If you have a peaked roof, roof gardens may not be not for you. But what about garden plants on your shed, chicken coop, or other flat-topped structure?
We are not going to get into the details of how to install a roof garden here because that would mean talking about moisture barriers, structural integrity, and a bunch of other topics beyond my skill set or interest level. You can check out this article for more of that information.
Instead of learning all the technical stuff needed to safely build a large-scale roof garden, we are simply going to explore roof gardens and learn a little about what they have to offer. Before we get started, we need to clarify the difference between green roofs and roof gardens. Roof gardens incorporate container plantings, seating areas, and outdoor living space, while green roofs are living blankets of plants installed primarily to improve insulation. Sod roofs are a type of green roof.
Roof gardens and rainwater
In cities around the world, rain falls on buildings and concrete, collecting car exhaust, trash, dust, grime, and who knows what else. This polluted water is then carried to our lakes, steams, oceans, and aquifers. Not good. Roof gardens reduce that run-off by absorbing the water and using it to provide for plants.
Roof gardens as habitat
Let’s face it - city dwellers rarely have access to enough natural surroundings. Roof gardens can offset that lack. Wildlife benefits in similar ways. Roof gardens provide habitat for a wide variety of native birds, animals, and beneficial insects. A series of roof gardens can also create a corridor for migratory birds and insects
Basic roof garden design
If you are sold on the roof garden idea and want to move forward, here are things you need to consider:
Rooftop garden plant selection
Rooting depth is particularly important when gardening on a roof. Check this list of plants and their minimum rooting depths to help you select the right plants for your roof garden:
Plants that can withstand a lot of wind and sun are also good choices. Succulents and most herbs certainly qualify. Remember, installing a roof garden can reduce summer energy costs by 25% to 80%.
Plus you get fresh herbs and vegetables!
Put aside images of a serene, manicured Japanese tea garden and imagine, instead, growing your own tea.
There’s nothing like a hot cup of tea to put your mind at ease or boost your spirits and there’s no reason why you can’t grow some of your own.
Tea is second only to water as the world’s most popular beverage. Unfortunately, commercially produced teas can contain pesticides, fungicides, and even heavy metals, such as mercury and arsenic.
For me, that’s reason enough to start growing my own.
Traditionally, tea is made by pouring boiling water over the cured leaves of tea plants (Camellia sinensis). Tea plants can be grown outdoors in Zones 8 - 12, or indoors year round. Tea plants are evergreen shrubs native to East Asia. Tea plants can reach 6 feet in height and they have a deep taproot. Tea plants use a lot of water. Their native regions get 50” of water a year.
Tea leaves and terminal buds, known as flushes, are typically harvested while young. This is generally done by hand twice a year, up to every week or two, depending on the local climate. High quality teas are picked by hand. Leaves are then allowed to wilt before they are “disrupted” or “macerated”. This process bruises or tears the leaves to allow enzymes to start the oxidation process. Leaves may be rolled between between a person’s hands, or crushed by machinery. Finally, the leaves are heated to halt oxidation. There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea.
If you love tea, you know that you can also enjoy herbal teas. Herbal teas generally do not contain the caffeine found in regular tea. Many herbal tea plants are lovely to look at and they tend to be pretty resilient. Much of that resiliency is from the essential oils that gives these plants their flavor. Apparently, bugs and pathogens don’t enjoy them the way we do!
There are several traditional plants to choose from for your tea garden: bergamot, German chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, and mint. But you might also want to consider blackcurrants, borage, coriander, dill, elderberries, giant hyssop, ginger, hibiscus, jasmine, lemongrass, lemon thyme, licorice, oregano, raspberry and blackberry leaves, rose hips, or rosemary. Most edible flowers and even dandelions can be used to make tea. [And homegrown tea makes lovely gifts!]
Tea garden design
You can certainly intersperse your tea plants throughout your garden, grow them in containers on your patio or balcony, or you can create a lovely display dedicated to tea. You can build an elegant parterre, an artistic knot garden, a rustic cottage garden style, or something else entirely. Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about gardening. You can try just about anything. It won’t always work, but you’re bound to learn something in the process. And you just might discover something amazing about your plants or yourself. Back to the tea.
Harvesting and storing tea
Fresh tea leaves or herbs should be cleaned of dust and bugs and then hung or laid out to dry, out of the sun. Placing leaves in an old pillowcase laid flat works well. Once they are completely dry, your tea leaves need to be kept away from light, moisture, air, and heat. Air-tight tins and storage jars kept in cabinets work well for storing tea and you can find a great selection at yard sales and thrift stores.
How to make a proper pot of tea
Being raised in an age of microwaves, take-out, and instant everything, few of us have actually learned how to make a proper pot of tea. Different varieties of tea need to be handled differently, but they all start with a kettle of boiling water. You want to use the water as soon as it starts to boil. Let it go too long and the water will taste flat.
While you wait for your kettle to boil, prepare the tea leaves. Generally speaking, one heaping teaspoon per cup is recommended. You can put the leaves into a tea sock, an infuser, or use a tea ball. The trick is to make sure the tea leaves can expand. You can also put the leaves directly into your teapot, but you will want to warm your teapot with some of the boiling water first. This will help keep your tea warm.
Some people prefer their tea strong and dark, while others, like my mother, simply wave a teabag at the hot water. Both are fine. The idea is to soak, or steep, the leaves in the hot water long enough to extract the flavor you prefer. Traditionally, steeping times vary by tea type:
Once the preferred taste has been attained, remove the leaves. If the leaves stay in the water for too long, your tea can taste bitter. Wrap your teapot in a cozy to keep it warm and enjoy!
Which plants would you like to include in your tea garden?
Stop getting rid of soil mites!
There are certainly plenty of bad mites: dryberry mites, Eriophyid mites, plum bud gall mites, and two-spotted spider mites are just a few. But not all mites are bad. Like their predatory cousins, European red mites, soil mites are your helpers.
Soil mites are extremely beneficial when it comes to releasing nutrients into the soil and controlling pest populations.
Conduct an online search for ‘soil mites’ and you’ll see dozens [millions] of sites telling you how to get rid of these pencil-point size arachnids. But getting rid of them is the last thing you should do. So, what’s so great about soil mites? Let’s find out!
What are soil mites?
Mites are arthropods. This means they have an external skeleton, a segmented body, and jointed legs. They are also arachnids, like ticks and spiders, but very tiny. If you were to take a sample of soil that weighed about the same as a bar of soap, 100 g give or take, you might have 500 mites from 100 different genera in that sample. These buggers are really tiny. With the naked eye, they might look like nothing more than little brown or white dots. But these little guys are important.
While there are over 20,000 known soil mite species, with an estimated 80,000 total, it is easier to categorize soil mites by what they eat. They can be herbivores or carnivores.
Plant-eating soil mites
To something as small as a ballpoint pen tip, fungi make a great meal. So do bacteria and lichen. These scavengers are abundant in most soils and they help plants gain access to nutrients. As these soil mites graze on the fungi and bacteria that grow on root surfaces, they poop out those meals in the form of plant food. They also shred decaying plant material as they feed on the bacteria and fungi clinging to those plant surfaces. Fungal feeding mites (Oribatei) look like little orbs. Also known as turtle mites, moss mites, and beetle mites, these soil mites are very tiny. Let’s call them moss mites. Moss mites range in size from 0.2 to 1.4 mm long. This means you could fit 10-90 of them across a dime, end-to-end, depending on the species.
Insect-eating soil mites
Other soil mites are predators. Predatory soil mites feed on microscopic garden pests, such as nematodes, fungus gnat and thrips pupae, springtails, other mites, and the eggs and larvae of other insects. Most predatory soil mites are 0.5 mm long, brown, and found in the top 1/2” of the soil. [Unfortunately, I could not find any freely available photos of predatory soil mites.]
While not all mites are good, soil mites are your friends in the garden.
Let them be, and be glad they’re around!
Growing leafy greens and other edibles in toxic soil can make you very sick. In some cases, it can kill you. Toxic soil contains heavy metals and other poisons. Often found under landfills, junkyards, and factories, toxic soil is increasingly found in urban areas.
What makes soil toxic?
Healthy soil contains a balance of organic matter, air, water, and minerals that plants use as food. Some of those helpful minerals, such as boron or molybdenum, can reach toxic levels in the soil. Heavy metals can also make soil toxic. So can organic pollutants, such as creosote, excessive fertilizer, herbicides, industrial solvents, pesticides, explosives, and petroleum products. In some cases, radioactive materials, such as radon and certain forms of plutonium, can be in your soil. It ends up that fill dirt used to be brought in from questionable locations when building homes. [Hopefully, that doesn’t happen any more.] The problem is, without soil testing, you don’t know what you have.
Soil is the earth’s filtering system. Like our kidneys, it can only handle so much. Heavy metals and other toxins in the soil often leach into groundwater. They can also become part of the dust that you inhale and the foods you eat. Toxins can be absorbed through your skin and may even coat produce you grow or buy at the store. [Always rinse off your leafy greens and root vegetables, and wash your hands frequently, just in case.]
Is your soil toxic?
The first step to learning whether or not you have toxic soil is a soil test. Not those cheap plastic things. A real, lab-based soil test. They are inexpensive and extremely valuable. Especially if your soil is toxic.
If your soil test results indicate heavy metals, such as lead contamination, or other toxins, there are steps you can take to remove those dangerous materials. Traditionally, that meant simply digging up the toxic soil and burying it somewhere else. Today, many researchers are looking to plants for a solution.
Put plants to work!
As plants absorb water and nutrients, they also take up nonessential elements, such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can contaminate soil. Using plants to remove toxins from soil is called phytoremediation. Phytoremediation uses plants to contain, remove, or render toxic contaminants harmless.
Phytoremediation plants can be classified as accumulators or hyperaccumulators. Accumulators (A) are plants that pull toxins out of the soil and up into their aboveground tissues. Beets, for example, will absorb and accumulate radioactive particles found in the soil. Hyperaccumulators (H) collect toxins particularly well, absorbing up to 100 times the toxins of accumulator plants. Sorghum is a hyperaccumulator of arsenic.
How does phytoremediation work?
Accumulators and hyperaccumulators can reduce toxins in the soil through several different processes:
There are advantages to using plants to clean toxins from soil: it’s inexpensive; it doesn’t harm the environment; and it preserves valuable topsoil. The disadvantage is that this is a slow process. It can take years.
Several studies have demonstrated that specific varieties of certain plants are very good at dealing with toxic soil. While I understand that Latin plant names can feel tedious at times, different cultivars behave differently, so getting the proper plant makes a big difference. For example, not all willow species are useful at cleaning soil. Studies have shown that Salix matsudana and S. x reichardtii are far more effective than other willow species.
Many trees, including American sweet gum, larch, red maple, spruce, Ponderosa pine, and tulip trees are able to accumulate radioactive particles (radionuclides), such as radon and plutonium.
Which plants remove which toxins?
I created the chart below from information provided by several studies on toxic soil and phytoremediation.
You can email me if you would like a larger version of this chart,
Keep in mind that, just because a plant will absorb toxins, does not mean it is something suited to your garden or your region. Some nasty invasives have become firmly established that way.
Did you know that some companies extract these toxic and sometimes valuable minerals from plants? This is called phytomining.
Now you know.
Healthy soil is teeming with microscopic life. Most soil organisms are beneficial, but some of them carry disease. The more you know about soil borne diseases, the better you can protect your plants.
The biggest problem with soil borne diseases is knowing they are there. You can’t see the pathogens. Damage can be done before you know anything is wrong. Also, symptoms of soil borne diseases can look a lot like nutrient imbalances, chemical overspray, and poor environmental conditions. This is why it is so important to monitor your plants regularly.
Fungi and nematodes are behind most soil borne diseases, but there are other players and some of them are relatively new discoveries.
Nematodes are microscopic, unsegmented worms. Some of them are beneficial and some carry disease. Beneficial nematodes kill cutworms and corn earworm moths. Disease-carrying nematodes include needle nematodes, root-knot nematodes, and stubby root nematodes. The real problem with nematodes is that there are so many of them. It is estimated that, for every person on earth, there are 60 billion nematodes. [Thank goodness they aren’t all bad!]
There is another class of soil borne disease carriers called Phytomyxea [FI-toe-muh-kia]. Scientists used to think they were a type of slime mold, but genetic testing and electron microscopes have taught us that they are their own group. Phytomyxea are plant parasites that can cause clubroot in cruciferous vegetables and powdery scab in potatoes.
Bacterial diseases are less likely to be soil borne because bacteria have a hard time surviving in the soil. Also, they need a wound or natural opening to get inside your plants. That being said, the following soil borne diseases can occur in your garden:
Soil borne viral diseases are rare. In most cases, they are transmitted by nematodes and certain fungi. Soil borne viral diseases include lettuce necrotic stunt and wheat mosaic, which causes stunting and mosaics in wheat, barley, and rye.
How to prevent soil borne disease
In nature, plant diseases rarely get out of hand. Soil pathogens are usually kept in check by other organisms and plants’ defense mechanisms. However, as we select plants, spray chemicals, and stir up the soil, we interrupt those protections. The main cause of soil borne diseases taking hold is an imbalance in soil populations. Reduced biodiversity gives pathogens the upper hand.
One way to reintroduce that biodiversity is by top dressing with aged compost. Research has shown that top dressing with aged compost is very effective at suppressing soil borne diseases in greenhouses, though less so in the field. In both situations, the more compost was added, the more effective it was. Interestingly enough, if the compost was sterilized beforehand, it was less effective. I think we can assume the effect is at least partially biological.
As with most diseases, three factors must be present for a problem to occur: the host plant, the pathogen, and the right environmental conditions. This is called the disease triangle. Remove any one of the three and the disease is prevented or controlled. Crop rotation is an excellent way to break this disease triangle. Your rotation schedule will vary depending on the disease.
While you can, in some cases, apply treatments directed toward specific pathogens, they don’t always work. Most of these treatments consist of other microorganisms that prey on the pathogens. These only work if your soil already has everything the introduced microorganisms need. Funny thing is, if all those things were already there, so would most of the predators. Biodiversity is your friend. In fact, mycorrhizal fungi (good guys) often create protective mats which contain antibiotics and pathogenic toxins around plant roots, all while helping your plants absorb nutrients.
Use these tips to prevent soil borne diseases in your garden:
Finally, as tempting as they may be, chemical treatments are rarely a good choice for backyard gardeners. Pathogens are developing resistance to these treatments which means stronger chemicals must be used. Whenever possible, use some other method of controlling soil borne diseases.
For every acre of garden, there is the equivalent of two mature cows, by weight, of soil bacteria living there. Ponder that a moment.
Your average cow weighs about one ton. Two cows weigh about the same as a car. That’s a lot of soil bacteria! For a different view, you could fit 15 trillion bacteria into a single tablespoon, if nothing else was there.
What are all those one-celled creatures doing in your soil?
Truth be told, much of your garden soil is made up of dead bacteria. Affectionately known as ‘bio bags of fertilizer’, soil bacteria are important players in nutrient cycling and decomposition. While still alive, their excretions improve soil structure by binding particles together into aggregates. This improved soil structure results in better water infiltration rates and it increases your soil’s water holding capacity. As bacteria breath, they release carbon dioxide into the soil. Plants love carbon dioxide.
Soil bacteria are most commonly found in the film of water that coats soil particles. Bacteria can’t move very far on their own. They generally move with water, though they sometimes hitchhike on passing worms, spiders, and insects. This is called phoresy.
Under ideal conditions, a single bacteria can produce 16 million copies of itself every 24 hours, doubling its population every 15-30 minutes. Conditions are rarely ideal, so bacteria reproduce as much as they can, whenever they can.
There are four basic groups of soil bacteria: decomposers, mutualists, lithotrophs, and pathogens. Most soil bacteria are beneficial. Pathogens are the troublemakers.
The majority of soil bacteria are decomposers that break down plant and animal debris into simple compounds which plants and other living things then use as food. This makes soil bacteria an important part the soil food web. Some decomposers can break down pesticides and pollutants. Decomposers also store a lot of nutrients in their bodies. When they die, those nutrients become available to your tomato plants. [Soil bacteria are 10-30% nitrogen.]
Mutualists have working arrangements with plants that benefit both sides of the equation. The most commonly known mutualists are the rhizobia bacteria which convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form useable by plants. Very often, these mutualists live on or in the roots of legumes, such as peas and beans. Other mutualistic soil bacteria are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen without the help of plants, but the plants still benefit.
You don’t hear much about lithotrophs, but this group is unique in that they don’t eat carbon compounds, the way other bacteria do. Instead, they manufacture their own carbohydrates, without photosynthesis, and feed on chemicals, such as hydrogen, iron, nitrogen, and sulfur. This group is also known as chemoautotrophs. These soil bacteria help break down pollutants and are an important part of nutrient cycling.
These are the disease-causing bacteria. They can cause fireblight, bacterial wilts, cankers, galls, and soft rot. The beneficial soil bacteria are always at war with these germs, competing for food, space, air, and moisture.
Killing bacteria is difficult. Most often, if conditions become difficult, a bacteria will simply enter a dormant stage. This is why many Quick Fix treatments don’t work. They don’t kill the bacteria, they just send it on a temporary hiatus. There are some soil bacteria (Streptomycetes) that actively protect plants from bad bacteria.
Why do soil bacteria matter to gardeners?
Most soil bacteria are valuable members of your team. They provide a huge benefit to your soil and plants. And you need to know what the bad bacteria look like when they start to set up housekeeping. The earlier you break those disease triangles, the faster your can return to harvesting your delicious crops.
Most bacteria are aerobic, which means they need oxygen. This is why turning your compost pile makes everything decompose faster. You are providing the decomposer bacteria with the air they need. If you don’t, the anaerobic, non-air breathing bacteria take over. Those are the ones associated with rot and purification. [Ew!]
Did you know that soil bacteria will consume more water than they can hold, causing their bodies to burst? Yet another argument against over-watering...
Sand slips through your fingers. Clay clods defy your shovel. And somewhere in-between is the sweet spot with bits and pieces of soil just the right size for plant roots. Whatever the size, these chunks are called soil aggregates.
To learn about soil aggregates, you will need a scoop of dry soil from your garden. Put the soil in a bowl. Are there a lot of different sized pieces or are they mostly the same? If you look closely at the photo below, you can see a clear line between the old clay layer and all the decomposing mulch and compost that I have been putting on top. Over time, those organic materials work their way down, into the clay, reducing compaction and improving drainage. These improvements will occur because of soil aggregates.
Take another look at your soil. Stir it around a bit. Pick some of it up and roll it around in your hand. Rub it with your fingers. Does it feel gritty? Or powdery? Do the clumps mostly hold together? Do they crumble completely or do they feel like rocks? Soil aggregates, also known as ‘peds’, are the clumps that tend to stay together when you work the soil.
Why do soil aggregates matter?
Healthy soil has a variety of aggregate sizes, with plenty of large spaces (macropores) between the aggregates and tiny spaces (micropores) inside the aggregates. These spaces are used by roots and gases to move through the soil. These spaces are also what allow water to soak in, increasing your soil’s water holding capacity. And plant nutrients stick to these clumps.
In some cases, aggregates are not as important. Sand, for example, has no aggregates, but there are so many spaces between grains of sand that plant roots, water, and gases have no trouble moving around. [Hanging on to water and nutrients is something else altogether!] Soils with low bulk density are another case where aggregates don’t matter as much. For the rest of us, the soil aggregates in our gardens have a huge impact on plant health, especially tender seedlings. If your soil’s aggregates are unstable, seedlings can suffocate.
Aggregates are described according to their stability. If your soil crumbles into dust, you probably have a lot of clay or silt and that can mean your soil has low aggregate stability. Low aggregate stability increases problems with erosion, gas exchanges, root development, and permeability. More immediately, as rain, irrigation, or sprinkler water strikes the soil surface, flimsy aggregates can be broken. Those tiny broken bits clog the spaces in the soil, making life difficult for plant roots, worms, and soil microorganisms. It also causes crusting which can kill seedlings before they get a chance to grow.
How do soil aggregates form?
Healthy soil aggregates are held together by clay, organic matter, and glomalin. Glomalin is a protective fungal excretion that helps the fungi feed your plants and binds soil aggregates together. Bacteria have similar excretions which are not as effective.
Organic materials in the soil usually mean decomposition is taking place. Decomposition means fungi, worms, bacteria, and microorganisms are present. Those life forms excrete coatings and other materials that help soil aggregates form and stabilize. Finally, as clay particles become moist, they act as a cement, holding molecules and particles together into aggregates.
Test your soil for aggregates
Returning to your soil sample, select a few particularly large clods and gently set them aside to dry completely. Once they are really dry, dip them into a glass of water. If they break up quickly it means your soil has low aggregate stability. If the clods retain their shape for 30 minutes or more, your soil’s stability is high. Because my soil contains so much clay, it pretty much dissolves immediately. As more organic material is incorporated, my soil will breath better, hold its shape better, and provide plenty of pores for roots, water, and microorganisms.
How can you improve the aggregates in your soil?
Start by taking a look at your soil test. If your soil contains a lot of calcium or iron, it probably already has good aggregates. If your soil holds too much salt, aggregates are harder to come by. The biggest indicator of good soil aggregates is the amount of organic matter found in the soil. By mulching and top dressing your soil with manure and aged compost, you are encouraging all the life forms that help soil build healthy aggregates. This is why no-dig gardening has become so important. We learned that excessive digging, plowing, and rototilling disrupt the soil dwelling populations that create and maintain good soil aggregates.
If your soil aggregates are unsatisfactory, use these tips to encourage better soil structure in your garden and landscape:
How did your dip test turn out? Let us know in the Comments!
Why is beach sand mostly white and tan while rich farmland is practically black? What does soil color tell you about your soil?
Soil occurs in many different colors. Iron-rich soil tends to be reddish orange or green, while peat can be practically purple!
Go outside and collect a handful of your soil and put it in a clear container. Shake it around a little bit. Is it wet or dry? What color is it? Brown? Maybe. But I’ll bet it’s not that simple.
What does soil color tell us?
Each layer of your garden soil has a unique color. The deeper you dig, the lighter those colors tend to get. Soil color tells us which minerals are present and the level of decaying organic material. It can also tell you how old a soil is, which processes are occurring, and about local water behavior.
We are not going to explore soil age or the chemical processes that take place in soil, but you can use soil color to make better decisions about irrigating and fertilizing your garden.
Soil moisture levels
We all know that soil looks darker when it is wet. But soil color can tell you how long the soil stays wet. Soil that does not drain well and stays wet for much of the year tends to be a dull yellow or grey. Wet soil contains less oxygen than dry soil. Oxygen causes some minerals to oxidize, or rust. Iron-rich soil that contains a lot of moisture most of the time will turn grey or greenish, while drier soils expose iron to more oxygen, turning the soil red or yellow.
Soils that stay wet often have more complex color patterns, while arid soils are more uniform. If your soil colors are uniform, you know that the water table is lower and you will probably have to irrigate more often. If your soil is reddish, you will probably never need to amend with iron. Remember, the minerals found in soil are plant food.
Minerals make a difference
Other minerals in your soil can also affect its color. Knowing what these colors mean can help you select the best soil amendments and irrigation schedules.
What color is your soil?
Take a closer look at your soil sample. What do you see? Is it yellowish-brown or dark brown? Or something else entirely? When we first moved to our San Jose, California house, the soil was a pale, tan color and as hard as concrete.
For many of us, identifying a specific color can be tricky. Brown is brown, right? But soil can be all sorts of shades of brown, along with a bunch of other colors. To help you get really specific information about the color of your soil, you may want to go to the library and check out their copy of the Munsell soil color book.
Munsell’s color book
Soil color is so important that a system of soil color classification has been developed. This classification method is called the Munsell soil color system. A Munsell book is the gardener’s equivalent of a paint chip book, containing 199 color chips. Its pages are heavy card stock and they are organized by color. Underneath each color chip is a hole in the card stock that lets you hold a soil sample underneath for comparison. On the opposite page tells you the universally accepted name for that color. This is a coding system used around the world by soil scientists, farmers, and gardeners like you!
You artists out there know a lot more about this than I do, but let me give it a shot. According to my Munsell book, colors are described using hue, value, and chroma. Hue is the wavelength we see as color. Munsell’s book gives codes for red (R), yellow (Y), green (G), blue (B), and purple (P). Those wavelengths are measured in graduations of purity, ranging from 2.5, 5. 7.5 and 10. A pure hue is rated at 5. Numbers above 5 indicate the presence of other hues. Value indicates lightness or darkness. A value of zero indicates pure black, while 10 is white. Finally, chroma refers to a color’s strength or intensity, ranging from greyed out (/0) to full intensity (/14).
A Munsell soil color rating is written with the hue letter first, followed by a space and then the number value, a forward slash (or virgule), and then the chroma number. Decimals can be used to provide greater clarity.
Looking at a photo of my soil when we bought our place in 2012, I see that the color most closely matches 5YR 7/1. According to Munsell, that soil would be called 'light grey'. As noted earlier, this indicates high calcium carbonate, gypsum, magnesium, sand, and/or salt levels. It can also indicate too much moisture. Funny thing, the previous owner loved to apply fertilizer and overwater the property. According to my 2015 soil test, soil organic matter was at 3.5% and all the nutrients, except iron, were through the roof! Iron was extremely low.
Seven and a half years later, after adding lots of mulch and compost, a little nitrogen, appropriate watering and nothing else, my soil has been transformed to 2.5YR 3/0, with 7.6% organic matter and nutrient levels (slowly) dropping to where they should be. [These changes never happen overnight. When they do, beware! Something is very wrong.]
The new color is 'very dark grey' which goes along with all the chicken bedding, wood chips, and other organic materials I've been adding. And my iron levels are still way too low, which is why the chroma numbers have stayed low.
So, take another look at your soil sample. Does it tell you more than it did? If you live nearby, feel free to bring a soil sample by so we can take a look in my Munsell book together. If not, head to the library.
Did you know that carpet manufacturers use the Munsell soil color system to match local soil colors with carpet dyes so that their carpets will look cleaner longer?
Now you know.
When your house was built, the soil was significantly altered. Construction soil can be severely compacted and rocky. This problem persists for many years, long after the bulldozers have moved on.
What can you do to transform construction soil into friable garden soil?
What is construction soil?
When a house is built, no one wants it to fall down. Around 500 B.C., a man named Pythagoras figured out the correct angle for walls to be built to reduce the likelihood of collapse. Well, the soil under those walls is equally important for building stability.
Building sites are scraped flat, removing much of the nutrient-rich topsoil, and then mechanically compacted. This is great for your house and terrible for the soil. And if the local soil isn’t stable enough for building, nutrient-poor fill dirt is brought in, mixed in and compacted, until builders have the surface they need. After construction is complete, sod is installed, a few trees and shrubs popped into place, and a cosmetic planting of annual flowers makes everything look lovely. But it’s a lie.
The soil under new construction is reeling in shock. Heavy equipment, trucks, materials, and foot traffic have been crushing the soil, plant roots, microorganisms, insects, and worms for weeks or months of building. Simply adding an attractive top dressing of plants does not correct the problems.
What can you do about construction soil?
Of course, over time, most plants and lawns manage to push roots into the soil and grow. But they could be far healthier and easier to care for if the construction soil they are trying to grow in was transformed into something loose, nutrient-rich, and populated with helpful microorganisms.
You can make that happen with these tips:
If you do not currently compost kitchen and yard waste, you can easily start a compost pile wherever your least healthy soil is. Simply drop equal parts brown and green materials into a pile, water it and flip it every few days, and within a few weeks (depending on the season) you will have a nice batch of aged compost and that spot will be super-charged with nutrients, microorganisms, worms, and other soil beneficials. If you have a few chickens, adding their bedding and manure to the pile makes it even better!
Finally, get your soil tested by a local lab. Over-the-counter kits are not accurate enough to be useful. Inexpensive lab-based soil tests tell you which nutrients are needed, which are present in excess, and if you have lead-contaminated soil.
Even if you have lived in your home for decades, the effects of construction soil may still be present. Creating healthy soil means that your plants will be better able to defend themselves against pests and disease, along with frost and drought damage. In other words, healthy soil gives you more time to relax!
The government might know more about your soil than you do. Did you know you can access the USDA’s soil map of your property? You can and I am going to show you how.
What are soil maps?
Soil maps, also known as soil surveys, are used by architects and engineers to determine a soil’s ability to support roads or structures. Farmers use soil surveys to help them decide the best use for their land and you can, too. Your soil map can help you with plant selection, irrigation, and other gardening decisions.
Soil maps are the combined information collected by various government agencies on different types of soil. Soil surveys used to be printed in book form by every county. We don’t do that anymore. [Thank goodness!] Now, all the information is found online.
How to access a soil survey
All of the information the U.S. government has about your soil is available at the USDA’s Web Soil Survey page. Because this page isn’t exactly intuitive to use, we will work through it together. Once you open the webpage, click on the green Start WSS button to begin.
Once you are in, you will see five tabs. Those tabs are:
You will automatically be on the Area of Interest page. This is where we will begin.
Area of Interest
Before you can access any useful information, you have to set an area of interest (AOI). To do that, follow these steps:
*If your AOI is too small, you will get a warning. If this happens, make sure you are on the AOI tab, under Area of Interest and AOI Properties, and click the Clear AOI button and start again at step #7, using a larger area.
Your map will have orange lines and reddish-orange numbers and letters marking various soil series, which will be listed on the left. You can click on the soil type links for a surprising amount of information, including:
If you need help, as I did, with some of the terminology, try the USDA Soil Glossary. Now we get into the nitty gritty information. Click on the Soil Data Explorer tab.
Soil Date Explorer
This tab has sub-tabs you can investigate. Under Intro to Soils, you can get the equivalent of a college education on soil, free for the reading. The next sub-tab, Suitabilities and Limitations for Use, returns you to your map with a ton of informational categories on the left. While you probably don’t care about Building Site Development, you still might find it interesting reading. If you are short on time, go straight to the Land Management heading and click on the double arrows to expand that category. [Be sure to check out some of the other headings, as well.]
A list of several sub-categories will open up and you can expand any of them. For each of these sub-categories, you can click on View Description or View Rating. In many cases, you may see “Not rated”. I have to assume that means it is either not relevant, or that it has not been considered worth the investment.
Speaking of investments, were you surprised to learn that our tax dollars are spent on this sort of information collection?
Download Soils Data
The next tab is labelled Download Soils Data. While you can certainly try using it, I had no luck. Apparently, I do not have the proper software to open the downloadable files.
Shopping Cart (Free)
This tab allows you to download a 30-page or so document with all the general information about your soil, if you want it. Personally, I find just playing around on the website gives me more of the information I can use in my garden than the report. If you want your report, click on the Check Out button and then decide if you want it now or later, and click OK.
Since most of this information is collected for farmers, builders, emergency response, and military use, it can be far more than you need in the home garden. But it sure makes for some interesting reading!
Your garden can be a bright, cheery, busy place, or it can provide the tranquility, rest, and refuge you need after a stressful day.
Just as color schemes, lighting, furniture placement, and window treatments all play significant roles in creating an interior refuge, the view outside those windows has a double impact. Whether you are looking at your garden through a window or as you walk through it, a chaotic garden can be anything but tranquil.
These tips will help you transform your garden into a tranquil refuge, with minimal effort.
1. Keep it simple
Clutter in the garden only adds to your already busy schedule by reminding you of jobs that need doing. Clearing away yard debris is more conducive to rest and relaxation. If you have plants that are not thriving, or that do not add joy to the space, get rid of them. The same is true of outdoor furniture. If it is junk, throw it away. If it is still useable, donate it to charity or hold a yard sale. Use decorations that are simple and pleasant. Leave fences and lawns clean and empty of distractions.
2. Live in the color of calm
Reds and yellows are great colors, but they will not help you to relax. Far more calming are blues and earth tones. Design your landscape around blue flowers and various shades of greens and browns, for a beautifully relaxing view.
3. Just add water
The sound of running water has a profound effect on mood. Fountains, waterfalls, even the sound of a bird bathing in a birdbath are sounds that bring us back to nature in the way a campfire does, but without the mess or risks. Water features like these also provide for equally stressed birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Taking the time to watch these creatures in your garden or landscape is sure to improve your mood.
7. Gentle sounds
The sounds of traffic, machinery, and neighbors can destroy the tranquility of your refuge in a matter of moments. You can reduce the impact of these intrusions by planting trees and shrubs around your property line to block the noise. Good fencing can also block sound while adding privacy and security.
8. Create an herb garden
Edible herbs require only minimal care and most of them are perennial plants that come back every year. Besides adding flavor to your meals, fresh herbs such as thyme, oregano, and rosemary, add color and fragrance to your garden, while helping deter many common pests.
9. Delightful lighting
The way you illuminate your yard can impact the way you feel. Garish lamps and brilliant spotlights will not help you relax. Instead, design for relaxation in the garden by using gentle, soft-colored solar lights along paths, around garden beds, and in seating areas.
10. Make the time to enjoy it
One of the biggest problems faced today is our unwillingness to simply make time to relax. Busy schedules, television and social media, obligations to family and friends whittle away at our spare moments until there aren’t any. Schedule some time for yourself to enjoy your garden, without chores and to-do lists.
Simply stop and smell those roses. You’ve earned it.
Silt refers to minerals larger than clay and smaller than sand. Silt is commonly moved by water and deposited as sediment. Silt is what makes the alluvial soil surrounding rivers so fertile. Silt is also fine enough to be carried surprisingly long distances on the wind as dust.
How silt is formed
As rocks and regolith are eroded by weather, frost, and other processes, larger particles are ground down into smaller, rounded bits. Those smaller pieces become silt. Silt typically measures 0.05-0.002 mm and is usually composed of quartz and feldspar. Because silt moves so easily in water, construction and clear-cutting often result in silt levels that pollute waterways. This type of pollution is called siltation. In home gardens, over-watering can cause similar leaching problems and urban-drool. But silt is good for your plants.
Silt in garden soil
Sandy garden soil loses water and nutrients too quickly, while clay soil holds on too tightly. Loamy soil, in the middle, is ideal for garden plants. Loam consists of 40% sand, 20% clay, and 40% silt.
Silt particles tend to be round, so they can retain a lot of water. This high water holding capacity is made even better because silt particles cannot hold on to the water very tightly. The same is true for mineral nutrients. Roots and microorganisms have an easy time pulling water and food from silty soil. Silt can be beige to black, depending on how much organic material it contains.
Silt is prone to compaction, but not nearly as much as clay. If your soil feels slippery when it is wet, it contains a lot of silt.
Loam is the best type of soil for your garden or landscape. It feels loose and crumbly in your hand and its dark color tells you that it is filled with nutrients for your plants.
On average, loam consists of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. Those numbers can vary, but you get the general idea. This mix of different sized materials provides plenty of spaces for roots, water, air, and garden tools to move through. Loam is easy to till and it contains more accessible nutrients, water, and organic material than sand or clay. Loam is just porous enough, providing excellent drainage and water infiltration rates. Loam is the stuff of gardeners’ dreams. And you can make it happen in your garden.
Start where you are
You can’t get somewhere else if you don’t know where you are. Start improving your soil by learning more about what it contains now. This is done with a lab-based soil test and a DIY ribbon test. I wish I could say that those colorful plastic over-the-counter soil tests worked, but they don’t. Not well enough, anyway. Send a sample to a local lab. It’s one of the best things you can do for your garden.
Next, you can conduct a ribbon test to see how much loam is already present. This is a simple test that costs nothing.
It is a good idea to use several different samples to get a more accurate feel for your soil. [Sorry, I couldn’t resist!] If you cannot form a ribbon, your soil is predominantly sand. If your ribbon is longer than 1.5”, you have clay. If your ribbon is less than 1.5” long, you have loam.
In the soil textural triangle, you will see several different types of loam. Each type is described according to the presence of more sand, silt, or clay. Those types are called clay loam, sandy clay loam, sandy loam, silty clay loam, silty loam, and simply loam.
How to build loam
Your soil is the result of ancient bedrock beneath your feet, weather conditions, and hundreds of other variables you have no control over. Changing soil texture does not happen overnight, but there are several steps you can take to improve your soil’s texture. And there is one thing you should never do: if you have clay soil, do not add sand. You will simply create a bigger problem that looks and feels a lot like concrete. Instead, use these tips to improve your soil:
Each of these actions increase the amount of organic material in your soil. Organic material (living things and dead things) are what makes your soil nutrient rich and friable. These steps need to be done on a regular basis. The wood chips, compost, and other materials will eventually break down and become nutrients that are attached to soil particles and absorbed by your plants.
Every 3 to 5 years, send out soil samples for testing, to see just how well your soil is improving!
Victory gardens were planted during WWI and WWII to reduce demand during war time. Today, we are fighting against physical inactivity, environmental harm, and tasteless fruits and vegetables. Growing a victory garden in your yard can create a win-win-win situation.
What are we fighting for?
Historically, victory gardens were encouraged to make up for the fact that many farm and agricultural workers were off fighting war. Today’s battles are more insidious but no less important. And they are found on several fronts:
With victory gardens, we can transform our ornamental landscapes into delicious, productive foodscapes that improve air and water quality, the foods we eat, and even the way we feel.
Get moving with gardening
Working the soil and being outside are two of the best ways to improve your health and mood. There are even soil microorganisms (Mycobacterium vaccae) that act as antidepressants, without all the chemical dependency and side effects of drugs (or driving to doctor’s appointments).
Gardening is a gentle activity that won’t damage joints, pull muscles, or wear you out. It will get you moving the way your body was meant to move. Reaching, pulling, lifting, and carrying plants and soil in your victory garden will help you be healthier without straining anything.
Environmental protection begins at home
Clouds of chemicals, extensive paved roads, islands of trash, and toxins in our waterways are not good for anyone’s health. The more we learn, the more we realized that we can use evolution to our advantage in the garden, protecting both ourselves and the environment. Beneficial insects, appropriate plant selection, and no-dig gardening all work to reduce our carbon footprint while providing us with fresher, better tasting fruits and vegetables. Growing food at home also reduces the amount of plastic and other garbage that has to end up somewhere.
The home front
When you grow even a small portion of your food, you are reducing the negative impacts of massive monoculture, global shipping, and long-term food storage. I appreciate those services for foods I cannot grow at home and for the billions of people who need to be fed. But, the truth is, I can grow food at home and so can you. Even if it is just a few plants, it makes a difference for you and the planet.
Victory garden plant list
Victory gardens are planted with foods you eat regularly and will grow in your yard. There’s no point in planting something that won’t grow where you are, Case in point: I love blueberries. I live in California. Blueberries hate alkaline soil and hot summers. I have both. To grow blueberries, I have to work very hard and it is a constant battle. For me, blueberries are not a good choice for a victory garden. [But I do it anyway.]
To design your victory garden, start by identifying your Hardiness Zone and getting your soil tested. An inexpensive soil test will tell you what is in your soil and what needs to be added (and avoided). Then look at your grocery list. From there, make a list of edibles that will grow in your yard. You can find lots of information online and through your local Master Gardeners and County Extension Office. You may not be able to grow all your groceries where you live, but I’ll bet you can grow a surprising amount of food in your yard, wherever you are!
Popular victory garden plants include:
Interspersing your vegetable crops with flowers, such as marigold, will make it look even nicer and improve pollination. And don't forget fruit and nuts trees. They can produce an astounding amount of food.
I just registered my garden as a Climate Victory Garden. Check them out!
Other players on the winning team
Plants are not the only things that can help you be more active, improve your food supply, and work to protect the environment. Geese will keep your lawn mowed perfectly and guard your house, though they are messy. Chickens can produce both eggs and compost. Raising bees can provide you with honey while improving pollination. And raising worms makes composting even more effective and efficient.
Just as wartime victory gardens made civilians part of the war effort, your modern victory garden can make you part of the solution for environmental protection, better tasting food, and your own good health. And the plants do most of the work! And if you don't have space, see if there is a community garden nearby.
What are you going to plant in your victory garden?
Sprain your ankle or throw out your back and suddenly working in the garden is difficult, or impossible. What if accessibility is a constant issue? A lifestyle? As we get older, all of us will need a little more help getting around. Planning ahead for accessibility will make it easier to continue spending time in the garden.
A few years ago, while at Burning Man, I participated in an obstacle course set up at Mobility Camp. Part of the course had to be completed while on crutches and part in a wheelchair. The simplest tasks, things I normally do without thought or care, suddenly became difficult barriers. It was a good learning experience.
Imagine gardening in crutches or from a wheelchair. For many, it is a reality. There are ways that you can make your garden more accessible.
You can’t work in a garden if you can’t get to it. Accessible walkways need to be clear, stable, and wide enough for wheelchairs. Most wheelchairs are 30” wide, so paths should be at least 36” wide and wider is better. Turnaround space and ramps may be needed, as well. The surface should be hard and smooth. An added bonus: wheelchair accessible walkways make using a wheelbarrow easier, too!
The tools used in gardening are often cumbersome: shovels, hoes, and rakes can be difficult to manage from a wheelchair and even harder if you are using crutches or have hand problems. Lightweight hand tools can help, as long as they are durable. Tools that telescope can also make gardening more accessible. Make sure garden tools are kept sharp and stored in an accessible location.
Accessible growing spaces
Raised beds are an excellent way to make gardening more accessible for everyone and they can support some pretty deep-rooted plants. The height and width of raised beds can be adjusted to suit the needs of the person gardening, reducing or eliminating the need to bend over or kneel on the ground. And they make weeding so much easier for all of us! Just be sure that your raised beds are not so wide as to make it difficult to reach the center. Container gardening, hanging plants, and vertical gardening are other ways to make gardening more accessible for everyone. Pulley systems can be used to raise and lower hanging plants.
Garden tables can make gardening far more accessible for wheelchair-bound gardeners. Garden tables are shallow planting beds raised up on legs. This allows wheelchair users to treat the garden bed like a table, roll up underneath and work with plants at a convenient height. There are also garden tables that feature deeper sides that are still accessible.
Low maintenance plants
Bending over and kneeling are common activities in the garden, but not everyone can do those things. Low maintenance border plants, such as yarrow, sweet alyssum, or creeping phlox, look nice without requiring a lot of bending over. Other low-maintenance options include native plants, succulents, bulbs, herbs, slow-growing shrubs, such as rosemary and lavender, and edible perennials, such as asparagus and artichoke. These plants add texture and color to a landscape without a lot of effort. Self-seeding marigold and cosmos will come back year after year.
For those times when carrying water, tools, or seedlings is necessary, a towable garden cart can make it all possible.
Gardening is good for you. Making your garden more accessible is good for everyone.
The primary nutrients used by plants are nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Without these minerals, plants cannot grow.
While all nutrients are important to plant growth, primary nutrients are used in the greatest amounts. Before you add more fertilizer, however, you need to find out what is already in your soil. Adding too much of a nutrient is just as bad, or worse, than not enough.
The only way to know about the nutrients in your soil is with a lab-based soil test. Over-the-counter soil tests are not accurate enough to be of any use. Soil tests are inexpensive and extremely valuable.
Each of the primary nutrients supports different aspects of plant growth and health. The more you know about what they do for your plants, the better you will be able to spot deficiencies and toxicities.
Nitrogen is the single most limiting factor in plant growth. Nitrogen is used to make chlorophyll as well as plant enzymes and proteins. Nitrogen is responsible for lush, green, vegetative growth. Without nitrogen, photosynthesis cannot occur.
Stunting and chlorosis are the two most common signs of insufficient nitrogen. Nitrogen is highly mobile within the soil and in plants. Too much nitrogen can be just as bad as not enough. Excessive nitrogen is seen as darker than normal leaves and more vegetative growth than fruit or flowers. Too much nitrogen can burn plants, and it can cause erratic or reduced budbreak. Too much nitrogen can also stimulate new growth that may be vulnerable to pests, disease, and injury.
Phosphorus is another primary nutrient, second only to nitrogen in plant health. Phosphorus helps plants use and store energy. Most important to the home gardener, phosphorus supports flower, seed, bud, and root growth. It is the reproduction nutrient, the in-between stage between growing and fruiting.
Despite being so important, phosphorus is rarely found in a form plants can use. Mostly, phosphorus exists as phosphates. Organic sources of phosphorus include animal manure, urine, guano, fish emulsion, compost, blood meal, and bone meal. Phosphorus is commonly applied around seeds at planting time in a process called banding.
Phosphorus is a mobile nutrient. This means that deficiencies are generally seen in older leaves first, when they occur at all. Phosphorus deficiency is practically unheard of in California home gardens. Since phosphorus is an important part of genetic information transfer, deficiencies ultimately result in smaller and fewer leaves, and fruit set failure. You may also see leaves turn darker and more purple or red than normal, especially on the underside, with a shiny almost metallic appearance on the top surface. These same symptoms may indicate several other conditions, so get you soil tested.
Potassium (K) is the third primary nutrient and it dictates the size, shape, color, and sugar content (brix) of your fruit crops. It also boosts photosynthesis and respiration, helps plants stay upright, and promotes healthy root systems.
There’s a lot of potassium on Earth, but most of it is unavailable to plants. Plants can only use potassium that is in solution. As plant roots absorb mineral-rich water from the ground, potassium is pulled in and put to work. Potassium, also known as potash, is concentrated in leaves and growing tips. Also found in bat guano and wood ashes, potassium is a highly mobile element.
Potassium deficiencies result in reduced nitrogen absorption and a build up of sugars that can give leaves a burnt appearance. Other signs of potassium deficiency include wilting, brown spotting, and discolored veins. These symptoms move from older/lower growth to higher/newer growth.
Potassium is one nutrient that plants can absorb at levels higher than they can use, in an action called ‘luxury consumption’. If you see a white crust developing on leaf margins (edges), it is the sugar and potassium residue from guttation.
Nutrient imbalances and high temperatures can interfere with nutrient absorption. Before you toss another bag of fertilizer at your plants, make sure they really need it. The only way to know for sure what your plants are working with is to invest in a soil test from a local, reputable lab. It will save you a lot of money in terms of replacement plants, reduced harvest, unnecessary soil amendments, and chemical treatments.
So just remember: nitrogen promotes lush, green growth, phosphorus helps plants prepare for reproduction, and potassium promotes healthy crops.
And too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Once you start gardening, you will probably find yourself the proud owner of a bunch of seeds. Eventually you will need something to hold all those seeds. That thing is called a seed box.
The DIY seed boxes I saw online were made from shoe boxes, cigar boxes, recipe card boxes, curb-scored dresser drawers, discarded library card boxes, tackle boxes, plastic pill boxes, old 8-track cases, photo organizers, antique letterpress printer’s drawers, old filing tins, cash boxes, ziplock baggies, Mason jars, and lidded cardboard shipping boxes. One was even made from an old fashioned metal lunchbox! Clearly, there was lots of inspiration out there, but what would suit my needs?
What do seed boxes do?
All that variety got me thinking about what seed boxes are for. There’s no point in saving seeds if they get eaten or sprout too soon. Seeds need to be kept in a cool, dry, dark place to avoid germinating before you are ready for them. Plus, you need to be absolutely sure there is no moisture present if your seeds are going to be sealed in something airtight. [If you store your seeds in plastic or glass, it is a good idea to include one of those tiny silica packets you find in show boxes and other products.] I prefer exposing my seeds to as much of the local weather as possible, without getting them wet (or eaten). Also, I am working on reducing my use of plastic, so I decided that my new seed box had to be made out of something else. Since I have a bunch of scrap wood, I decided to take a look in my wood box for inspiration.
How to organize all those seeds?
There’s always alphabetical order, but I decided I needed something that I could organize by planting time. Here, in California, that means separate categories for every month. In colder regions, you might be better off organizing your seeds by plant type: tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc., or by season. I used some heavy duty paperboard to create a divider down the middle of my seed box and index-style cards for each month. Then it was a simple matter of looking at my local monthly planting times to file my seed collection. Or so I thought.
Many people love the idea of a garden, but don’t know how to get started. These tips for a beginner’s garden will help you be more successful, wherever you live.
Fresh, sun-ripened tomatoes are the most common reason people start gardening, but don’t stop there. With just a little space and water, you can grow your own lettuces, radishes, beets, herbs, and more. But start small. Pick one space, a single garden theme, and just a few plants. Pace yourself. Gardeners are in it for the long haul.
Before you get started, you need to know that gardening has changed in recent years. Behind us, hopefully, are the days of ravaging rototillers and cascading chemicals. We have learned a lot about microorganisms that live in the soil. These microscopic creatures actually feed our plants and improve our mood! Extensive digging and plowing disrupt these microorganisms, slowing the transfer of nutrients to our plants. So, save your back and your plants by keeping digging to a minimum.
We have also learned that it is far better to encourage beneficial insects than to spray chemicals when fighting garden pests. Instead of poisoning our food and our soil, we now add a few umbrella-shaped flowers and let Mother Nature do most of the work.
Will your garden be perfect? Will it look like the cover of a magazine? No, it won’t. Real gardens rarely do. And that’s okay. What I can tell you is that when those first seeds germinate, when you harvest your first tomato, when you gift a friend a jar of home grown dried oregano, you will feel amazing. So let’s start gardening!
From the ground up
An inexpensive soil test from a reputable lab is the best investment you can make in your garden. And you can forget those colorful plastic tube kits you see in stores. They may look like a great idea but they are not (yet) accurate enough to be useful. Sending out a sample for testing every 3 to 5 years can save you countless hours and dollars by telling you actually what is missing from your soil and what is in excess. All too often, new gardeners create more problems than they resolve by automatically adding fertilizer every time things don’t look the way they do in magazines and seed catalogs.
Adding unnecessary fertilizer can create nutrient imbalances that make it difficult for plants to absorb the nutrients they need. A soil test will also tell you the soil’s pH, and that’s important, too. Soil can be acidic, alkaline, or neutral. Most plant nutrients can only be absorbed when soil pH is between 6.0 and 7.5. If you soil is outside of that range, you may need to acidify or lime it. These things are not difficult, but you need to know if they need doing and a soil test will tell you.
Set the stage
Most plants need 8 or more hours of direct sunlight each day. This is especially true for fruits and vegetables. Find a spot in your yard that gets plenty of sunshine. Then, prepare that space for gardening by getting rid of weeds and other unwanted plants. Until recently, people used cardboard to block weeds because it sounded like a good idea. We now know that it’s a horrible idea. Cardboard and layers of newspaper attract termites and voles. Instead, contact local arborists and ask about free loads of wood chips. Mulching an area with a 4″ layer of wood chips stabilizes soil temperatures, retains moisture, blocks weeds, and, eventually, improves soil structure. Mulching with wood chips is one of the best things you can do for your soil, and it’s free. In fact, you can use those chips everywhere you don’t already have something growing. It looks nice and it improves soil health, making your next gardening project that much easier.
What lives where you are?
Looking at what already grows well in your yard can tell you what will grow easily in your garden. If most of your weeds are clovers, then other legumes, such as peas and beans, should grow well. If your regular weeds are more of the mustard variety, then the cabbage family will love your yard.
Identify your Hardiness Zone. Your Hardiness Zone is a number or number-letter combination that identifies how cold your winters get. This is important when it comes to plant selection. Most plant labels and seed packets will tell you if a specific plant will perform well in your zone. Of course, each yard is different. The variables of sun, wind, rain, slope, and soil make up your microclimate. As you garden, you will learn more about your microclimate and which plants are best suited to it.
Contact your local County Extension Office or Department of Agriculture for recommendations, while you’re at it. They have plant specific growing, pest, and disease information for your region. There’s no sense re-inventing the wheel, right?
When deciding which plants you want in your garden, you will see notes about sun exposure. This is valuable information and you should use it. “Full sun” means 8 or more hours of direct sunlight every day. “Partial sun” means 4 to 6 hours of sunlight in the afternoon. “Partial shade” means 4 hours of morning sun. Shade means bright dappled sun all day or 2 hours of direct morning sun. Putting plants in the wrong location is a waste of time and money.
As tempting as it may be to order everything that looks good from the glossy pages of a seed and plant catalog, don’t do it. Start small. Taking on too much in the beginning can be discouraging. Pick just a few plants to start and learn about what works for you and your garden. You can expand over time, as you learn more. And you will. You may decide you have the space for a fruit cocktail tree or an artichoke bush. Maybe rhubarb and asparagus are better suited to your space.
The possibilities really are amazing! Once you know what will grow in your yard, you can really run with it. But not at first. Taking care of a garden requires effort and water. Speaking of water, avoid overhead watering, as this can translate into many fungal diseases that are difficult to get rid of, once they are in place.
Finally, resist the urge to use grocery store plants and seeds in your garden. While it seems convenient and inexpensive, these plants are not certified disease-free or pathogen-free. They may be safe to eat, but adding them to your garden can introduce pests and diseases that may take years to be resolve.
For you experienced gardeners, what plants were in your first garden? What worked and what didn’t? Let us know in the Comments!
Bell peppers and chili peppers love the heat, so why talk about them in December? Unless you have an amazing greenhouse, the only thing you can do with peppers this time of year is dream about them - and that’s the point.
Dream now, in December, about a productive pepper garden filled with thick-skinned sweet bells and degrees of fiery heat. Red, orange, yellow, purple, and greens of various sizes and shapes can make a pepper garden both attractive and productive.
December is the time of year to ask yourself where you might put your pepper garden, figure out what peppers need, and consider your options. How can you get your peppers started as early as possible? Collecting answers to those questions now will make designing a pepper garden a breeze and summer production better than ever.
While peppers can certainly be included in your pizza garden, stir fry garden, or victory garden, you can feature them in a space of their own. Because pepper plants are so colorful and diverse, your pepper garden can really be lovely throughout the summer. Pepper bushes tend to be dense and thickly green with sparks of colorful fruits.
Pepper garden design
When designing your pepper garden, choose a site that gets lots of sunlight. Then, read the plant labels and seed packets to learn the mature size for each variety. This way, you can position your pepper plants so they will not block each other’s sunlight.
You can grow peppers in the ground, raised beds, or containers. Peppers perform beautifully in containers as long as they are large enough. Most pepper plants have root systems that can go 24” to 36” deep. One advantage to growing peppers in containers is that it makes moving the plants into ideal temperature ranges an option not available when growing in raised beds or the ground. Our scorching summer temperatures can interfere with pollen viability, causing blossom drop. Sunburn damage and water stress are other common problems.
Peppers come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, sizes, and colors. You can create a rainbow of peppers, if you want to, or stick with some tried and true favorites. Sweet bell peppers come in several colors (if you leave them on the bush long enough). There are five basic domestic species of chili peppers (and countless variations):
• Capsicum annuum - bell, banana, cayenne, and jalapeños chiles
• C. frutescens - tabasco and Thai peppers
• C. chinense - naga, habanero, Scotch bonnet
• C. pubescens - rocoto chiles
• C. baccatum - Bishop’s crown peppers
There are also miniature varieties available.
Starting peppers early
Peppers take time to mature and they grow the best when temperatures are between 80°F and 90°F. Seeds started too soon will simply not germinate. Even if they do germinate, they will not grow well. Here, in San Jose, California, peppers are generally not started outdoors until May. You can jump-start your pepper garden by using grow lights and specially designed seed heating mats. Choosing varieties best suited to your local climate will allow you to start your pepper plants as early as possible.
Pepper plant care
Being heavy feeders, peppers perform best when given regular feedings of fish emulsion or other balanced plant food. Peppers without adequate calcium or those which receive irregular waterings often develop blossom end rot.
Monitor plants regularly for signs of mottling, bacterial spot, and powdery mildew. Learn about pests and diseases commonly seen on bell peppers and chili peppers to minimize the damage. For example, knowing to keep lambsquarters away from your pepper plants can reduce the chance of beet curly top infecting plants.
What about the rest of the year?
Will your annual pepper plants be lush and colorful all year? No, they won’t. By mid to late autumn, they will look spindly and bare. What can you do to keep the space looking nice through winter and preparing for next year’s pepper plants? Before your peppers are done, install seeds and seedlings that will carry your pepper bed through the winter. If you live in Zone 9, you might add fava beans, cabbages, and cauliflower to the pepper bed well before the peppers are done. This succession planting method allows you to produce food, with the cruciferous vegetables, and grow a green manure with the fava beans. The peppers act as nurse maids, helping the next cycle of plants get started. When your pepper plants are done producing, cut them off at soil level and add the debris to your compost pile. This is a good time to add a layer of aged compost to your pepper bed, improving soil structure and adding nutrients.
Scent can inspire powerful memories, improve your mood, and make you more productive. Use the power of scent to your advantage with a scent garden.
The power of scent
Scent is the only sense that has a direct connection to our lizard brains. Fragrances are processed by the limbic system and can impact our emotions, behaviors, motivations, and even our long-term memory.
You learned to associate smells with certain situations when you were very young. Those memories stay with you for life. Come across the smell of baking cookies or Play-Doh and the memories come flooding back. This is called the Proustian memory effect. This effect depends largely on previous experiences and cultural influences, but there are some generalizations you can use with your scent garden design. Fragrance is a tool you can use to create a garden space that improves your outlook on life.
The science of scent
Flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators. Those fragrances can be classified as floral, fresh, spicy, or woodsy. Each of those scent profiles evoke a different response. The floral scents of jasmine and gardenia are said to help us relax, while the fresh aroma of citrus, mint, and lavender stimulate and refresh us. The woodsy fragrances of balsam, cedar, and rosemary are believed to improve our thinking processes, while sage, carnations, and roses are said to make us feel more sensuous.
For me, the smell of thyme invokes a sense of warmth and home, while brushing against a rosemary bush lights up a part of my brain that feels strong and calm. Different scents affect people differently. For some, the smell of freshly mown grass stirs up memories of summer and being active, while pine boughs inspire thoughts of the holiday season. Knowing which scents trigger the feelings you want to invoke will help you with plant selection. Just be sure to choose plants appropriate to your Hardiness Zone and microclimate.
Popular scent garden plants
Some of the most popular flowers for scent gardens include butterfly bush, catmint, creeping phlox, datura, dianthus, freesia, gardenia, geraniums, honeysuckle, hyacinth, jasmine, lavender, lilacs, lily of the valley, paperwhites, peonies, roses, stock, sweet alyssum, sweet peas, Sweet William, and violas. Other fragrant ornamentals include artemisia, boxwood, and wisteria.
Most herbs have pleasing aromas that fit nicely into a scent garden. Anise, basil, dill, lemon balm, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme all have wonderful fragrances when brushed or walked on. Balsam fir, cedar, citrus, eucalyptus, linden, and witch hazel trees can add their aroma to your scent garden.
Scent garden design
As you lay out your scent garden, be sure to note mature plant sizes and bloom times, as well as monthly maintenance. You don’t want a shorter, high maintenance plant hidden behind a rugged, giant shrub. With a good balance of flowers for each season, your scent garden will look as good as it smells!
Did you know that researchers have shown that we can smell over 1 trillion scents? It ends up that our 400 smelling receptors, combined with our amazing brains, are just as good as scenting things as dogs. If we take the time to pay attention.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!