Archives for posts with tag: peat moss

Last week, we dug the holes (see May 4, 2014). This week, we filled them.

Last year, I did a careful estimate of how much soil we would need and meticulously calculated the volume of the (assumed) conical mounds of soil on top. Of course, I was very precisely wrong and underestimated the total by a wide margin.

This year, I eyeballed it.

Well, okay, not completely (that would be contrary to my nature). At the garden center, I figured about four bags of compost per bale of peat moss (at equal proportions) of which I guessed we needed two. I then applied a factor of safety of 1.5 to the compost and got 12 bags.

Back in the garden, I wrestled a bale of peat moss (it is quite heavy and awkward) onto the wheelbarrow and Rachel sifted in a quantity about equal to a bag of compost. Bales of peat moss are very tightly compacted—they are almost rock solid—which made dispensing it even more difficult.

Peat moss is packaged in a bone-dry state, so we sprinkled it with water and gave it a stir. Like a magic trick, the water disappeared after only a few turns. We repeated the process with similar results until finally, after five applications of water, the peat moss looked slightly damp.

At this point, we added a bag of compost and stirred (with our hands) to incorporate. The moisture contained in the compost was sufficient to produce a workable consistency and we dumped the soil into the first hole. There was enough to fill it and to form a mound about six inches high and 18 to 24 inches in diameter.

Five bags and half a bale of peat moss later, we had filled and mounded the remaining holes. We were left with almost as much peat moss as we started with (counting the bale already on hand) so once again, my estimate was way off. I had not taken the peat moss’s compaction into account and as a result we purchased at least twice the necessary quantity. Also, my factor of safety on the compost was completely unnecessary.

It’s no matter; the peat moss and compost will not go to waste. We used some of it to top off and tidy up the mounds from last year which are now ready to be planted again. We can’t do any cucurbits (who inhabited these spaces last year) but perhaps we will try tomatoes (of which we have more than we can fit into the raised beds).

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I’m doing some work for my former company and was chatting with a friend and co-worker while in the office today. We talked about several topics (I haven’t seen her in some time), including our garden (she has been following this blog; thanks!). She was impressed by the 640 pounds of compost that we added to the raised beds a month ago (see April 12, 2014).

Yes, that’s a lot of manure. Bringing it home from the garden center taxed the suspension system of our old car and schlepping it from the road to the planters taxed my poor aching back (fortunately, the staff at the garden center take care of loading it into the car). Gardening can be an intensely physical activity.

But once the compost was placed (along with an equal volume of peat moss) in the raised beds, it didn’t amount to as much as one might think. Spread out over almost a hundred square feet, that load of compost only raised the soil level by a couple of inches. It would take another three times that amount of material—almost a ton—to bring the soil level up to the top of the planters.

And while two years ago, when I was only just building the second planter, one hundred square feet seemed like an immense area in which to plant vegetables, it soon became crowded and insufficient. That’s why last year we expanded the garden outside the confines of the planters. We now plant the entire yard to one side of the swimming pool, an area of about 360 square feet (admittedly, some of that is aisle space).

We’ll be headed to the garden center shortly for another load of soil in which to plant the squashes and cucumbers. Six hundred forty pounds of compost will become 1280 pounds or maybe even a ton. Taken all together—including what is already there—it is truly a staggering quantity.

And it will increase even more when we figure out where to put the asparagus and rhubarb…

The garden has gotten off to a slow start this year. The cold weather has been a big factor, of course. Late-melting snow and lingering cold pushed the date when outdoor activity could commence from mid-March to mid-April. Indoors, even though heating pads and the radiators in the basement help keep the seedlings warm, the continued low temperatures have had a stunting effect of their growth.

And don’t get me started on the chilling effect—literal and figurative—of the weather on us humans.

But we’re starting to catch up and finally, a combination of spring-like weather and re-awakened energy has motivated me to get back outside. We’re almost ready to sow seeds for peas and root vegetables but first, I have to add soil to the planters. After sitting under more than a foot of snow for two months, the soil has settled by two to three inches.

An infusion of organic material won’t hurt, either, so it was off to the Plant Depot for compost. We purchased 16 bags of the stuff—that’s at least 640 pounds—which I schlepped from the car down to the planters, two bags at a time, in a wheelbarrow. Before dumping it into the planters, I raked out last year’s straw mulch along with the leaves and other debris blown there over the previous six months.

Along with the compost, I added about half as much (by volume) of peat moss to balance the soil and lessen its density (bagged compost can be highly compacted). I mixed it around with a steel rake—an operation akin to stirring a cauldron of witch’s brew—and leveled it out. There are just a few more ingredients to add (seeds, mulch, stakes) before the concoction is complete.

I’m discovering some of the downsides to using last year’s seeds for this year’s crops. Sure, the practice is (theoretically) economical and minimizes waste but it is very unreliable.

For instance, after a month we have a grand total of one bell pepper seedling (a Quadrato d’Asti Rosso) out of 12 seeds planted. Not a great germination rate. I’m happy to have the one but this afternoon, I reseeded the other five red bell peppers and all six of the Orange Sun. These seeds have an expected life of two years and I am disappointed that they will be bringing down the average.

I also filled another half-tray with seed starting mix to get the tomatoes started. From last year’s varieties we have selected Country Taste Beefsteak, Yellow Brandywine, Black Cherry and Sungold. I concluded during my season recap (see January 15, 2014) that we did not really like Aunt Ruby’s German Green (except for the name) and, thinking about it further (see February 6, 2014), realized that the red Brandywine variety did not grow particularly well. We’re skipping the two of them.

That leaves us with four varieties and room for two more. It’s getting late in the seed-sowing season and we will have to choose them soon if we want to grow from seed.

I started with the Country Taste Beefsteaks and was surprised to find only three seeds remaining in the packet. Oops; another problem with using last season’s seed supply (although I guess that strictly speaking, this is more a problem of me not checking my supplies ahead of time). I planted the three and will hope for the best (and resolve to be more organized next year).

The Yellow Brandywine and Black Cherry seed packets were still mostly full—with many more than the six seeds I planted—but there were only two Sungold seeds left. I happily (and optimistically) planted them and wonder why some seed packets are sent out with only a handful of seeds in them while others contain scores. I do not believe there was any difference in price.

With the newly-sown seeds watered and safely tucked away on the seed starting apparatus, I next turned to the lettuces. The seedlings started in early February (see February 9, 2014) are now small heads and in need of potting up.

Following last year’s example, I composed a potting-up soil mix of equal parts compost and seed-starting mix. More specifically, the mix components are: 4 parts compost; 2 parts peat moss; one part vermiculite; one part perlite; and a tablespoon of lime. I stirred the soil together in a bucket, sprinkled in some water until it reached a satisfyingly moist consistency, and then went looking for pots.

I have several dozen plastic pots for seedlings but they are too small, even for a single head of lettuce. We also have an eclectic mix of terra cotta pots scattered about the basement and I sorted through them. Most are the basic eight-inch circular variety, big enough for a head of lettuce—but only one. Others are larger, with varying degrees of ornamentation, but none of them seemed practical for my purpose.

I then recalled a stack of rectangular plastic planters that we had purchased several years ago. We had intended to plant them with flowers and place them in our window boxes, which were painted wood at the time. We’ve since replaced those window boxes with open, wrought iron versions that are sufficiently decorative on their own.

The plastic boxes are terra-cotta colored and long enough to fit three heads of lettuce. I pulled two of them from the stack (which we had tucked away onto a shelf) and filled them with potting mix. I formed three depressions in the soil with my hands and then, using my specialized seedling transfer tool (which multi-tasks as a dinner fork), moved three Jericho Romaine and three Red Salad Bowl lettuce seedlings into their new homes.

More snow yesterday—a lot more snow—means that it is still too early to be thinking about starting any work on the garden outside.  At this rate of snowstorms, we won’t be digging out until March.

That is just as well because there are still a few items from last year to recap.  Most notably, there are the results of the soil testing that arrived at the end of October (2013) but which I have not had a chance to discuss.

Based on the previous year’s testing, I was not expecting any startling new information for the east and west planters (see October 19, 2013, part 2).  Sure enough, the reports confirmed my expectations.  The all-important pH of the soil remains within the sweet spot (6.20 to 6.80) for vegetable gardens with the east planter at 6.57 and the west planter a tad more acidic at 6.23.

Interestingly, the soil pH of the east planter increased slightly (from 6.31 in 2012) while the soil pH of the west planter decreased (it was 6.78 in 2012).  The soil in the east planter is now squarely within the preferred range but the soil in the west planter is bouncing from endpoint to endpoint.  Both are perfectly fine, however, and we will not have to make pH adjustment to either.

Similarly, the macro- (Ca, K, Mg and P) and micronutrient (B, Cu, Fe, Mn and Zn) concentrations in the east and west planters are close to each other, a result, I think, of at least three factors.  First, we treat the planters identically; neither has received any amendments (other than a top dressing of compost at the beginning of the season) or more fertilizer than the other.

Second, we have been rotating crops back and forth between the planters.  Therefore, their soils have been depleted (or replenished) by more or less the same amount.  Third, the age of the soil in each planter is more than two years.  I assume that given their consistent treatment, both soils are converging on the same steady state.

For the most part, the micronutrient levels in the west planter decreased when compared to last year (i.e., 2012).  This is not too surprising, again considering that we don’t heavily fertilize or otherwise modify our soil during the growing season (I think of it as time smoothing the soil’s rough edges).  Micronutrient levels in the east planter are mostly the same as 2012 (its soil is older and smoother).

What I didn’t expect is that in both planters, the concentration of Calcium increased by almost 50 percent.  We did not add lime, bone meal or any other source of the micronutrient so I have no idea from where the additional Calcium comes.

So much for the well-established planters.  On to the ground level soil, where we planted squash and cucumbers last season.

For starters, the pH of this soil is too high at 7.10 (the soil is slightly alkaline).  We’ve learned from both of the growing seasons prior to last that this can have a very detrimental effect on plant performance.  And I learned from this year’s experiments with seed starting mix that the culprit is probably not the very acidic peat moss, of which the ground level soil is roughly half.  The other half is compost (mainly cow manure) which tends to be more alkaline.

When we dig new pits for the squash and cucumbers this year, we will have to increase the proportion of peat moss to manure and perhaps add some elemental Sulfur to bring the pH down.  Otherwise, the ground soil profile resembles that of the planters.  The macro- and micronutrient concentrations are very close, including—somewhat mysteriously—the high concentration of Calcium.

This is a bit ironic because the summer squash plants experienced a high rate of blossom end rot last season, a condition that is usually associated with Calcium deficiency.  I think this is what the testing lab was alluding to when they called me in the fall (see October 24, 2013).  The testing methods based on acid extraction indicate a high concentration of Calcium but it is not, apparently, in a form that plants can readily use.  I’ll have to look into this one further.

The reports list lots of numbers, not all of them obviously meaningful.  So, what does it all mean?  The bottom line is that our planters’ soil is doing fine and that with minor modification the soil in the ground will come into line as well.  That’s good—if not exciting—news.

Speaking of lettuce (see February 7, 2014), a quick consult of the seed sowing calendar reveals that now is the time to sow lettuce seeds for non-transplanted growing.  (The nice thing about the seed sowing calendar I developed last year is that it is relative to the assumed average date of last frost, which is essentially unchanging; see March 23, 2013.  Therefore, last year’s calendar will be just as accurate this year.)  By “non-transplanted”, I mean that we will start the seedlings indoors and then pot them up to larger containers that can be moved outdoors when the warmer weather catches up to us.

At a certain level, it seems unbelievable that we would be even thinking about planting something as delicate as lettuce at this time of year.  Especially this year:  Temperatures have been in the single digits and snowstorms are weekly events.  There is no feeling (I don’t feel it, anyway) that the wintery weather will be changing anytime soon.  And yet, we are approaching mid-February and in two weeks it will be March.  By my reckoning (see June 25, 2013), that’s the beginning of spring!  And what says spring more than fresh lettuce?

To get the lettuce plants started, I followed the same process as I did for the herbs (see January 28, 2014).  I mixed up a batch of seed starting mix (peat moss, vermiculite and perlite in a 2:1:1 ratio with a teaspoon of lime), moistened it with water and filled half of a compartmentalized seed tray.  I then planted six of the compartments with seeds for romaine lettuce and six with red leaf.  In a couple of weeks, I will plant another six of each variety followed by a final six of each two weeks after that (a half-tray has 36 compartments.

Assuming the lettuce seeds are still viable (and they should be; the seed packet indicates an average life of two years and they have been stored properly), they will sprout in seven to 12 days.  They’ll need a couple of weeks to get large enough to transplant and then four to six weeks to reach full size.  If the lettuce plants last that long (we may start eating them earlier), it will be some time in the middle of April.  Therefore, it is unlikely that the first batch will spend any time outdoors.  But the second and third sowings probably will.

I moved the half-tray of lettuce seeds onto the seed starting apparatus where it joined the herbs, already in progress.  They haven’t changed at all—their status is holding at four basil seedlings and two presumed rosemary seedlings—but I’m not worried yet (well, not too worried).  Herbs are notoriously slow to germinate (which is why we started them in January).

Up next, per the seed sowing calendar:  Bell peppers and eggplant in the first week of March.

I’m happy to report that the 2014 growing season is officially under way.

In our garden, anyway.  Having assembled all of the necessary parts, I found some time this afternoon to sow seeds for the herbs.

As a first step, I washed the mixing tub, seed tray and trowel with a mild bleach solution.  All of these items were used last year and have been stored in the basement since.  The exposure to outside elements is high and given the dark and damp conditions down here, the potential for mold and harmful bacteria is great.

Then, I mixed up a batch of seed starting medium.  I measured out quantities of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite (in a 2:1:1 ratio) to equal a half gallon of dry volume and dumped them into the tub.  The lime I purchased is pelletized so I used a mortar and pestle to pulverize it into smaller particles.  A quarter teaspoon per gallon—an eighth of a teaspoon for this batch—seemed much too small; I used a teaspoon.  To be more accurate, I would need to know the pH I was starting with.

Using a spray bottle, I moistened the mix and stirred it with the trowel.  Peat moss is extremely dry and perlite can absorb a lot of water so I had to repeat this process for several cycles.  When the moisture content seemed right—damp but not soggy—I spooned the mix into a half seed tray (that’s 36 compartments) and tamped it in lightly.  It turns out that half a gallon of seed starting mix is just the right amount.

Next came the seeds.  We will be planting basil again this year (last year’s did extremely well) along with the herbs we purchased seeds for last year but never managed to plant:  rosemary, thyme, oregano, spearmint and sage.  Because most herb seeds are very small, I used tweezers to drop one or two seeds into a shallow hole (formed using a pencil as a dibble) in each compartment.

After covering the seeds with a pinch of mix (the recommended sowing depth for herbs is only 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch), I gently sprayed the tray with water until it ran out of the bottom.  For most of the herbs, this will be the only water they get until they germinate and emerge from the soil 10 days (or, in the case of the rosemary, 28 days) from now.  I set the covered tray atop a heating pad on a shelf of the seed starting apparatus, turned on the pad and fluorescent light and made sure that the timer was properly set.

Like all seed sowing, starting the herbs is an act of faith.  This is especially true for the oregano and spearmint whose seeds are teeny-tiny (they are packaged in small zip-top plastic bags within their paper seed packet).  I can’t be sure whether any seeds actually made it into the soil or from which tray compartments they will sprout.

But I firmly believe that they will and I will be thrilled when they do.

Yesterday, we made a run up to the Adams Fairacre Farms store near us.  They have a well-stocked garden center, open all year, and we went there to procure seed starting mix.  We also found an amazing selection of seeds, including those of the Hudson Valley Seed Library about which I wrote last year (see January 5, 2013).  Good to know in case we decide to buy more seeds this year.

They had at least three brands of seed starting mix on offer, all different from the brand we used last year.  The ingredient lists looked similar and included a combination (in proportions not disclosed) of peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite.  Some also contained compost or other fertilizers (most notably, the Miracle-Gro product which boasts both Miracle-Gro Plant Food and MicroMax nutrients).  These are superfluous for seed starting; the seed itself contains everything the plant needs from germination until leaf growth.

After browsing the available mixes and looking over the extensive array of soil components and amendments also for sale, I decided to make my own seed starting mix this year.  I recalled from my previous research that all that is really needed is peat moss, for structure, and vermiculite, for water retention.  I have more than a bale of peat moss left over from last year and picked up a bag of vermiculite to add to it.

Today, I decided to do a bit more research to determine what the best ratio of materials might be.  I didn’t find any definitive answers—as with most topics, there are a lot of opinions out there—but I did perceive two common threads.  First, many gardeners recommend adding perlite to keep the mixture lightweight and to facilitate drainage.  Second, several others suggest including a small amount of lime to balance the low pH (high acidity) of peat moss.

I made another trip to Adams (luckily, it is not far away) to buy the perlite and lime.  A definite advantage of the do-it-yourself approach is that all of the mix components are cheap.  For less than $20, I will have enough mix for this year’s seedlings, including potting up.  The lime will last substantially longer (in fact, I will probably never have to buy it again).

When combining the components, I will initially mix two parts peat moss to one part each of vermiculite and perlite. One recipe called for a quarter teaspoon of lime per gallon of mix, which seems low but is as good a starting point as any.  After that, I will adjust as needed to produce a consistency that seems right.

This is a case where my intuition will have to guide me.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).