Garden Time: Getting your hands dirty

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by Kimi Ceridon

Soil, not to be confused with dirt, is the life blood of a garden.  Dirt is dead and lifeless, but within soil, it is a complex, living ecosystem that keeps plants healthy.  Nutrition for vegetables comes from the soil.  Having healthy soil is important to an edible garden, but, if you are container gardening, it is difficult to maintain a healthy, thriving ecosystem from year to year.

The roots of plants absorb food, water, nutrients and minerals from soil.  They spread into the soil in search of nutrition, forming a plant’s communication web and supply network.  The plant above ground tells the root system what it needs and the roots below ground absorb it from the soil.  All of the details of soil composition are far too complex to detail here, but there are important elements gardeners should understand.  

IMG_20140420_105539Organic matter is the most important component in soil. Unfortunately, plants cannot digest organic material like food scraps and leaves without help from bacterial and fungal microorganisms.  These organisms decompose or compost simple organic matter into readily available plant nutrition.  They also aerate the soil, allowing roots to expand and water and oxygen to penetrate down to the roots.  Together, organic matter and microorganisms are the heart of the nutrition in soil, providing not only the nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium critical to plant health, but also other trace elements such as magnesium, calcium and iron.  

Fertilizers are useful during the growing season and provide basic nutritional needs to a plant, but are not a complete replacement for healthy soil.  Soluble nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the numbers on fertilizer bags indicating the percentage available for plant absorption) are only the foundation of plant nutrition.  Vitamins and minerals are an important component of soil composition and contribute to the nutrition of fruits and vegetables. 

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A container garden has little access to the outside world.  As such, it is impossible to maintain container garden soil health indefinitely without adding nutrition.  During the growing season, side dressings of compost and fertilizers help supplement plant nutrition.  However, when starting fresh plants and seedlings in the spring, it is a great opportunity to replenish soil.

With new containers, it is easy to get plants off to a good start.  Potting soil is available by the bag at garden stores, but rather than simply using a potting soil alone, mix one part compost to every four parts soil.  Soil and compost are less expensive in bulk and indoor gardeners can save money by sharing the cost with neighbors and friends.  It may also be less expensive to make a soil mix from scratch, such as the one recommended in All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.  For best results, an edible plant garden should get organic soil. Annually refresh containers full of soil from previous years by removing the old soil and blending it with compost.  For containers with living plants, top off with a compost-soil mix or gently remove the plant from the container, loosen the roots and add a compost-soil mix to the bottom.

IMG_20140420_115025Once the soil is ready to go into containers, it can provide plants with a healthy base of nutrition that smells fresh and earthy. Do not overfill containers or pack the soil as roots need space to expand and support larger, bushier plants.  Seedlings should have their first two real leaves before transplanting.  Place filled containers in a sunny spot and keep the soil slightly moist.

As a complex ecosystem, understanding the many benefits of healthy, thriving soils is not only for gardeners and farmers. Soil nutrition is relevant for all types of food professionals.  To learn about the wonderful ecosystem of soil, I recommend the following two books by Jeff Lowenfels:

  • Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web
  • Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Nutrition

IMG_20140420_111212After 15 years in sustainable product design, Kimi Ceridon shifted focus from consumer products to food systems. She is active with NOFA/Mass Boston Ferments, Waltham Fields Community Farms and has led workshops on chicken keeping, backyard homesteading, fermentation, and brewing.  Follow her at noreturnticket.kceridon.com.

Garden Time: It’s Spring!

IMG_81143551818378by Kimi Ceridon

Just when it seemed winter wasn’t going to give up without a fight, the thermometer finally bounced above the freezing mark.  After a few false starts, it looks like it is going to finally stay there too.  The days are getting longer and the sun is reaching higher in the sky.  As if I needed another sign that spring has arrived, my yard is finally littered with white, purple and yellow crocuses. That means it is time to start thinking about the garden.  Actually, I started thinking about starting my garden since ordering my seeds back in January, but it’s time to put those seeds to use.

I used to wait until the May rush and buy all my seedlings from the garden store. However, I’ve been seduced by the January seed catalogs into starting my own plants from seeds.  They offer not only an irresistible tug of springtime hope in the middle of winter, but also so many more varieties of plants.  Just try to find 71 varieties of tomatoes or 22 varieties of pumpkins or multiple varieties of most crops in your local garden store or home improvement mega box.  You can’t, it isn’t cost effective to carry more than a few ‘favorite’ varieties.  IMG_81260204578379

I start my garden from seeds in soil blocks using full spectrum lightbulbs in my basement.  To take advantage of the short growing season here in New England, now is the time to get started.  Don’t let my set up intimidate you, it has evolved over several years of trial and error.  All you need is a sunny window, a few small pots, some soilless seed starting mix and a few choice seeds.  All of which can be had at your neighborhood hardware and garden store.  Some grocery stores even care basic supplies.  

904229_10200868736497540_324741037_oStarting plants from seed can seem kind of intimidating.  Admittedly, it doesn’t always go well.  Sometimes you forget to water them and they dry out.  Sometimes they don’t get a good start and end up spindly and weak.  Yet, sometimes they work wonderfully and produce beautiful robust plants.  This is part of the fun of planting a garden.  It is also why so many gardeners exhibit calmness and patience; two traits I am personally trying to cultivate from my garden.  For many years, I would start a few of the more interesting crops from seed with plans to purchase some plants from the garden store.  This way, if things didn’t work out with my seeds, I had a backup plan.  Besides, if you start early enough, you will know what is going well and what is not before the garden stores start stocking vegetable plants.  

IMG_81156379977378As I know many of you don’t have a lot of space, I also want to dispel the myth that you need a big backyard to get started.  A sunny balcony, stoop, windowsill or countertop is enough for growing a few container plants to bring a few fresh vegetables or herbs into your kitchen.  It is also a great opportunity to learn without a big investment.  For example, loose leaf salad greens are easy to grow from seed, easy to care for and will make it to a dinner plate in just a few weeks.  Fresh potted herbs are also the gift that keeps on giving.  If you keep a few shallow pots of salad greens in rotation, you can keep yourself in weekly greens throughout the year.

IMG_81104059567378There is such an amazing world of flavor hidden in a seed catalog, I suggest trying something new, something you won’t find in the grocery store or even in your farmer’s market. Without starting from seeds, I would have never tasted the meaty and creamy Good Mother Stallard dried beans or the sweet and tangy Lemon Cucumber or the sweetly tart Black Krim Tomato.  Sure, it may not feel like spring quite outside yet, but you can start getting into a springtime mood by getting your hands into some dirt.  My seeds have just started breaking ground.  

After 15 years in sustainable product design, Kimi Ceridon shifted focus from consumer products to food systems. Food is the most tangible, accessible way for individuals to reduce their impact on the planet and make a statement against an unsustainable industrial food system. She is active with NOFA/Mass Boston Ferments, Waltham Fields Community Farms and has led workshops on chicken keeping, backyard homesteading, fermentation, and brewing.  Follow her at noreturnticket.kceridon.com.