Monday, March 31, 2008

Fertilizer mix

The maddening thing about organic fertilizer is that it's kind of hard to get a handle on whether it really works. You aren't dumping a fast acting chemical that shows up in a day or two in the plants. You're adding material that the soil will digest and make available to the plants when it gets around to it.

It may just be yet another example of the slow pace of gardening. After only 3 years, I just haven't had enough opportunity to learn to notice the effects of different ingredients and proportions.

On the bright side, there's not much worry about overdoing it with organic fertilizers. As a result, I generally am pretty random with adding whatever I have around in whatever quantities seem right. But, I have been a little more consistent so far this year with my fertilizer mix, even though I've had to make up 2 or 3 separate batches. They've looked something like this:

4 parts cottonseed meal
1/2 part bone meal
1/2 part kelp meal
1/2 part Rabbit Hill Farm Minerals Plus

When refreshing the beds, I mixed in a handful per 3-4 square feet. Then I added another handful in each planting hole.

Here's what I know about these ingredients:

Cottonseed meal -- It's cheap and is supposed to provide a reasonably high proportion of nitrogen. It's also what they use for general purpose fertilizer at The Natural Gardener, which is a decent endorsement. Some organic gardeners avoid cottonseed meal because of the pesticides and defoliants used in cotton growing, but I'm not too concerned and have never seen any solid answer about it. It might also not be approved for certified organic use.

Bone meal -- It's a phosphorous, and I guess calcium, source. It also takes a while to break down, so getting it into the soil early gives you time before the tomatoes start blooming, which is when phosphorous supposedly comes into play. Hardcore organic folks balk at using ground up animal bones in the garden, but they just don't appreciate the irony of vegetables eating animals.

Kelp meal -- A Potassium and trace minerals source. It supposedly also has some sort of hormone and enzyme content that promotes microbe action.

Minerals Plus -- I bought a bag of this a few years ago out of my concern for the lack of mineral content in my soilless mix and have been adding it generously in previous years. My thinking is that it serves the same purpose as lime would -- added calcium and other trace minerals.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

For future reference

The whole thing with gardening is that if you screw something up badly, you pretty much just have to live with it until next year. That's also what makes it rewarding and the reason old people are good at it. You have to wait until next season or year to apply any lesson you learned this season.

This is why people keep garden journals and the reason why every year I've wished I had kept one. Motivated by the near disaster with the tomato seedlings, I think this might be the year I start.

So ... entry one -- bed prep.

Raised Beds
First week of March this year, I double dug (OK, maybe not a textbook case of double-digging but I turned over every bit of soil in them and then some) our three existing raised beds and the soil beneath the new raised bed.

I haven't made a habit of doing this, in part because no-till gardening sounds like it kind of makes sense, and also because I'm lazy and it's hard work. However, I had a couple of thoughts that motivated me.

First, I've had it in my mind for a while that our beds, filled as they are with a soilless peat/compost/perlite mix ( a la Square Foot Gardening) are lacking in water-holding ability. Our native black clay soil knows all about water holding, and probably has a lot of good mineral content to boot. So, by digging down to the bottom of the beds and a couple of inches into the ground, I probably introduced a good 10 percent native soil to my growing mix. It's still very light and crumbly, but I can definitely feel the clay in the mix now.

Secondly, in my exploratory probing of these beds, I noticed a lot of roots that I suspect are from the neighbor's pecan trees. A friend of mine had a raised bed completely overtaken by pecan roots, so I figured it might not hurt to knock them back every few years.

Besides the digging, I did my usual routine of mixing in some fertilizer mix and sifting a wheelbarrow of compost out of the pile and topping off each bed with a layer of it, scratching it into the surface just a bit. I also pulled out my soaker hoses and reset them on top of the soil, nestled in a bit until they were level. (I'll have to devote a whole post sometime to my irrigation system)

Oh, and that new fourth bed -- I haven't really filled it, but I tilled it up pretty good at ground level, added some leftover bought compost, leaf mold, dry leaves and fertilizer mix and mixed it in.

So that's quite a bit for now. More later.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

I've had a terrible time with my tomato seedlings this year.

Things started out pretty well -- I sowed about 9 seeds each for 9 different varieties. This was on January 22nd, which is maybe a week later than I've done it previously.

After the first true leaves appeared, I thinned them to 6 per variety and potted up to 2 inch cells.

On March 1, I bumped them up to 16oz plastic cups.

And there's where my troubles began. I don't think they grew much at all after that point. The lower leaves turned yellow and eventually fell off and they gradually got to looking pretty sickly.

My best theory at the moment is that I drowned them, through a combination of not punching big enough holes in the plastic cups and using too much compost in my potting mix. Tomatoes are resilient though. I planted 17 of the wimpy things and after 12 days in the ground, they're all quite green and about double in size.

It's killing me though that after weeks of coddling them indoors under lights, I'm now happy that they're just alive, and it's almost April. I think plenty of people in Austin plant about this time anyway (at least to judge by what's available in the stores), but what's the point of being obsessive compulsive about tomato growing if you can't beat your neighbors to first fruit?