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5 FREE Soil Amendments that you can Easily Find!

by Sandy Swegel

One of the problems with gardening is that you just can’t rush Mother Nature.  If you don’t get those tomato seeds planted early enough, there’s just no way to trick the plants into growing overnight. Compost is the same…you can’t just mix everything up today and use the compost tomorrow.  But there are things you can scavenge that you can add directly to your garden that help your garden a lot more than those sterile-looking bags of manure or compost they sell at the store. And they’re free!

1. Leaf Mold

Better even than regular compost for improving soil texture, leaf mold is what you end up with after a pile of leaves has rotted down to a dark earthy mix with only a few leaves still recognizable. This can take one or two years depending on how wet your climate is.  You can find leaf mold that’s been breaking down for months or years anywhere leaves collect:  where the wind blows them behind the garage or along the shady side of the fence.  Your neighbor’s yard is a good place to find it, or along stream beds or in shady woods.  Dig in to get the dark damp leaf mold next to the soil and leave the dry leaves for another year. Spread the leaf mold over your garden, at the bottom of planting holes, or along the trenches for your potatoes.  This is pure gold for your garden.

2. Coffee grounds

Coffee shops are often willing to give you their used coffee grounds for free. Starbucks packages them up for you in empty large coffee bags.  No need to do anything special with the grounds…just sprinkle them across your soil or at the base of plants.  The plants like the boost from caffeine almost as much as you do.

3. Weed Tea  

When I’m weeding, I keep two buckets with me…one for the green leaves (and roots) of weeds like dandelions, thistle, dock, lambsquarters and one for the seed heads or other garden debris I’m cleaning.  All those long tap roots that are so hard to dig out have been pulling up minerals and micronutrients from deep in the soil.  Once my bucket of green leaves is mostly full, I fill the rest with water and leave the bucket out to “steep.” After four days or longer, (ideally until it starts to smell bad), I use this nutrient rich water to water the garden. The leaves get thrown out or into the compost. Plants that get this water turn a nice dark green.

4. Grass Clippings

If you (or your neighbor) have a lawn (and you don’t use weed killer), the grass clippings are the perfect mulch for your garden.  Layer the clippings thinly on the surface of the soil near your plants. Keep adding it every week and it will keep breaking down at the soil line into compost.

5. Newspaper

Most newspapers are printed now with soy ink and safe to use in the garden.  Lay three or four sheets of newspaper over the soil in your walkways or between rows and cover with mulch.  The newspaper helps block weeds from coming up, and reduces evaporation.  Worms LOVE the taste of newspaper and will help break it down into rich soil.

A Tip for Impatient Gardeners

by Sandy Swegel

Gardening can be frustrating for people who hate to wait.  It’s not easy to speed Mother Nature along, so on a fine warm day, we find ourselves at the garden centers spending a lot of money on bedding plants or transplants.  Seed lovers know that is not always a good use of money.  Sure, if you didn’t start long season plants like tomatoes, it makes sense to buy a plant because you want lots of tomatoes soon, but here are some crazy plant starts I saw for sale this weekend:

Lettuce starts. Once the weather is warmer lettuce seeds will be growing in two or three days from seed.

Chard and kale starts. One grower was selling weak-stemmed red chard starts for $3. Sure they were organic, but you could buy an entire bunch of organic kale for less than that.

Bean starts. Beans germinate so easily that they are a reliable seed for kids to germinate for science projects.

Cucumber plants.  Another seed that comes up so easily all on its own.

Zucchini. Another plant that germinates quickly and then grows a foot when your back is turned. It doesn’t need a head start.

Pre-sprout your seeds if you’re in a hurry. If you’ve soaked peas overnight before planting, you’re already half-way to pre-sprouting your seed.  Take any seed and soak it overnight in water.  Then pour the damp seeds onto a paper towel or coffee filter and put in a baggie or put a plastic lid over it.  As soon as you see the first white roots coming out, you can (gently) plant them in your garden.  This works great for slow germinators like carrots, or old seeds.  My neighbor pre-sprouts all the big seeds like corn, beans and cucumber. She wants an orderly garden without having to do a lot of thinning…so when she puts pre-sprouted seeds every three inches….she knows that exactly where plants will come up.  This saves time thinning too.

Pre-sprouting doesn’t save me from spending some money on garden center plants. Besides tomatoes, I sometimes buy a winter squash that takes a long time to grow to maturity.  And I can rarely resist buying some flowering plants in bloom.  Little yellow marigolds and hot pink dianthus in full bloom are making my garden a happy place.

How to Transplant your Veggie Starts

by Sandy Swegel

You’ve done all the work of getting little seedlings started.  Maybe you’ve already hardened them off.  Now, planting them in your garden has a few tricks that can make a big difference in how many vegetables you get to eat.

“Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner” was one of the things I learned from a “mature” gardener who took pity on me when he saw the pitifully few tomatoes I had in my first garden.  This was something taught by the great biointensive gardener, Alan Chadwick. His idea was that if you raised little seedlings in nice light soil with fertilizer, like most of our seedling mixes, and then put it into hard not too fertile garden soil, the plants did poorly.  Instead, he advocated starting seeds in a flat with a good planting mixture, “Breakfast.”  Then he transplanted into a second flat of fresh soil for “Lunch.” Finally, he treated his plants to “Dinner”  when he put them in his loamy, fertile intensive beds.  The plants got over their transplant trauma because they were so happy about all the yummy things in their new home.

Transplanting like this actually stimulates new growth.  So before you plant your loved and coddled transplants, make sure the soil in their new home has compost and fertilizer and the soil has been loosened up so little roots can find their way.  And make big holes. No fair hurrying up to get the plant in the ground and just carving out a spot only as big as the pot you’re planting. You can see in the photos how big vegetable roots can be…you need to make sure that the whole root zone has good soil with nutrients.

Lots of food and minerals in well-composted soil will make your vegetables give you bountiful food!

For more info on “biointensive” gardens, I recommend the garden bible I use every year: “How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons.  His techniques really work.

Two Secrets to Great Compost!

by Sandy Swegel

How to make bad compost:

You need the right proportions of greens and browns to get the metabolic process going.  Too much brown and nothing happens.  Too much green and you either get slime or the greens just turn brown.

You need the right amount of water. Too little water (rainfall is not enough in Colorado to make compost) and everything is still whole and undigested a year later.  Too much rainfall….in Louisiana we had to cover the compost to keep the rain out…and it’s just putrefying sludge.

Air is important too. I had a burly housemate who made a huge pile and stomped on everything to make it fit.  Dry compressed leaves and debris were in pile two years later.

Weather conditions change how the pile works….my cold compost pile…you keep throwing things on top—quit working during last year’s drought pile.  No rainfall most of the summer and frugal amounts of chlorinated water weren’t enough to keep the pile going.  Everything just dried out including the worms.

So after so many failed piles and attempts to do things right, I have found two sure-fire ways to make great compost.

One.  Eat your fruits and vegetables.  Nothing keeps compost going better than little nests of your household food scraps put into the center of your pile every few days.  Don’t scatter it all over…just a little metabolic engine of food decomposition at the center of the pile helps everything else compost.  You can keep putting your weeds and debris on top…but just add food scraps to the middle when you have them.  Variety seems to help.  One year I thought I could keep the pile happy with all the zucchini bats….nope…the microbes and worms want variety—some banana peels and eggshells, maybe some moldy bread and coffee grounds.

Two. Use a good starter.

Never completely empty your compost….always leave some at the bottom of your pile to provide the microbes for the next batch.  But if your pile still isn’t thriving, it might need some starter from somewhere else. Occasional shovels of soil from the garden helps, but sometimes our soil isn’t as rich in microbes as we’d like.  Then you need a generous friend with a great compost pile.  A bucket of good active moist compost from a living pile will inoculate your entire pile.  It’s like making sourdough or yogurt….you need the starter.  And somebody else’s compost is better than any dried up compost starter you buy in the store.

Heads up . . . Danger

 

by Sandy Swegel

It is, alas, another snow day in Colorado.  May 1st brought us 12 inches of snow. We’re so happy for the moisture but very grumpy about not being able to play in the dirt.  Gardeners most often have our heads close to the ground. We’re weeding or digging or looking for bugs or vegetables.  Sometimes after an entire day nose to the ground, I have to remind myself to “Look Up”  There’s a whole world up there.

My favorite look-up experience was another May when I had scored some free leftover tulip bulbs at the Garden Center and was planting them not knowing but would happen.  (Incidentally, they immediately started making roots and a few bloomed in July!)  It was a fun day because I had five adorable foster kittens that had lost their mom and were living with me until they weighed two pounds when they could be adopted. So this was about as magical a May Day as there could be….planting tulip bulbs out of season and having tiny kittens leaping about in the dirt.  Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, an ominous shadow crossed over where I was digging.  How odd I thought. I hadn’t seen clouds.  Then the shadow appeared again.  I looked up.  And there was a large hawk circling down hoping to snag tender morsels of kittens for lunch!  I threw down the bulbs, frantically stuffed squirming bundles of kittens in my shirt and ran for the house.

Now I look up all the time.  Most days there are hawks, owls and even eagles atop every utility pole and treetop scanning the land for food. Even most fence posts have smaller birds looking for worms. Cranes lurk over the marsh. Nature is fraught with danger in ways civilized gardeners have forgotten. Frankly, we’re all being hunted.  My cat is stalking the mice that hide under the chicken coop.  The neighbor’s dog has a firm eye on the squirrel in the tree.  I can see footprints in the snow that showed the fox came from the thicket to make her early morning walk around the chicken coop just in case a chicken was loose.  Thank God the lions and tigers and bears aren’t living in the woods.  Well, wait, the mountain lions and bears are.  Be careful out there.

Another Reason to Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.

 http://www.birdsinbackyards.neth