Go get your soil tested

It’s almost spring and now is a good time to get your soil tested if you didn’t do it last fall. This gives you just enough time to interpret the results and make some changes before you fill your beds with plants. Otherwise you will have to wait for late summer or fall.

I bet you didn’t know that soil science is also a study in philosophy and culture. Different groups have conflicting viewpoints of how soils work like the organic community, biodynamic farming and even hired professional farm consultants. The most influential group is the agricultural colleges and land grant universities.

soiltestUniversity teaching is geared towards chemical agriculture and their experts do not necessarily subscribe to some of the competing ideas from the other groups. Unfortunately the typical University material downplays the differences in food quality despite abundant evidence to the contrary. The belief that an apple is an apple is an apple works well for industry, but not for the consumer. I’ve found the most useful information actually comes from a handful of agricultural consultants and black sheep professors. The ag-consultants jobs are dependent upon results, and not upon published papers, and results are what we care most about. My article on pH was a small example of this conflict in ideas.

Because of this, not all soil testing labs are equal. Understandably, most labs are oriented towards chemical agriculture and work well for that particular use. I hold the belief that our results can far exceed that and picking the right soil test is part of the puzzle. I’m over simplifying here but there are basically two groups of soil test labs out there. The first are those that attempt to identify total nutrients using strong acids to extract the minerals from the sample, this is the type normally used by universities and chemical-ag. The second group are those that try to identify what they call available nutrients by using weak acids, under the belief that this more closely represents what plant roots have access to. Both types have value for different reasons, but I put a lot more emphasis behind available nutrients.

The other thing to consider is what nutrients are tested for, and not just how they are tested. My local soil test lab only covers various forms of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. These are the big three nutrients from chemical-ag philosopy, also knows as NPK. Unfortunately you can not get a best of class product using the NPK method. Great produce is only possible in well balanced soil, which means testing for a whole lot more. At a minimum the test should cover at least 10 nutrients if not 20 or more, 3 is just grossly insufficient.

Soil balancing is a very big topic, but I don’t want you to wait for me to write 20 more articles when you can make the necessary improvements to your own gardens now. Go get a soil test and pay the extra cost for the recommendations. Please remember that soil testing is just one of many tools we will be using. It is not the final and only thing you can do to improve your food quality.

Soil Test Labs  I recommend:

  1. Logan Labs – this is the lab that I use
  2. International Ag Labs
  3. Midwest Laboratories
  4. Kinsey Ag

For more information in book form on the topic that are well suited for gardeners:

  • The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon
  • The Art of Balancing Soil Nutrients by William McKibben
  • The Ideal Soil by Michael Astera

~Sean

Strawberry Popcorn

A few years back on a whim I decided to grow popcorn. Certainly I wasn’t going to switch out the summer mainstay of delicious sweet corn any time soon, but I had room that year for a small block of starchy kernels carefully planted some distance away to avoid cross pollinating and dulling down the flavor of my favorite super-sweet. Summer passed all too fast which brought me to a cold winters evening remembering the dried corn tucked away in the cellar. I’ve not grown sweet corn since.

strawberrypopcornNot that I don’t like sweet corn, it’s just that the season for that particular snack is far too short, space too tight, and I’m a lazy gardener and avoid all efforts at special preservation techniques. No canning, no freezing, no processing, we prefer things fresh. Instead, after harvesting all the popcorn in September I just toss it into a box and forget about it until January when the flurry of holiday and family activities has calmed. There are few things on this earth as comforting on a cold winters evening as a warm bowl of the purest popcorn.

Last year I grew an attractive heirloom variety called Strawberry Popcorn. The 5′ tall plant produces several small ears of beautiful dark red jewels of whats called “rice” popcorn, as the ends of each kernel are pointed instead of round. My wife uses them throughout the house as an attractive fall decoration along with several French winter squashes.

Once popped, the little kernels are a delight in texture and taste, and in stark contrast to the large fluffy kernels of commercial corn that are mostly air. A half bowl of these little kernels are more than satisfying and without any of those hard hulls that get stuck in your teeth.

Growing Plan

Nothing too unusual about my growing plan this year, except that it’s not Strawberry Popcorn. Instead I elected to grow another heirloom variety called Dakota Black, but I can write about that next winter.

I sow three or four seeds per foot directly outdoors, three rows per bed, one or two weeks before last frost and watch the chickens and squirrels carefully so they don’t dig them up. After the plants are about 6″ tall thin them to 12″ apart and maybe transplant a few to fill in any gaps. Expected harvest is about mid September allowing them to dry as much as possible on the stalk. I husk the corn and then place them in a well ventilated area for a few more months to dry. You know it’s ready to eat when the corn pops readily.

dblackFor rich nutrient dense corn, there are few plants written about as extensively as corn. This is because corn is a major commodity and many biological farmers rely upon it to pay the bills. We will explore this in greater detail over the summer as we use my small patch as an experiment.

History

The history behind Strawberry Popcorn is a mystery to me, I was able to find only a few vague references to it being an Indian corn. I even had a short exchange with Jack, the worlds only commercial grower of Strawberry Popcorn. This was Jack’s last growing season, retiring from an astounding 30 year Strawberry Popcorn growing career and producing 5000 lbs of delicious little red kernels every season. Jack admitted that he had only seen what looked like this variety’s ancestor in a museum somewhere once. Whatever its true origin and the fate of its breeder I can’t yet say.

MaizeAs for the masters of vegetable gardening, the 19th century Parisian Market Gardeners, there is hardly a peep about corn and none about popcorn. One small page in the 1885 Vilmorin says “it is almost exclusively in the United States of America that the Maize is regarded as a regular table vegetable.” This lack of interest was hardly new at the time for we find another and earlier reference in the now amusing 16th century English tome of plant lore, The Herball of Generall Historie of Plantes, that “the barbarous Indians which know no better, are constrained to make a virtue of necessities, and think it a good food.” I am told that it’s still rarely eaten in Europe.

Popping

Certainly I’ve popped my fair share of popcorn in an air popper, and you may too if Styrofoam is your favorite flavor of corn. I have since learned however that the best way to pop corn is on the stove top with a pot, a lid and some olive oil.

popcornI set a burner to high, and drizzle in a table spoon or two of olive oil. Drop in a few kernels and wait until they’re sizzling before adding a few handfuls of my favorite popcorn. For large popping corn use a little less to avoid over flowing the pot, but for the pint sized kernels of strawberry popcorn more is the rule. Gently agitate the pot to keep the kernels from burning until you see one or two of the kernels pop. Then quickly place the lid on to prevent hot oil and your corn escaping its confinement. Keep agitating the pot and listen to the exciting roar of the popping. As soon as it starts to slow turn off the heat and a few moments later the popping will have almost stopped. Pull from the heat and immediately pour into a bowl while the last few kernels explode. Timing is criticle, if your a little early you will have more unpopped kernels, and if yoru a little too late it may start to burn. Watch out too, that pot will be extremely hot, so place it carefully away and out of reach. Add a few pinches of real sea salt, the gray or pink kind, and enjoy.

Store Popcorn

Popcorn is one of those rare high quality products actually available in stores. Popcorn will only pop if the kernel is dense and fully filled out. Corn with dents and pits are nutritionally inferior and will not pop. Purchase only organic and heirloom varieties and avoid the abomination that GMO corn has become. And microwave popcorn is a terrible idea. Not only does does the product contain toxins but microwaves themselves may denature the food.

Corn meal is typically made from average low quality flint or dent corn usually fed only to those poor sick animals in intensive feeding operations. Avoid that stuff as it doesn’t make the animals healthy and it won’t you either, instead grind your own. You can create a rich and flavorful corn flower from organic popcorn in a grain mill. Be sure your mill is rated to grind popcorn as the extra dense kernels can damage it.

~Sean

pH part II

In the first part of this article, I presented what the conventional approach to pH is, what it’s accused of doing, some ideas on how pH actually works in the soil and should have impressed upon you the notion that pH is hardly what it’s made out to be. There’s a claim that “good plant growth” can’t be assured unless you fix your pH, but I counter that notion and state that this assurance can only come from appropriate soil mineral nutrition.

pH is not a cause… it is an effect.

It is the reflection of the the soil makeup. In our case we want nutrient rich crops growing in fertile soil with the most happy pH of 6.4. This would afford maximum nutrient availability to the plants. If however your pH is too high or too low, the pH is not the cause of poor plant health rather it is sign, a message to you about the state of your soil mineral balance and biological activity. It’s also not the end of your gardening career if you can’t achieve the perfect reading, many native soils can be difficult to impossible to move very far. If you can’t get your pH into the ideal range experiments have shown that if a plant’s roots have access to adequate nutrients and there is no toxicity then pH makes little difference. Therein lies the crux of the problem, availability of nutrients is the limiting factor, not pH. A strongly acid or alkaline soil may be a sign that soil nutrition is in bad shape, but that can be mitigated by excellent biology.

vinesCalcium lime is not the only material that can raise the pH either, so can magnesium, sodium, carbon and potassium. Likewise sulfur is not the only mineral that will lower the pH, so will phosphorous and chlorine. On your typical farm, the heavy use of salt fertilizers creates a situation of rising pH levels, where calcium is not then being applied, resulting in a calcium deficient soil, followed by cascading nutrient failures and greater and greater problems. In your garden things could be different, or very similar, with over application of dolomite lime creating a magnesium problem, or an over application of compost/manure creating phosphorus or potassium imbalance achieving the same situation. Poor nutrient availability to the plant leads to poor plant health leads to disease and insect attack and a low quality nutrient poor product.

In my own garden space I had just this case. A slightly high pH with a soil mineral matrix that included naturally excessive magnesium and potassium, little calcium and several years of over zealous applications of manure and compost that intensified the imbalance. It was the perfect situation for induced plant stress, low quality vegetables and rampant weed problems… much to my dismay. Had I followed the conventional thinking, organic or not, a little bit of sulfur would have been applied along with more compost. Net result would have been an ever worsening change in the soil, including increasing soil compaction and no improvement whatsoever to produce quality.

What about the idea that certain plants prefer a soil within a particular pH range? For example blue berries are thought to prefer an acid soil of 5.5 to 6.5, alfalfa from 6.5-7.5 and corn and wheat from 6.5-7.0. Studies in plant nutrition and available calcium have shown the truth of the matter (Soil Acidity as Calcium (Fertility) Deficiency Albrecht), when there is sufficient calcium for good growth then pH as low as 4.5 can grow a great crop. And since low pH soils are usually limed with calcium it erroneously leads one to think that pH makes a difference. Even the nitrogen fixing abilities of certain soil bacteria on legumes only works effectively when there is sufficient available calcium in the soil regardless of the pH.

Interestingly there is an alternative way to understand pH that makes a lot of sense. Recall from the last article I introduced the idea of positively charged ions called cations, and negatively charged ions called anions. What’s the importance of this? It’s that pH is a measurement of electrical resistance in the soil. Thus a pH reading of 7 means that there is an equal amount of resistance between the cation and anion charges. A high pH indicates there is too much electrical resistance in the soil, causing a restriction in energy-nutrient flow to the plant, while a low pH indicates that there is too little resistance causing an overload of energy-nutrient flow. Keep this idea in mind as in the future we will discuss this in more detail and how we can use electrical conductivity to monitor and improve upon plant nutrient uptake.

So instead of working to adjust your pH, it’s more essential to manage the factors that construct the soil pH. A very fertile soil for high nutrient and energy production is a living biological system and must must be carefully balanced for the needs of the soil microorganism via an equilibrium of pH, soil minerals, energy, physical conditions and organic substances. Without this balance, the potential for plant nutrition and soil building erodes.

Remember then, that pH is a consequence of soil nutrient and biological interactions, it is not a cause of anything. pH can however be a useful gauge for you to monitor how various nutrients and other substances you apply are interacting with your soil. It is not however to be used to determine what nutrient, mineral or compound to apply to the soil. That should only be done after you have carefully reviewed all the factors that contribute to excellent soil fertility.

~Sean

Mâche

Mâche, Corn-salad, Lamb’s Lettuce

French, Mâche. German Feldsalat. Flemish and Dutch Koornsalad. Italian, Erba riccia. Spanish, Canonigos. Portuguese, Herva beenta.

Valerianella locusta (olitoria) & V. eriocarpa

machefeb2014This beautiful little plant is the star of the winter garden. It’s so cold tolerant it can withstand temperatures as low as -20°F (-29°C). I’m always surprised to see it still green and happy come January and February during our long cold winters, and regret that I hadn’t planted more.

Sow in late summer or early fall for a winter harvest of fresh greens, or sow a little later and allow it to overwinter for a fresh spring salad when most plants are only just beginning to wake. I provide scant protection under plastic and am always surprised to see it doing so well. I’m certain it would do equally fine totally uncovered or perhaps a few conifer branches as is done with spinach.

The plant is also quite small, so serve up the small rosettes in their entirety as picking the small leaves on their own can be tedious, although perfectly acceptable especially on a nice sunny day that warms the hoop house. This works quite well mixed with other greens or entirely on their own splashed with a little vinegar and oil.

While researching this I learned that the soil should be carefully smoothed and flattened before sowing. I saw this referenced in the 1895 Vilmorin manual, but without explanation. After reading what Elliot Coleman had to say, it became quite clear that it’s to aid in harvesting. To harvest use a sharp nife and carefully cut at ground level. A smooth soil will help keep the plants clean.

I’ve planted Mache for several years now but in early November 2013 I completed my 10′ x 30′ movable high tunnel, thus my plan is quite a bit more elaborate than previous years. This is what I have going on:

machecal

Spring

My first planned sowing is mid-late February directly into the hoop house (completed on Feb 15). I plan to rework the bed right around last frost in order to insert tomatoes so we shall see how well they do on such a short growing period. I have a second small sowing outdoors uncovered in mid march and plan to harvest in mid to late May.

Summer

Mache is not heat tolerant, save it for the winter.

Fall

I have four sowing’s planned. The first is outdoors into the winter bed in mid August that will be covered by the movable hoop house in early October. I worry about it not germinating well during our very hot August weather so am planning a second sowing indoors. The third sowing is planned for mid-September and the fourth in October, both outside. The last two sowing’s will be carefully performed between the other winter veggies to maximize usage of space.

Winter

The earliest I would expect to harvest would be in late October. Compared to London and Paris, my summers are hot and dry and I doubt I can get sufficient germination for an October harvest. Realistically I think harvest will be in mid-late November, just in time for a nice holiday dinner, and then continue into May.

days to transplant: 
days to maturity: 47
days to mat. baby: 
direct sow or trans: both
seeds per ft: 12
plants per ft: 6
row spacing in.: 4
rows per bed: 8
seeds per oz: 
min germ temp: 40
optimal germ temp: 60
max germ temp: 70
min legal germ:

Market Gardening History

About the name, the word “corn” in corn-salad refers to the fact that this is a common weed found in wheat fields throughout Europe. In the old-world, the word corn refers to a “staple grain” and not the corn plant we are more familiar with here in the US. Also, in the Brother’s Grimm tale Rapunzel, we learn the true inspiration for the main character’s name, in Germany this plant is also known as “Rapunzel”.

Mache still grows wild in much of Europe and was, I have no doubt, a rare and important winter green for peasants innumerable. As a fine culinary herb however, it gained it’s reputation in the 17th century for being first cultivated and served to the king of France by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie. He was also the designer of the French royal garden, the Potager du Roithe worlds grandest and still operational market garden.

cornsaladIn my copy of the 1895 French book on market gardening, Vilmorin-Andrieux’s the Vegetable Garden (Les Plantes potagères), the author lists seven different varieties in use by market gardeners in London and Paris. Seeds were sown in late summer or fall, producing harvestable greens from October to spring and it was accomplished “without requiring any attention or protection.” Another interesting note in the book is that the first year seeds do not germinate as readily as those that are already a year old. I think I am actually going to test this out as I feel like the seed germination has been less than ideal and have read others express the same.

cabbagecornAt the time, European market gardeners grew two different types of Mache: the round leaved types (Valerianella olitoria) and the Italian types (V. eriocarpa). The round leaved varieties were considered best for winter growing and were sown from August to October. The Italian type however were sown in October and harvest delayed until the following spring when the first type was no longer usable due to bolting. Seeds were sown by broadcasting and lightly raking in among other crops such as winter onions. Modern resources list the Latin name as V. locusta instead of olitoria. 

italiancornVilmorin lists the following varieties for the “round types”:

  • Round-leaved Corn-salad,
  • Large-seeded Corn-salad,
  • Golden Corn-salad,
  • Etampes Corn-salad,
  • Cabbaging Corn-salad.


The Italian type of Corn-Salad (Valerianella eriocarpa) is native to southern Europe and thus is a little more sensitive to cold. If it were available I suspect it would do well enough under a cold frame or tunnel. Vilmorin lists two varieties:

  • Lettuce-leaved Italian Corn-salad,
  • and Spoon-leaved Corn-salad.

Another interesting reference to Mache is within John Gerard’s Generall Historie of Plantes published in 1597. This gives us a clue to how it was consumed by the peasantry of 16th century England. About Mache he says “This herb is cold and something moist, and not unlike in faculty and temperature to the garden lettuce, instead whereof in winter and in the first month of the spring it serves for a salad herb, and is with pleasure eaten with vinegar, salt, and oil, as other salads be, among which it is none of the worst.”

andvirtues

Seed Source

If you’re interested in growing Mache, a quick look through through the seed companies here show several named varieties available (Verte de Cambrai, Verte a Coeur Plein, Verte d’Etampes, Coquille de Louviers). A search on the internet did uncover a large seeded variety called Grosse Graines Mache available at Kitchen Garden Seeds.

Favorite Seed Sources

All together I grow upwards of 300 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers each year. The majority are certainly heirloom varieties, but I do grow some modern hybrids if I believe it offers something unique to the garden. Recall that my space is French Potager themed and we are always on the look out for the most attractive vegetables. I do always avoid growing anything that I can commonly get in a grocery store. This is not because store varieties don’t have something to offer, but that I am more interested in expanding my diet and discovering new flavor and textures. In terms of nutrient dense gardening, there is much more to consider here as well.butterfly

Many people believe that heirlooms are more nutritious than non-heirlooms but I think that’s hardly the case. It’s true that the genetics of an heirloom variety may contain higher amounts of certain phytonutrients as was made abundantly clear in Jo Robinson’s recent book “Eating on the Wild Side”. It is however equally likely that a modern hybrid can contain higher amounts of other phytonutrients. A hybrid grown in nutrient dense soil will outperform an heirloom grown in average soil, and vice versa.

In regards to genetics of heirloom plants, DNA only defines how the plant should be made, but it’s the environment that dictates the materials available for the construction. Think of the story of the three little pigs comparing the straw house to the brick house, they’re both houses but clearly one is more robust than the other.

Heirloom varieties are also generally more demanding of good soil nutrition, where commercial varieties were bred to withstand the nutrient poor and biologically devastated soils of the typical conventional farm. If your soil lacks energy, you will actually get a better response from hybrids than from heirlooms but be prepared to provide them with extra support as they will be sick.

Seed quality also makes an important impact in getting a good nutrient dense product. Low health plants will produce low health seeds that lack the rare minerals needed for maximum early plant health and reduced seedling stress. Poor seed is less dense, weighs less, smaller in size, less likely to germinate and is more susceptible to pathogenic attack. At this time I know of no commercial source that sells consistently high test weight seeds. Your best bet is to save the seed from your own quality plantings.seedpackets

I also only purchase untreated organic seed. To me, any plant that needed chemical support is a poor candidate for your garden. Non-organic seeds  are also sometimes treated with chemicals to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus. This is because seedlings from these are in such poor health that they easily succumb to pathogenic attack. You cannot grow a nutrient dense product without the support of the soil microorganisms, so killing them is not recommended.

Lastly, I am located in eastern Washington and getting locally produced seed is always wise. This has two clear benefits. The first being that you’re supporting your local economy and not the economic interests of a pile of shareholders who could care less about your garden, and the second is that many of the seeds are already acclimated to the nuances of your particular climate. I encourage you to find some companies located near you too.

Seed sources I frequently use in the US Pacific Northwest, in no particular order:

And here are some others that I use, also in no particular order:

~Sean

pH part I

If you’ve been following along with me you should well know by now my interest in growing high quality nutrient dense foods. Unfortunately food like that is a rare exception, both in the grocery store and at the farmers market. Before we can begin to discuss what that really means and how to achieve it, there are a number of ideas that all gardeners are taught that need some amending. I must first bring up the problem of pH.

Simply put, pH measures the concentration of hydrogen ions, where a low pH is called acidic and a high pH is called alkaline. A quick search on the internet for pH gave me a random University Extension Office document that says “Soil pH is important because it influences several soil factors affecting plant growth”. It goes on to inform the reader that it can do many bad things like preventing bacterial release of nitrogen, soilit can cause nutrient leaching or restricts availability of nutrients to plants, creates heavy metal toxicity and makes clay soil hard to cultivate. It goes on to say that “a pH determination will tell whether your soil will produce good plant growth or whether it will need to be treated to adjust the pH level.” Most importantly it gives you a solution to this insidious problem: add lime if your pH is below 6.5 and sulfur if it’s higher than 7. And if your one of those lucky fellows who’s soil is in the sweet spot of 6.5 to 7.0 then you don’t have to do anything at all. Sounds like pH is very important and according to this we certainly couldn’t have good plant growth without it.

That is the conventional approach to pH and anyone that knows me well can picture me cringing right now. The issue I have with this is that pH is treated like it has meaning unto itself. The soil is considered secondary to the pH. If this recommendation were followed up by your typical NPK soil test lab and their garden soil correction plan of applying composted chicken manure, it’s quite clear that attention is only indirectly given to plant nutrition. Following these recommendations is a shot in the dark. If you’re lucky your soil conditions may actually improve until you do the same thing again next year, but for many gardeners it can do precious little to improve “good plant growth” and can actually make things worse.

First we need to talk a little about what pH is. It stands for “power of Hydrogen”. pH is a scale ranging from extreme acidity starting from a score of 1, to extreme alkalinity and a maximum score of 14,  with 7 being the happy middle, the point of perfect balance. Water (H2O) separates easily into two ions with one of hydrogen (H+) and the other called hydroxyl (OH-). When these ions are in a one-to-one ratio you have a balanced pH of 7. If there are more hydroxyl ions (OH-) than hydrogen (H+) then the pH will be higher than 7, and if there are more hydrogen (H+) ions then the pH will be lower than 7. Thus, pH is a measure of hydrogen (H+) ions in solution.

This is however too simple to be useful. Hydrogen ions only cause soil acidity as measured by a standard test when they are in water, think of the water based test kits you see in the stores. In the soil, most hydrogen ions
beansare loosely attached to the soil particles along with many other positively charged ions called cations. These cations are there because of attraction to the negative charged particles, called anions. Anyways, these soil born hydrogen ions may not even contribute to soil pH unless the soil conditions change. Another interesting point is that as plants and microorganisms develop they will pull the plant nutrient ions, the cations, away from the soil particles and swap them out with additional hydrogen ions, thus causing the pH to drop during the growing season.

Materials you might consider adding to the soil to raise the pH are things considered to be alkaline such as calcium lime. However, this is relative to what might already be in the soil. For example calcium applied to a high magnesium soil may actually lower the soil pH. The same goes for acids, it’s relative. The  application of an acidic substance to the soil can actually further increase your pH, the wrong direction. Further, your soil could be desperately short in calcium, an essential plant nutrient, and have a high pH. In that case following the standard pH amendment procedure of not applying calcium lime would keep your soil in a very poor state and the healthiest weed growth yet.

Lastly, those that worry about pH will also state that too low a pH can release too much nutrients causing heavy metal toxicity or too high a pH can cause the locking down of the nutrients so they’re not available to the plants. This may be true in a sterile laboratory, but in a biologically active soil it’s quite different. Biological compounds interact differently than non-biologic compounds. For example, a high pH soil can be induced to release nutrients when organic humates, molasses and biochelates are used. One more thing, if you measure your soil pH on a weekly basis you will see it change throughout the year, this is at least partially due to increasing or decreasing amounts of microorganism activity.

Thus your soil pH score is the result of complex chemical, physical and biological interactions and doesn’t give any clues about what might actually be in your soil. Taking actions based only on this number is the surest way to limit the nutrient potential of your vegetables and induce plant stress. A pH reading however isn’t completely useless, in part II to this article I will elaborate further on this topic and how it can be a useful tool to growing great foods.

~Sean

Indoor Seed Starting

A few people have asked me about seed starting indoors and now is the time to do it.  My setup is quite large and allows me to have 32 seed flats under lights at one time. It’s composed of two stainless steel shelving units, 16 shop lights and 32 bulbs. Remember I have 10,000 square feet of vegetables, herbs and flowers to grow. I certainly didn’t buy all of this at one time either, instead I started with just a shelf and two shop lights and slowly grew it as the need arose. For your average small garden space of one or two hundred square feet, then a single shelf and two to four seed trays may be more than sufficient for vegetables, herbs and some extra flowers for the front yard.

My first year at gardening I quickly realized that purchasing plant starts can rapidly get out of hand, particularly if you kill your tomatoes like I did. I haven’t purchased a seedling since. The store’s vegetable starts are also frequently problematic with poor nutrition, chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticide and fungicides, reduced or missing biological life and nearly always a poor root mass. Even the ones growing in those peat pots can struggle particularly if the biology isn’t functioning. Besides, growing from seed is far more satisfying and the variety of plants you can grow is exponentially more. And, if you’re like me and want high quality nutrient dense food a biologically dead soil isn’t going to do it for you. Additionally, depending upon how many starts you were going to buy, the cost of your indoor setup at least will pay for itself on your first year. My setup has probably paid for itself ten times over by now. As for the electric bill, it hardly budged, the lamp in your living room consumes more energy then a whole shop light.

lights

My lights are setup in a previously unused space in the basement were the temperatures are usually about 65 or 70 f. This is optimal germination temperature for just about all seeds. However, for seeds that need more warmth like peppers, tomatoes and celery, I use a seedling heating mat until they germinate, then remove the mat as the extra warmth is only needed to induce germination not plant growth. My wife would like me to find a couple of lemon trees so perhaps next winter I will buy a high powered grow light for the trees if I have enough money. Be aware that my description here is for standard fluorescent bulbs, not expensive high power grow lights that would burn your plants at the two inch distance I recommend here.

What about growing in the window sill? It certainly does work, but plant stress can significantly effect your outcome. At least in my area, most winter and spring weather means clouds more often than not and I don’t even have a suitable south facing window to use, or 32 of them, that isn’t at least partially obscured by trees. Outdoor greenhouse growing can work well too but you have to me much more careful about temperature swings, heating when its too cold and ventilation when its too hot.

lights2

Here is a detailed description of my setup. There are certainly many ways to accomplish this but I have had a lot of success with this one:

  1. Shelving. I use a stainless steel shelving unit picked up from a big box store. It’s four foot wide and deep enough that I can place four seed flats width-wise per shelf. It contains 5 total shelves, I use only the bottom four for the lights and the top for storage.
  2. Four foot long T5 shop light with a reflective back cover and holds at least two bulbs. One shop light is sufficient for two flats per shelf, but two shop lights will allow you to have four flats per shelf.
  3. Two s-hooks to hang each light from their short chains to the shelf above it. You can then easily adjust the height of the lights using the links of the chain.
  4. Two standard 32 W 5000K sunshine fluorescent bulbs for each shop light. I compared these to similar specially designed (marketed) grow lights and the only difference I could identify was these are 1/4 the cost.
  5. Electrical timer. I set this to run for 16 hours, turning on at 6:00 AM and off at 10:00 PM.
  6. Once your seed trays are in place, adjust the height of each light so it is about two inches above your plants. As the plants grow slowly raise the lights so they are always a little above them.

Now bask in the glow of your growing accomplishments.

~Sean

Soil Blocks: the Building Blocks of Life

Within the first few days of seed germination the maximum yield for your vegetable plant has already been determined. From that point on any and all types of stress that the plant sustains has a direct impact upon your harvest, be it from the weather, nutrients, water, chickens, children, insects, cloudy days, etc. Thus any effort you make to increase your yield in reality is an effort made to decrease your loss of yield. As garden manager, your role then is to identify ways to reduce plant stress at every possible stage to ensure a bounteous crop of nutrient rich food.

blockerThe place to start your plant stress reduction strategies is during seeding, actually it starts with seed selection but that’s for another time. I quickly learned during my first year of indoor seed starting that there was a trick to accomplishing this successfully. First, it didn’t take me long to realized that I was going to have to replace all my black plastic seedling flats every single year, they sure make those things cheap. It also just pains me to have to buy the same thing over and over again year after year, but what other options were available? A little bit of online research revealed to me another method and no more plastic cells and pots. Instead, the pot can be made of the soil itself, soil blocks!

With soil blocks, my young plants grew more vigorously and were highly resistant to the stress of transplant shock. Also, the seedling roots no longer spiraled out of control at the bottom of the cell or pot, but instead upon hitting the outside air the roots will check their own growth and then shoot off again after transplanting. Additionally, losses due to transplant shock were very rare with almost 100% transplant success. There are however a few new concerns. First, you have to be more careful with watering, the extra soil surface area dry’s out a little faster, but that’s easily managed. The other thing is that it’s more time consuming to build the blocks, but this is one area you can have a big impact on plant stress and its worth the extra time, besides its still winter and it gives me something enjoyable to do.

If you want to try soil blocks here is my method, there are many variations so don’t think this is the only way:

  1. soilblocksPick up the soil blocker of your choice off the internet, you can even find directions for making your own. I purchased a 4-cell two inch block maker and it will last me a lifetime of use.
  2. Pick up several higher quality leak proof seedling flats, still black plastic but reusable every year. Naturally they cost a little more, but the price makes up for itself after only one year. Whatever trays you use its important that they do not leak. All the trays I bought from the big box store’s were junk.
  3. Pick up an equal number of black plastic flats that are perforated, or just melt some extra holes into the ones you were going to throw away from last year. The flats I found at my local seed store were exactly that.
  4. Insert the perforated flat into the leek proof flat. When you want to water your blocks gently pull the top tray out, add water to the bottom tray and reinsert the top tray. Always bottom water your soil blocks.
  5. Make your block mixture. There is a trick to this, if you use the wrong materials, not enough water, or too much water then your blocks may not work out. I use about 80% soil less seed starting mixture, 10% high quality worm castings, 5% rock dust, 5% kelp meal and a bacteria/fungal biological inoculation. Mix with water to the right consistency and start making your blocks.
  6. Space the blocks on your trays so there is at least a 1/2 inch of space between them.
  7. Drop your seed of choice into the small hole at the top. Then for most seeds I take a pinch of the soil less mixture and cover the seed, followed with a squirt from the spray bottle to dampen it.
  8. Cover with a clear plastic dome to create a moist environment and wait for germination.
  9. Drink a nice glass of wine to celebrate your hard work and reduce your own stress.

~Sean

A lot to be desired

Last year I gave a brief tour of the garden for my local Master Gardeners. Although I heard a lot of compliments, I knew already that the actual health of the garden was poor and I was yielding many vegetables that were no better than that available in the store. Anyways, during the presentation I had commented that books on Organic Gardening left a lot to be desired. One of the Master Gardeners, Julie McElroy asked me about that.cbg

Yes, Organic Gardening books do leave a lot to be desired.  I certainly respect the hard work of each author, and I am sure it was edited many times and tailored to suit a particular audience. I was that audience not long ago, but now I want REAL FOOD and those books just don’t typically offer that. The problems are varied, but I do see three common themes.

The first is that there is no education, discussion or instruction about food quality. Organic Gardening & Farming continues to produce products no better than conventional agriculture all the while claiming the virtues. This is why we farm to begin with, human and animal nourishment. I am sure there are organic farms out there producing high quality products, and there are exactly zero conventional farms doing it, it’s just that those organic farms are probably one in a thousand. I even found one locally, one and only one, that produced higher quality products. Unfortunately after several conversations with the grower it seems it was due to a lucky situation than anything the he deliberately practiced.

Second, most of the books continue to attack the symptoms of problems and are either unaware, or ignore, the actual causes. By symptoms I mean insect attack, nutritional deficiencies, disease, weeds, etc. Many of the books even give ecologically damaging recommendations to “correct” them. These problems and the solutions have been well documented for 100 years now but continue to be ignored.

And lastly, none of them provide you with any real and actionable information about plant energy and nutrition. This I believe is because hardly anyone knows anymore. You tell a lie long enough and it becomes truth. The model used by the petrochemical industry for the last 65 years works very well to sell NPK water soluble inorganic fertilizers. It is however not the only model, and it certainly isn’t capable of producing the kind of quality real health is made of.

What Organic Gardening book would I recommend? Well I do have a handful I reference form time to time for various reasons, but they only fleetingly cover these topics if at all. The reality is that there just isn’t one. I get more useful information out of books on agriculture now. My hope in writing this blog is to delve deeply into these subjects and reveal it in a clear manner and illustrate its success, or lack there of. Perhaps someday I will make that book.

~Sean

Biological Gardening

As a Biological Gardener I seek to establish a cooperative relationship with nature; encouraging and establishing a deep biological connection between soil, plant and people. Here we will employ a system for balancing the garden ecosystem, encouraging life to its fullest genetic potential, encouraging energy, shaping the environment and providing maximum nutrient availability. There shall be no application of any product that causes one side to gain over any other. The primary objective here is to achieve maximum plant health in a naturally beneficial system. One where disease resistance, insect resistance, high yields and nutrient dense foods are a consequence of excellent garden management.

But how is this different from Organic Gardening? I have a book case full of manuals on organic gardening and still I failed to receive any results that were appreciably different from conventional agriculture. Perhaps Organic could be so much more, but after USDA certification and the take over by monetary interest, I believe the potential it once had may now be lost. The problem is that the whole system continues to use an exploitative and warfare-centric model for production, using organic pesticides over conventional pesticides, the farmer and gardener still fails to notice his sick plants and instead attacks the symptom. Is an organic apple with a worm any better than a conventional apple with a poisoned worm? No, the apple in both cases lacked the essential nutrients in order to achieve a naturally worm resistant apple. If the apple is good for the worm, its mostly definitely is not good for you.

Soil health is plant health is animal health is human health. Here the the whole of the system is far greater than the sum of its parts.

~Sean