The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

April 17, 2019

Reproduce forest soil to help trees get off to a good start

Filed under: Shrubs,Soil,Trees — Tags: , , — bob @ 5:26 pm

Spring is the best time of year to plant trees. During the winter the dormant buds and roots are in a kind of holding pattern until the right growing conditions happen in the spring. Then they have the entire growing season to establish themselves before next winter.

No doubt you’re aware of the requirements for a proper sized planting hole and the need to water the young tree after planting. Proper planting depth is also very important. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how important it is to remove the wrapping from the root ball, even though it can be a hassle.

I always set aside any sod and never use it to back-fill the planting. Actually, I don’t use the topsoil to back-fill either. I just use the subsoil from the hole for back-fill and save the topsoil for the very top of the hole. That way the original soil profile is maintained.

After I’ve taken great pains to get the tree into the ground, there’s one more thing I like to do to and that is to create an artificial forest floor covering.  It’s something I’ve been doing for decades and I like the results.

It’s really a way of mulching that small trees seem to respond to. I first apply a thin layer of partially decomposed wood chips around the newly planted tree, over the topsoil,  maybe a couple of inches deep. Then I cover that with a layer of chopped leaves. Chopping the leaves prevents them from matting down which can slow down rain water penetration into the soil.

Here the mulch is applied  about four feet in diameter.

Here the mulch is applied about four feet in diameter.

The layering combination of subsoil in the hole, with topsoil over that then covered with the chips and leaves mimics the soil conditions of a forest. I don’t mix the layers, I let the soil microbes do their thing. Eventually as the mulch decomposes, humic acid and related compounds are formed providing an environment for a wide variety of beneficial soil microbes. All of that allows the tree to adapt to its new home and grow to its full potential.

Not everyone will want to fuss with their trees like this and some will say it’s overkill and I certainly wouldn’t expect a landscaper to do it. but it’s something I’ve found to work for me.

Bob

No garden space? Try a community garden

Filed under: Garden Preparation,Related topics — Tags: , — bob @ 5:04 pm

Just because you are living in an apartment or in a house with no suitable gardening space, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck.

All around Michigan groups, work to provide community gardening space for folks who couldn’t otherwise garden due to a lack of space.

There’s a wide spread on the amenities community gardens provide. The most rustic community gardens provide nothing more than a sunny place to garden. At those you’ll have to do your own tilling in the spring. Also, you’ll have to haul your own water from home. Water is critical especially during the first couple of weeks until young plants become established. After that, mulches applied around the plants will drastically reduce the amount of water required compared to bare soil.

The next tier of gardens will have water on site with one or more hose bibs from which to draw water. Sometimes hoses are allowed, sometimes not. But at the very least you won’t have haul jugs of water from home.

Some community gardens loan out tools for the gardeners to use if they don’t have their own. That usually happens in the more permanent gardens where tool sheds or other storage facilities are located right on site.

A community garden plot.

A community garden plot.

Permanent raised beds are available at some garden sites. Their configuration can be anything from slightly raised beds to growing tables raised to table top height.

The rarest of community gardens are those that provide all the previously mentioned amenities plus garden irrigation. These will often have a garden expert or manager who monitors the irrigation system and is around to help gardeners with problems and to answer questions. Some even provide people to help to those who need it.

Costs ranges from free or a token amount to hundreds of dollars per season in the most desired location. Often organizations use garden fee income to improve the garden or help fund other work. In lieu of a fee, you may be asked to contribute a number of work hours helping around the garden.

If you do decide to join a community garden, be a good member. Always be mindful of the rules. For example: don’t trudge through other people’s garden; never pick produce from other plots unless given permission, even if it appears to be in danger of becoming over-ripe; park in designated areas; keep the garden a peaceful place, don’t act out personal problems at the garden such as shouting arguments. The best policy is try to be a good neighbor.

It’s fairly easy to find garden space these days. Start by contacting city recreation departments, schools, colleges, churches and other civic organizations. Private land owners or farmers may rent out plots as well.

This time of the year, just before planting season kicks off, organizations make a big push to get people to sign up. That means sign-up for garden space is going full speed ahead so don’t wait too long because space often runs out fast in some of the more popular gardens. Before committing to a garden plot, it might be a good idea to visit first so there are no surprises.

Bob

 

March 28, 2019

If possible, save dead trees for woodpecker nests

I spend a lot of time outside and one of my favorite sounds this time of year is the drumming of woodpeckers. In our neck of the woods we have mostly hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

We live in a rural area and there are plenty of trees around to provide nesting sites for woodpeckers. If you remember, woodpeckers only nest in holes that they carve in tree branches. When looking for a likely nesting spot, they always choose dead branches first because the wood is softer due to decay making it easier for the bird to excavate a hole.

This branch is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. They were most likely made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

This branch is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. The holes were most likely made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

Unfortunately, people don’t always think about birds when it comes time to cut firewood or tidy up the woodlot. Often, dead or dying trees are the first ones that get cut down. That reduces the number of nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.

When there is a lack of trees,woodpeckers will look for other places to build their nests. The outside wall of a house can be tempting for them, especially if it is covered with wood siding. They can be fairly destructive if they drill into a wall to make their nest.  More dead trees left standing may draw woodpeckers away from homes and back to their preferred habitat.

It’s not only woodpeckers that benefit from standing dead trees, other species of songbirds and small mammals will move into old woodpecker nests once the woodpeckers have eventually moved on.

If you decide to leave a damaged tree standing, just make sure it is in a location where it won’t cause any damage if the branches, or even the whole tree, falls.

Bob

Fixing seed starting mix that won’t absorb water

We’re sowing our seeds right now for growing transplants that we’ll plant out in the garden. It takes some work, but you can save quite a bit of money growing your own transplants.

Another huge advantage that may be even more important is being able to grow the varieties you want rather than relying on what the garden center grows. They usually chooses varieties that are the easiest to grow, not necessarily the tastiest. That makes sense in their business model. People who have success with their plants are more likely to return the following season.

Starting your own seeds is not without its problems. Some of them you can plan ahead for and minimize, others pop up out of the blue.

We’ve had a great start with our seeds this spring, the cabbages and related cool weather crops are up and growing well. We were using the last of last year’s seed starting mix but ran out. The local hardware store had plenty of bags of mix in stock so we bought a small bag so we could keep working. It felt a little light and fluffy when I carried it, that should have been a warning sign but I was in a hurry.

When we got it home and started working with it, we found that it would not absorb water. Even after sitting  in water overnight, not a drop was absorbed by the mix! It was a “hydrophobic” mix; it was repelling water. That happens whenever potting soils dry out too much. Usually manufacturers make sure a minimum amount of moisture is present to keep that from happening or they include a small amount of  a”hydrophillic” ingredient in the mix to help it absorb water.

The soil on left has absorbed water normally, the other on is hydrophobic.

The soil on left has absorbed water normally, the other on is hydrophobic.

One explanation is we grabbed one of last year’s bags of soil that had completely dried out while in storage. But who knows?

To avoid this in the first place, always make note of how heavy the bags are compared to one another. Mixes are sold by volume, not weight so you don’t have to worry about wasting money on buying water. Pick the one that feels a little heavier because it is more likely to have the proper moisture ratio.

If you do happen to pick a bad one, like me, you can still fix it by applying small amount of surfactant. Even professional greenhouse have this problem from time to time. They use specially formulated surfactants that are not available to the general public but dish washing detergent will work just as well.

Here’s the recipe: dissolve one teaspoon (not tablespoon) of liquid detergent to one pint of water. Use the cheapest off-brand detergent you can find, there’s a practical reason for it. The name brands like Joy, Dawn or Palmolive make too many suds for this purpose. I have a bottle of off-brand detergent left over from several bottles I picked up many years ago when Farmer Jack went out of business. How long ago was that?

Place your solution in a spray bottle and spray it on the surface of your mix, that should give you enough surfactant to allow the water to soak in.

Sometimes the soil in a container will dry out and become hydrophobic even when a plant is growing is growing in it. When that happens, the plant will quickly die from lack of water. Your surfactant spray will fix that situation too. Just spritz a light spray on the top of the soil. It will help water penetrate but won’t harm the plant.

Bob

March 8, 2019

Making a DIY maple sap stile from an elderberry or sumac branch

We’re rapidly approaching the maple syrup season. Actually if it wasn’t for this cold snap we’d be gathering sap right now. It all depends on the weather,  cold nights with quickly warming morning stimulates sap flow.

Now that I reminded you of it, maybe you want to try making some maple syrup yourself this year. First you’ll have to collect maple sap and for that you’re going to need some equipment before you start. One very important piece of equipment is the stile, or tap. That’s the little doohickey that is used to funnel maple sap from the tree trunk to a pail or other collecting container.

Like so many other things that started out simple, a huge retail industry has developed around selling items for tapping maple trees. To hear them tell it, you can’t even get sap out of a maple tree without their products. People have been tapping trees and making maple syrup for centuries, How did they do it without access to modern day gadgets? Well, they made their own equipment using raw materials available in the environment around them.

If you hurry and ask for priority shipping, you may be able to order tree tapping stiles online and get them before the season ends. Or you can make your own.

You can easily carve a stile from an elderberry branch using tools you already have around the house. Sumac branches work just as well or perhaps even better than elderberry and may be easier to find in your neighborhood.

The hardest part of the whole process is finding the shrubs. Once you find a likely bush, take out your sharpened pruners and cut off a section of branch around a half an inch in diameter.  Freshly cut, green stems are relatively soft and very easy to work with.

Cut elderberry branches into sections three to four inch long.

This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.

This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.

Using a screw driver, hollow out stem by removing the soft pithy part running through  the center.

Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.

Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.

Work the screw driver  through the pith to form a hollow tube.

Work the screw driver through the pith to form a hollow tube.

Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.

Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.

For the next step, use a sharp pocket knife to whittle away one end to form a taper. This will be the end that goes into the tree.

A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.

A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.

Finally, make a slanted cut at the far end to form a spout. And that’s all there is to it. Your first stile will probably take several minutes to make but once you’ve done it, you’ll find the next one will be easier and can be finished in less than a couple of minutes.

Make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout.

To complete your stile, make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout. Shave off the bark f you want.

I’m not going to go though all the steps necessary to tap a tree and boil down sap into syrup but if you want to learn more, click here to find an old publication that I posted several years ago describing the process from start to finish.

After the first year, you may find you’re interested in expanding your syrup making hobby, if that’s the case then by all means go online and start collecting  more sophisticated equipment for next year.

Bob

 

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