Does growing a vegetable garden sound like something you'd like to do, but you don't feel equipped? So, here's the deal. Find some dirt, and then plant. It's that simple. If you want to grow food, the first step is to find some dirt. Consider the usable ground you have. Take a look around. Maybe it's that patch of front lawn that you're tired of mowing, or haven't mowed at all. Could it be the bare spot in the back where the dog likes to poop? Step One is to find some dirt, and don't be judgy about the dirt you have. Your dirt is full of potential.
Your objective is to give your dirt some tender loving care, and your soil will return the favor by giving you healthier plants and better produce. Your soil's mineral composition is what it is, but one element we can be altered is organic material. No matter what kind of dirt you have, adding organic matter will make it better. Organic materials include grass clippings, fallen leaves, straw, wood chips and bark, hulls, plant clippings (chopped small) and everyone's favorite...manure. Now, here's an important point: it takes time for the organic materials to break down and start to enrich the soil, to become usable to plants. So, what's the best and quickest way to get those things into your soil? Compost. Compost is already mostly decomposed organic matter, so it mixes into the soil and continues to decompose slowly, releasing nutrients to plants and improving soil texture. Compost costs money, but you can also make your own in as little as 2 to 3 weeks at little or no cost. This article has a complete description of DIY compost: Compost in a Hurry (UC ANR Publication 8037).
Think of mulching as another method of composting that involves placing a thick layer of organic matter on top of the soil and letting it decompose very slowly. It's even better to put a layer of newspaper or cardboard on the ground first, wet it, and then spread out the organic material on top, about 4 inches thick. The organic matter and the paper or cardboard underneath will break down over the next 6 to 10 months. To add plants, push aside the mulch, expose the paper or cardboard, and cut an "X" large enough to accommodate your plant. Fold back the flaps, dig a hole, and add your plant. When done, lay the flaps back in place and re-cover with mulch. Remember that front lawn that you're thinking could be a vegetable garden? This method of sheet mulching is one way you get rid of the grass! Cover it, mulch it, forget about it. If you want to learn more about lawn removal, here's an article containing complete instructions: Lawn Removal: Do It Right.
UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a phone message on our Hotline at (530) 538-7201. To speak to a Master Gardener about a gardening issue, or to drop by the MG office during Hotline hours, see the most current information on our Ask Us Hotline webpage.
“Gardening from the Ground Up,” a recent three-part Master Gardener Workshop series, focused on gardening practices that use natural methods and systems to create healthy soils and beautiful plants grown in an environment without using chemical pesticides. Presented by Master Gardener Cheryl Cozad, the workshops explored three basic principles of Regenerative Agriculture: 1) Minimize Disruption; 2) No Bare Soil; and 3) Diversity. (This series of workshops, along with others offered this Fall are available for viewing on the Master Gardener YouTube channel which is also linked on our webpage).
Ten to twelve thousand years ago, the Agricultural Revolution was the new kid on the block. For eons prior to that, humans had lived primarily as nomadic hunters and gatherers, nourishing our bodies with seasonally available plants and animals. The sudden (in evolutionary terms) shift to staying put geographically and cultivating and storing food fundamentally changed the way many humans perceived, treated, and interacted with the ecosystems that sustained them. Living in one place throughout the year enabled an “ownership” mentality (both of land and dwellings); and humans learned to manipulate the natural world that surrounded them.
At the time, these chemicals seemed like answers to farmers' and consumers' prayers. Imagine the miracle of pesticides when your crop was not destroyed by pests and consumers received blemish-free produce. The miracle of herbicides provided relief from the backbreaking labor of hoeing and weeding. Anecdotal evidence abounds of farm children running behind the truck spraying DDT, and rural residents and towns had the sheer delight of a few hours' freedom from the torment of mosquitos.
Since then we've recognized the dangers of chemical substances to our health and to our environment. The first generation of broad spectrum agricultural chemicals in use through the 1970s have been replaced by much more environmentally sensitive products that control pests selectively while preserving beneficial insects. Different classes of materials in use in agriculture are now rotated to prevent resistance and are used at rates of ounces per acre instead of pounds per acre as were the early pesticides. We now know that cancers have been linked to many chemicals in our environment; from some used in agriculture, to moth balls protecting clothes in our closets, to fire retardants on household fabrics, and including the gasoline that fuels our cars! Chemical use has changed significantly as our knowledge of these products has improved. Although cancer occurrence has increased in our lifetime, our life expectancy has also increased as other diseases that shortened life have been controlled by vaccines and pharmaceutical chemicals.
So -- how do we return to a method of gardening that works to regenerate soil and create healthy and nutritious food, while minimizing the use of pesticides and protecting our environment? Cozad's research into Regenerative Agriculture, presented in her workshops, supplies many answers.
In Part Two, “No Bare Soil,” Cozad looked at the role compost plays in keeping soil and plants healthy. Starting with two questions: “What does compost do?” and “Is all compost created equal?” she dove into the differences between and benefits of bacterial- and fungal- dominant compost; discussed the principle of keeping live roots in the soil; and offered examples of succession planting to utilize this Fall and year-round. By composting, gardeners can effectively reduce all of the following: the loss of microbial life in the soil; erosion caused by wind and water; soil compaction; and soil temperatures (critical to us, given the hot summers we experience here in Butte County).
Cozad peppered her review of the academic research and emerging body of knowledge about regenerative agricultural practices with examples of successes and failures from her own experiences. Throughout her talk, her passion for putting theory into practice in her own garden, and her sincere desire to make our world a better place for all flora and fauna, was clear. This passion was especially apparent at the end of the third workshop, where she included the intriguing concept of Quorum Sensing. This is the ability of bacteria, including those that reside in humans, to create a large enough quorum of beneficial cells, micro-biomes, systems, and environments to suppress disease. She ended her presentation with an invitation and invocation to us all: “You have become a part of the quorum to protect earth's surface.” Hear, hear! Please watch her entire series to learn how.
UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at email@example.com (preferred) or call (530) 538-7201.
Does growing a vegetable garden sound like something you'd like to do, but you don't feel confident or equipped to do it? Well, here's the deal: find some dirt, and then add plants. It's that simple. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity, and the general chaos that so many of us are living with these days, lots of people who weren't gardening before are now thinking about it.
Soil is comprised of four things: minerals (from decomposed rock), air, water, and organic matter. The organic material originates from living organisms (or stuff that was once alive). A single teaspoon of soil may contain as many as 4 billion bacteria; 1 million fungi; 20 million actinomycetes; and 300,000 algae. All of these beneficial microorganisms, along with friendly earthworms, work to produce healthy soil. Even though soil is packed with minerals, organic matter and microscopic critters, it still has pores which hold water and air. It's not surprising to find water there, but why air? Plant roots and most microorganisms “breathe,” and the soil takes in oxygen and releases carbon dioxide. The ideal soil composition for growing plants is 45% minerals, 5% organic materials, 25% water and 25% air.
Now consider the soil you are eying for your potential vegetable garden. About half of most soil consists of minerals. Soil minerals are categorized by size: sand particles are the biggest, silt is medium-sized, and clay particles are the smallest. Soil texture accordingly falls into those three general categories: coarse (sand), medium (silt), and fine (clay). The best soil for home gardens is a medium-textured “loam,” which means it has a relative balance of sand, silt and clay with 5 to 10% organic matter.
As you hold your own soil in your hands, you may already be able to tell whether it has a favorable texture. The appearance of your dirt when it's dry can offer clues, too. Does it shrink and crack into blocky structures? That would be clay. When you add water, does the water puddle easily (clay) or drain quickly (sand)? Even if you're not blessed with a perfect, loamy soil, that's ok. A sticky clay soil may be harder to work with, but clay plays a crucial role in soil fertility, so clay soil is often rich and holds moisture well. A sandy soil is less able to retain moisture and nutrients, but it's easier to work with. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your soil so that it moves away from the extremes and closer to a balanced loam.
Your objective is to give your soil some tender loving care, and your soil will return the favor by giving you healthier plants and better produce. Your soil's texture and mineral composition is what it is, but one element that can be altered is its percentage of organic material. No matter what kind of soil you have, adding organic matter will make it better. Organic materials include grass clippings, fallen leaves, straw, wood chips, bark, hulls, plant clippings (chopped small), and everyone's favorite -- manure. Now, here's an important point: it takes time for the organic materials to enrich the soil by breaking down and releasing nutrients that become usable by plants. So, what's the best and quickest way to get those things into your soil? Compost. Compost consists of organic matter that is already decomposing; as it mixes into the soil it continues to decompose slowly, releasing nutrients to plants and improving soil texture. Compost costs money, but you can also make your own in as little as two to three weeks at little or no cost. (For instructions on DIY compost, see “Compost in a Hurry.”
Maybe you're thinking, why can't I just throw on my leaves or grass clippings and dig them in? You can do that, but unfortunately, that reduces nitrogen (the nutrient plants need most) for a while because the soil microorganisms compete with your plants for nitrogen as the microbes decompose those grass clippings and leaves. You would still need to add some nitrogen fertilizer. The next best thing to do with your organic material (if you're not using a compost bin) is to turn it into mulch.
Remember that front lawn you're thinking you could convert into a vegetable garden? Sheet mulching is one way you can get rid of the grass, so you can eventually get down to planting vegetables. Cover it, mulch it, forget about it. If you want to learn more about lawn removal, including specifics for sheet mulching see the Real Dirt article on Lawn Removal: Do it Right.
Healthy soil produces healthy plants, and mulching and composting are two ways to turn your dirt into the rich soil that gardeners dream about. Even better, they require no chemicals, and you won't have to spend any money if you're resourceful. In times like these, it's good to know you can get started gardening without emptying your wallet. It's simple. Find some dirt and make it better!
Source: Information on soil composition is from Ben Faber et al. “Soil and Fertilizer Management.” California Master Gardener Handbook, University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 2015, pp. 37–81.
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system. To learn more about us and our upcoming events, and for help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, email the Hotline at firstname.lastname@example.org (preferred) or call (530) 538-7201.
By David Walther, UC Master Gardener of Butte County, March 2, 2018.
Mulch is good for the soil, and thus good for your plants for a number of reasons. It jump-starts the useful work done by microscopic organisms (this is often referred to as microbial activity); retains moisture, thus preventing plants' roots from drying out; and deters weeds by providing a barrier between the soil and the sun.
Mulching is also a time-saver for the gardener – it takes a fraction of the time to put down mulch that it would take to weed later on. And using mulch to control weeds reduces the use of expensive herbicides.
Natural inorganic mulches include gravel, pebbles, and crushed stone. Other inorganic mulches are plastic, cardboard, and even pieces of old carpet. The mulch you use will depend upon the job you want the mulch to perform and how you want it to look.
Any ground that needs enrichment, such as flower or vegetable beds you will be planting later in the season, will benefit from an application of organic mulch. Mulching around shrubs, trees, annuals, and perennials will improve the soil that feeds their roots, as well as deter weeds. Large areas that you wish to keep weed-free are also candidates for a thick application of mulch.
To control annual weeds, apply four to six inches of mulch on top of the soil, or even on top of the weeds themselves. To control perennial weeds, an application of 12 to 16 inches of mulch is needed.
The reappearance of weeds in an area that has been mulched is an indication that the mulch has decomposed to such a degree that a new application of mulch is required.
While the benefits of applying mulch are many, mulch can also lead to an increase in mole activity because of the increase in the worms and grubs they feed on – the more alive your soil is, the more it becomes a habitat for other creatures.
Finally, different garden situations require different choices of mulching materials: for example, dryland garden plants (xeriscape plants) such as native California plants, cacti, and succulents, have evolved to flourish in dry conditions and poor soil. The moisture-retentive qualities of organic mulch could be detrimental to their vigor and growth while the use of stone or gravel mulch would be helpful in replicating their natural environment.
Your mulch choices can range from commercial mulches purchased at a landscape center, to bags of organic mulch available at nurseries and home improvement stores, to your own (free!) shredded leaves, grass clippings, and yesterday's paper. The benefits of mulching far outweigh any negatives, so there is no reason not to mulch.
For more information see: Mulches
Questions? Plant problems? Call the Master Gardener Hotline at 530-538-7201 and/or visit our website Hotline page at ucanr.edu/p/49588.
By Michael-Anne Foley, Butte County Master Gardener, January 22 2016.
When is soil more than just dirt? When you want to grow healthy plants in your yard and garden, the soil is as important a factor as are water and sunlight. You can improve your soil's ability to support thriving plants of all kinds by protecting it from compaction, amending it with nutrients, and adding mulch as a top dressing. An ideal soil includes various proportions of clay, sand, humus, water and air. You can smell a good soil!
Why is Compacted Soil a Problem?
Compacted soil has less air and is less porous than well-aerated, friable soil. This means it is harder for roots in compacted soil to grow and harder for those roots to get air. Restricted roots are often unable to take up sufficient water or nutrients from the soil. These conditions inhibit plant growth, particularly during drought if soils are dry.
Compacted soil layers can either hold water in (by creating poor drainage), or keep water out (by preventing inadequate water infiltration and creating conditions that are too dry for plant growth and development).
A large number of organisms make up the “soil food web.” They range in size from tiny one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, to nematodes, earthworms, insects and plants. These organisms are beneficial to plant health but also have difficulty living in compacted soil.
How to Prevent Soil Compaction
- Keep foot traffic limited to a few areas in the garden by using consistent pathways.
- Avoid walking on wet soil and in areas where you have recently loosened the soil.
- Working compost into soil can help alleviate soil compaction by improving soil structure, aeration, and water-holding capacity.
Amending the Soil
Soil amendments improve the physical properties of soils. They increase the water and nutrient-holding capacity of soil and improve aeration and water infiltration. Soil amendments are more than simply fertilizers. Fertilizers (especially synthetic chemicals) add nutrients to the soil for immediate use by plants, but little is retained in the soil. Soil amendments such as compost, humus, worm castings, and aged or composted animal manures improve the soil by making its texture and drainage more conducive to plant health. Soil amendments add nutrients to the microbes in soils, and the microbes then make those nutrients available to plants. The soils that help our foods and landscape plants grow are not sterile but are filled with microbes that are unseen by human eyes. These microbes make our soils healthy and productive.
Amendments are best chosen for the needs of the soil based on how the plants are performing. Landscape plants, annual flowers, and vegetables all have different needs. Commercial producers of amendments tailor blends to generalized garden uses. Some companies offer specific combinations of amendments for specific needs. Worm castings and homemade compost have been found to be among the best amendments because their ingredients are completely broken down and plants cannot be burned by concentrated synthetics.
Two useful websites to consult when determining appropriate amendments for your own yard are the “Analyses of Soil Amendments” at Analyses of Selected Soil Amendmentsand “Amendments for Landscape Soils” at Amendments for Landscape Soils
Using Mulch in the Garden
Mulch performs a number of important tasks in the landscape, and is particularly useful for the following purposes:
- Smothering weeds
- Retaining soil moisture
- Moderating soil temperature
- Feeding the soil by adding organic material as the mulch breaks down
- Alleviating soil compaction by absorbing pressure due to foot traffic
Types of Mulch
Mulch can be organic or inorganic. Each type has its uses in the landscape.
- Yard waste: grass clippings, leaves and small twigs can be used as mulch in moderation and may be best for use behind bushes or borders. Mulching with yard waste functions better when it is composted first. Because yard waste tends to look unsightly, a uniform mulch is often more attractive.
- Straw keeps weeds down and is good for vegetable gardens. It has a short life span.
- Pine bark and needles are good for weed control. Barks last longer, while needles allow water through.
- Wood chips: bark and wood pieces are attractive, provide good weed control and save water.
- Landscape cloth of a woven material provides good weed control, allows air and water to pass through and, if used with organic mulch, can save time and labor for years to come.
- Black plastic can work well for annual plants like strawberries that can be planted through holes in the plastic mulch. Landscape plants, however, will not get enough air, water or nutrients.
- Rocks and gravel are relatively permanent but can be expensive. Decomposed granite tends to stay in place and look tidy.
- Spread a two-to-four-inch layer of organic biodegradable mulch over tree roots, shrubs and plant beds. Keep mulch two inches away from the woody trunks of trees and shrubs.
- Replenish annually or as needed to keep a two-to-four-inch layer. This depth is ideal for weed suppression and water conservation.
As you plan your 2016 garden, keep in mind the importance of keeping the soil aerated by preventing compaction, amending the soil, and mulching to conserve water and fight weeds.