I received a few questions from readers this month…I will tackle two of them this time around.

Question #1

Dear Ruth,

Will all this warm, mild winter have any effect on my spring and summer garden that I should be preparing for?

~Gretchen in Hendersonville

Dear Gretchen,

We don’t know what the rest of winter will be like, and many of us speculate that this mild winter will be followed by very mean weather in February, March, and even possibly April.

But yes! Everyone worries that a warm winter will bring with it the consequence of lots of unwanted pests because the weather was too mild to kill a lot of them. So keep your eye out for insect damage a little earlier that usual, and be ready to address possible larger numbers of pests…including pests like fleas. Something is even eating my collard greens right now, in February!

Landscape plants may bud out earlier than normal, so be prepared to protect your favorites –especially early flowering plants and Japanese maples.

The upside of this warm weather is…if you’re a risk taker, you can try planting your garden earlier than usual with the hope of enjoying an earlier harvest. Hedge your bets by planting half your plants early, and the rest at the normal time – in case the mild weather gets fierce and kills all your baby plants. Plan to protect plants with floating row cover, boxes, walls-o-water, etc.

The Twelve Month Gardner: Simple Strategies for Extending Your Growing Season by Jeff Ashton is a great resource for season extension tactics – by a local author who knows our climate.

Good luck!

~Ruth

Question #2

Dear Ruth,

How do I build my soil quickly? We’ve got very depleted soil in our garden, but I don’t want to use the chemicals, and compost shrinks SO MUCH! Is my only choice to buy soil and compost?  

Here’s a picture of my red clay soil – help!

~Trina in Seneca, SC

Dear Trina,

The very foundation of organic gardening is great soil, and truthfully creating good soil is something that takes time unless you are lucky enough to live somewhere with incredible topsoil already. It takes nature about 500 years to build up one inch of topsoil, and across the globe we loose about sixty million TONS of this precious resource every single day. However, in your own garden you could choose to really speed things up by using every trick in the book on all – or a portion – of your garden this season.

Here are a few tricks:

(1) If expense is an issue, don’t buy bagged soil for your garden – you have soil for free right in your yard. Save your money for other soil amendments like compost. If you are container gardening then good potting soil is a great investment, and almost a must. I don’t recommend using regular garden soil in containers. It is too heavy.

(2) First, start your own compost pile or worm compost bin – so you can make your own really good stuff. Even a little bit of homegrown compost will supply you with an awesome source of beneficial microorganisms and nutrients for your garden.

Harvesting worm compost

(3) Start small, and utilize a French intensive method/square foot gardening method to maximize your harvest in a smaller space. This would mean less soil area to amend, and would conserve your financial and human resources.
(4) Double-dig your garden area – this is a great way to allow your soil to “wiggle its toes” and invite air and moisture retention (two essential ingredients of success) into your garden soil.  And it’s FREE…except for your time. You will need a garden fork and a spade.
Check out this YouTube demonstrating double-digging…starting at about 4.5 minutes into the video.
(5) Add soil amendments to improve structure and fertility; these could include bagged or homemade compost and composted manures, peat moss, and soil conditioner (pine bark fines). Raw manure is not normally added in spring. If you add raw manure, wait about 120 days before planting that area to avoid E-coli contamination of crops. Eliot Coleman suggests using peat moss as an inexpensive way to improve soil structure, so that you can reserve your compost for supplying nutrients.

“There are more living individual organisms in a tablespoon of soil than there are people on the earth.” – Humber Arboretum Eco Centre

Adding organic matter is key in most mountain gardens because many of us have heavy clay soil. Clay has many beneficial characteristics, but it has very tiny particles that stick together leaving no cavities to capture air and water. Adding organic matter helps lighten the soil, so that oxygen and water are available to the plant roots. And in sandy soils, organic matter helps retain water and nutrients. Good soil will be considerably more drought-tolerant. Please see note (LINK) from NCDA soil scientist, Dr. Jeana Myers, about how some bagged compost can contribute to a concerning accumulation of zinc in garden soil.

(6) Add lime (if lime additions are indicated by your free-in-North-Carolina soil test). Veggies require a pH range of 6.0 to 6.5 for best production. Lime is inexpensive, and your harvest will be considerably compromised if this need is not met. Lime determines what sort of nutrients will be available to your plants. Add lime now if you need it, but ideally add your lime in the fall so it has time to become active.

“When the soil is tilled and left bare, soil life can be injured by high temperatures. To promote soil organisms; incorporate organic matter, till as little as possible, minimize soil compaction, maintain favorable soil pH and fertility, and use an organic mulch on the soil surface.” – Soil Life/NC State University

(7) Add soil amendments like gypsum, soft rock phosphate, greensand, azomite, and kelp. These are usually more expensive, but can be considered a long term investment.

(8) Avoid stepping on your garden beds because this compacts the soil. Arrange your beds for convenient access. They should be no more that 5’ across and a maximum of 20’ long…depending on how willing you are to walk around the bed. You can place a board (say a 1” x 6” or a 2” x 12” – depending on your body weight and balance) across beds to allow a little access and help prevent garden bed compaction.

(9) Plant cover crops in any unused garden areas during the growing season. Buckwheat is a good warm weather cover crop that matures quickly and provides great bee forage. Cover crops are also called “green manure” and are a fast & inexpensive way to improve soil structure (grains). Legume cover crops (like clover, vetch, & peas) naturally produce nitrogen.

(10) Use good common sense. (a) Plant in full sun. (b) Provide adequate moisture. Vegetable gardens require one inch of rain or water weekly, so don’t allow your plants to be drought-stressed. (c) Weed early and don’t allow weeds to rob your garden plants of nutrients or sunshine. (d) Quickly remove diseased material from the garden (e) Harvest in a timely manner to get the most out of each crop and your garden space. (f) The food you are growing is removing nutrients from the soil. These nutrients must be replaced for continued good harvest.

The soil provides an abundant potato harvest…and an old 7-Up bottle!

(11) In fall, incorporate grass clippings, fallen leaves, straw mulch, and raw manure into your garden soil (warning: raw uncomposted manure usually contains weed seeds).

(12) Plant a cover crop in unused garden beds over winter. Winter cover crops are often planted as early as mid-August. If you are running behind, rye can be planted late, sometimes even into December. Rye won’t die until seed is set, so it can be more difficult to incorporate into the soil in springtime.

According to John Jeavons & Carol Cox in Lazy Bed Gardening, “one single cereal rye plant can produce 3 miles of root hairs per day and 387 miles of roots and 6603 miles of root hairs per growing season.”

(13) Organic Growers School will offer a great array of excellent soils classes at the OGS Spring Conference on March 3 & 4 at UNCA. See Track 3, Soils class descriptions for more info!

Trina, many of these techniques utilize only your time and cost nothing, or are low-cost. If you really go at it this year, you should see a decided improvement in your soil by next year. It is probably best to tackle only a do-able size garden bed and do it well – so scale your efforts to the amount of time and energy you will realistically have to devote to your garden.

Wishing you all the best,
Ruth

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at http://tailgatemarketfanclub.wordpress.com. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2012 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us!

Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, current gardener, and local food advocate. She has written numerous local food and gardening articles, blogs about local food, and writes the “Ask Ruth” Gardening Column for Organic Growers School. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the shared wisdom of local gardeners. She has a special affection for clouds and finds delight in the natural world at every turn. Read more from Ruth at her blog: http://tailgatemarketfanclub.wordpress.com/