I thought you might like to see what I'm ranting about.

I woke up to this mess this morning!!

Okay, I know, I should have expected this…and I kind of did.  When I sowed my arugula, mesclun, mustard, raab, spinach, peas, beets, carrots, and radishes this and last week, I knew I was taking their life in my hands (literally).  But hey, I’m a gardener aka an optimistic fool.  It is in my nature to rush the spring, to turn my face to the sun, to stroke the earth…to BELIEVE.  And if this is the worst that can happen…well, that’s not going to stop this hardcore optimist.

Keeping Track

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

My system of keeping track of my kitchen garden plantings tends to be paper heavy. 

It starts with a scaled drawing of the garden, just the bare bones with only permanent plantings noted.  This basic plan is then photocopied a few times so I can play with different plant placements and arrangements, and the final plan is photocopied again because the original is sure to be stained, ripped or lost.  It is then laid aside while I make a list (on paper) of seeds I have, seeds I want, and which seed companies carry the seeds I need.  After ordering my seeds (usually done online but this year I mailed a paper order form and a cheque for reasons that escape me now), I calculate the sowing schedule on – you guessed it – paper.  That information gets transferred to my (paper) calendar where other important dates, like bill payments due and when the parents are coming to visit, are scribbled down.  I generally don’t make notes of when seeds germinate, or what the weather’s been like, or whether I’ve had any seedling damping off (because I’ve never had to) but I do annotate on the planting plan the dates of when I direct sowed or transplanted into the garden, and I’ve found those notes useful in later years.

So much paperwork!

So much paperwork!

I’m still using my paper system this year but I recently stumbled on Folia, a site for tracking my garden(s) online.  I’m still feeling my way around it and it’s not completely intuitive but I think it has a lot of potential for gardeners, like myself, who want to stay organized.  Two of the features I really appreciate are The Stash category and the ability to link photos.

With The Stash category, you can catalogue every seed and plant you own, including where you bought it, if there’s a special story about it’s acquisition, it’s cultural requirements, whether you’d be willing to trade the seeds, and attach photos of the seeds or plants.  You can then link any of those seeds or plants to a journal entry, task list, and/or garden, giving you a complete overview of what you have, where to find it, and how to care for it.

I always mean to take more photographs of my garden (and, hopefully, now that I have the pressure of a blog, I’ll fulfill that intention) but, because I didn’t previously journal about my garden(s), the photos would get filed under the appropriate heading on my hard drive, rarely to be seen again.  With Folia, because I can link a plant or garden or journal entry to a photo, that picture becomes a useful pictoral explanation of the garden’s activity.

Folia has two levels of membership – a free membership that offers lots of garden journaling bells and whistles, and a pay-what-you-feel-it’s-worth membership that allows you to track your plants on a timeline, keep private journals, track harvest quantities, and a multitude of other useful things.  And the developers, a couple living in London, England, who choose to do this in their off-hours, keep tweaking both levels of memberships.

Folia has a networking aspect to it as well so you can follow what gardeners in your climate zone or with your type of garden are doing…or you can discover what a gardener in your fantasy growing zone is having to combat (proving the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence).  If not in the mood to make a more extensive observation, you can give a cheerful ‘thumb’s up’ to any gardener’s journal entry or garden or planting.  You can join a group (and they have groups for everything – hypertufa pots, anyone?) and post questions to that specific group, or write a journal entry as a question and query the Folia community at large.  In many ways, it’s the best garden club you could ever belong to.

If you’re like me, a gardener struggling with her paperwork and looking for a better way to keep track of her garden’s progress, you might find Folia to be the answer to your journaling needs…it’s worth a look

(And once you join, feel free to follow my urbangardener kitchen garden’s progress.)

Full disclosure: I contacted the site’s creators to do a little fact-checking and they offered me a one-month-free subscription to the paid portion of the website when I mentioned that I am writing a blog post about Folia.  Since I’d already written a draft about the free membership portion of Folia (and hadn’t made any significant edits), the offer didn’t influence my (for the most part) glowing recommendation…still, I thought I should let you know, in the interests of full disclosure.