A New Year's resolution

You are hungry. You have lots of work to do. You sit down at the table, and the cook brings the plate and sets it before you. 

"What's this?" you gasp, as you look at the white china plate with three vitamin tablets in the middle.

"Here, wash them down with this," the cook says as he hands you a glass of blue liquid. "These megavitamins and energy drink have everything you need."

"But, but, but..." You cry, but the cook has already gone.

Now, imagine you are a starving plant, and the gardener sprays you with a high nitrogen fertilizer that also has phosphorus and potassium. It is said to be the best. It has all the nutrients a plant needs. Does it?This 'Tropicana' canna lily needs lots of nutrients to produce its colorful leaves.

Plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for photosynthesis (which converts carbon dioxide in the air to sugars and starches), for growth, and for the healthy development of leaves, flowers, seed, and fruit. Plants use large amounts of these nutrients, so soil is often lacking. Chemical fertilizers usually supply these minerals, and some may contain small amounts of other minerals such as iron or magnesium. 

However, the list of soil minerals needed for growth and disease resistance also includes: calcium, sulfur, boron, copper, chlorine, zinc, and molybdenum. The fact is that chemical fertilizers, while they may work quickly, often contain too much nitrogen and little or none of the other important nutrients. 

Organisms that make up natural fertilizers inherently contain large amounts of the minerals that plants need. In my last two posts, "Down in the dirt" and "How I spent my Christmas making mortar", I explained how compost and natural fertilizers improve soil structure and promote the normal ecosystem of underground organisms. Artificial chemicals are not able to do this and, in fact, can destroy the natural order that plants depend upon for life and growth. 

So here is my New Year's resolution, in which I hope you will join me:  I confess I have sometimes grabbed that blue chemical to give my plants a boost, but no more. I resolve to always feed my plants natural, healthy food. I know in my yard all the creatures of the underworld are going to party tonight.

Here are a few images taken of my yard, the last day of 2009. 

the side yard, early morning

the parking court out frontlooking across the front lawn, late afternoonNight is falling.Goodbye 2009. Happy New Year!

Wishing all of you the best - Deborah


Down in the dirt

Warning: This post is not for the squeamish, because we are going to get down in the dirt. Excuse me, I mean soil. I'm always having to correct myself.

What's the difference between dirt and soil? You can talk about soil at the dinner table. Soil is refined, and it grows vegetables and pretty flowers. Good soil promotes healthy growth in my garden. These are spring photos. On the lower left is the herb bed

Dirt is what's out in the wilds, and it grows good weeds. It gets under our fingernails and invades our homes. It is plebeian and gross, and kids had better wash it off.

Actually, it's all the same stuff. The difference is our attitude.

Soil (I'll be nice) is about 45 percent minerals or tiny pieces of rock, about 5 percent decayed plant and animal matter, and about 25 percent each of water and air. Sandy soil has the largest particles of rock, and water flows through it easily. The rock bits in clay soil are the smallest. When clay is wet, it is sticky; and when it is dry, it is hard (like concrete). It can contain lots of nutrients, but water has a hard time passing through. My pick ax and I know clay soil well, as that is what's in my yard. Loamy soil has medium size rock particles and is the ideal garden soil. Adding compost will improve the soil structure of all soils. 

I talked about compost and soil organisms in my last post, "How I spent my Christmas making mortar". According to Dr. Andrew Moldenke at Oregon State University, "Every time you take a step in an Oregon forest, your foot is being supported on the backs of 16,000 invertebrates held by an average total of 120,000 legs." I imagine something similar is true in an Alabama back yard.

All of these critters spend their lives gobbling up everything in sight, including each other. The food is processed through their systems and then excreted into the surrounding soil. This is an important way organic matter is transformed into minerals that plants can use for nourishment.

Heavy tilling and the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides disturb the normal underground ecology. Insecticides especially interfere with nitrogen fixation, which is the process by which certain bacteria and fungi transform nitrogen in the air to ammonia, which is a natural fertilizer promoting healthy leaves and good color.

Some lawns are on artificial life support. The chemical lawn company comes in the spring, and the lawn immediately responds with green growth. A couple months later, the grass is looking sickly, so the company returns to spray again. And again. And again. I use a natural fertilizer twice a year, in spring and fall. Green-up takes longer in the spring, but my lawn is thick and healthy throughout the year.This is a summer view of my lawn.

There are many good natural fertilizers, including earthworm compost; seaweed; rabbit, cow, horse, and chicken manure; wood ash and coffee grounds; and composted grass clippings. I also like to use fish emulsion on my herbs and vegetables. It is sad that each year the average family throws away about 1200 pounds of organic matter that could be composted. As gardeners we have a responsibility to care for the earth, for ourselves and for those who come after us, and that includes the world down in the dirt where little worms dwell.