Rocks Rock!

pioneer sand demoWe’d been working hard all week, moving slowly but determinedly through our list of move-in chores. It was time for a break. So… being the romantic sort (on occasion), my husband asked me if I’d like to go out for the evening—to look at rocks.

Sure, I answered. While not a huge fan of gravel and mulch, going out, even to look at rock piles, sounded tons better than another night spent discussing the placement of dressers and hanging pictures.

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Composting with Chickens

eggs-and-chickens-067It’s time to clean out the chicken coop. All summer my little flock has been happily picking weed and grass seeds out of the straw I spread in their coop last spring. At the same time, they’ve broken down the big pieces of grass stem into finer shreds. And, best of all, they’re balanced all that carbon with some nice, hot chicken manure.

Now that the weather has cooled a bit, I’m willing to venture out to the coop with a rake, scoop, and wheelbarrow. All that compostable material is heading for my veggie garden.

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New Advice on Soil Amendments

compost-in-bags-no-label-lowes-cs_lah_5090-1You’re gotten your test results back from the soil lab, telling you to add some organic matter. What’s the best thing to add?

In the past, I’d just bop on down to the local garden center and load up a few bags of… something. Soil amendment, composted manure, planting mix, potting mix, top soil, compost… there are hundreds of products, and the names are pretty random.

So are the ingredients. Since there are no legal standards, these bags can contain whatever the manufacturer wants them to. There’s no labeling law, either. If there’s a label at all, often you’ll see something like, “Contains (peat, forest products compost, and/or compost), wetting agent, fertilizer.” You have no idea if this particular bag has peat or compost, much less what went into that compost. And what’s a forest product? Bark? Sawdust? Squirrels?

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Take the Test!

The sun is shining, the lawn is turning green, and the birds are chirping. In fact, it’s a balmy spring day. Surely there must be something you can do to start your veggie garden! As a matter of fact, there is, but it doesn’t involve a single seed.

If you’re like most gardeners, you’ve never had your soil tested. Every year you dutifully spread a layer of compost and/or manure over your garden, dig it in, and plant. After all, that’s what every book, article, and website tells you to do. You might even add some fertilizer, just to be on the safe side. But if you’ve never had a soil test, you’re flying blind.

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Chicken Attraction

chicken_blkforestco_2200411_lah_2205r2-1

My therapist lives in a chicken coop. Yup. We have (currently) six hens. Whenever I need some reassurance, I head out to the shed where they live. I tell them all my problems. In fact, I can tell them anything; hens are experts at keeping secrets. When I’m finished complaining, they come around and bwaaaaak and braaap at me. Hens must make the most comforting noises in the animal kingdom! My hens always help me feel better, and they don’t charge $100 an hour.

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Too Much Compost?

 

veggie-garden-student-run-csu-perc-lah-094-1When I first encountered this concept—that a gardener could use too much compost—I immediately thought, “Is that even possible?” As an organic veggie gardener dealing with soil comprised of decomposed granite punctuated by lumps of sticky clay, too much compost seemed an impossibility. Isn’t compost the answer to all our gardening problems?

It’s true that “add compost” (or other organic matter, such as peat moss or leaf mold) is the best advice for gardeners dealing with either clay or sand. Organic matter opens up the solidly packed clay particles, allowing air and water—and therefore roots—to penetrate what would otherwise be an impervious substrate. In sand, organic matter acts as a sponge, holding on to both water and nutrients that would otherwise quickly drain away.

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Putting Your Garden to Bed

Early fall weather brings an invigorating briskness that invites us back into our gardens. Don’t resist. There is plenty to do:

  • carrot-sleeping-in-bedSpending time now on chores such as weeding and garden cleanup will reward you many times over when spring arrives.
  • Amending your soil this fall will give you a head start on next year’s garden.
  • Fall is also a great time to build a new patio or raised bed.
  • Protecting your less-hardy plants will increase the odds of them surviving a Colorado winter.
  • Finally, winter’s cold weather is a great time to read articles, take classes, and prowl the Internet to become a more knowledgeable gardener. Your county Master Gardeners are there to help, with research-based information that is tailored to your specific growing concerns.

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What Rot!

compost-piles-pbg-390Making your own compost is a great way to recycle yard waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. It’s the epitome of green gardening, and it’s really not that complicated.

The pile should contain about half fresh, green matter (fresh manures, grass clippings, weeds, kitchen waste) and half dry brown matter (fall leaves, straw, last year’s garden). If the manure you collect locally comes mixed with straw bedding, you already have the perfect combination for compost. Mix the green and brown parts together, or create thin layers.

Shredding your ingredients helps speed decomposition. In Colorado, an unshredded pile may take several years to break down, but it will eventually turn into compost.

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Digging Up Dirt

shoveling-manure-home-plh-sI keep talking about dirt. That is, I seem to have a soil fixation. Perhaps that’s because gardens begin with the soil. Properly prepared soil produces healthier plants, reducing the need for chemical sprays and fertilizer, and making more efficient use of water. Last May I discussed what soil is, and how to amend it. Today I want to expound a bit on the various types of amendments. I’ll also repeat myself a bit. That sort of thing happens as one gets older.

While living along the Front Range has many benefits, our soils are really pretty pitiful. Unless you are content growing a limited number of native plants adapted to this area, you’re going to have to improve on nature. What’s an environmentally responsible gardener to do?

In new plantings, it is worth spending a little time and money for a soil test. Knowing what your soil has, and what it lacks, helps you avoid many time-consuming and expensive mistakes. Follow the test result directions to maximize fertility and soil health. There are natural materials available to raise your levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous.

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Improving Your Soil

Soil is the foundation of your garden. It pays to invest in creating the best possible soil for your plants to grow in. Living along the Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains has many benefits. However, no one would move here for the black topsoil! Instead of the optimal 5% humus content, most of our soils have little or none. It’s up to us to improve on Mother Nature.

shoveling-manure-home-plhYou can easily increase the percentage of organic matter in your soil by adding compost or another organic amendment. This added humus will act as a sponge, increasing water retention in sandy soils. On the other hand, in clay it acts to improve drainage by increasing the size of air and water spaces. Plus, organic matter works with your fertilizer by holding nutrients in a form that is available for absorption by roots. As you can see, organic matter is an important component of healthy soil.

It’s best not to add too much organic material at once. Many organic amendments are based on manure, and could contain harmful amounts of salt, as well as weed seeds. Plus, the nitrogen in fresh manure can burn tender roots. Make sure to let manures age before adding them to your garden. Decomposition requires nitrogen. Any form of organic matter that isn’t completely decomposed will steal that essential element from your plants.

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