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Growing things to help other things grow


Chris Hennes
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"Winter" is approaching (such as it is, here in the southern US), so all of my summer crops got pulled out last week. The soil here is quite poor: before this housing development went in it had been wheat fields for many years, and the soil nutrients were nearly completely depleted. The underlying soil is a very heavy clay, and it proved extremely difficult to grow anything in this past season (the unusually hot July didn't help my tomatoes any, either). I'm trying something new this year (new to me, anyway), and last Friday I tilled the garden up again, added a bit of 10-10-10 fertilizer and some peat moss, and then planted a crop of Winter Rye. The idea is that the Rye a) is nearly invincible, and will grow all winter here, b) has a strong root system that will help break up the heavy clay soil, and c) fixes nitrogen, eventually helping to increase the nitrogen content of the soil. Anyone else growing a cover crop for the winter to get ready for next year's growing season?

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Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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No, but I would if I could...great idea.

Also, the continued addition of lots of organic matter (manure, compost, peat, etc.) will help the soil tremendously. I started with a rock-hard clay soil at one of my homes in San Jose, and ended up, after a few years, with a beautiful organic garden.

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I'm not, but my Grandpa ALWAYS grew a winter crop of rye in his 'truck garden' on Long Island, where the soil was diametrically opposed to yours in OK; all sand and very little organic matter. The rye survived New York winters, and was tilled under in the early spring to make better compost. I have to say, my grandaddy grew the best tomatoes I've ever tasted, even the ones we got when we lived in New Jersey! :wub:

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That's the beauty of rye: it stops growing in temperatures below 33°F, but it doesn't die, as long as it's been established for a few weeks before it starts staying that cold full time. It also is somewhat "aleopathic," meaning it suppresses weeds (at least, those with small seeds), for up to a month after its cut down, too, if you don't till it in. Since I'm growing this to improve soil conditions, I won't be harvesting any of the grain: I need those nutrients to get back into the soil. This is purely a green manure crop for me, designed to boost my tomato crop next year.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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Margaret Roach (former long time Martha Stewart garden editor) has a nice piece on her blog here about cover crops. She mentions grasses like wheat and rye, legumes clover and cow peas, as well as brassicas and mustards. She tills them under to mulch the soil before planting the "good stuff". I have done it in the past and it really works even in my temperate climate.

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That's the beauty of rye: it stops growing in temperatures below 33°F, but it doesn't die, as long as it's been established for a few weeks before it starts staying that cold full time. It also is somewhat "aleopathic," meaning it suppresses weeds (at least, those with small seeds), for up to a month after its cut down, too, if you don't till it in. Since I'm growing this to improve soil conditions, I won't be harvesting any of the grain: I need those nutrients to get back into the soil. This is purely a green manure crop for me, designed to boost my tomato crop next year.

If I recall correctly the nitrogen fixing part of the legumes is in the little knobs that form on the roots - not sure with rye. So maybe a bit of that grain could be harvested - not that it's legal to distill spirits of course!

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We live in Southern California, near the beach, and have very sandy soil. We finished our summer garden and are doing three things this year to help the soil. First of all in one area we are planting some crimson clover as a cover crop. In another area we are planting fava beans. They do well here...we LOVE to cook them...and they are good for adding nitrogen to the soil. And in a third small area we are going to try some sheet mulching as described in Gaia's Garden Permaculture book. Most of the online explanations of sheet mulching make it seem like a huge project, but we are doing a small area, using lots of old newspapers as well as organic materials and we will see how it goes. You know what we are told..."You feed the soil and the soil will feed you!"

Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon, or not at all.

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We use a very similar method in our sandy soils to the sheet mulching, but we call it a "lasagna bed." Our problem is that most of the real estate in this area is simply years worth of St. Augustine grass growth, and sandy. It is really sad what happens to the soil, and the depletion is heart breaking. Not an earthworm in sight!

When we first moved, I laid out my beds, then a layer of broken down cardboard packing boxes (reduce, reuse, recycle)laid directly on top of the turf, a couple of bails of peat, blood meal and bone meal sprinkled on top of that, then a thick layer of compost. I actually got some for free from the solid waste authority. I then put down soaker hoses on top, and then topped it all with a layer of plastic. I kept it moist (the first watering in particular has to be a deep one to moisten the peat) and let it cook for about six weeks. Took up the soaker hoses, tilled it in, replace the soakers, weed block and mulch on top - and went to town. I don't know how earthworms do it - but they somehow can find an oasis of organic material in a sea of really poor soil! You may be able to use a similar method later in the winter right on top of your rye. The rye would be thoroughly killed by the layers on top of it, preserving all the good stuff in the rye and the dead roots will be there to channel moisture and nutrients down into the clay.

I have very limited experience with clay soils, but my parents and gradparents stuff thrived in clay. They had a steady supply of livestock manure, though. I think the trick would work on clay as well - excepting maybe the peat. I use a lot of peat to hold moisture in the soil (my soil is too well drained). Composted manure is nothing but a good thing for nearly any soil as far as I know. A good population of earthworms will carry the organic materials into the soil, and of course help aerate it. Check Craigslist or something and see if there is a stable nearby that gives away compost. Composted manure and hay is tomato heaven - and usually the stables are giving it away figuratively if not literally. The lasagna bedding method I described above will catch heat at the surface and cook any weed seeds in the compost rendering them sterile.

I do this in the summer over about a six week period because that is my "fallow" season - but you have several months in the winter to build your soil, and your location looks plenty sunny enough to trap enough heat to do the job.

This is the third year on my main tomato bed, and when I transplanted last month it was like digging into pure worm castings! I also had the benefit of chicken manure compost from the girls, and I think that helped a great deal. The plants are off to a fantastic start! I did supplement with an organic fertilizer (TomatoTone) at transplant, but they haven't needed the usual liquid fertilizer boost I usually give them about a month in.

Do consider a rotation of peas or beans in that spot in the Fall after your tomatoes are in. The only thing I know of that consistently renders better soil than it is planted in.

Go get a soil test, and test it again before you transplant. It's worth it.

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If you really want to get it correct. Take a soil sample. The test is around $25 and it can tell you what to put into the soil. Tomatoes don't really use that much nitrogen and they need other nutrients during bloom. I'd be surprised if you didn't need some more organic matter.

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The cover crop in Canada is alfalfa -- my father grew up on a farm and told us that a rotating third of their farm was planted out in alfalfa every year. Clover is excellent too.

I trust you have a compost heap -- and yes I'm jealous of people who keep chickens. There's another technique I call Auto Composting: When you dig a trench or a hole into which to plant seed or seedlings grab the vegetable kitchen scraps and dig them into the trench along with the plants. Cover with soil, as you do with your plants. Worms will find those lettuce scraps. By August that celery you threw in there will be gone and your plants, and soil, will be happy.

Margaret McArthur

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This year I planted a spring green manure, buckwheat, & a fall/winter green manure, New Zealand white clover. I live near the beach on the OR coast & have acid, sandy soil (& many slugs & snails), w/a few lenses of clay scattered around. I hadn't used some of the veg garden area for a few years (did what produce growing I did in containers), so I used the buckwheat to sort of clear it after I'd dug it over, or keep it clear. I haven't had much luck with winter green manures, I've tried hairy vetch & one year that worked sort of ok. I'm not sure just what the problem is, it may be a combination of acid soil (even though I've limed off & on) and the days & nights usually are fairly cool. I planted the NZ clover seeds in early to mid September and the seeds germinated well but the seedlings aren't growing very fast. But I noticed that the seedlings had a little growing spurt over the 2-3 day period a couple of weeks ago when we had some unusually warm weather (80's). A new bunch of large Romano beans suddenly appeared on the vines as well, quite a dramatic response to sun & heat.

The buckwheat grows very well, I forget what it does--concentrates some minerals in its roots & stems, I think. It's also supposed to outgrow & choke out bindweed (a problem in this area), and maybe it does, sort of, a little. If you let the buckwheat flower (which I always do although I think that's when you're supposed to dig it in), it's a native bee & other flying insect attractant, so it's useful just for that reason. If you let it go to seed, you can collect the seed & plant it next year. It's easy to dig in and it seems to me it improves the texture of the soil as well.

This spring I helped a friend clean out her chicken house & was given some of what I'd cleaned out. That stuff definitely improved the fertility of my soil this year. I also do what Maggie the Cat does, but I do it all year around, in the veg garden if there's space (i.e., the green manure doesn't make it), otherwise, anywhere I can dig a hole & bury it. This spring I took out two shrubs that had died (turned out only one really died, the other one just died back almost to its roots) because of some unusually cold weather last winter. Lately I've been digging in my kitchen compost where the one shrub was while I try to figure out what I could put there, if anything. There's a rhodie in the front yard that needs to be moved. The worms & other soil critters seem to enjoy the kitchen compost, everything but the corn cobs & bits of egg shell disappears amazingly quickly, but the fertility of the soil has not improved that much. It is a very sandy, permeable, & acid soil and it rains a great deal in the winter so nutrients tend to wash away.

I think, for long run soil fertility, a soil w/some clay (if you can break it up) is better than a very sandy soil. I will probably always need to amend the soil, although evergreen huckleberry (a native) and the native strawberry & salal (native, has an edible berry), and blueberries all do well even this close to the ocean. I was given 2 red currant bushes a year ago & they seem to be doing ok too.

A friend w/many years of gardening experience & some clay in her soil, has said that planting potatoes helps to break up the soil.

Your local agricultural extension office (the Master Gardeners) may have some useful suggestions regarding improving your soil w/green manures & other means and generally they are aware of what does well locally. Many of the extension service handouts, articles, etc, are available online as well.

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Excellent point about the Extension offices, azurite. In my neck of the woods that's the Oklahoma State University Extension, and they are tremendously helpful. Their online resources are excellent, and are specific to the OK region (which is very helpful to me). They are also the ones who do the soil testing: as mentioned above, that's really the way to be sure that you've got the correct nutrient balance and soil condition for a particular vegetable. If you tell them what you are growing they will recommend exact fertilizer types and rates for that product, which is great. I'm growing the rye this year at their suggestion.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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  • 4 months later...

So last September I planted that rye: here's what it looks like now---

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It's interesting to me how "patchy" it is. I supposed that's a function of the underlying soil? Anyone know what this stuff is actually supposed to look like? I guess it doesn't really matter much, in another month it's going to get cut down, but I'm curious about it.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I grew winter rye in Iowa a couple of winters and it was 3 feet high with seedheads by the time I turned it under in the spring. I don't, however, remember how much of the growth was in the spring as opposed to Oct-Jan. So I guess your soil is pretty poor. See if any neighbors have extra horse manure--that really helped the tomato patch.

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  • 2 months later...

A couple months of spring here, and this is what it looked like before I cut it down yesterday:

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I had the soil tested and I have a ton of phosphorous and potassium, and almost no nitrogen at all. So I'm hoping that between the rye composting over the summer, and the nitrogen fertilizer I put down at the recommended level, that this patch is well-primer for tomatoes this season.

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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I have the same situation in my yard up the road from you. You are on a good track. A lot of people see clay soil as a curse, but it does ha(all be it, few... :unsure: ) This year I simply amended with manure /humus, and put down some 12-10-10, and some pine bark mulch and we will see what happens. So far my peas are very, very happy. (we will see about everything else soon) I realize the pine is a risk on the nitrogen, but I figure I am adding it back in with the fertilizer. Getting that stuff tilled in was a night mare!

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