Organic Gardening Questions
Posted: Aug-01-2004 at 7:50pm
Last year, I attempted to go 100% organic in my garden. This was the culmination of several years of progressive effort during which I stopped using pesticides and switched to COF and bat guano as a high-nitrogen supplement (fish fertilizer, too). Since I began gardening (five years, now) I've been piling on the compost and organic mulches, so I figure that the soil must be in pretty good condition although I haven't had it tested.
But, on to my questions....
1) The complete organic fertilizer just doesn't seem to be doing the job. I made and applied it according to Ann Lovejoy's formula ("General Purpose Booster Feed") in one of her books. I believe that she allows a quarter or half a cup or so per established plant and more for shrubs etc. More recently, I read an article that suggested using a coffee can worth of COF per rose bush (I know that they are heavy feeders) and reapplying in a couple of months. There's a HUGE discrepancy between the suggested usages and not so much difference in the recipes. What gives?
I have a lot of big leafed plants and as and it seems that I'm always fighting a battle against chlorosis and that they just aren't as lush and growing as well as I would have liked. And certainly not as well as they did when I used commercial fertilizers.
So, question #2....
2) On a recent trip to the nursery to get additional, commercial, organic fertilizer, the salesperson said that using non-organic fertilizers kills the organic component in the soil. Is this true? Is it true only of potent, liquid fertilizers or is it also true of slow-release type products such as Osmocote. In the past, I have really liked the ease and performance of Osmocote, which I have broadcast into the beds and turned into the soil around the extra-hungry plants.
Any thoughts? Do I just need to pile on HEAPS of COF? Or is it just not going to do the job for the heavy feeders? I have Astilboides, Petasites, Darmera, and as that have looked better.
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 7:30am At the risk of my being flamed, EmilyK, I say "If I'm not going to eat it, it can have chemicals!".
Rather than launch a long treatise on the benefits of organic versus synthetic fertilizers, let me refer to you to an old song, "How you going to keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?".
IMHO, if your plants make you happiest when you feed'em drugs, literally, feed'em drugs. If you feel your fellow gardners will think less of you for this activity, allow them to do what they want in their own garden. What I do is feed the soil with organics and spoil the plants with chemicals. And I'm not even a Grampa.
Now please explain to me why my zinnias, first time to grow these, are a third taller than advertised on a diet of composted manure, bone and fish meal? With a Miracle Gro cocktail, of course.
Favorite Tool: Potato Hook
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 7:40am
While I was writing, Tom was posting. And I am not going to flame him either as I am not a capital "O" Organic grower. I use Miracle Grow (reduced strength) when raising transplants and at planting time. Cabbage maggot is also something I am not ready to avoid by shading my plants from my six hours of sun.
Some points to consider to answer your questions are the strength of your organic fertilizer vs. the amount of Osmocote you used and how much of the " piling on the compost and organic mulches” has yet to breakdown into humus.
I don't know what formula Lovejoy had in her book but look at the NPK numbers on your commercial sack. Using Whitney Farms' All Purpose as an example, their 5-5-5 ratio is barely a third of the 14-14-14 for Osmocote Vegetable and Bedding and less yet of the 19-6-12 of their Outdoor Indoor Plant Food.
Osmocote wants you to apply (per 2'x2' plant space) 3 tablespoons, which equals 75% of your 1/4 cup organic. Quick math says it would take almost 3/4's cup of Whitney to equal the 3 tablespoons of Osmocote O/I.
On each rose, Ciscoe Morris alternates two cups of alfalfa meal or a feeding of organic rose food every 6 weeks, March to August, for a total of 4-5 feedings. But he starts with a handful on nonorganic in early March because usually the soil has not warmed up enough to get the breakdown of the organic fert going yet.
You can read his rose article in his archives. Just click on plants, then roses at:
Ciscoe on Roses
" piling on the compost and organic mulches." All organic material ties up nitrogen until it has broken down. Quoting Whitney Farms, "Finished compost is dark colored, sweet smelling, and crumbly. Most of the original plant materials are no longer recognizable (some woody materials may still be present)." If you used something less finished and beauty bark for a mulch, you still have a high nitrogen consuming soil before the plants get their share. Nonorganic ferts, like Osmocote, have the advantage of more N and that they dissolve so irrigation water may flush some to the plant roots. "using non-organic fertilizers kills the organic component in the soil." No. The N in all fertilizers breaks down the organic material in the soil. If you don't replace it with compost for example, it is 'gone', not dead. In the vegetable garden, we use green manures to aid this replacement. But 5% organic material is a high number in our soil tests. We also only use unfinished compost in the fall to let the worms decay it by planting time in the spring.
“Or is it just not going to do the job for the heavy feeders?” Have you been to your local Farmers’ Market? How did the broccoli look at one of the Organic farmer’s booth? Celery? Corn? Tomatoes? Cucumbers? Those are all considered heavy feeders. And the Organic farmers had to grow them with organic ferts plus green and animal manures (though the state regs make most animal manures useless because they be dropped so far ahead of the spring planting that the winter rain has washed away any NPK.) And I bet that all the mulches used were only temporary ones. Picked up and composted after their job was finished. An example is straw placed upon a new fall garlic planting or the asparagus bed to reduce the weeds. It goes to the compost pile in the spring so the soil will warm faster.
In the vegetable bed, we use one gallon of organic fertilizer per 100 sq. ft. of bed and then add an extra ¼ to 1 cup beneath each plant/sowing. On a perennial like asparagus, I apply the same 1-2 gals per 100 row feet. Most organic ferts are slow acting in that they last 2-6 months like your Osmocote. But they don’t flush through the soil with heavy irrigation or rain like chemical ferts do. They breakdown faster in warmer conditions and that is also when the plants are growing more. They are very good for a through-the-winter veggie like garlic. If there is some warmth for the plant to grow, there will be some fertilizer. Our record 10+ inches of rain last October completely flushed all but the slow release chemical ferts.
In your garden, I think you should be sure to get the ferts to soil and not the mulch. If it's all mixed together, apply more fert.
The Whitney Farms website has lots of organic growing information. You can check it out at:
The best discussion of soil and fertilizers that I know of for our region is in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades: The Complete Guide to Natural Gardening by Steve Solomon. On the Edible Forum we call it ‘the bible’. You’ll find it as the sixth listing on the Rainyside Edible Bookshelf. Steve will give you a different perspective to the “pile on compost and mulch” writers as his is based upon growing year round in our weather conditions. Just like we don’t have the heat units for Midwest corn varieties, we also don’t have the summer heat to quickly breakdown mulches nor the frigid cold winters to kill all the bugs that thrive in that mulch.
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 7:59am
Emily - great questions! Are you getting the same results with new plants as you are with the older ones who are already used to their habit? I really don't fertilize so I'm no help here (I do use compost tea and compost, though). But I'm interested in your research. Sometimes, it seems like gardening is one big science project! I do have to disagree a bit with Tom that just because you aren't eating a plant part doesn't necessarily mean it's safe. You still have to take special precautions when using the product to not inhale it or get in on your skin. And if you have pets, there are worries there. I'm probably overly paranoid due to my medical history but sometimes we have to step back and wonder what is making so many of us sick. Anyway, good luck with your dilemma and keep us informed on what you learn. I'm sure the bigger-leaved plants (especially those that need lots of water) probably go through the nutrients pretty fast. Keep the research coming!
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 9:16am
There is a balance of risks to be achieved here. For example, how about this from Ciscoe's rose article. "Whether you use meal or pellets, wear a dust mask when working with the alfalfa and store it in covered metal containers unless you want to invite the neighborhood rodents over for dinner.
Hmmm, organics, dusty ones anyway, can also be unhealthy. And I don't need to see those rodents either. I can't even get the cats that visit my yard to control the moles for me.
The best example for me recently of lack of balance has been the elimiation of CCA treated wood. It was discontinued due to the risk of small children licking dust from decks or playground structures. In a raised vegetable bed test, beyond two inches from the wood the levels of arsenic were lower than the native soil levels (probably due the increased drainage). All levels in the bed were lower than the rigid EPA 20 ppm. And many times, the arsenic level on grocery store carrots is higher than on CCA raised bed carrots. In both cases, just wash them.
Yes, Tom's zinnias are taller but couldn't the 10 of 17 weeks since April 1st that have been 10 to 30+% warmer in heat units have something to do with it. Plant growth doubles for each 18 degrees F (10 C) of temperature increase.
And Tom provided the extra fert when the plant's growth needed it. The capital "O" growers would have missed the opportunity unless they thought about how fast the heat was consuming their fertilizer source and took corrective action.
As I write this, I am looking out the window at the plastic roof over my tomatoes to protect them from late blight. It is a double thickness of plastic so I can drop the extra on the windward side in rains. The warmth has gotten the plants to about 8 feet tall but the growth seems somewhat spindly to me. Just like springtime transplants grown in too much warmth without enough light. Then my 'light bulb' came on and I've now decided to remove the plastic because my six hour sunshine needs to be maximised this year. And yes I did give the plants a side drenching awhile back. In my case hydrolized liquid fish with a Maxicrop kelp boost.
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 9:56am
Oh, Tom, we'd never flame you - disagree perhaps, tease perhaps, but never flame. Flaming isn't the Rainy Side way. I'm a natural methods-leaning gardener (certainly not Organic) but I've found that since leaving behind the high hitting ferts - triple 16 and such - my garden is less prone to pest problems. So even if I'm not eating my ornamentals, I've never regretted converting my garden away from Miracle-gro and such.
First off, Emily, you deserve kudos for your decision and perseverance in changing over your gardening methods. Change is never easy and there are always stumbling blocks on the way. Don't let this relatively small hitch cause you to regret your initial decision or to go back to old ways. That really won't offer the chance for new knowledge as finding out what is going on and how to overcome it will.
Have you done a pH soil test? Mulches plus our native soil may be altering the pH to the point that the nutrients are bound and unavailable to your plants, regardless of organic vs chemical (which really should be worded as natural vs synthetic for accuracy). A complete soil test might not be a bad idea either. You can do it with home kits, which will test for NPK or you can send a soil sample to an lab for a more complete test, which will include micronutrients as well. Contact WSU extension for a list of labs and isntructions for how to do this.
As Gary pointed out, mulches and organic ferts may not break down as quickly and be as available as quickly for plants so adjustments on when, what, how much, etc may be necessary. Have you contacted the folks with Seattle Tilth? I hear they are an excellent resource.
Gary, I've heard similar comments about non-organic fertilizers killing organic components in the soil, although I can't recall whether it was because they didn't provide the nutrients for these components in the same manner as organics or because non-organics tend to be salt-based or high in salts and build up of this makes soils less habitable. If I can lay my hands quickly on my notes, I can supply more info plus the source of this information. IIRC, it was someone I consider reputable, not given to spouting extreme organic propaganda.
Also, isn't is possible to put on too much mulch? I seem to recall that there are limits to quantities and more is not always a good thing.
Great puzzle, Emily - a chance for all of us to learn and hopefully we'll help you solve your problem quickly.
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~ Chinese fortune cookie
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 10:19am
Well, Gary, I'd be the first to admit that systematizing my approach to gardening would make a heck of a difference. I have a healthy respect for data and exactitude, but procrastination gets in the way of implementation.
I should compute the NPK for the organic fert. recipe I have (I think that it's the same as Solomom's recipe, or at least quite similar) but I bet you are right--I'd probably have to triple the amount that I was using to equal the NPK of the Osmocote. However, since I am always hearing about excess fertilizers washing out of the soil (esp. inorganic liquid fertilizers)and about the differences in the ways that organics work in the soil vs. inorganics and the differences in the way the nutrients are released, I figured that the relationship between the two numbers might not be 1:1 so I didn't really worry about the fact that the total NPK of the COF was not equivalent to the NPK provided by the Osmocote.
Really, I'm not too wedded to the "O"rganic thing--I just want to ensure that the birds and salamanders and froggies that live in my garden have a healthy home. And I'd like the health of the garden to be built on a foundation of healthy soil rather than some artificial condition. I kind-of like Tom's approach of feeding the soil with humus-builders and the plants with ferts. And, if using Osmocote isn't going to damage the health of the soil or to retard the growth of the organic/living elements, then I'd be happy to go ahead and use it as a supplement.
Wanda--My established plants do have some size, but I'm disappointed when I compare their growth to plants in my neighbor's yard (she's not a knowledgeable gardener and relies on easy, commercial products). She routinely uses Miracle Grow and hefty ferts. like 20-20-20. Also, she has more sun than I have. But her plants get 3X as big as mine. I get jealous. I feel that she's cheating by flooding her plants with the potent fertilizers. But I like her results.
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 11:40am
Sunlight is very important. The folks on the edible forum know well of my lack (see above). Ten years ago I put raised beds on top of my mother's clay soil garden. The soil that I used was a commercial blend of used mushroom compost and sandy loam.
I was so blown away by the results the first summer that I started doing the same in my garden. The results were much better than my sandy soil had previously done but not as big as my the same plants at my mother's. I was out there working one morning and noticed that the sun was above the low hill to the east by 7 AM. As she lived on the east shore of Budd Inlet with no trees west of the garden, she was getting 14+ hours of sunlight, more than double mine. As I was doing all the sowing, planting, fertiliziing, etc., the only other variable was the nutrient holding ability of the clay below her beds but I was using some more ferts on mine so that may not count either.
What did it add up to? 6-8 lb cabbages instead of 4 pounders. My friend with the asparagus bed gets sun in his garden about 10 AM until sunset and with that 11+ hours, he gets much larger melons, cabbages, etc. than I do and I think its the sun and not the synthetic ferts he uses. As I plant for him I stick some natural ferts under some plants just to compare (It's about time to measure the differences in the melon plants).
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 11:42am
Hi Gary and Lisa--see what happens when you start writing and then go off and leave the computer. You were both posting during that time.
Actually, I'm pretty pleased with the visible condition of the soil. I do mulch with bark or with composted horse manure, but I actually like the texture of the bark-mulched soil better. I put just a few inches on at a time (scant 2 inches) and when it looks almost used up, I cultivate the remainder into the top couple inches of soil. I add fertilizers at the same time (mixing them into the top few inches of soil) and then top up with new mulch. This works out to yearly or twice yearly applications of mulch. I use frequent applications of fish emulsion to counteract the nitrogen-depleting effects of the bark. When I built the beds, I amended with about 6" of mixed organic material including bark, peat moss, "Prep", and composted horse manure followed by a healthy sprinkle of alfalfa meal, blood meal, or bat guano for nitrogen. Some of the beds were too light in the beginning due to over zealous application of lite organics but seem just right now, after about three years. Later on, I was wiser about the composition, so newer beds never experienced this problem.
(oops...I ran off again, so if I've missed anything, I'll have to catch up later.)
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 2:06pm
Good questions, Emily. I was just thinking the vegetable garden which gets full sun and compost and the wet, tropical bed both look great but the other two look a little puny. I haven't given them as much compost or water. Duh! Although, these last two beds are a bit on the xeriscape side. More mulch and compost!
I've gone organic so that I can provide a good home for all the soil fauna and all the other little critters out there. Alas, no froggies. Need a pond! I've noticed less disease too, Lisa. At least no powdery mildew.
Thanks for the helpful tidbits, Gary and Lisa!
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 2:54pm
Wasn't really expecting flames, gang, just providing an easy target for anyone who wanted to give it a shot. My "personalizing touch" at my last real office was a crossed pair of three foot Tahitian (is that a word?) spoons, from a yard sale. "For stirring the pot", I told my manager.
Thank you Gary for the heat unit/sunlight explaination for my zinnia (and Santavitalia) growth behavior. My annual beds just look funny with the "dwarf" zinnias standing taller at their 30 inches (eighteen on the seed package) than the Candy Canes twenty four inches. Especially since the dwarfs were planted on the outside edge of the bed to "support" the Candy Canes. Heat and sunlight make perfect sense.
Emily raises a quandry I've had forever: how to improve an established perennial bed without the ability to start over as I do with my annual beds. My annual beds get a six to eight inch layer of composted manure each fall, which settles and rots all winter, then in the spring I Mantis-ize'm with a dose of triple sixteen, bone meal and whatever else I'm either using up (the triple sixteen) or got the urge to mix in. When the chemicals are gone, I'll be changing to an organic base. My beds are raised in a box of cedar four by fours and I consider these big containers. Since I started "mulching" with composted manures, and liking the look of black mulch, the perennials seem to be doing quite well.
I'm sympathetic to health concerns, Wanda, and limit my chemicals to killing weeds. Maybe I'll get some industrial stength vinegar when my chemicals run out. If my plants show disease they are more likely to pass away than to get extreme measures. Insects get a shot of chewing tobacco tea, but only when I refuse to share with my fellow earthlings.
My seed starting and growing on process includes M.G. and Alaskan fish fertilizer, with the left over B-1 and transplanting drugs---again, until they run out. I'm just too frugal to send my past errors to the landfill.
And Emily, if you have any luck getting a "systimatic" approach, please ship me a gallon of the stuff.
Favorite Tool: Potato Hook
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 4:33pm
Tom--Your question about the established perennial beds has long been my question also. When I've asked others, I've gotten two answers: 1) groundcovers etc. "self-mulch" when their dead leaves sift to the bottom of the pile and 2) scratch manure into the spaces around the established plants. Doesn't seem like enough, somehow, but those are the answers I get. The old me (and the current me also) finds fertilizers such as Osmocote to be really useful since they can sift down into groundcovers and can add enough nutrients to established plants without changing the soil height or doing much damage to the roots. Also, I don't like lumpy looking beds with heaps of stuff and then wells around the crowns of the plants.
Wanda--Sorry that I didn't really answer your question. But, yes, new plants are having the same problems also. as especially--and I've never had any problems with my as before. New leaves look kind-of wizzened (sp?) but do seem to fill out if I quickly add additional fertilizer.
Lisa--I haven't done any soil tests--procrastination and laziness about taking the steps to get it done. But I don't think that Ph is a problem--if my hydrangeas are a good indicator, they hover around neutral with a mix of colored blossoms or periwinkle/lavender blooms. This year, I chucked a couple of small handfuls of lime into the beds for the benefit of the hellebores and the harts tongue ferns and got more pink than usual in the hydrangeas (a yucky but anticipated side effect.)
Also, I have gone to Seattle Tilth (fun and very bohemian) but I haven't asked this specific question. Sometimes I get frustrated with sales-type people who don't know about my property and the 35+ tall cedars and firs and the all-day shade and the constant rain of cedar/fir needles and tree debris that refuses to compost and I get tired of the Polly Anna type advice that fails to take these conditions into account. Sorry--is that flaming?
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 6:27pm
So what have you done about checking to see whether the soil is acidic or alkaline?
Our vegetable garden is chemical free - once firm clay soil, with a hoard of organic material added with twice double digging. Started 4 years ago.
It's so good now, after a winter or rain, I was able to push 1.5" diameter blunt bamboo sixteen inches in by just pushing them in. And it had not been turned.
But - and I forgot to do it / dang - I was going to check the pH. Everything is growing massive in the garden, but maybe it could be better. It's too late to turn in material now, so I'm waiting for fall.
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 7:18pm
Heck, this thread may outlast my TOTW "Watering your Garden". And I am making it worse by forgetting to mention one other advantage of (yes, Lisa) natural ferts.
I have had great success with adding kelp powder (Maxi-crop) to insect pest sprays like BT on my cole family plants. Two weeks ago, after being embarassed by the cabbage worm holes (on the night of my daughter's rehearsal dinner) on my broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage plants, I sprayed with a BT and kelp powder mix. Today you would be hard pressed to find the damaged leaves. Yes, I did add a liquid side dress of fish plus kelp last Thursday but that is not why the plants look so good today.
I must admit that I have not tried to foliar fert with synthetics in the past so the jury is still out but for now, every time I spray for a bug (BT, Neem, Rotonone, & Pyrethrins), kelp powder will also be in the spray can.
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 9:54pm
I've given up trying to use organics in my front flowerbeds. The dogs have access to those, and invariably they try to dig up whatever it is that smells so yummy to them! :-) I've been using Peter's Professional 20-20-20, although this summer I'm trying Osmocote for the first time.
I prefer organics in the veggie garden because 1) I only need to apply them once; 2) they are very hard to over-do; and 3) I think they are more environmentally responsible, both in terms of manufacture and garden use.
I've heard the stories about non-organic ferts killing soil life, but frankly I've never seen anyone provide any sort of evidence. Sounds like an old wives' tale to me... except that I've repeatedly heard that ammonium sulfate can be toxic to earthworms (again I've seen no proof, but that's a bit more specific than the usual handwaving one hears). BTW that's one that Solomon echoes in his book. Anyway given how fertilizers work in general, it seems logical that non-organic fertilizers would feed the soil life in pretty much the same way organics do.
Speaking of changing the subject..
A couple question, Emily, about your "switch".
- Did you also change other habits - such as, do you now mulch heavily whereas in the "old days" you didn't? Mulch can cause deficiencies even in fertilized soil, if you don't compensate for it.
- I may have missed this, but: what goes into your "complete organic fertilizer"? I'm not a follower of Ann Lovejoy so I don't know what she's recommending. Basically I'm wondering if there's something missing, that maybe she doesn't see because of her soil type or something else.
I've got a page with Steve Solomon's COF formula posted - I put that up a few years ago (back when my stuff was on Rainyside) back when Territorial stopped providing the recipe in their catalog. Lately they've been putting it back in, at least occasionally.
Edit: Re-read the thread, and it sure reads as if you've been only piling on the mulch and compost since your 'conversion'. At the risk of people shouting "unclean, unclean" at me I'm going to suggest this may be the problem. Especially if you're doing this in late winter or spring. Our soil warms up very slowly, even if totally exposed. Mulching will slow that up considerably; plus it will deplete the nitrogen probably until early-to-mid summer. I'm not saying don't mulch; but maybe only mulch with well-rotted compost (and not so much of it) and/or provide a bit more nitrogen.
The Westside Gardener
Posted: Aug-02-2004 at 10:12pm
Do you all read Elliot Colemans books? I always thought his info was good but I cannot remember any of it to repeat it. He is totally organic to a T and seems to do quite well. I wanted to ask, what about kelp or such, how does it fair?
I can honestly say I never used chemicals in my gardens in Mi, I used grass clippings, leaf mulch and compost oh and kelp from gardensalive.com. That was it and it worked quite well.gardensalive.com
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 4:17am
Now that we are talking about worms, instead of flag waving, I can provide some hard info courtesy of Chris Smith. He was Debbie’s Extension Agent during her Master Gardener time. Chris writes weekly columns for both the Seattle PI and the Bremerton Sun. His columns are MUST READS for me each week (as is the WA Post column by Eliot Coleman’s wife, Barbara Damrosch). Had Debbie not been on vacation in early June, she could have saved her best branches by reading Chris’ advice to thin her peaches (great photos of the loss on the Edible Forum for those who haven't seen them).
Chris wrote two PI columns on worms around May 1st. He began:
“Eight years ago, I put out the word to horticulture specialists at WSU Puyallup that I was looking for studies on the effects of pesticides and fertilizers on earthworms. For years I'd heard assertions -- usually from individuals adamantly opposed to using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers -- that these materials poisoned earthworms. None of the claimants, though, was able to cite studies to support that contention.
However, it seemed possible to me that materials toxic or discouraging to other small animals might have similar effects on worms.”
Chris first details a U. of KENTUCKY study on herbicide and pesticide reductions in worm populations. The study ranks products into four 25% population reduction categories. Chris then covers nitrogen fertilizers by the same Kentucky researcher.
“The fertilizer trials had less alarming results. Before the trials began, it was known that earthworms are scarce in acidic soils and that nitrogen fertilizer typically acidifies soil. In addition, the ammonium ion, a constituent in several common fertilizer formulations, repels or adversely affects some soil invertebrates, probably including worms.
“Potter cited one ammonium nitrate trial in which high rates of that fertilizer were applied to bluegrass over a seven-year period. The soil became significantly more acidic and the earthworm population declined.
“Interestingly, in another trial in which more erate rates of fertilizer were applied, the worm population didn't decline significantly.
“I wonder, too, whether periodic applications of lime could mitigate the worm-discouraging effects of the fertilizer. I haven't seen any research on that subject.
“In the meantime, the evidence suggests you won't lure worms to or keep them in ground you fertilize excessively with high nitrogen formulations.”
I know many landscape folks pass by columns titled “Good Enough to Eat” or “A Cook’s Garden” but then I don’t spend much time on Ann Lovejoy’s “Fresh from the Grocery Store” recipe column either. I do encourage you add these two writers to your reading list. The PI and Post columns are on Thursdays and the Sun column appears every Saturday.
You can read Chris’ full column at:
"Good Enough to Eat: Toxic pesticides and earthworms don't mix"
His first column on worms can be read at:
"Good Enough to Eat: Three cheers for the humble earthworms"
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 9:10am
Great articles, Gary. It's interesting that acidic soils and high nitrogen fertilizers which can cause a more acidic soil is the harmful factor to the worms. When Chris Smith says a more erate fertilizer is he talking about a 5-10-10 fert? What is considered erate? Also interesting about the apple maggot. I have noticed less maggots in my apples this year. I wonder if weather was a factor. I think I'll try the trap method next year. Sounds like a lot of time is spent spraying, even with something like "Surround".
Trav, I wondered about mulching in early spring. Although this spring was warmer than normal. Wonder if that had an effect. Can you point me to a reference that discusses this issue? If not, maybe I can dig up something with google.
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 9:35am
Yes, I call 5-10-10 low erate.
On Mulch, how about a 2003/2004 live experiment? For the same asparagus friend above, two of us chopped the stalks and mulched (straw, chopped leaves, & shredded paper) his beds last fall.
We had not done it for him before and didn't know how much material we had to work with. It ended up that the first bed got about two inches thicker (say 3" vs. 1") on material and with less paper.
Asparagus spears sprout when the soil reaches 50F. The result was about 10-15 day earlier emmergence in the thinner bed in March/April. Early enough to catch a cold from the 26F on April 2nd.
So the thinner bed heated up faster and the thicker bed started later and lasted a little longer into June. You can do that when you have 150 row feet for just 2 people. A Market grower would remove the mulch to be first with product.
Speaking of product, I have to go pick him up and we are going to visit our corn growing friend with the 67 row miles of corn.
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 10:25am
Thanks Gary and Trav for all the great info you provide, especially the cold, hard facts! I really appreciate the way you guys "spoon feed" us the stuff we need to know! I know it takes effort, you guys are swell! With working full time, two kids, family activities, more hobbies than whats good for me, volunteer activities, I'm lucky to get out in my garden much less study up on things or look things up! All your info doesn't sink in but tidbit here and tidbits there eventully take root and grow!
I do mulch spring and fall with Compost, but then I don't grow many veggies and those are mostly in pots. I mostly want to suppress weeds and make things look pretty! I think the rich black compost really sets off a spring garden. Yes, I do have some issues with slugs but hey, this year they haven't been bad!
"This country will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in." Theodore Roosevelt
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 10:41am
Ann Lovejoy has a lot of different recipes for feeds and mulches. The one I used is called "General Purpose Booster Feed" from her book Gadening From Scratch.
4 parts by volume cottonseed or soy meal (used cottonseed)
1 part dolomite lime
1 part rock phosphate
1/2 part kelp meal
I also threw in a bag of bat guano (probably equivalent to about 2 parts in the mix) because I'm intrigued with it at this time and had a bag on hand.
A small plant gets about a tablespoon, a gallon plant gets about a cup of the booster feed.
I distributed this booster feed around the garden and worked it in a bit and then topped up with new mulch--last year it was composted stall manure from a landscape materials company.
Travis--I've always used mulch--sometimes bark and sometimes something else like composted horse manure--although I did have a big weed problem from some less-composted stuff that got in there somehow and I like the texture of the soil better if a little bark is helping to open it up (I actually prefer the bark). The only real difference between what I've done previously and now is to replace the use of Osmocote with the organic fertilizer--I figured that my other practices were all consistent with good, ecologically friendly gardening.
One thing that I have come to learn is that mulching can be overdone. I don't think that that is happening because much of the mulch is consumed over the course of the year and the remainder (which I turn into the soil surface) is pretty thoroughly composted and doesn't represent that much volume anyway. I do want to keep mulch on the soil to keep the surface soft and to cushion/erate the effects when I do need to walk into the beds. But, if there's still a layer of mulch on there, I don't add more--I go around adding more mulch only when the previous layer looks like it's getting used up.
I agree that the mulch could be insulating the soil and preventing it from warming up. I do like to get the mulching done in early Spring. Plus, the shade keeps the temperature on my property at about 10 degrees less than it is in neighboring, sunny areas. Maybe I should make sure to mulch only in the Fall. And maybe I should give up on the bark and use only composted horse manure.
Does anyone else want to weigh-in on which mulch is their favorite and why? Nitrogen stealing problems aside, I've always liked bark because I think it has helped to open up the soil a bit (when turned under) and because I like its superior cushioning properties. Also, I think that the manures and composted stall sweepings tend to mat down more and will start to shed water if not fluffed-up routinely.
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 10:48am
Gary--will you add some details about how you use the kelp and fish fertilizers? I typically use the liquid Alaska Fish Fertilizer from a watering can (since it is too sedimentary to go thru a sprayer) and have dry kelp powder that I use as a supplement for a couple of plants only.
Are you using these same products or different ones? At what strength and frequency do you apply them? Side dressing only or as a foliar spray?
Thanks for your good info.
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 12:36pm
That is indeed Solomon’s formula.
I use a digested liquid fish organic fertilizer rather than a fish emulsion like Alaska Fish. I don’t recall the brand that I just used up but I had to add ½ cup per gal and I’d put in a teaspoon of Maxicrop. Black Lake Organic switched this year to a Down To Earth product that includes the kelp. You can see it at:
Down to Earth Fish & Kelp Liquied Fertilizer"
The site mentions 2 tablespoons per gal but that is for indoor plants. For outdoors, the dosage is the same ½ cup per gallon. I also apply the fert from a water can but these products can be used as a foliar feeding too. As I said, I also put the teaspoon of Maxicrop into a spray of BT or Pyrethrins (cabbage worm and aphids, respectively). It seems to help the plants recover quickly from the pest damage.
As soluble products, I figure that these are good early fertilizers when soils are too cold to get organics working. I start using it on my garlic bed about Feb. 1st to give them a boost before the complete formula goes in on April 1st. Ciscoe started recommending monthly fish feedings for garlic until June and I did that this year. As I have mentioned on the Edible site, some of my varieties this year neared 4 feet in height. Was it the extra fert or the extra warmth and sunlight of our 2004 spring?
I just noticed that Ron England in Growing Great Garlic (Edible Bookshelf) starts his fish & kelp foliar at Filaree Farm when the plants are 3” tall. Depending on variety, my plants emerged between Nov. 30th and Jan. 31st so it looks like I will be starting earlier on some plants this winter. England tries “to apply fish and kelp at two week intervals from mid-March through early May—three to four total applications.” His plants aren’t growing much in mid-winter Okanogan and they are harvested sooner than mine in the summer. He is using only 100 gals in an acre with 50% coverage, which roughly translates to ½ gal per 100 sq. ft. of garlic bed. This is definitely a supplemental feeding, not a heavy dose nor a year’s supply of nutrients. And he likes to do it after a rainfall or irrigation so the plant can easily utilize the nutrition.
As it is growing, garlic should be treated like any other green plant. All of my varieties had 5 leaves and 12-18” of height by the end of March and one was a full earlier. Onions (same family) planted on March 15th have consumed more water this year than lawns at Aurora, OR.
I don’t see why a schedule like Ron’s couldn’t be used on most non-woody plants. Miracle-Gro sure wants you to follow a 14 day schedule and include the leaves.
And Eagle, as he said in another column, I agree with Chris Smith that the slug dearth is dry weather caused. Enjoy it will you can.
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 12:56pm
Thanks for the responses on the ferts, Gary. Interesting test on the aspargus mulches. I guess it depends on each persons' risk and needs on how thick to apply mulches and when to remove them. Remove it early and take a chance on the veggies getting frost damage or keep it on and have slower growth rates.
Emily, I like bark as an organic mulch in the ornamental garden. I like the look and I think it adds to the soil texture. I think it does lessen compaction when I have to get into the bed. Adding compost seems to improve nitrogen stealing problems.
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 5:08pm
Oh, wow, I can't keep up with all the info! Obviously, you posted a great topic, Emily.
Regarding the comment about excess nitrogen fertilizers on our waterways, this is a very real concern and one of the key points included in the Naturescaping for Clean Rivers workshops that I used to teach for the City of Portland. Synthetic (aka chemical) fertilizers tend to be more readily available, more quickly water soluable so they tend to move off the property towards water at a greater rate than natural (aka organic) fertilizers.
I've had a theory about fertilizers and water ways. IME, the people who use natural fertilizers are generally pretty savvy about gardening so they tend to use the right amount in the right application at the right time. Those who use synthetics are as likely to be knowledgeable gardeners as they are to be homeowners who want nothing more than the fastest way to a green lawn but don't know the best way to get it. So their ignorance makes the chance of misuse and overuse of synthetic ferts higher, with more subsequent impact on our waterways. But this is purely theory on my part and I'm not sure how the heck I'd ever test it out.
Regarding synthetics and their effect on soil life. Ammonium sulfate synonyms include Diammonium sulfate; sulfuric acid, diammonium salt; Actamaster; Dolamin; mascagnite. It's the salt component that has raised the concerns I've heard. Is salt by any other name salt? We've been told that we shouldn't use salt to kill slugs because salt can cause our soil to be sterile. So does (NH4)2SO4 (Ammonian sulfate) as a salt have the same or similar impact as NaCl (Sodium Chloride aka table salt) on our soil and soil life? Hello, any chemists here? I'm out of my depth.
btw, here's the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) on Ammonium sulfate for those with inquiring minds. It's my source for synonyms and chemical compound information.
I think I know who my source of information is. I've sent him an email and I'll let you know what information I receive.
I know there were other comments I wanted to respond to but dang if I can find them or remember them. Next time!
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 8:16pm
OK--two things...first, I was using the fish emulsion at a rate close to 2 Tbsp. per gallon, which makes a HUGE difference. How do you learn about using it at 1/2 cup per gallon strength? Must be an inside thing, cause I don't remember seeing that on the package.
Also, I think that I have to admit that I've been using too small an amount of nitrogen (although I've been fighting that realization.) I looked at Ann Lovejoy some more and at this calculation, "cover each hundred square foot area with a pound of nitrogen for every inch of humus builder....If you are using compost or aged manure, you don't need any extra nitrogen unless your soil showed a deficiency." ...didn't pay so much attention to that before because I wasn't tilling massive quantities of bark into the soil or anything like that.
So, (someone should check my math) if cottonseed meal is 6% nitrogen and I've incorporated 1/2 inch of bark (such as might be left over before I replace it), then I'd have to add nearly 8 lbs. of cottonseed meal per 100 sq. feet of soil to counteract the nitrogen hogging effects of the bark? Is that right????? Clearly, I didn't think that incorporating a measly 1/2 inch of bark annually or so would require so much additional nitrogen. But, assuming that the bark's been hogging nitrogen the whole time (every since I first put it down as mulch) should I have added the whole 2" X 16lbs. = 32 lbs. per 100 square feet of cottonseed meal at the beginning or should I have planned on putting that much cottonseed meal into the soil in four equal installments over two years (or until the bark needs replacing). Is the breakdown rate of the cottonseed meal similar in any way to the breakdown rate of the bark? Drowning the soil in cottonseed meal at the beginning seems like a BAD idea (just using it as an example). Maybe I should consider using a more concentrated form of nitrogen and putting it down in equal installments over the anticipated life of the bark?
Thanks, Gary, for the link--I'll be checking out the Down to earth products.
EmilyK -- Port Orchard, WA
Posted: Aug-03-2004 at 11:58pm
Great post Emily. I am thrilled that everyone knows so much about this subject. I try to stay as organic as possible. But I am not satisfied with the amount of mulch I can produce. Mostly what I use is Alaskan fish fertilizer. LOL. Not in pellets though... who said that about the dog, well ditto here! Last year I had my cats and dog, and all the neighbor dogs going through my beds eating it! Soon as time permits- I'll be back to learn more. The Earth Laughs in Flowers. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Posted: Aug-04-2004 at 11:09am
Solomon’s current formula from his 5th edition (2000) is:
4 parts by volume seed meal (cottonseed or canola meal is generally available in our region)
½ part lime (½ Ag & ½ dolomite)
½ part rock phosphate
½ part kelp meal
“I was using the fish emulsion at a rate close to 2 Tbsp. per gallon.” Well, you were close to right. My old bottle of Alaska Fish calls for 3 tablespoons for flowers, vegetables, and trees. AK Fish is 5-1-1. The digested fish products are close to DTE’s 3-2-2 and they have more water already in them so you buy in gals and use almost three times the volume. Filaree Farm uses 1-2 lbs of a 12-0.25-1 wettable powder and ½-¾ lb. of Maxicrop in 100 gals per acre. He does help us by adding, “The rates for gardeners would be approximately 1 ½ ounces of dry fish powder per gallon of water per one thousand sq. ft. of garlic, and two tablespoons of Maxicrop per gallon.” To achieve his 1-2% N spray, it looks to me like Ron is using Mermaid’s Fish Powder, which Peaceful Valley Farm Supply sells for about $2.20 a pound if I buy more than 40 boxes with 44 pounds of powder each. I’ll stick to my $15 gallon and put about a gallon of the dilution per 12 row feet of intensely, 5”x9”, planted garlic.
“Someone should check my math.” Yes, it will be 16.7 lbs per 100 sq. ft. per inch of mulch if you are only using cottonseed meal. If you are blending as Solomon above or Lovejoy, it will take about 20 lbs. of mixture as the ratio is about 5-3-1. Cottonseed meal is acidic so you do need to use some lime unless the plants are acid loving; potatoes, rhody’s, etc.
“The bark's been hogging nitrogen.” That is why you were getting much better results with Osmocote. To reinforce Trav’s comments, “At the risk of people shouting "unclean, unclean" at me I'm going to suggest this may be the problem. Especially if you're doing this in late winter or spring. Our soil warms up very slowly, even if totally exposed. Mulching will slow that up considerably; plus it will deplete (tie up) the nitrogen probably until early-to-mid summer. I'm not saying don't mulch; but maybe only mulch with well-rotted compost (and not so much of it) and/or provide a bit more nitrogen.”
As Ciscoe simply says, “Do not mix the bark or wood chips into the soil.” They may never break down. In the newly landscaped/irrigated area we did for my daughter’s wedding last month, I found chips that we put down more than 20 years ago. We do not live in the hot, humid East where mulch and compost breakdown in months not years. Rake it back, fertilize the soil, plant, and then carefully re-spread the mulch. Even if you only suspect that there may be a nutrient deficiency, if one foliar feeding solves the problem you know it was a nutritional problem. Then you can do it some more with Miracle-Gro, fish solution, etc.
In a vegetable bed, we are trying to maintain about 5% organic material in the soil. This means only ¼ inch of finished compost mixed into the top 3” of soil each year. The base fertilizer application is one gallon, at a guess 6-7 lbs., per 100 sq. ft.