5 FREE Soil Amendments that you can Easily Find!

by Sandy Swegel

One of the problems with gardening is that you just can’t rush Mother Nature.  If you don’t get those tomato seeds planted early enough, there’s just no way to trick the plants into growing overnight. Compost is the same…you can’t just mix everything up today and use the compost tomorrow.  But there are things you can scavenge that you can add directly to your garden that help your garden a lot more than those sterile-looking bags of manure or compost they sell at the store. And they’re free!

1. Leaf Mold

Better even than regular compost for improving soil texture, leaf mold is what you end up with after a pile of leaves has rotted down to a dark earthy mix with only a few leaves still recognizable. This can take one or two years depending on how wet your climate is.  You can find leaf mold that’s been breaking down for months or years anywhere leaves collect:  where the wind blows them behind the garage or along the shady side of the fence.  Your neighbor’s yard is a good place to find it, or along stream beds or in shady woods.  Dig in to get the dark damp leaf mold next to the soil and leave the dry leaves for another year. Spread the leaf mold over your garden, at the bottom of planting holes, or along the trenches for your potatoes.  This is pure gold for your garden.

2. Coffee grounds

Coffee shops are often willing to give you their used coffee grounds for free. Starbucks packages them up for you in empty large coffee bags.  No need to do anything special with the grounds…just sprinkle them across your soil or at the base of plants.  The plants like the boost from caffeine almost as much as you do.

3. Weed Tea  

When I’m weeding, I keep two buckets with me…one for the green leaves (and roots) of weeds like dandelions, thistle, dock, lambsquarters and one for the seed heads or other garden debris I’m cleaning.  All those long tap roots that are so hard to dig out have been pulling up minerals and micronutrients from deep in the soil.  Once my bucket of green leaves is mostly full, I fill the rest with water and leave the bucket out to “steep.” After four days or longer, (ideally until it starts to smell bad), I use this nutrient rich water to water the garden. The leaves get thrown out or into the compost. Plants that get this water turn a nice dark green.

4. Grass Clippings

If you (or your neighbor) have a lawn (and you don’t use weed killer), the grass clippings are the perfect mulch for your garden.  Layer the clippings thinly on the surface of the soil near your plants. Keep adding it every week and it will keep breaking down at the soil line into compost.

5. Newspaper

Most newspapers are printed now with soy ink and safe to use in the garden.  Lay three or four sheets of newspaper over the soil in your walkways or between rows and cover with mulch.  The newspaper helps block weeds from coming up, and reduces evaporation.  Worms LOVE the taste of newspaper and will help break it down into rich soil.

Two Secrets to Great Compost!

by Sandy Swegel

How to make bad compost:

You need the right proportions of greens and browns to get the metabolic process going.  Too much brown and nothing happens.  Too much green and you either get slime or the greens just turn brown.

You need the right amount of water. Too little water (rainfall is not enough in Colorado to make compost) and everything is still whole and undigested a year later.  Too much rainfall….in Louisiana we had to cover the compost to keep the rain out…and it’s just putrefying sludge.

Air is important too. I had a burly housemate who made a huge pile and stomped on everything to make it fit.  Dry compressed leaves and debris were in pile two years later.

Weather conditions change how the pile works….my cold compost pile…you keep throwing things on top—quit working during last year’s drought pile.  No rainfall most of the summer and frugal amounts of chlorinated water weren’t enough to keep the pile going.  Everything just dried out including the worms.

So after so many failed piles and attempts to do things right, I have found two sure-fire ways to make great compost.

One.  Eat your fruits and vegetables.  Nothing keeps compost going better than little nests of your household food scraps put into the center of your pile every few days.  Don’t scatter it all over…just a little metabolic engine of food decomposition at the center of the pile helps everything else compost.  You can keep putting your weeds and debris on top…but just add food scraps to the middle when you have them.  Variety seems to help.  One year I thought I could keep the pile happy with all the zucchini bats….nope…the microbes and worms want variety—some banana peels and eggshells, maybe some moldy bread and coffee grounds.

Two. Use a good starter.

Never completely empty your compost….always leave some at the bottom of your pile to provide the microbes for the next batch.  But if your pile still isn’t thriving, it might need some starter from somewhere else. Occasional shovels of soil from the garden helps, but sometimes our soil isn’t as rich in microbes as we’d like.  Then you need a generous friend with a great compost pile.  A bucket of good active moist compost from a living pile will inoculate your entire pile.  It’s like making sourdough or yogurt….you need the starter.  And somebody else’s compost is better than any dried up compost starter you buy in the store.

Fall Leaves: They Aren’t Just Pretty

Get ready to collect some manna from heaven!  Leaf mold is one of the best amendments a gardener can add to the garden.  And it’s super easy to make and free:  All you need is leaves and time.  Create a leaf pile somewhere it won’t blow away but will get snowed and rained upon and break down gently in its own time.  At the end of a year (or two if you live in a more arid place), you’ll have the treasure of broken down leaves, wet and almost compost-like.

Leaf mold is valuable in several ways.  It is the result of the fungal breakdown, so in addition to adding organic matter to your garden, you’re also putting lots of beneficial fungi in the soil.  It’s a good way to add valuable minerals to soil because tree roots are pulling nutrients from deep within the soil and depositing those nutrients in their leaves, which then get deposited in your garden.

There are two easy ways to get leaf mold.  The absolute easiest is to live somewhere humid with lots of deciduous trees like North Carolina and just go out into the woods and find places the leaves have drifted over the years.  Reach down under a soft squishy pile of leaves and you’ll find leaves from previous years broken down and moist and crumbly, often with earthworms happily working away.

If you don’t have your own woodland or if you live here in the arid plains of Colorado, the process needs a little helping along.  In my neighborhood, a gardener on a busy street put up a sign in front of her house:  “Bagged Leaves Wanted.”  People hate to just throw leaves in the garbage, so in the spirit of recycling, they drop them off at her house all hours of the day and night.  She takes the first 1000! or so bags for her garden and leaf mold pile and her goats (Apparently goats think dry leaves taste like potato chips.) The rest of us gardeners in the neighborhood take the next 1000 bags strangers drop off for us.  They tidy their yards to get rid of leaves and we add all those leaves to our garden because we know they are manna from heaven!

For more how-to info and video, check out Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening magazines.
http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/making-leaf-mold.aspx
http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/basic-leaf-mold

It’s Always a New Beginning for Gardeners.

Thinking about the beautiful creation stories explored in the services of the eve of Rosh Hashanah that our Jewish friends celebrated yesterday reminds me that for the gardener, things are never really at an end.  There’s always something new to begin in the endless cycles of life.  Whether it is Rosh Hashanah or the upcoming Autumn Equinox or any of the lunar celebrations, every culmination or harvest is also a time to begin something new.

The need to keep beginning is especially true for the food gardener, especially if you want to keep eating.  So many foods are dependent on seasons – cool season, warm season.  It may seem with the great ripening of tomatoes that the vegetable garden is complete this year, but if you want to keep eating, you need to keep planting: cool season crops, lettuces, sturdy greens that you can eat on all winter.

Some of the things it is time to begin:

Begin a hoop house or cold frame.
If you haven’t already seeded fall greens or carrots and beets, make haste and do it right away.  They need to grow to a good size before winter, so you can harvest even through the snow.

Begin a leaf pile.
Are you ready for collecting fall leaves and beginning again (or adding to) your leaf mulch pile?  Leaves are going to fall….and if you’re ready, your neighbors will bring you all the leaves you want.  A simple sign in your driveway that says “Bagged Leaves Wanted”  will catch the attention of your neighbors who want an easy way to recycle.  Our neighborhood gets over 2000 bags a year that people drop off.  The first year was only about 300 bags….but each year it has grown till we quit counting after 1000 or so.

Begin to fertilize perennials.
If you fertilize with natural fertilizers like blood and bone meal, now is a good time to begin fertilizing perennials and shrubs.  Natural fertilizers break down slowly so Fall is the best time to put them (and compost) out around your plants so they have time to soak in all winter.  Synthetic fertilizers like Miracle-Gro should wait until Spring because they’d stimulate a growth spurt now when the plants should be shutting down.

Begin to clean up.
Start cleaning up diseased leaves and broken plant debris.  Your plants will be healthier next year.

One thing NOT to begin:  Don’t cut down green growing plants because you’re anxious to put the garden to bed.  Some minor experiments have proven to me, that plants that are allowed to die in place and get cut down in later winter or early spring have a better survival rate than plants that get cut down in Fall.  This is especially true for Agastache one gardener I know discovered.

Begin to plant a TREE!
A REALLY IMPORTANT THING TO BEGIN NOW:  Plant a tree.  There are often healthy trees on deep discounts at garden centers.  The best time to begin a tree in your garden is always RIGHT NOW.

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.