Fertilizing your garden | TheUnion.com

Fertilizing your garden

By Carolyn Singer

Special to The Union

This morning I picked a head of Red Cross lettuce from my garden. Eighteen inches across, it is a beauty. Now ordinarily that’s not a remarkable size for a mature lettuce harvested in early summer. But this was a special plant because it came up as a volunteer in the path between vegetable garden beds.

Thirty-one years ago when I arrived on my foothill property, I headed straight for the fenced area where I envisioned my vegetable garden. Earwigs had stripped all the vegetation from the crops I had planted Memorial Day weekend. Only weeds grew vigorously. I started over.

Garden beds were double dug, saving the scant topsoil. With a pick I removed the rocky subsoil, giving it a new location along the driveway. Layer by layer, I created new garden soil with organic material (including the weeds), aged manure, and even a bit of good soil from the woods, where it had been building for years. The topsoil became part of the mix.

While that first garden was not completed until Fourth of July weekend in 1977 (a very hot weekend, by the way), it was healthy and productive. Even pumpkins grew vigorously and matured before the first fall frost.

Each year seems to get better as I tend the soil in the garden. And while the amendments and cover crops are concentrated within the definition of the original beds, the lettuce I just harvested from the path is a testimonial to the fertility of my soil, even in designated path areas compacted by footsteps for three decades.

This year I added the usual soft rock phosphate and oyster shell to the primary beds. To increase organic matter or humus, which must be done each year, I added alfalfa meal and a certified organic poultry manure, both excellent for nitrogen availability. A fall-sown cover crop adds lots of organic material too. The oat straw used as a mulch last season has all but disappeared, and in its place are hundreds of young earthworms eager for their next meal.

In an area of poor soil, I began a new small compost pile in early May. This one had lots of clover plants in it, the rock powders mentioned, some manure, and a two-inch layer of good garden soil on top. Within two weeks, this “hill” became the planting site for my summer squash.

Of course this is long before the lower layers of vegetative materials have decomposed, but the squash roots find their way through the rich mixture. The plants are healthy and growing vigorously. This morning the golden beauty of the first squash blossom caught my eye as I headed into the garden to pick strawberries.

Other firsts have been enjoyed this past week: Japanese eggplant, Sweet Gold cherry tomato, bell and Ancho peppers, and several Garden Salsa peppers. One path is yielding an abundance of volunteer greens for stir fry and salads, originally seeded in spring 2007 from “Renee’s Mix.” I allow some vegetables to self-sow in my garden.

Healthy soil produces earlier crops even in years when cool spring temperatures slow the warming of the soil, as they have on my site this season. As my garden has increased in fertility each year, I have occasionally added biodynamic compost. This year, I am tempted by the organic worm castings available at Rare Earth, in Grass Valley. It doesn’t take much of these concentrated amendments to enhance an active soil.

Many readers have asked how and when to fertilize. Begin with your soil. Supplemental fertilization cannot be a solution for plants suffering in depleted soils. In my next column I will write about mulching, a critical practice for preserving soil and reducing irrigation. And I will also detail the rare times I spray fertilizers on already healthy plants.

I have an excellent book in my garden library by Sir Albert Howard, “An Agricultural Testament” published in 1943. He is considered the first pioneer of the organic method of farming. He asked, “Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession – the fertility of the soil – is preserved?

“On the answer to this question the future of civilization lies.”

Each one of us must commit to our land to organic practices.

For me, healthy soil also means that crops are productive, with ample harvest to share and preserve. Vegetables grow without stress and pests are rarely a problem. With so much food in the soil, plants are vigorous all season, leaving me free to enjoy the beauty of the garden.

Carolyn Singer has gardened in the foothills since 1977. She is the author of two books of deer-resistant plants: “Deer in My Garden, Vol. 1: Perennials & Subshrubs” and ” Vol. 2: Groundcovers & Edgers.” Gardening questions may be sent to csinger@stardustweb.net.

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