The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

April 13, 2017

What a soil test result readout looks like

You’ve read it here in this blog, you’ve heard it from your neighbor, even your Aunt Bootsie told you to get a soil test for your garden.  I’ve always recommended using the soil testing lab at Michigan State University, it’s the “gold standard” of soil labs in Michigan. For most gardens a basic test will provide you with all the information you’ll need.

In past blogs I’ve described how to properly take a soil sample for testing and what to do with it once you’ve collected it, so we won’t discuss that today. Instead we’ll look at actual soil test results.

Once you’ve rounded up a bag of dirt, sent it to the lab along with your payment, the MSU soil lab will test your sample, processes the results and send you the test results either by email or by mail. That usually happens within ten days.

Let’s take a peek at an actual soil test readout I received last fall.

A basic soil test result readout.

A basic soil test result readout.

The first test result is the soil pH. pH describes how acid or how alkaline your soil is with “7″ being neural. In this case the sample result is 7.6 which is somewhat alkaline. So right away we know we won’t have to add any lime to raise the soil pH since most garden plants grow best in a slightly acidic soil.

Next is the result for phosphorus, the “P” in NPK. The result came back at 58 ppm (parts per million) which, according to the graph is well in the optimum range.

Following P we see that is the potassium (K) is 67 ppm which we see is below optimum. Magnesium (Mg) at 202 ppm is above the optimum range.

Calcium(Ca), shown in the additional results section is 2443 ppm which helps to explain the relatively high soil pH reading since calcium will raise soil pH.

The next result is CEC (cation exchange capacity) this tells us how well the soil is able to retain soil nutrients. A reading of 14.1 tells us we can add fertilizer to this garden without having it leach out of the soil. Usually, soil types with a higher percentage of clay in their make-up have a higher CEC and therefore are inherently more fertile because of all the retained nutrients. Very sandy soils have low CEC values. It is very difficult to change the CEC of a soil. On the other hand, we can easily raise the NPK values by simply adding fertilizer.

Those cations (positive-charged ions) that are being described in the CEC reading are mostly K, Mg and Ca. There is a section in the readout providing the percentage of each of those. Phosphorus is not listed there because it exists in the soil as negatively charged anion (PO4 3-).

Nitrogen (N) is not tested for at MSU because soil nitrogen levels change with the temperature and other variables so you would never get an accurate reading.

We don’t have room here to discuss the soil science behind the results. Fortunately, the soil lab boils it all down to some simple recommendations at the bottom of the readout.

The nutrient needs are listed as actual pounds of each element per 1000 square feet. Since fertilizer is not sold as pure nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, the precise amount of any type of fertilizer must be mathematically calculated. Back in the olden days when I was an MSU Extension Agent and the results were printed with a dot-matrix printer, I made those calculations by hand on hundreds of test results. Nowadays MSU has an online calculator that you can use to figure out how many pounds of fertilizer you would need to apply.

With the planting season rapidly approaching,I suggest you get your soil sample to the lab ASAP. Much like your income tax return; the sooner you send it in the sooner you’ll see your results.

Bob

 

 

April 6, 2017

Gardening after the Apocalypse

Filed under: Books,Economics — bob @ 2:29 pm

“Because survival is insufficient”

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the Agora, the student newspaper at Monroe County Community College. It was part of their “One Book One Community” series in which a book is chosen and as many people as possible read the book, then events such as panel discussions are held.

This time the book was Station Eleven  a post- apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel.  The story is set in the not-to-distant future Great Lakes area, so it has a special attraction for those of who live in this area. An extremely virulent influenza virus has abruptly wiped out over 99% of the world’s human population causing complete collapse of civilization. A performance group called the Travelling Symphony wanders about the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron performing Shakespeare for villagers.

 

You'll recognize some of the places in Station Eleven

You’ll recognize some of the places in Station Eleven

Our panel discussion addressed hypothetical questions of how would we survive a catastrophic event and the chaos that would follow. On our panel was Micha, a sportsman who was an expert hunter and fisherman; Chase, a young, decorated war veteran who gave his thoughts on self-defense; Mark Hammond, our director of emergency management representing the government’s point of view; my wife Judy — who is a retired horticulturist from Matthaei Botanical Garden– and myself shared our opinions on growing and preserving food.

A number of possible scenarios were brought up ranging from a natural or man-made electro-magnetic pulse that takes down the electrical grid to a global pandemic much like the one in Mandel’s novel and everything in between. Most agreed that the most probable disaster would be an electrical grid failure that we could recover from in a relatively short period of time. This was not long after the wind storm in March that knocked out electricity to over a million people in Michigan so it was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

What are three things that you should do right now to prepare for a disaster? There are many possibilities but our government official suggested we look at the FEMA website to get started.

Learning the rudiments of hunting and fishing would serve you well in the Great Lakes area if you were lucky enough to survive the beginnings of an extreme disaster. Purchasing proper outdoor equipment, including firearms, ahead of time and learning how to use it is critical if you decide to prepare for that kind of eventuality.

In my opinion, subsistence gardening/farming would be the most productive endeavor in a post-apocalyptic world, especially you decide to settle in down in one spot and not travel. My suggestion to the audience was to take up gardening as a new hobby to learn how to grow your own food. Judy reminded the participants that most garden seed is only viable for one to five years, depending on the type of vegetable and open-pollinated, heirloom varieties would be the only workable option for growing food long into the future.

We all agreed that it would be best to have a group of like-minded family and friends who could band together to share their skills to help mitigate the worst aspects of a disaster. Even some form of entertainment would be welcome. Many years ago a group of my friends discussed that very topic: who would be critical to the survival of the group? After all the practical skills were covered, like woodworking, blacksmithing and such, it was decided to include Greg because he was a talented guitar player and wonderful singer.

Even if a major cataclysm never occurs during our lifetime, gardening is still a healthy, enjoyable, productive hobby.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 27, 2017

A potential drawback to heirloom tomatoes

Filed under: Vegetables — bob @ 2:09 pm

Heirloom tomatoes have been all the rage for years now and they are still gaining in popularity — for good reason. Not only do they offer a wide variety of taste and texture, they also come in a rainbow of colors.

On the other hand, there are several drawbacks to growing heirloom tomatoes, I’m not going to go into all of them here right now. Their biggest shortcoming in my experience, is the comparatively small yields compared to modern tomato varieties.

Most of the heirlooms are more finicky and demand more time, attention and sometimes more space than the newer varieties. With all of the additional work that you have to put in to growing them, you would hope that would translate to more tomatoes, but it doesn’t. Many gardeners would argue that the extra taste makes up for the lack of tomatoes. It’s a legitimate argument but I’m not sure if I entirely agree with it. Just about any tomato, even the commercial ones, can taste wonderful if left to ripen on the vine and is harvested at its peak.

If you are growing tomatoes to stash away to use later in the winter, you would be much better off choosing a modern variety that will give you a much higher yield and a more consistent, dependable tomato crop. With all of the things that can happen during a growing season to reduce a tomato harvest, I like to give my crop any advantage I can.

Modern varieties of tomatoes generally have higher yields than heirloom types.

Modern varieties of tomatoes generally have higher yields than heirloom types.

It not unusual for me to put up 50 or more quarts during a typical fall harvest, that takes a fair number of tomatoes. Later, during the winter. those whole, canned tomatoes get cooked down even more and with a few garden herbs, get transformed into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, ketchup  and other yummy things — tomato soup is one of my favorites.

I still grow a few different heirloom varieties for eating fresh during the summer. There are always plenty to give away to family and friends too. Then, if there are any left at the end of the season, I’ll toss them into the canning kettle with the rest.

I’ve learned through the years that if I want enough tomatoes for canning, I need to grow modern, dependable varieties for my main tomato crop.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Vegetable garden row direction

Even though the soil out in the garden is still very cold, we can still plant our garden — on paper that is.

There are several advantages to planning your garden on paper or on an app, before setting it out in the ground. The most obvious is you can get a good idea of how much planting material you need such as transplants, seeds or bulbs. And it is handy for calculating how many pounds of soil amendments you may need to add to the soil.

I was once one of those gardeners who never planned ahead very much. When it came to planting, I just picked out my favorite seeds and planted until it either looked like enough or I ran out of material to plant.  I also didn’t pay much attention to which way the garden was facing. Most of the time I had plenty of square footage to use and I could afford some inefficiency. That, however, is not the way to get the most out of a space.

Not long ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about which direction garden rows should run.

Sometimes there’s no choice because of the shape of the garden. A long, narrow garden spot may mean the rows have to follow the long axis of the plot. In the past, I’ve had gardens that had an irregular shape so the rows ran in more than one direction because that was the most efficient use of that particular space.

What if you have a square or nearly square garden with one of the sides facing south, should the rows run north and south or east and west?

Imagine the position of the sun in the sky during the growing season. It appears to us to travel across the sky from east to west. As it moves through the sky, the angle of the rays of sunlight changes in relation to the stationary garden plants.

In an east to west configuration,  much more sunlight will strike the south side of the plants than on any other side. In other words, the south side will receive more solar energy while the north side is shaded most of the day.

Rows planted north to south will receive sunlight more evenly. In the morning, the east side of the row receives sunlight. The plant is bathed in sunlight all day as the sun moves until late afternoon when the west side gets sunlight. So the plant receives sunlight on three sides instead of just one.

The cross-hatched areas represent rows of garden plants. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight. Note how just the south side of the plants in the east to west rows receive sunlight. Sunlight penetrates deep into the rows that run north and south.

The cross-hatched areas represent rows of garden plants. The arrow heads represent rays of sunlight. Note how just the south side of the plants in the east to west rows receive sunlight. Sunlight penetrates deep into the rows that run north and south and contacts more of the surface area.

Not all gardens are situated facing a cardinal direction in an open area. Take for example a southeastern facing garden that is shaded from the afternoon sun. It should have its rows running northeast and southwest to receive the fullest amount of sunlight. Since the garden would get no direct sunlight in the afternoon, it would be a good idea to try to capture as much of that solar energy as possible.

We have a couple of months before our main outdoors planting happens. So now is a great time to sketch out a diagram of of your garden that, in addition to the size and shape, includes direction, and potential sunlight.

Bob

March 4, 2017

Accidental bee pollen substitute

Filed under: Bees — bob @ 1:16 pm

We’re back to near normal temperatures after that stretch of unseasonably warm days in late February.

Maybe you noticed last week all the honey bees that were out flying. They took advantage of the nice days to make their cleansing flights to defecate outside the hive. Bees avoid passing their digestive waste inside the hive whenever possible.

They also worked to remove the bodies of bees that had died during the winter as part of their natural housekeeping behavior.

One thing that surprised me was the number of bees out foraging for pollen. Of course in the middle of February there were very few, if any, flowers to visit. I noticed a few flowers blooming in micro-climates that are located in well-protected south facing areas. That wasn’t enough to really collect much pollen.

I keep a several dozen laying hens on my property. During the winter they’re fed a special recipe that I have specially made at our local grain mill. The bulk of the recipe is locally sourced corn and protein supplement along with some vitamins and minerals. All the ingredients are ground up and mixed together by the mill. The result is a dry, coarse mix that has a wide variation in particle side ranging from slightly cracked corn all the way down to fine grain dust. The dust component is so fine it can easily be blown about by the wind.

Last week I unintentionally left the top of my feed storage open for part of the day, usually I close it right away to keep the rain out. Late in the day when I when to give the hens their afternoon meal I was  startled to see dozens of honey bees flying in and out of my feed bin. They were carrying away tiny loads of very fine chicken feed on their legs where they normally carry pollen.

bees collecting grain dust

Flower pollen is highly variable in food value. Protein content ranges anywhere from just a few percent to 40 percent or more. Many factor determine the amount of protein present in pollen; plant species, growing conditions, and rainfall among others. Protein content may even change somewhat during the growing season.

My chicken feed recipe is about 18-20 percent protein which falls in the lower range of pollen. It’s not as high as real pollen but it also contains vitamins and minerals necessary for chicken as well as bee growth.

I guess the bees decided since there were no flowers, they’d do the next best thing and collect a pollen substitute to take back to the hive. Heck, they were out flying anyway so, why go back empty handed?

Inside the hive, the bees will pack the grain dust into honey comb cells where it will ferment, just like real pollen.  The process is sort of like what we do make pickles, cheese, sauerkraut or beer. The fermentation process breaks down the indigestible components into an edible form that young bee larvae can more easily digest.

Once the flowers start blooming, the bees will probably lose interest in the chicken feed. They’ll happily go back to collecting their preferred protein source, flower pollen.

Bob

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