Archives for posts with tag: soil amendments

It would be hard to tell from this blog (because I have posted so few real-time entries since mid-fall, 2014) but I decided not to send any soil out for testing this year (well, technically speaking, last year).

During the previous three seasons (2011, 2012, and 2013), I collected soil samples in late September or October (see October 19, 2013, part 2 for the most recent account) and sent them off to the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory. Two weeks after that, the lab sent me via e-mail me a report of our soil’s properties (see February 14, 2014 for discussion of the October, 2013 results).

It was a worthwhile endeavor—information is power, and all that—and we made some adjustments that I am sure were of benefit to the vegetables. Probably the most significant factor that the tests brought to our attention was soil pH. Initially, it was too high and the following year (2012), we added Sulfur to bring it down.

But after that first year, we did not learn anything new. Our soil’s pH has stabilized within the optimal range and both the macro- and micronutrient levels have remained constant. The soil appears to have reached a healthy equilibrium and as a result, there have been no recommendations for change. And as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This year, the vegetable plants themselves are telling me everything I need to know. Almost all are very happy so the soil must be okay.

After yesterday’s efforts (see June 14, 2015), today’s planting was a walk in the park. Make that a walk in the garden.

We have three varieties of cucumber to plant today: Alibi Pickling Cornichons and Tanja Slicing, same as last year, and Early Fortune, new to our garden. Last year’s varieties have a slight edge (we started them earlier) but all of the seedlings look strong.

To help them along, we sprinkled a tablespoon of bone meal into each hole before setting a seedling on top. The Calcium that should slowly leach into the soil will help the cucumber plants form flowers and will minimize blossom end rot. At least, that’s what they say on the internet.

And they wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. Right?

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…

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.

Apparently, retailers follow a slightly different schedule from gardeners.

For instance, according to my seed sowing calendar, I should have started seeds for thyme and other herbs a week or more ago.  I had planned to do this and even though I could not make it happen last weekend, I did head down to the basement yesterday to start the process.

Now, I had thought that half a package of seed starting mix remained from last year.  However, to my surprise (and mild annoyance), even though there are several half-used bags of this or that soil amendment, none of them was seed starting mix.  I guess we used it all when we potted up the seedlings in May.  As is often the case, a trip to the store would be necessary before we could begin.

But which store?  First, we called the Home Depot, which is the closest to us and where we purchased the seed starting mix last year.  The brand we used is called Jiffy and is as simple and inexpensive as the muffin mixes which share its name and concept (“just add water”).

Unfortunately, although there were pallets of the mix somewhere in the store, they had no plan to set them out on the selling floor until next month.  On the Home Depot’s calendar, starting seeds is a February event.  Their timing is not too far-fetched, I suppose, but is counter to the usual practice in retailing (which, for example, resulted in Valentine’s Day candy being displayed in grocery stores starting on December 26).

Where next?  Our local garden center, a family-run business where we like to buy supplies whenever possible, is closed for the winter.  They will re-open on the second of March.  That leaves plenty of time before most outdoor planting (in early May around here) but not for indoor seed sowing and hardy outdoor vegetables such as peas and radishes.  There is a small segment of the market (the early-season growers) that they are failing to capture.

Some people would turn to the internet at this point and find an e-tailer (, most likely) who would ship a case of seed starting mix to them by overnight delivery.  That would certainly be efficacious—and almost instantaneously gratifying—but it does not seem consistent with the “think globally; act locally” nature of gardening.  Frankly, it just feels wrong.  (In Amazon’s vision of the near future, a delivery drone, bearing a pre-paid sack of mix, would be hovering outside my front door promptly on January 2.)

Then I remembered a branch of Adams Fairacre Farms that opened near us a few years ago.  They have a garden center within the store (which is primarily a supermarket) that operates year ‘round.  And when I phoned, they were able to confirm that seed starting mix is in stock and on the shelves.

It was nice to find a retailer who is on the same (calendar) page as we are.

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.