Don’t till wet soil

May 19th, 2016

Tilling a garden at the wrong time can be damaging for certain types of soil. That is why it’s good to know when to till. Tilling at the wrong time can be disastrous for a garden.

Gardeners make gardens in all types of soil: sand, loam, clay or, more often, a combination of two or more of these types. Short of hauling in new topsoil, there is nothing you can do to change soil type. Adding compost will vastly improve a soil’s ability to sustain plant growth but will not change the soil type.

Soil structure is different than soil type. Soil type refers to the size of the soil particles and the percentage of the different particles. Sandy soils have the largest particles while clay has the smallest, silt falls somewhere in between.

Soil structure refers to the arrangement of the sand, silt and clay particles in the soil. In soils with good structure , the soil particles are clumped together. That gives adequate space between the particles allowing water and air movement into the soil.  That provides the ideal environment for plant growth.

Tilling while the soil is too wet can destroy soil structure making it difficult for plant roots to grow.

Sandy soils are the most forgiving soil type. In a garden setting, sandy soils can be quite wet and still be tilled without doing much harm to the soil structure. On the other hand, loam or clay type soils are much more susceptible to soil structure damage caused by tilling wet soil.

There’s a simple test you can do right in the garden to help you decide when it’s time to till your individual garden. Scoop up a handful of soil and roll it into a ball. Lightly poke it with your finger. If it falls apart easily, it’s OK to till. If the ball holds together it is too wet to till. Let the garden dry out and try the test again another day.

Roll a handful of soil into a ball.

Roll a handful of soil into a ball.

This time of year, a good rain or strong thunderstorm can dump enough water onto a garden to set back your tilling plans a day or two so always check your soil moisture first.

Bob

Save time and money by servicing your two-cycle outdoor power tool

May 19th, 2016

Winter is the time when outdoor gardening stops and gardeners move indoors to get their power equipment ready for spring.

I took care of most of my equipment this winter, but not all. As the weeks went by, some things got pushed to the back of the storage shed. It’s like they went into hibernation and are just now waking up to see the light of day.

Last week I dragged all my power tools outside to make sure they would start. All ran fine except one. It is powered by a two-cycle engine — sometimes called a two-stroke engine. You know, one of those that you have to mix oil into the gasoline. String trimmers, chainsaws, leaf blowers are some of the most common tools that use this type of engine.

A two-cycle outdoor tool that has lost its power or won’t start or is hard to start, probably has carbon build up on the exhaust port. And that’s exactly what happened to mine.

Two-cycle engines require unobstructed air flow to run properly. After many hours of use, carbon deposits inevitably  build up on the exhaust portion of the engine –especially if it is run at slow speeds — making it hard or impossible to start.

Fortunately, cleaning those carbon deposits are a doable project for someone with some mechanical experience. It’s a good project to try if you want to progress beyond blade sharpening or oil changing.

Here’s one way to do it.

For safety sake it’s always a good idea to get into the habit of disconnecting the spark plug wire whenever working on gasoline powered engines.

Remove the heat shield from the muffler.

Then un-bolt the muffler from the engine which will expose the exhaust port. You’ll be able to see the carbon caked onto the exhaust opening.

Move the piston so it covers the exhaust opening by gently pulling the starter rope.

A typical exhaust opening.

Slowly pull on the starter rope to bring the piston up to cover the port opening. That will keep loose particles from falling into the cylinder. Stray particles inside the cylinder will cause scoring of the piston and cylinder walls, then you’ll have a bigger problem to deal with than just carbon deposits.

Use a small piece of hardwood sharpened to a point– or a screwdriver if the carbon is really tough — to carefully scrape off the carbon. Don’t dig into the underlying metal and be extra careful not to scratch the piston!

Once you have the carbon loose, vacuum it up with your shop vac.

Clean all muffler parts too.

Clean all muffler parts too.

Check the muffler and other parts for carbon build up too before you reassemble everything.

Check the exhaust screen to make sure it is clean. Not all engines have an exhaust screen.

Check the exhaust screen to make sure it is clean. Not all engines have an exhaust screen.

The engine should start easily and will have more power. This is the first thing a repair shop will do when they get a two-stroke engine . So it makes sense to try this first before taking it into the repair shop. You’ll save money and be able to use your machine right away instead of waiting weeks for it to get repaired.

Bob

Join the Million Pollinator Challenge

April 28th, 2016

While you’re deciding on what plants to add to your garden and landscape this year, think about pollinator friendly plants. By now most gardeners are aware of the steady decline in the number of pollinators over the past several decades. Bees, butterflies, moths, beetles and other pollinators have all taken a hit.

A large percentage of the foods we eat, over thirty percent, depends on pollinators. Plus, add to that, all of the different wild plants that depend on pollinators and you can see why it is such a problem. Even the federal government has acknowledged it be a matter of national security.

Planting even a few pollinator friendly plants in a garden will help, however more is better in this case.

Even though the situation is serious for pollinators, helping them doesn’t have to be a drag. The National Pollinator Garden Network has come up with a fun way to help us help pollinators. It’s called the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The organization hopes to register one million gardens, both existing and new,  that are pollinator friendly.

They suggest six simple to understand guidelines to help you with your pollenator garden. And if you want to take it to the next step, their website has loads of information to guide you.

Our own Michigan State University has been scientifically studying the pollinator decline and has a wonderful website tailored to the three general ecosystems in our state: Southern Lower Peninsula; Northern Lower Peninsula; and Upper Peninsula.

When you register with the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, your garden site is pinned to a map of North America. It’s fascinating to see all of those pins on that map and where the gardens are.

Our area of southeastern Michigan looks under represented to me. I’m not sure if it’s because of a lack of gardens or if it’s because gardeners are unaware of the program.

Let’s make our gardens pollinator friendly this year, get pinned on the map and show the world how much our region cares about helping pollinators.

Bob

Chamomile tea protects seedlings

April 28th, 2016

In my last post we discussed damping off, a fungal disease that attacks and kills developing seedlings. A clean growing medium will minimize the occurrence of damping off.  And a seed starting mix can be pasteurized by pouring boiling-hot water through it.

Once the seeds have germinated and the newly emerged plants are off to a good start, there’s more you can do to protect those tender seedlings.

There’s plausible evidence showing some homemade concoctions can inhibit the growth of pythium, the fungus responsible for damping off. One of these is chamomile tea. That’s right, the same tea we brew when we feel like mellowing out with something warm to drink.

We collect wild chamomile and dry it for tea.

We collect wild chamomile and dry it for tea.

Steep at least two teaspoons of chamomile flowers into each cup of boiled water. Let the tea come to room temperature before straining and using. This is quite a bit stronger than what most people use to brew a cup of drinking tea. The stronger you make the tea the effective it is.

Use a spray bottle to water your new seedlings by spritzing the tea over the plants and soil once a day. To help the tea be more effective, make sure you allow for plenty of air movement around your plants while they are growing.

Eventually Mother Nature will take over and you won’t need to use the tea anymore. As seedlings grow and get older they will outgrow their susceptibility to damping off.

Bob

Avoid damping off disease in seedlings by using boiling water

March 31st, 2016

Growing your own transplants from seeds is a very satisfying experience and can save you money too. However it is not without it’s problems. Just about every gardener who has started plants from seed has a story to tell of watching a crop of seedlings just starting to make good growth then all of a sudden the plants shrivel at the soil line, fall over and finally die.

That is a symptom of a condition known as “damping off”. It also kills newly sprouting seeds under the soil giving the impression of a low germination percentage. The gardener gets the wrong impression that he’s planted a batch of bad seed when in reality it’s damping off.

Damping off is most commonly caused by a soil based fungus called Phythium, but Rhyzoctonia and other species of fungi can cause similar problems. Whatever the case, it is not curable.

It’s an insidious disorder. The seedlings can look sturdy and strong then suddenly,bam! overnight an entire tray of seedlings will be lost.

Most of the time you can avoid damping off by purchasing a fresh bag of sterilized soil-less seed starting mix. Sometimes however, even a new bag of starting mix can harbor the fungus, although that is pretty rare.

When Pythium shows up, it’s probably the gardener who contaminated the mix by using dirty tools, pots, or even the potting bench. All tools and containers need to be scrubbed clean with a detergent. To be doubly sure, the items can be dipped into a 10 percent solution of household bleach.

Although all plants can be infected, some species of plants are more susceptible to damping off than others. For example petunias are prone to the infection.

Pour the boiling water evenly over the whole surface.

Pour the boiling water evenly over the whole surface.

Whenever I start a batch of expensive or hard to find seeds and don’t want to take any chances of losing those precious seedlings, I take the extra step of re-sterilizing the starting mix. Some might say I’m being extra cautious but sometimes seeds are irreplaceable and need all the protection we can give them.

For small amounts of soil, I pour boiling water through a pot of starting mix — then go back and do two additional pours. If you decide to try it yourself, be sure to place the pot in a spot where the water can drain through easily. I like to do this outside on a wire rack rather than in the sink.

This boiling water method has been used by gardeners for a long time and has shown to be pretty effective. Since the entire volume of the soil mix will not reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature at which it would be considered sterile — this could be considered more of a pasteurization method rather than actual sterilization technique.

Bob

Clean up used plastic containers before seed starting

March 31st, 2016

It’s that time of year again. The new seedling growing season is just about here. After a few years of gardening under their belt, many gardeners get the urge to start their own plants indoors, especially after paying retail prices for started plants.

To be fair to retailers out there, when you consider all of the labor, materials, heating costs, insurance, taxes, transportation, greenhouse construction costs and overhead, most of the time those prices from garden centers are quite reasonable.

Before the first seed is sown, I make sure I have all of my materials and supplies ready to go. Gathering up containers such as pots and seedling trays are the first thing that needs to happen.

I haven’t had to buy any pots or seedling trays for many years. I always recycle and reuse plastic planting containers. Many of them I’ve salvaged or were given to me by others. Modern plastics are very durable and last a long time. Some of my pots have seen more than ten years of use.

The problem with reusing plant starting containers is that they can easily become a source of disease that can decimate your seedlings. This is especially true if some one gives you their used containers, even if they assure you that the pots are perfectly clean.

Of course if you purchase new pots and trays, there is no need to worry about disease — the manufacturing process destroys any microorganisms.

It’s relatively easy to get those used planting containers in shape using simple washing techniques, just as long as you do it in the right order.

First, rinse off all large clumps of old soil still stuck on the pots. This is best done outside to avoid getting dirt in the sewer system.

Next, wash the containers with dish-washing detergent, I keep a bottle of cheap detergent from year to year for garden use. This is the a critical step because disinfecting agents won’t work if dirt is present.

Rinse off the detergent, then dip everything in a bleach solution. One part bleach to nine parts water works well.

Rinse again and the containers are ready for potting soil.

This procedure almost sounds like the steps a Mom would take to clean bottles for her young baby: rinse, wash, sterilize. When you think about it, we are preparing containers for babies — baby plants.

Also, always start with new sterilized potting mix. Now, I know that some master composters — yes there is such a thing as a master composter –have had success using compost as a starting medium. They use material from a hot compost that heated up enough to kill plant pathogens. Most of us however, shouldn’t take the risk of using our everyday compost that we have in the back corner of the garden.

Like most things in life, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Bob

Downton Abbey roses for your garden

March 10th, 2016

I was a late comer to Downton Abbey, it wasn’t until season four that I started watching the series. That’s when my wife insisted I watch a a couple of episodes — I was hooked from that point on.

Of course after that, we watched a marathon of all the past shows so I could get up to date on everything and my wife could watch a couple of episodes she missed.

Now that we know that there is nothing but blue skies ahead for all of the characters, what’s next?

The producers of Downton Abby have teamed up with a highly respected California rose grower, Weeks Roses, to develop a line of roses based on the television series. The roses have names that will immediately invoke an image: Anna’s Promise, Pretty Lady Rose, Edith’s Darling, Violet’s Pride.

Week’s Roses is a grower and wholesaler, that means they don’t sell directly to to public. The good news is that the roses are readily available from local garden centers and online sellers.

How about that Edith? She’s a marchioness now!

Chickens help recover garden area

February 23rd, 2016

Earlier this week I decided to move some of my chickens into the lower garden. That area is poorly drained and water sits there almost every spring.

Since the last couple of summers were so damp and rainy, that spot was waterlogged for much of the growing season. I couldn’t plant anything. I couldn’t even till the area, so I let it go fallow.

Right now the spot is quite dry. Since it has been relatively warm this winter, the soil is not frozen and there is no snow cover so the chickens will be able to scratch to their hearts’ content.

There’s an old garden shed in that spot that I sometimes use as a temporary chicken coop. The area is fenced to keep out deer, woodchucks and those wascally wabbits. It also keeps chickens in.

The weeds in that low spot really took over after two years of non-use. Some weeds grew over three feet high last year. That will be a real challenge this spring. I’ll have to cut down all of that plant material and try to till it the best I can. The chickens can help quite a bit by tearing into those tough weeds ahead of time.

Scratching in the weeds is the favorite pastime of chickens.

Scratching in the weeds is the favorite pastime of chickens.

So why even bother with that area? Why not turn into lawn or let it revert back to a wild area? Well, the National Weather Service is predicting a warmer than average spring and summer. They are also predicting below average precipitation, at least through spring and maybe well into summer.

If it turns out to be hot and dry, my sandy-soil upper garden — which did very well last season– will probably be too dry to grow much of anything without a lot of irrigation. During past years when we’ve had droughts, my lower garden rarely needed irrigation until well into the summer.

So that’s where I’m placing my gardening bets this year. If things change, I can always move the chickens back to their normal spot.

Bob

No place to garden? Try a community garden

February 18th, 2016

I’m fortunate to have a fair sized plot of land to do as much gardening as I want. But there are a lot of gardeners who used to have space but now live in a place where there is no where to plant a garden. And there are plenty of others who have never gardened before and long for a plot of soil to start gardening.

More and more community gardens are popping up all over to meet this need.  They are being started by churches, cities, towns, parks and rec departments other community groups.

Most community gardens offer individual plots. It’s a place where you stake out your claim and no one else is allowed on your spot unless you say they can.  That means plot boundries are clearly marked so no one encroaches on someone else’s area

Some community gardens are communal meaning everyone pitches in and work one big plot of land and all share equally. That however takes a special group of people to successfully pull that one off.

Almost all community gardens charge a fee to help defray costs such as springtime tilling of the soil.

In addition to land, most gardens provide access to a water source — although the most rugged ones may not.

Sometimes compost and mulch is available for gardeners to use. You’re most likely to see that in gardens sponsored by city parks departments that collect large volumes of leaves in the fall.

Generally the larger the fee, the more amenities provided.

Community garden at St. Mary's Organic Farm

The community garden at St. Mary’s Organic Farm is quiet right now . In the spring it will buzzing with activity.

Now’s the time to start searching for a community garden near you. Plots are normally rented out on a first come first served basis. Often plots are gone well before the gardening season starts. Early March would not be too soon to reserve your spot.

Thankfully, the internet makes it fairly easy to find a community garden. Local MSU Extension Offices are a good place to start too.

Community gardens are especially good for beginning gardeners because they are places where experienced gardeners spend their time and a novice can find a mentor.

If you know of a community garden who has room for more participants, let all of us know in the comment section.

Bob

Conservation Service spring tree sale underway

January 28th, 2016

Every year, for as long as I can remember, the Monroe County Soil Conservation District has hosted a spring tree sale. Nowadays the soil part of their name is gone and are now known as the Conservation District because they are involved in so much more than controlling soil erosion.

Order soon, some things sell out early.

Order soon, some things sell out early.

Nearly every county in Michigan has its own Conservation District and just about every district holds some kind of plant sale. The plant selections may vary slightly from district to district but they all offer plants used for conserving soil, protecting waterways and encouraging wildlife.

You don’t have to be a local resident to make a purchase so if the county district is sold out of something, a neighboring county may have it in stock.

At these sales you can order conifers like spruce, pine and fir. Common deciduous trees like oaks, maples and cherry are available as well as the lesser known hackberry, persimmon and others.

Each district decides for itself which plants to sell but often  you’ll find shrubs such as American plum, elderberry, cranberry, currents, hazelnuts and other varieties.

Native grasses and perennials are offered by some districts. At those sales you can buy big or little bluestem, indian grass, switchgrass and milkweeds.

Tree sales are a major source of funds that go toward conservation projects in the local districts. To find any Conservation District in Michigan, click on this link. Do it soon because plants often sell out early.

Bob