Talking Dirty with The Accidental Agronomist - Take One

The Homesteader Edition

After writing about agronomy for a year, I decided I would do something different.

Even though I have gained two more chins due to the number of prescription drugs I have been on for the past six months and my complete lack of technical skills, I decided I would start doing video interviews with all types of people either directly or indirectly involved in agriculture.

Nothing scripted or even really edited, just a one on one conversation about agronomy.

For the first interview, I sat down with a friend I’ve known for a while now to get her take on what agronomy means to her as a homesteader and let her ask a question or two as well.

Meet Diane, a backyard gardening homesteader from somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Ag 101 Week 46

Efficacy

 

 ef·fi·ca·cy

/ˈefəkəsē/

noun

1.     the ability to produce a desired or intended result.

"there is little information on the efficacy of this treatment"

synonyms:

effectiveness, success, productiveness, potency, power;

Before moving on to talking about trace minerals and sulfur, I wanted to discuss a word I find myself using often. I even found myself having a conversation about this topic with my acupuncturist this week.

I arrived for my appointment, and he noticed I have a cold. He told me before we could move forward working on my leg and arm; we would need to treat the cold, so it doesn’t go any deeper into my system. That alone is another topic for a post, but I’ll save it for later.

As we were discussing some options for herbs I could take, he spoke about a common over the counter remedy that contains Chinese herbs for colds. He mentioned the reason why people do not see the results they want is twofold – timing and overuse. As I was sitting there listening to him, I thought, “Umm, that’s much like issues some growers experience.”

To realize somethings full efficacy; it’s ability to produce a desired or intended result, you need to use the right source, use the right rate, have the right timing, and in the case of fertilizer, amendments, hebicides, and pesticides have the right placement.

A chemistries efficacy becomes even more critical in the case of trace minerals because they are required in such small amounts.

I’ve spoken at length about the right rate, timing, and placement in the following two posts

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/5/ag-101-week-6

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/25/ag-101-week-10

Since week 41 I’ve talked at length about the right sources

The best example of chemistry losing its efficacy is in the case of herbicides. We have heard year after year of more weeds becoming herbicide resistant and even developing into superweeds. More and more I am hearing about common chemistries on the organic side of agriculture losing their efficacy as well. Things such as copper, Bt products, and even my favorite kelp are having to be applied at higher and higher rates to see any results.

So, how does a farmer avoid overusing inputs-

1.     If possible, use cultural practices such as mowing, minimal tillage, removing debris, etc.

2.     Identify the problem correctly, whether it is a pest, disease, or nutrient related

3.     Use the proper chemistry for the issue

4.     Rotate with several chemistries that work synergistically with each other

5.     Most importantly do not use more than the recommended amount of the chemistry

6.     If chemistries are needed, follow the 4R Principles laid out in the previous weeks 6 & 10 links

Remember the adage, “If a little is good, more must be better.” Isn’t always the case.

Ag 101 Week 40

No Assembly Required

I posted this graphic on Instagram this week. At the time, I had planned on writing a lengthy explanation as to what I meant and at the last minute deleted. I wanted to see what kind of response I would get.

IMG_20180928_103757_898.jpg

One person asked if I was against soil building techniques. The following was my reply

“Not against good management practices at all. They are part of what it takes to be good stewards of the soil. But, soil comes pre-assembled. It’s like a set of shelves that are ready and waiting for you to start stacking books on. Or better yet, to start using and storing nutrients in for the microbes and plants that rely on it. All you need to do is take time to understand the specs the shelves came with, or what I refer to as the inherent characteristics your soil came with. We amend, which is a temporary change to the physical and chemical characteristics and we fertilize which is strategic and is intended to feed the biology in the soil and the plant, depending on the type of inputs you use. Neither build, they complement what’s already there.”

Another person explained, “permaculture allows for amendment added in 1-foot layers starting from a depth of 6 feet below grade. That’s building soil…The amendments are specific and by their nature create a mycillium layer right at the frost line. “

To this, I responded

“If I understand correctly, you still have the parent material left. For lack of better terms, that is what ‘builds soil’ and dictates its characteristics. I have long wanted to understand permaculture better and have not taken the time to do more research on it. If you have any good resources I would love to read more about it.”

If indeed taking away the top six feet is what permaculture prescribes, it seems pretty destructive to me. Here again, I don’t know that much about it.

Three things I want to point out-

1.     Soil doesn’t know and or understand any of this. It comes the way it is and has had stuff growing in it way before we got here. We need to either work with or against it. It is selfish and doesn’t follow trends.

2.     If people understood the difference between amending and fertilizing that alone would save them money and have a more significant impact on helping the environment than some of the other things we do.

3.     Long-term soil fertility, the kind that keeps soil healthy and you and the next generation farming and eating is a balance between the actual make of the soil specifically the clay fraction, organic matter management, and the physical management of it as well.

The notion that we build soil has been around for a while now. You see it phrased that way on social media, industry gurus say it all the time, everyone who’s anyone has used the term at some point in time. It sounds powerful and gives us a sense we are in control. It is what good marketing is made of. It’s even on one of my favorite books, Building Soil for Better Crops by Magdoff & Van Es. If you’re in the industry, you want to jump on the bandwagon and ride the wave of being known as the one who builds the best soil ever! Right?

Here’s the challenge I have with the statement, “build soil”-

We can’t build soil. It comes no assembly required. You don’t open a box like you do from Ikea and put the pieces together.

It comes pre-assembled with both physical and chemical characteristics that we can’t change. They are dictated by its parent material. We have nothing to do with it. The soil is what it is, and we have to except that.

I talk about those in weeks 8 & 9

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/11/ag-101-week-8

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/15/ag-101-week-9

However, there is one thing we can do. We can amend it. But, there’s another kick in the pants. No matter what amending you do, no matter what type of amendments you use it is only temporary. It doesn’t last forever. Soils main objective is to go back to what it originally was no matter what we try to do with it. You always have to be tinkering with it to keep it the way you want it.

I hate to say it, but there is no Ronco Set It & Forget It when it comes to soil. It is a constant work in progress.

I have said that organic matter gets all the attention and clay is often overlooked while being misunderstood for what it brings to the table in soil management.

If I were to put it into somewhat crude and simple terms

Organic matter

is the girl you want to date. She’s fun, easy to get along with, doesn’t require much attention and is relatively inexpensive. It is the most biologically active fraction of the soil. It does have a negative charge due to humus. However, it is referred to as being loose because it doesn’t have the structure that clay does. Humus, all though being somewhat stable breakdowns faster than clay and needs to be replenished to keep nutrient holding capacity and availability in check.

Clay

is the women you want to marry. However, she requires more strategy. She won’t go for just dinner and a movie. She might need something more expensive to keep her happy. However, if managed properly and the timing and application are well thought out and strategic, it will be well worth the effort and expense.

When you have a balance of both organic matter and clay you get married and live happily ever after. I realize my analogy is probably offensive to some, but it illustrates my point.

All of this leads back to knowing your soil type, getting a soil test and balancing the biological, the chemical, and the physical.

Ag 101 Week 26

Six Steps to Planning a Dinner Party - Cont'd

 

Setting the Table

Miss Kitty and The Kitchen Table 

Miss Kitty and The Kitchen Table 

That’s a picture of our kitchen table. It’s put together from three different sets and painted so it would all match. Nothing fancy but gets the job done.

Sometimes we do everything but eat at it.

We hold family meetings, do art projects and science experiments, re-pot plants, pit cherries, write blog posts, decorate cookies, and even cry there. I’ve taught both our kids’ reading, writing, and math at it.

When we all have time to have a meal together, we pray over burnt offerings otherwise known as dinner at it.

It’s old, well used, and now and then we have to tighten the legs. It should be repainted but has not been a priority. That doesn’t affect how well it works; only its’ looks.

Generally, we use paper plates - do not judge. I know the environmental implications and take steps to balance it out in other areas to offset them. Is it a perfect system?  No. However, I know my schedule and what it takes to make our empire spin, and there are tradeoffs. I bet there are some in your home, or on your farm, as well. We all have to make management decisions based on our situation. For us sometimes it’s paper. If not paper and much to my moms’ dismay, I use all my depression glass and china from my grandparents. My philosophy is, if I have it, I’m going to use it and enjoy it until someone breaks it.

I’m using our kitchen table and our dishes, as an illustration, to talk about the next two steps in the Six Steps to Planning a Dinner Party that I started last week

If you recall, the first two are

1.    Pick a Venue – Your Farm

2.    Make a Guest List – Crops and Insects

 

This week we’re going to talk about steps three and four

What Types of Tables – Soil

Choosing the place setting – Management and inputs

 

3.    Choosing the Tables – Soil

When you’re planning a dinner party, you get to pick the type of tables you want, and the seating arrangement can be based on the types of tables at your venue.

The tables can be extended, short, round, tall, or any combination of all.

Maybe the venue comes with tables, and they are already chosen for you by default, similar to buying a farm or land.

Maybe like our kitchen table, it is a miss-matched set put together for function over style.

Whether you are looking to purchase or have been farming the same ground for years, you need to invest time getting to know the type of soil you are working with or reacquainting yourself with it. My best suggestions are

-Go to the Soil Survey Website. I wrote about it back in Week 3.

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/1/13/ag-101-week-3

This is the direct link

ttps://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm

Just as making the seating arrangement at your dinner party can be based on the types of tables. Your crop rotations, amendment/fertilizer choices, and types of management such as tillage options are based on the amounts of sand, silt, and clay present in the soil.

Like we work with our old rickety table, some farmers I work with have marginal land but have overcome it with a sound fertility plan taking into consideration the soil type and test results. 

Using a free resource like the Soil Survey Web can give you insights as to where to start in making those decisions.

-Get a complete soil test

I wrote about this in Week 24 – Six Things Every Soil Test Should Include

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/6/11/ag-101-week-24

I say completely because far too often it’s not that farmers aren’t getting them done, its that they don’t get all the information they need to make complete decisions. Keep in mind when choosing a lab, read what each test package includes and fill the form out accordingly. In doubt and before submitting the sample call the lab if necessary.

-Get out and walk your fields

It goes beyond planting, spraying, and harvesting. Take some time and walk your fields with your soil survey and soil test results. Take notes of the physical characteristics of the soil in each field and compare it to the map and results. In some cases, you could be surprised at what the soil will tell you as opposed to the maps and tests. I've looked at soil tests at my desk and gone out to the field to either have my thoughts proven or disproven. But without physically looking with my own eyes, it was a mere educated guess. Soil and plants will tell you things you just have to be willing to look for it. 

 

4.    Chose the Place Setting – Management/Inputs

Just has my choice to use paper plates or depression glass for our table setting, how you manage your farm can be based on several factors. They can range from soil type, crop choice, financial limitation, regulatory requirements, or philosophical and moral views. A few farms I work with had to create management zones due to the types of crops they grow and to make it easier for employees to understand. 

Whatever the case may be for your situation having good management plans in place and practicing them will go a long way to ensuring a successful season. I wrote a post titled - You Can’t Out Fertilize Poor Management, Week 13

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/15/you-cant-out-fertilize-poor-management

My husband read it and said I had been harsh. As much as I don’t like saying it, it’s true. Think of it as one of the legs of our kitchen table I spoke about earlier. Sometimes I need to tighten it to stay functional. Sometimes you need to manage the resources you have to be profitable.

Inputs need to be viewed much the same. Basing them off of the soil type, test results, and crops will ensure the right choice to produce a quality high yielding product. Managing them using principles suggested in the 4 R’s covered in weeks 6 and ten will provide financial and environmental benefits.

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/5/ag-101-week-6 

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/2018/2/25/ag-101-week-10

 

Ag 101 Week 22

I Got Nothing...

I'm not going to lie, coming up with a topic for this week has been challenging. I usually get inspiration from things I've been doing or things I've been questioned about in the previous week. But these past couple weeks have been doozies. 

I have dealt with everything from gray mold on strawberries, hail damage on lettuce, making fertilizer recommendations, nailing down seeding rates, explaining my opinion on sap and Brix testing, etc. I've been to pasture walks and spoke for the Williamsport Herb Guild. I've touched base with clients and needless to say I came up with lots of topics and still no real inspiration as to exactly what to write about.  

To cap off the week, I spent 4 hours updating the terms, conditions, and privacy policy for the website to be in compliance with the GDPR.  Don't ask me what that stands for, I'm not good with acronyms or military time. All I know is feel free to stop reading at any point, feel free to unsubscribe at any point, feel free to not deal with me at any point. I will not be offended, TRUST ME! If you do stay, you will hear some ranting and you will wear down your red pen fixing typos. But hopefully, you will also get at least one piece of something that will help you to be the best farmer, grower, or producer you want to be.

So, when it came to writing a post, I was just not feeling it...

Then while I was taking pictures of my peonies after I had told my husband I was writing, I thought "Give them something useful. Something practical. Something to help them through the season." Then they can unsubscribe to go look for a highly trained world-renowned agronomist. Just kidding. 

Well-fed plants are usually less susceptible to soil-borne organisms than are poorly nourished plants. Good fertility may so enhance the resistance of the (host)plant that the parasite can not successfully attack the roots.
— U.S Dept. of Agriculture 1957 Yearbook

It can be said that having a well-nurished plant will deter insect and other disease issues as well.

Earlier this week I shared a liquid fertilizer program for strawberries. You can go to this link and sign up for the newsletter to get a printable copy. 

https://www.theaccidentalagronomist.com/news/

This year growers I work with have had success in high tunnels, while those growing outside have been challenged. The weather is a dominant factor for the challenges. Sometimes all we can do is mitigate the best we can, looking ahead to the next crop.

So that leads me to give you some suggestions of things you can have on hand to help grow through any up and coming challenges that might be on the horizon. I've also tried to make them things that could be readily available at any home and garden or farm store. 

Kelp Meal/Kelp Liquid

Anyone that has been around me for five minutes knows I like kelp. It is effective and multi-purposeful. 

Kelp is not curative, however, it can be used to help boost a plant's immune system helping it to get through periods of stress. It has growth simulant hormones called cytokinins, gibberellins, and auxins that encourage cell health, strength, and growth. 

It has insect repellant properties due to the fact it has iodine which has been shown to deter sucking and piercing insects. I do caution that it is only effective if we use it judiciously. I have growers that use it in the insecticide box when planting corn. The first year the rate would be 6-8#/ac. If planting corn after corn, which is never recommended, however, sometimes practiced, the rate would need to increase to 10-15#/ac. 

Just as other chemistries, its overuse can diminish its efficacy. 

That being said, I add 1-2oz of liquid kelp per gallon to any irrigation water I'm using in my containers and vegetable garden. I generally water with it every 7-10 depending on rain amounts, which equals out to be roughly every other time I water.  

The meal can be steeped in water/vinegar to make the liquid, leaving you with the meal to use as an amendment and the liquid to water with.

For example:

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup vinegar

1 cup kelp meal

Let steep for several days, drain off the liquid and add 1-2oz. per gallon of water and apply every 7-10 days or as needed.

The meal can be used at the time of planting or as a side dress throughout the growing season. 

Aragonite/Oyster Shell

Aragonite can be harder to find, but well worth the effort. Oyster shell would be a good substitute. Both are an excellent source of calcium and can be used dry or steeped in vinegar.  This could be good for tomatoes when they are lacking calcium showing signs of Blossom End Root(BER). BER is really not a calcium issue but an irrigation one. However, a quick readily available calcium application can help the plant get through it and keep producing. I think I sense another idea to write about...

For example:

1 cup aragonite/oyster shell

1 cup vinegar

Let steep for several days, drain off the liquid and add 1-2oz. per gallon of water and apply every 7-10 days or as needed.

5% - 10%Vinegar

This has a multitude of uses. You can use it in liquid fertilizer blends to stabilize a mix and help balance the pH. It can be a good liquid to use an as extractant, like with kelp meal and aragonite. If used appropriately it will have a nominal effect on water pH but not to a level that would be detrimental. However, always use caution and test pH of any irrigation system and soil regularly.

Liquid Fish

There are several formulations on the market. I look for one that has sulfate of potash (SOP) and kelp in it.  If you can find one with sodium nitrate, then that is an added bonus. It is a great stand-alone fertilizer however, I have growers using it in the following mix and see great results.

Liquid Fish Blend:

1-2 gallon liquid fish

1-2 quart liquid kelp

1 pint 5-10% Vinegar

5 pounds sugar or 1-3 oz. molasses per gallon(optional, but recommended)

Add 1-2oz. per gallon of water and apply 1-2 times during the growing season dependant on the crop and soil tests. 

Another blend that is easy to mix yet effective is 

Fish/Kelp Blend:

1/2 Fish Fertilizer

1/2 Liquid Kelp

Add 1-2 oz. per gallon of water and apply every 7-10 days, or as needed. 

This is great for transplanting or times of stress, fertilizing and stimulating growth at the same time. 

As always soil and tissue testing are recommended before implementing any type of program. These are merely suggestions and not an exhausted list of things you could potentially have on hand. If you are experiencing challenges, a call to your local extension office or an agronomist might be necessary before making any fertilizer/amendment applications as well.

*Please take cation as to the time of day you apply liquids when using as a fertilizer, early morning is optimal, or in the evening. 

Once I have recovered from the whole GDPR thing, I'll put together a PDF with the information in this post. At that time you will be asked to subscribe to my newsletter to get it. Then, once you have done that and gotten your free printable fertilizer recipe PDF you can unsubscribe, no hard feelings. 

As always, if you have questions, don't hesitate to ask. Better yet send pictures and we can talk through some issues you might be having. 

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Ag 101 Week 19

Grounds for That

I’m talking coffee grounds this week. It all started when I happen to see a post on Facebook from my local coffee shop 3J's Coffee . They were advertising they had free coffee grounds for your compost pile. I thought to myself  “It’s good they sent the right message and said need compost not fertilizer?

20180502_190807.jpg

https://www.facebook.com/3jscoffee/posts/1872362372776188

I happen to stop in later in the week and saw the owner. I mentioned that I appreciated the fact that they said for your compost pile. She said thank you and from there this week’s topic was decided.

It’s not something the large-scale grower considers. I realize this. I was even thinking about ditching the topic altogether. After last week’s half-assed attempt to instill wisdom about the use of vinegar, I was convinced I needed to step up my game and talk about more serious-minded agronomic topics like how to grow 200 bushels of corn per acre.

Then I decided, screw it. Some well-meaning other person has that covered. I’m talking about coffee grounds. And here’s why

1.      A considerable percentage of growers I work with started as hobby or backyard growers.

2.      The industry lacks for current if any research regarding anecdotal information about inputs used             by naturally-based or certified organic growers.  

As I mentioned, a considerable percentage of growers I work with started as hobby or backyard growers. They bring with them all the googled, passed down, well-meaning information gardeners’ like to share. Then they become a CSA/market grower doing it on a larger scale with that same backyard information mindset. Not that there isn’t value to that. I’m not putting anyone or anything down. But to scale up, you have to think up and ditch the backyard mindset. Don’t lose the zeal and excitement for growing great produce or vegetables but take your thinking aka management to an elevated level on par with the scale it takes to supply a CSA or market.

One of the nuggets of great info out there is the practice of using coffee grounds as fertilizer. I understand the positive environmental impact it can have to keep them out of landfills. I also realize that there is very little if any real data to support the fertility claims that are made.  I often hear things like, “I use it for my rose bushes with a banana peel, and they grow bigger and bigger every year. I have the best roses in town!” For the backyard grower that might be sufficient evidence, however, for a production level grower, it is not scientifically based research adequate to be of benefit to a CSA/market scale system.

In an abstract from Urban Forestry & Urban Greening Vol. 18 August 2016 pg. 1-8, it suggests not to use coffee grounds in a horticultural production setting due to stunted growth and inconclusive data.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716300103?via%3Dihub

However, in a study conducted in South America, there was evidence that the addition of coffee grounds in Arenosols soils was beneficial.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1475-2743.2010.00315.x

Note that each study was conducted in entirely different settings and different soil types. It’s not comparing an apple to an apple, and that needs to be taken into consideration. There is not enough research out there for me to feel comfortable recommending a grower use it in their fertility program. And what I could find on actual numbers is variable. To get accurate levels of the nutrients and pH, you would need to take a representative sample from each batch of grounds you collected. That almost defeats the purpose of it being an economical addition to a fertility program.

However, I do feel that with what information is currently available coffee grounds could be an excellent addition to composting. Research has been done that suggests coffee grounds could help maintain temperature levels that will kill pathogens. Whether that is entirely accurate or not, due to the fact the research is still somewhat lacking, it still can’t be a bad addition in appropriate amounts.

https://phys.org/news/2008-07-coffee-grounds-perk-compost-pile.html

My stash of coffee grounds headed for the compost pile

My stash of coffee grounds headed for the compost pile

My advice

If you are a gardener doing some composting, use the coffee grounds as an addition to your compost pile. If you want to amend specific areas of your garden directly, apply an appropriate amount and work it into the soil.

If you are a market/CSA grower use them in any composting, you are doing but not directly incorporated in any production areas like greenhouses or raised beds. You should now be at a level you are monitoring and adjusting the fertility of those systems with specific inputs, and due to the variability of coffee grounds, there is the potential for things to get out of balance. If you have a source that can supply them in a large enough quantity while not inundating you with them, get the grounds tested for nutrient content and pH. That way you have an idea what you are working with and can make a more sound decision as to how and where you could potentially work them into a fertility plan. 

Go to your local coffee shop buy a cup of coffee take some time to get to know the owner and staff and while you’re there get a bucket of coffee grounds for your compost pile.

Just as they have the potential to be good for your compost, it might be an excellent way to build a relationship that could potentially turn into a customer for you, and there is always grounds for that.

Again, thank you 3 J’s Coffee Shop in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. You made this agronomist’s day by sending the right message and making a great cup of coffee.

Ag 101 Week 16

Soil Doesn’t Follow Trends

 

These past few weeks have been busy as I’m sure most of you are experiencing too. Mine has been filled with meetings, conferences, presentations, farm visits, homeschool activities, and trying to fit in planting somethings in my garden.

As I’ve talked to what feels like hundreds of people recently, there has been one reoccurring theme I have been brought back to

 

Soil Doesn’t Follow Trends Markets Do

 

So, what exactly do I mean.

Soil is a dynamic highly evolved ecosystem that in spite of all the good or bad we do, it has a single mission to be in a state of constant growth. It is home to organisms that are continually going through every stage of life in order to provide life to the plants that grow in it.

1.     It has no idea what type of cropping system or gardening method you choose to use this year. It has no idea how many books you have read, conferences you have gone to, or how many speakers you have listened to telling you about farming and gardening systems.

2.    It doesn’t give a flying fig about what the latest and greatest trend in agriculture is either. It is not reading all the gardening and farming magazines touting all the benefits of the next best super go-go grow juice or the magic results you see if you apply only 500# to the acre of the best fairy dust ever.

The only thing soil wants to do is be what it was intended to be which is a healthy, resilient, and highly efficient system in which life can grow. Get out of its way and let it happen. Stop buying into one method or product that promises yields beyond your imagination and tomatoes that Instagram dreams are made of.

Am I saying turn your back to all the progress we have made with science and technology-NO!

In my perfect world, in which I believe Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton are genuinely best friends and platonic despite Islands in The Stream, I want growers, farmers, gardeners to-

Start paying attention to the soil they have and work with it to apply science and technology in practical ways to harness its natural abilities.

Ag 101 Week 15

Alternative Soil Fertility

I’ve been preparing for a presentation titled Unusual Edible Perennials and How to Use Them for Soil Health. Already, I have a problem with the title because I dislike using the term soil health. I would rather it be the title of this post. However, I realize it is not as pleasant sounding. It seems as if a large part of what I end up focusing on revolves around making things sound good to get likes, clicks, and follows. I will be the first to admit if you look at my social media, well, let’s say I might not be as social as I should be if those are my goals. I have come along way from posting about the tattoo on my foot though. I have also stated that those are not the reasons why I'm doing all of this either. It is just the nature of the beast I guess. 

What preparing for this particular presentation has made me think about is

How I as an agronomist view -how and what farmers use to manage soil fertility. I know the obvious – cover crops, fertilizers, manures, and management. But, does it have to stop there?

What if you grew an alternative crop that had multiple markets, could be used to do what cover crops do and provided a sustainable source of soil fertility? That seems like money in the bank to me.

I will insert all my disclaimers now. I realize the ideas I’m talking about aren’t necessarily new, however, far too often we get in our set ways and don’t look beyond what we’re currently doing. I realize that most of what I’m suggesting is anecdotal at best. I also understand the scale at which these crops could be grown successfully will vary. Last, but maybe the most important, incorporating them comes with financial implications. However, in this era of agriculture, it seems to me that markets are opening up to be more receptive if not on the cusp of demanding we make some radical changes to our approach.  Our approach to crop choices, fertilizer choices, and management choices.

In doing research, I’ve come to realize there is not a lot I could find about the subject.  I found the typical article about favorite cover crops, what soil needs to be fertile, and what one can do to promote soil health. Beyond that standard research and information and looking at actually using plants to target soil fertility, information gets pretty obscure.

One article I came across was titled, Maximizing Soil Fertility with Soil Improving Plants.

https://www.regenerative.com/magazine/maximizing-soil-fertility-soil-improving-plants

I finally felt like I was on to something, and maybe I am, but I still want to take the subject further. Again, what if you grew an alternative crop that had multiple markets, could be used to do what cover crops do and provided a sustainable source of soil fertility?

What if we looked at using specific plants to go beyond cover cropping and used them to help meet even more specific soil fertility needs?

Even my husband who proclaims he has no idea even on an average day what I’m talking about when he reads my stuff, let me know I am pretty much-smoking something if I think farmers are going to be able to incorporate alternative crops successfully. But, why not start and look at things through a different lens if only for one presentation. 

Next, I thought I should look at the primary reasons farmers use cover crops. What are the significant factors leading to the choice of cover crop and how could an alternative crop meet those reasons.

Most farmers choose cover crops based on the following-

1.     Reduce fertilizer costs, mainly nitrogen

2.     Reduce herbicide and pesticide use

3.     Prevent soil erosion

4.     Increase overall soil tilth

When planning my talk, I took those reasons and few others into consideration based on the crowd I’m going to speak to and the typical scale of the grower I work with.

I also took into consideration-

1.     The fact I grow each one in my garden - hence the scale

2.     They are edible in some form - multiple markets

3.     They are all relatively easy to grow – ease of management

4.     They are relatively common – attainability

5.     If it could address at least one fertility need – a movement towards sustainability

So, the five plants or “crops” that I included are borage, comfrey, stinging nettle, Jerusalem artichoke, and rhubarb.

Borage-

It’s growth characteristics lend it to being a natural addition to add to any market garden.

It...  tends to spread if happy

and does not like to be in wet soil,

but it

can tolerate some shade, and

 self-seeds

What are the fertility benefits?

It... is a functional companion plant for strawberries, squash, and legumes.

and  is said to be a sacrifice plant for tomatoes from hornworms.

But, what I’m most interested in is the fact it contains B vitamins and trace minerals.

Research has been done regarding the role B vitamins play in metabolic pathways and how it helps to make biochemical reactions in plants easier in regards to environmental stresses.  Take a look at some work being done at the University of Florida at the following link

https://researchfeatures.com/2017/08/08/control-metabolism-changing-conditions/amp/

The part about containing trace minerals interests me because most soils lack them and often overlooked. However, trace minerals can be a limiting factor in soil fertility that can mean the difference in yield loss and more noticeably crop quality. For some growers, trace minerals can be expensive and harder to apply at appropriate levels without doing more harm than good. Using a plant to supply that need could, in fact, be a viable option while having several other benefits as well.

Borage

Borage

Comfrey

I can’t say enough about this one. It seems to be the overall work-horse of the plant world.

It...

grows anywhere, and will tolerant several growing conditions

I suggest in my presentation to consider planting the sterile variety. It is a firsthand lesson I had to learn.   

It uses include...

 it can be used as a mulch and dried as a soil conditioner

 soil stabilizer due to is deep roots

  high in calcium and potassium

  hay and forage potential

The fact it is high in calcium is what caught my attention. I have come across several scenarios where soil needs calcium, but other more mainstream inputs are not always an option. Comfrey could be one alternative depending on the scale, that could be more sustainable than mined products.

Comfrey

Comfrey

Stinging Nettle

Nettles are quite fussy about the soil in which they will grow

Once established roots creep so it can be hard to control

Unfortunately, the entire plant is covered with stinging hairs  

So, there are some definite disadvantages to stinging nettle. But, it’s contributions regarding soil fertility in my mind out way the painful reality of dealing with the plant. 

It is high in iron, calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, sulfur, and silica

Aphids love nettles, which you can grow as 'sacrificial' plant

There have been several studies done regarding the benefits of silica and its relationship to nutrient retention and efficiency as well as the role it plays in overall plant health.  What I want to find out more about is the calcium, magnesium, nitrogen, and sulfur potential stinging nettle may bring to the table.

Stinging Nettle Photo Courtesy of DB Impressions

Stinging Nettle Photo Courtesy of DB Impressions

Jerusalem artichoke

Plan when deciding the location

They are prolific and can become invasive unless managed properly

It goes without saying...

the plant is an excellent source of biomass to add organic matter

because they are a tuber, they may help mitigate some compaction issues

and they are rich in minerals like phosphorus and potassium

Jerusalem artichokes contribution from a fertility aspect would come from mainly its addition of organic matter. I don’t have an issue with that being the only one. You have to create conditions conducive for a soil being able to handle the nutrients needed to grow healthy plants.

Jerusalem Artichoke

Jerusalem Artichoke

Rhubarb

Is easy to establish and can be harvested continuously  

Interesting note about rhubarb

It’s considered a vegetable but mostly used as a fruit.

I wonder if it has any conversations with a tomato?! Admit it; you wanted to laugh or google it to see why I said that 

On a more serious note, it’s fertility benefits are, it...

contains Ca, K, Mg, Mn, and fiber

So, 

My presentation is ready

 I’ve stated my case as to the why I think farmers should consider some alternative crops

And,

            My husband has brought me back to reality

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Even if for only one presentation, this agronomist got to think outside the typical bag of seed, fertilizers, and manures and started to think about...

Alternatives to Soil Fertility

Borage

Borage

I like Them Raw

Once again, it’s been awhile since I blogged. I’ll be honest, between life, kids, my bad attitude towards social media, compounded by the fact I hate to type, I just don’t do it as much as I should.

Since that is out of the way, I’ve been meaning to start a series of posts about several topics I was going to present on this past summer. Why I didn’t get the chance to present them is a topic for another day. 

Today I'll start with unusual edible perennials and how to use them to promote healthy soil in your garden. 

 I've grown all the plants I talk about except for one, stinging nettle. However, as soon as I get my hands on some I’m planting it.

Let’s start with Jerusalem Artichoke or Sun Choke.

Sun Choke in my garden

Sun Choke in my garden

 

Definitely plan ahead when deciding on a location to plant it. They are prolific and can become invasive unless managed properly by giving them adequate space and harvesting them completely unless you want them to spread. Take into consideration their height. Mine have grown to be about 4ft. Think about that when planning around shorter plants so they don’t shade them out.  

The plants are a good source of biomass to add organic matter, sometimes called green manure. Organic matter is the storage bank important for nutrient management.

Because they are a tuber they may help mitigate some compaction issues. I’m not advocating growing them to totally remediate the issue, however, using a plants growth habits can help reduce adding amendments depending on what scale you are growing on.

Sun Chokes are rich in minerals like phosphorus and potassium. If your manure heavily phosphorus is your limiting factor. That puts you in a situation where you need to add more nitrogen and potassium. Why not look to plants to help fill in some fertility gaps.

Sun Chokes can also be considered as part of a cover crop rotation, taking advantage of the remediation and nutrient advantages, the plant has. Always keeping in mind, the management limitations like pervasiveness.

Last but not least, I grow mine because I like to eat them raw. I've never had them cooked, although I've heard you can. 

Let me know if you grow Sun Chokes and how you use them. If you have any recipes, maybe I'll try them cooked...instead of raw.

Arguments lead to blog posts!

 I got into an argument yesterday with a person about gardening at a Master Gardeners Plant Sale. We were debating if growing things like vegetables are complicated. His argument was that it is, mine was that it isn't. It is not complicated to stick a plant in the ground and watch it grow! I never said it was simple, just not complicated. So I am now on a mission to uncomplicated the process of growing things. I explained to the gentleman if you have some basic management strategies, understand some basic principles of plants and soils, and last but not least have a desire to see it through to the end success in some form or another can be achieved.

Case and point.....my garden.

I've chosen to grow organically, that's my management strategy. I understand plants have certain requirements to live. I do my best to accommodate them. If they don't find conditions favorable they die. It's that simple. I have a short attention span so I'll see it through as long as I'm still hungry for what I've planted or I just get tried dealing with it. Have I over simplified things, yes. Is it complicated, no.

I'm only a few weeks into the growing season and have decided to rearrange and redesign. I've also experienced crop failure.

Believe it or not, there are plants in there.

Believe it or not, there are plants in there.

Excuse all the perlite, I had leftover potting soil from a project and added it to my garden. 

Excuse all the perlite, I had leftover potting soil from a project and added it to my garden. 

The Broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes will stay where they are.  Everything else, which includes my eggplant, squash, and cucumbers will be  replanted because they died. I'm going to put walkways in and  create sections. This way I'm not tramping down growing space and causing compaction. Compaction can lead to reduced earthworm activity and soil nutrient issues. Given, I have some success, it will make taking care of the plants easier and lead to a more efficient harvest. It will also make it easier to take pictures. Hopefully, giving me something good to write about.

Those goofy marigolds stuck there in a row....their moving too. I really don't know why I planted them like that. Sometimes even a seasoned gardener does ridiculous things like buying them in the first place. If the rain stops, maybe some of that will get done.

I think I have actually moved on from all my rants. For now at least. The Bitch is back and will pass inspection.  I have officially fulfilled all my obligations for my last employer and now feel like I can move on to another chapter. I have come to terms that my new job, however, not my favorite is giving me valuable experience in a different but somewhat related industry. See, my therapist was right....life goes on.