Monday, November 28, 2016

Best Organic Gardening Tip To Build Your Soil

Browse the products in a seed catalog, attend a garden expo, or visit your local nursery and you will see endless products that claim to build your soil or guarantee a bountiful, healthy garden. Then add all the tips and tactics available to you on the internest and it suddenly becomes overhelming.  What works?  What doesn't work?  What do plants really want?

Plants want uninterrupted growth from the time the seed germinates until harvest.  A gardener does that by trying to meet all a plants needs.  That includes water, light, temperature, and nutrients.  And protecting plants from anything that interrupts growth like pests, disease, weather, or moisture fluctuations.

Sounds simple yet it can be challenging for even that most experienced gardener.  So where do you start and focus your efforts to ensure uninterrupted growth.  I believe you focus first on building your soil.  

A healthy soil is the key component of an organic gardener.  If you take care of your soil; soil biology takes care of your plants.  Soil is much more than dirt.  It is composed of minerals, organic matter, water, air, and is teeming with life.  This soil life is critical to the organic gardener.  Organic matter is critical to a healthy soil life.  Healthy bacteria and fungi are decomposers and organic matter is on the menu.  Garden soils should have 6% organic matter.  This organic matter feeds the microbes and suddenly you have a living soil capable of supporting the demands of your plants. 

  Utah soils, where I live, have less than 2 % organic matter.  Soils with higher levels of organic matter still need to have organic matter replaced because they are continually broken down by microorganism.  A healthy soil life means a healthy, happy plants.

Organic matter comes from living materials, such as manures and plant material, that are decomposed.  Organic material is not the same as organic matter.  Organic materials are not decomposed and should first be put in the compost pile.   

The easiest way to add organic matter is to add compost or an aged manure to your garden in the fall after the beds are cleaned out  or  in the spring when you are preparing your beds.  Compost can be added to the planting holes of transplants and then used as a mulch when seedlings come up.  If you have already been building your soil you can just add the compost to the surface but if you are just starting out then you will need to work the compost into the soil. Also if you have a raised bed or area that is not performing well then work the compost into the ground.   In raised beds, a shovel or broad fork works great.  If you are planting in the ground then roto-tilling compost will be necessary for the first couple of years. 
A rutabaga thriving in organic matter.

Organic matter does not take the place of using an organic fertilizer.  Compost and manures do have nutrients but not a guaranteed analysis so using an organic fertilizer is recommended.  Dry organic fertilizers are added in early spring.  They are granular and broadcasted on top of the soil and worked in or covered with compost.  They can also be added to transplanting holes.

Dry organic fertilizers include meals such as:  blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal, kelp meal, bat guano,  or alfalfa meal.  I use what is easy to get in my area.  In a 5 gal bucket I mix 1 part blood meal to 2 or 3 parts bone meal.  This provides the major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium plus some trace minerals.  I also add some azomite or green sand which are both good sources of trace minerals.  This is the fertilizer I use for everything:  vegetables, berries, herbs, landscape plants, potting soil fertilizer, and even on turf grass.  I broadcast it in early spring and add it to all planting holes.  

Organic fertilizer is food for microorganisms.  The microorganisms in turn supply the plants with needed nutrients.  This is a simplified version of this amazing relationship between the soil food web and your crops.
Cabbage with buckwheat interplanted.

Liquid fertilizers such as fish emulsion and kelp can be used at important growing cycles such as when you transplants or true leaves appear, when buds breaks, and when fruit first starts to appear.  It's important to remember that organic fertilizers without organic matter does not build your soil structure and should be used along with adding organic matter.

So the best way to build soil is to add organic matter on a regular basis.  Expensive products that promise amazing results while they may be useful are not going to do much to change your soil without organic matter.  Healthy soil has a healthy soil food web and a good soil structure (the way soil particles are bound together to create pores for air, water, and roots to penetrate)  Both of these are accomplished by adding organic matter.  

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread

"Happiness is Homemade,"  
especially if it is 

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread.

Combine the following dry ingredients in a bowl:

3 cups flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp sea salt

Mix wet ingredients:

4 eggs 
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups avocado or grape seed oil
2 cups homemade pumpkin puree

Combine dry ingredients and wet until just moist.  Add 1 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips

Pour into your favorite greased loaf pans.  You can use any size just adjust the cooking time. Bake at 350 for 60-70 minutes.  Insert a knife in the center if it comes out clean they are done.  Allow to cool before cutting.  But be sure to enjoy a few warm pieces.
Making your own pumpkin puree is easy.  Pie pumpkins are make the best puree and are easy to grow.

The pumpkins above are Winter Luxury, a heirloom sugar pumpkin.

Duck eggs are great for baking. The pumpkins puree on the left can be frozen.

Pumpkin puree

Monday, November 7, 2016

Preparing the Homestead for Winter

A snowstorm in Feb 2013

With colors turning and leaves falling in the wind, it's time to prepare the homestead for winter. Before long we will have weather like the picture above.  Preparing now means that you can rest for a season this winter.  Just kidding when do homesteader ever rest!

Preparing the Garden for Winter:

Dig up any potatoes and cure them in preparation for storage.  Curing allows the skins to harden and bruises and small cuts to heal.  This can be done in your garage or under a porch if it is not too cold. Do not wash the potatoes just brush dirt off after curing.

Harvest any remaining winter squash and pumpkins. If there are nicks or unripe squash or pumpkin they go in the pig pile.  They love any treat from the garden.

Gathering the last pumpkins, squash, and dried corn used for cornmeal.

The pig pile of nicked or under ripe produce.

Winter squash will keep til spring with very little preparations.  Start by picking and storing mature squash.  The squash is mature if the skin cannot be pierced by you fingernail.  Always leave the stems on

Curing squash

During the curing process moisture is lost and the skins harden. Acorn squash should not be cured and likes lower temperatures than other squash. They prefer temperatures of 45-55 degrees anything over that and they become stringy and dry.  A green skinned acorn squash should stay green.  There are orange and white skinned varieties.  The white skinned do not store as well and should be eaten first. 

Other winter squash should cure for 10-14 days.  They can be stored on a porch with temperature 55-60 degrees and brought in if a freeze is expected. 

Storing Squash

Squash do not like temperatures below 50 degrees.  They can be stored in a side room, basement, or a pantry that is not too warm.

Pumpkin are treated just like squash but do not store as long.  When storing both squash and pumpkins do not pile them but leave space between and do not store them on a concrete floor.

This is a great rack for storing squash.  It allows for good air circulation and can be put in the coolest room in the house or in a garage.

Pull up all garden plants.  I make two piles.  One goes to the burn pile.  This includes all tomatoes, squash, and any plant that was diseased.  By the seasons end there is usually mildew and blight on these crops and I don't like to put them in the compost pile.  The second pile includes garden plants that are going on the compost pile.  This include corn stalks, not used for decorating, and disease free plants.

The burn pile.

The start of the debris going on the compost pile includes both green and brown material.

Weed one last time.  Any perennials weeds you leave are sending energy down to the roots to get ready for next spring.  Disrupting those plans will make spring weeding easier.

Put a layer of compost on top of your soil.  I don't like leaving bare ground.  

Leave cover crops to winter kill and incorporate into the soil in early spring 

Install any low tunnels on the fall garden boxes.  Be prepared to double lay when a freeze approaches meaning you will lay a row cover directly on the plants under the low tunnel.

I'm not fortunate to have a greenhouse yet but I still have a fall, early winter garden of kale, chard, broccoli, cabbage, greens, and lettuce.  The fall broccoli is incredibly flavorful..My husband loves it raw with a veggie dip and actually comments on how good the broccoli is.  No one ever does that unless they have eaten garden fresh fall broccoli.

Gather and preserve any herbs.

Drain and store  your water systems if necessary.

February 2015 snow storm.  The raised bed gardens.

The Goat Barn

One last cleaning of the stalls is in order before it gets too cold.

After the stalls are clean I lime (purchase lime at the feed store) the stalls by sprinkling lime on the floor of the stall and lock the goats out for a day.  The lime helps to kill bacteria and if done through the spring and summer kills fly larvae.

After the lime has set a day, I put down pine shaving.  And happy goats can return to their comfy stalls in the barn.

Some of the 2015 spring kids.

Fresh bedding is always appreciated.

Have the kidding pen prepared and heat light ready for kidding if needed

The buck barns gets a layer of straw for the winter.

The buck barns.

Put electric water buckets in the stalls.  These are one of a homesteaders best investments.  It beats trying to dump out a bucket frozen solid and haul water for the winter.  It also gives them access to water continuously.

A view of the goat barn.

The Chicken Coop

One last cleaning of the coop and hauling all manure and bedding to the compost pile

Spray the nesting boxes and perches with pyrethrin and neem oil for pest control.  I use the same one I use in the garden.

I like using straw (weed free) in the chicken house it seems to last longer. Weed free means less weed problems with your spring compost.

If you want eggs through the winter have a light inside the coop.

Have electric water buckets ready to plug in for freezing nights

The Duck Pen

 Provide an area for them to get out of the weather.  Large dog houses work great or a small duck house.  

Put an electric water bucket in their pen. 

I let my ducks roam the field garden during winter and early spring.  That allows some grass to grow back in their pen and they are great at hunting out hiding pests.

Don't Forget the Canines and Felines

We have an older lab and beagle.  They have a cozy dog house for the day and dog beds in the garage for night.  The water for my dogs and cats is a bucket system.  We have one in the garage that goes out in the morning and the frozen bucket goes back into the garage to thaw.  The cats have a couple cat houses to keep warm.

I am smiling! This IS my happy face!

Belle, the lab, is the best bed warmer.  The cats love her.

Clean Out the Freezer

Make room for the fresh pork of your fall butchered  pigs or beef or lamb.

Landscape Trees

Continue watering your trees as needed until they lose their leaves.

Pines and evergreens should get a good watering up until Thanksgiving or the ground freezes.  They continue to transpire through the winter and need an occasional watering.  

The Orchard

I'm going to refer you to a previous post on fall orchard care. 

The two most important things to do are your fall spray when 1/2 leaves drop and a cooper spray at leaf fall.  

The second thing is to paint trunks and lower scaffold branches if snow and sun scald is a problem.  Use an indoor latex paint.  Dilute it with 50/50 with water and you can add a little Neem oil to the mixture.


I wait for spring to do any pruning

You can spray a horticulture oil at leaf fall if disease or overwintering pests are a concern.  Cooper can also be used to help prevent disease.

General Preparations

Get a load of wood and have it chopped and stacked out of the weather.

Roll up and store hoses that are not in use

Gather any tools you have in the fields or garden and store out of the weather.

Drain and cover swamp coolers

Check the strength of you antifreeze in your vehicles and add winter washer wiper fluid

Wash and get out winter gear:  Carthart overalls, coats, gloves, hats, boots etc.

 Take inventory of your garden and orchard sprays and fertilizers.  Winter is a good time to purchase these.  Organic fertilizers are fine to store and do not good bad. 

Get a a supply of hay for the winter.  Don't run low on any feeds in case weather prevents you from traveling to the feed store.  Feed is so important to help your animals stay warm so be sure to always feed regularly and have a few extra bags on hand.

There are things I love about each of the four seasons.  I hope you find beauty even in the winter.