Feed The Soil….

On Monday I got rather long-winded about soil amendments. I talked about the CT NOFA standards, the importance of researching what you put into the soil, and even touched a bit again on some prohibited amendments and some amendments that CT NOFA asks us to either use with caution or to consider not using at all (peat moss because of its harvesting practices, fish emulsion because of mercury and overfishing).

By now you may be thinking, “Oh the heck with it! I’m getting some Miracle-Gro or some Osmocote and I’ll be done with it!”

Well, that’s certainly one option–not the organic one, but it’s always your choice. But if you’ll bear with me a minute longer, let me tell me what happens if you do that.

Back in my days of retail gardening, folks would ask me about fertilizers. And because I was there to sell and not espouse my personal philosophy, I would need to recommend a fast acting fertilizer on occasion. But this is what I’d say.

Use the Miracle-Gro now. But think of it like Slim Fast. It’s not a permanent weight loss solution. It’s a crash diet for the plant. It goes in fast, it’s used up fast, and you have to do it again, over and over, if you want results.

If you want something to feed the plants for the long haul–and who doesn’t? You don’t want to be a slave to your plants, right? Here. Use this. And then I’d give them whatever organic-y fertilizer we had on hand.

Most times it worked like a charm–as well it should–because who does want to be a slave to our plants?

But that’s not the only reason to avoid synthetic fertilizers. They are extremely good at what they do. When I have clients that use them, I am often shocked and dismayed at how lush their houseplants are compared to mine (not that mine are any slouches, mind you–but we’ve all seen those commercials on TV!)

But they don’t feed the soil. And feeding the soil (see Monday’s post) feeds your plants. And then there’s none of this little problem of “how do I fertilize my plants?”

The other thing the synthetics do is actively kill the good stuff in the soil. For those of you using synthetics, think about it: do you have earthworms? They are nature’s aerators. And never mind what you can’t see. There are billions of good bacteria in the soil. Pouring synthetics in there weakens and kills off the good stuff. And when we disturb the ecosystem, no good can come of that. That just invites insects and disease.

When I lecture, folks ask me how I control grubs, one of the most pernicious destroyers of lawns and plant roots in our part of the world (and I don’t just mean Japanese beetle grubs. In my part of the world, it’s European chafer and oriental beetles grubs too–the trifecta of grubs!)

I see the beetles all over my yard–but I have no grub damage (for that matter, I have very little beetle damage. Do you know what I tell them?

Invite the birds into your garden. But it’s really hard to do that with synthetics all over the place. You don’t want to poison your best method of pest control. But that’s Monday’s post!

Wordless Wednesday

After the recent article in the New York Times on gardening with moss (called “Gathering Moss” and found here) I have a renewed appreciation for the moss in my own yard.

While it’s been fairly dry by me so the moss doesn’t show in its best light, here are some examples.

moss and tree roots

This is in an area on a slope where the soil has been eroded and the moss has taken hold and stabilized the area. It’s under some maples and those are the maple roots.

moss in rock patio

This moss–two types actually–wants to take hold in some gaps in our rock patio. The Spoiler keeps wanting to kill it so I try moving it to other places in the yard to preserve it. The Spoiler is not a moss fan, sadly.

moss on bedrock

This bedrock is jutting out of the ground, about 5′ high. Its surface is becoming colonized with moss and lichen. While I haven’t yet cleared the pine needles off from winter (necessary if the moss is to flourish) you can still see the mosses underneath.

mossy lawn

Finally, this is our most successful area of moss–or mine, I should say. If it were up to the Spoiler, this would be grass. But this is a very narrow sloping area on the north side between two houses. We’re lucky anything grows at all!

You can see the moss colonizing the garden bed on the right of the photo as well. That’s fine. That bed has 5 large blue hostas in it once “summer” comes.

Organic Fertilizers And Soil Amendments

Because this is easily the most controversial topic, I was going to save it for last. But it is planting season in a good portion of the country (although not by me, yet) so I thought I’d better get this out there.

My post on Milorganite raised a bit of a kerfluffle late last month when the good folks in Milwaukee sent me all sorts of literature letting me know that they were more than “poop in a bag.” If you missed that and want to catch up, you can read that here.

My defense, and rightly so, was that they made a great product for certain things, but as an organic gardener following CT NOFA standards, I was prohibited from using it. And in drafting these posts about fertilizers and soil amendments, I urge you to take a look at what the NOFA standards say, not just about “sewer sludge” as they generically define products like Milorganite, but about all the types of amendments to the garden. After all, it’s best to know what to use as well.

Another thing they do prohibit, which I also mentioned in the above-referenced post, is any animal manures in certain types of constructed gardens within 120 days of harvest. Heck, in my climate, we’re lucky if we get 120 growing days on certain crops!

So just because you don’t live in Connecticut, don’t ignore these standards. They are wonderful guidelines for all organic gardeners to follow. I’ve been doing so since the first ones came out in 2001 (I think that’s when the first ones were published–they may have been earlier than that).

But what’s nice about a set of published guidelines like this is that–whether you agree with them or not–they give you a framework. When I lecture I can say, “And when I say organic, I am using the definition from….” and we all know what I mean.

But back to the fertilizer and soil amendments chapter. It begins on p. 27 of the CT NOFA standards and continues to p. 38. Pretty much everything I’ve said in my Let’s Not Be Mindless… series is covered there (with the exception of the seed starting and removing a shrub topics)–they even suggest that one not use peat moss.

Since it’s been quite some time since I’d read these, I was pleasantly surprised to see the peat moss recommendation there.

The primary soil amendment that is recommended is compost, preferably made on site. Next best is locally sourced. But of course, we all can’t do that–and one of my loyal readers says she can’t even get decent compost in a bag!

After that, there are discussions of different amendments and why they are not so much recommended but acceptable, and then a list of prohibited amendments.

Please read why sewer sludge is prohibited. It opened my eyes. That section has been expanded as well.

Finally a section on the various rock powders and bone and blood meal are discussed for their various nutrient capabilities. CT NOFA notes that both bone and blood meal should be handled with caution as they may contain pathogens. They even suggest that fish meal be used with caution–or thoughtfully–because of overfishing and possible mercury contamination.

Organic gardening requires a lot of thought but the rewards are well worth it. Please do yourself a favor and be a thoughtful gardener.

So What Exactly IS Organic Anyway?

As I am fond of saying, if we asked 10 traditional landscapers, “Is Roundup safe?” we’d get 10 “yes” answers.

But ask 10 organic gardeners a simple question and you’re likely to get at least 5 different answers as my post about Milorganite just hinted at. Fertilizers and soil amendments are two of the most divisive topics in organic gardening.

But before I even attempt to go there, what do we mean when we say “organic” gardening? I say I’ve been an organic gardener since 1994–20 years now. In terms of organics, that’s a lot longer than some, and not nearly long enough for many. But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a contest. I became totally organic when I moved to my current property and found no butterflies.

In researching butterflies, I found that they were extremely susceptible to pesticides. I said, “well, that’s easy. I just won’t use any.” And that was that.

My results brought over 30 different species of butterflies and moths back to the property–within 3 years. And except for invasive species, which even my neighbors who regularly have Chem-Lawn visit have (I’m sorry Tru-Green, as I believe they now call themselves)–and in more numerous quantities, because those neighbors are not constantly scouting their properties for the invasives like I am–the lack of “pesticides,” if you will, on my property hasn’t affected it at all.

Here is the incredibly long-winded definition of “organic” from Connecticut NOFA’s web site. A publication for homeowners with further information can be found here.

According to CT NOFA: “Organic Landscaping:

•Eliminates your children, your pets and your own exposure to harmful pesticides, many of which are carcinogens and/or are thought to affect childhood development
•Cuts the costs on repeated chemical applications, gasoline and sprinkler systems by using the free services offered by soil organims, pollinators, compost, plants and beneficial insects
•Makes your yard a force of nature. Promoting biodiversity and choosing native plants supports a self-sustaining yard that is resistent to pests.
•Uses natural fertilizers such as leaves and compost to add soil nutrients to the soil instead of synthetic fertilizers which disrupt soil biology and often run off into rivers polluting freshwater and marine habitats.
•Conserves water by using plants adapted to local rainfall patterns and by incorporating compost and mulch to retain moisture in the soil.
•Encourages beneficial insects to naturally control pests as a form of organic integrated pest management.”

There’s a lot here that goes way beyond my original, “Gee, that’s simple–I’ll just cut out the pesticides.” So over the coming days I’ll talk about the ways I incorporated some of the rest of these into my yard–what worked, what didn’t, how I’m still trying–and where there’s lots of room for discussion!

Wordless Wednesday–What Do Aphids Tell Us About Spring?

hellebore with aphids

Ah aphids–the insects that Stephen King couldn’t make up if he were trying. What do they tell us about spring? Well, first of all, they tell us that spring is arriving, even if it’s still snowing.

I took the above photo on March 30. On the 31st, we had more snow. I wanted to hurl myself out a window. Luckily, I don’t live or work anyplace tall enough to do myself damage so I restrained myself.

It may be a little difficult to tell but that’s a real close-up of one of the hellebores I got from the Flower show. Both of them have aphids. I was not happy to see that except in the sense that it meant spring had actually arrived.

Why do I insist that’s true? Well, aphids are the first insects out in the spring (and the last to go dormant in the fall). They are the hardiest of the bunch. But even they won’t come out until there’s new growth to feast on. And what sparks new growth? Lengthening days and warmer sun–spring!

I also tried to get a close-up (hence the somewhat weird photo rather than a traditional one.) Notice on the green leaf in the foreground the white specks that look like dust? Those are the nymph stage of the aphids. That’s your first chance to catch them, before they become full bodied, sap suckers.

The real “full-bodied” aphids, as I call them are on the flowers. Again, they might be hard to see. They’re up near the stamens and pistil and are almost translucent. These guys are clever and like to hide so they can do their work and sap the plant of energy before you even notice.

Most of us miss the nymphs completely because they look like dust. But when you’re watering you can often see them floating on the water. Pay close attention. I’m sure they’re out there, waiting to grow up and start affecting your plants too!

And after you wash the aphids off–or spray insecticidal soap–make sure you check all the plants around where the affected plant was. And wipe down the windowsill as well. There are dozens, if not hundreds of nymphs lurking there, just waiting to grow up. That way you won’t wonder, “Where did all these bugs come from?!”

You Read It Here First

So it seems that I’m going to have to disagree with even a respected garden writer like Amy Stewart. I read recently that she recommends 3-6″ of compost in the garden. While 3-6″ of compost top dressing the soil is better than 3-6″ of mulch, I still maintain that all you are doing with that much organic matter is inviting disease and rot into the garden.

You can read the piece where this recommendation was made here–it was a suggestion list for beginning gardeners. And believe it or not, not putting down this 3-6″ layer of mulch or compost is listed as one of the 9 biggest mistakes–it’s listed as #1.

Now while I would surely agree that failing to mulch or compost might be right up there–deep layers of either are no better and are surely worse! They invite disease, rot, fungal infections, critters of all sorts and worst of all, if gentle rains fall, they cannot even penetrate these deep layers.

Granted, gardeners should be using drip irrigation under mulch. But in areas that receive summer rains, the less one has to rely on the drip irrigation the better.

I’m not sure where this “the deeper the better” idea comes from. It may go all the way back to the 60s and the pioneers of organic gardening, Scott and Helen Nearing who gardened in Vermont and Maine. In their case, all this deep mulching might have served a purpose–they were gardening in some cold climates.

But they were also essentially doing what I call composting in place. And they were doing it prior to our wacky weather cycles of drought and deluge (although one might argue that weather is always unpredictable).

Still, to be sure, if you are gardening in a place that receives some rainfall, skip the mounds of mulch or compost and use more reasonable levels lest you be accused of creating “mulch volcanoes” in the garden.

Winter Has Been Hard on Wildlife Too!

Recently, two animals passed through my yard looking really awful. One was a young deer and one was a fox. I presumed that both had mange until I did some research and found that white tailed deer don’t generally get mange in my area. I felt a little better about that.

Two years ago we had a bout with mange in my house. One of my rescue dogs got it. We’re still not sure how, although the vet had some ideas. She never progressed to the shedding patches of fur stage (thank goodness) that you see in wildlife. She was just very itchy and eventually I caught on to what was happening because my husband and I both developed rashes from the microscopic mites that carry the mange.

The dog fared better (initially) with the treatment than we did. She was treated 3 times and recovered. My husband was treated for 4 months and I had to be treated for a whopping 8 months both topically and with pills. It was quite the adventure.

In wildlife, however, at least in winter, apparently, mange is ultimately fatal. I mention this because about a week ago a fox came to my pond to drink. It was one of the saddest looking foxes I have seen. Not only was it thin, but it was apparently infested with mange (yes, red foxes, along with coyotes, commonly do get that–see this fact sheet from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection).

My backyard pond is one of the few open bodies of water right now, unless it rains or if folks have heated bird baths–and those haven’t caught on around here. Our rivers, streams and lakes are pretty frozen still.

At any rate, this fox drank for quite a long time so I had a great chance to observe. And sadly, while it looked alert, it was very thin and had a very patchy coat. I felt very sorry for it.

Likewise, a deer passed through my yard two weeks or so ago. Again, I thought the same thing–the deer looks great but it’s fur was terribly patchy. Luckily, some research shows that white-tailed deer at least rarely, if ever, get mange. They may suffer from the presence of winter ticks–but surely not this winter! So perhaps what I was witnessing was the molting of its winter coat–although that seems a bit early to me.

Then again, what do I know? The starlings came back 6 weeks ago, and that seemed much too early to me as well. Presumably nature knows what its doing–that’s why I rely on the oak leaves to plant my tender plants, after all! And they have never failed me.