Tag Archive | Soil

Container Gardening — Finding the Right Soil

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

There are many ways in which we display our plants: indoors, outdoors, in pots, hanging baskets, and many more. Depending on your situation, there are different considerations when choosing the soil or growing medium you will use. Below are some basic rules of thumb.

Starting Seeds

Use a sterile soil-less seed starting mix. One brand name example is Jiffy Mix. However, there are others available. In fact, I used Fafard Super Fine brand mix this year and absolutely loved it. As its name suggested, it was super fine without clumps or filler. I tried Schultz brand seed starting mix and found that it was too lumpy and my finer seeds like impatiens and nicotiana had a hard time germinating in it.

Outdoor Potted Plants/Hanging Baskets

Once your plants have germinated in your seed starting mix and have a couple true leaves you can transplant them into a container with potting mix. Do not use straight seed starting mix for your transplants because it has very little nutrient value, and as your plants grow they need nourishment. Also, do not use regular garden soil. It is too dense and can smother you’re seedlings, plus it may contain weed seeds and unwanted disease and pests.

downloadA proper soil mixture is important for potted plants because the roots are restricted by the pot and not free to spread. It’s important to find the balance between good moisture retention and good drainage. There are standard potting mixes available at garden centers, or some potting mixes come with fertilizers already in them. One common brand is Miracle Grow. However, there are generic brands available as well. If you prefer not to spend the extra money for the fertilizer type, you can mix in about 1/4 – 1/3 compost and peat moss into your mixture for an added boost. Or you can add in your own time-release fertilizer. A little sand or perlite added to the soil will also improve aeration and drainage.

There are some potting mixes that tout “moisture control” as a feature. I personally do not like them. All they’ve really done to attain this is add more filler like wood chips, then charge you more money for it! If I am concerned about keeping my outdoor potted plants from drying out, I use a product called Soil Moist and mix it in the soil. It is a granular moisture absorbing product that has worked great for me. It is especially useful in hanging baskets which seem to dry out quickly. I have even used it directly in the garden bed around those plants that prefer wet feet. It’s important to not use more than the recommended amount or you may actually drown your plants.

Indoor Potted Plants

Much of the same directions apply to indoor potted plants as outdoor potted plants. However, there are some things to avoid. Do not use compost or manure in your indoor pots. The reasons may seem obvious, but in addition to the potential odor, you may be introducing unwanted disease and pests into your home. Also, since your indoor environment is a controlled atmosphere, elements like wind, rain and fluctuating temperatures are not a factor. So, the use of moisture retentive products is unnecessary. Even more crucial than with outdoor plants, always use a container with a drainage hole in the bottom to avoid root rot and disease. To avoid disease and pests, you can sterilize your growing mix in an oven at 400 degrees for an hour. This kills most bacteria, larvae, weed seeds and insect eggs.

Cactus Mixes 

Cacti require much more drainage and aeration than regular house plants. You can imagespurchase a pre- packaged potting mix especially formulated for cactus. However, if you want to concoct your own mixture, try the following simple recipe: Equal parts commercial potting soil and builders sand. You can add a tablespoon of lime to a gallon mixture of this as well. They prefer an alkaline soil. Cacti prefer to be in unglazed clay pots with a layer of course gravel and charcoal in the bottom. Most Cacti have far ranging lateral roots so a shallow, wide clay pot is preferred. Put a thin layer of crushed gravel on the top of the soil surface to help stabilize the plant as well.

Keep these tips in mind for the next time you’re transplanting your favorite plants. Give them the right conditions and they’ll thrive!

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Soil Sense

by Diana Alfuth, horticulture educator for Pierce and St. Croix counties UW-Extension

Sure, your yard and garden soil is frozen and covered with snow — out of sight, out of mind. But now is the BEST time to plan your garden, and that includes planning for great soil!

How long has it been since you’ve had a professional soil test done? Never? You should do a soil test every four to five years, and it’s a small investment for a great, productive garden. While you can purchase soil-testing kits at garden centers, some of them have questionable reliability. It’s better to send a soil sample into a reputable lab to be sure you are getting accurate results. Your local UW-Extension office can help with information on how to collect and submit a soil sample.

soil_test_richmond_lawn_careWithout an accurate soil test, it’s impossible to know what your soil needs! Soil test results will tell you how much phosphorus and potassium — two of the main plant nutrients — are in your soil. If you have adequate amounts, there is no reason to spend money on these fertilizers.

Perhaps the most important thing your soil test tells you is the pH. The pH matters because if it is too high or too low for the plants you are trying to grow, they are not able to take up the nutrients they need. You can have nutrient deficiencies or toxicity if your pH is out of whack. Most garden plants are happy with a pH somewhere between 6.2 and 7.5, but some, such as blueberries, prefer a pH below 5.0. Plants, such as pin oak or white pine, will have yellow foliage caused by an iron deficiency if the pH is too alkaline, even if there’s plenty of iron in the soil.soil-Tesing-e1436464562358

A soil test from the UW soil lab will tell you not only your pH, phosphorous, and potassium levels, but exactly  how much of what to add to get your soil where it needs to be to grow the plants you want to grow. Plan now to do a soil test as soon as the ground thaws in spring.

The Learning Garden “Lasagna Garden”

by OCMGA Master Gardeners Barb Dorzweiler and Janet Carlson

True to the name “The Learning Garden”, my team and I learned how to build a lasagna garden in the summer of 2014. We had never built a lasagna garden before, but we were definitely interested and we were up for the challenge. Far from being an expert, but knowing how to find information, I researched a little on the subject before we set out. I referenced the UW Extension publication, A4021 “Making and Using Compost in the Garden.” Yes, there is a science to this. I also referenced another helpful article, “How To Create a Lasagna Garden” by R. J. Ruppenthal originally published in the May/June issue of Urban Farm. First of all, a lasagna garden is a no-till method of building a garden by adding layers of organic materials that will cook down over time not unlike what happens in your compost bins. It can also be referred to as “sheet composting”. We had a designated plot in The Learning Garden and our first step was to dig up two inches of the topsoil on our plot to set it aside for the topmost layer so we could plant right away. The plan was to alternate layers of “green” and “brown” organic materials. Brown materials are rich in carbon and include dry leaves, shredded newspaper, straw, and even shredded toilet paper rolls. Green materials are rich in nitrogen and include green leaves, green grass clippings, coffee grounds, eggshells, fruit and vegetable scraps. Our building happened over two different dates in May in part to give the bed time to cook and because the spring weather was not as warm as we hoped. On May 2nd, we started the bed with a brown layer: straw, compost from the UW-Ext bins and newspaper. The second layer was a green layer of vegetable waste and coffee grounds. The third layer was brown with sawdust and shredded dry leaves. We covered this with a black landscape cloth and left it to warm up for a couple weeks. On May 19th, we added a layer of newspaper and watered it immediately with the garden hose to keep it in place and make it easier to work with. Then again more layers of brown and green materials: dry leaves, grass clipping, coffee grounds (free from Starbucks), and newspaper. Then we added back the topsoil as the topmost layer to use as the planting medium. The lasagna bed was now about 10-12 inches high. Our initial planting was one tomato plant and two rows of lettuce. We labeled our rows with cut venetian blind labels. In later weeks, another tomato plant was added along with carrots, radishes. As expected, the lasagna garden cooked down and lost some of it height. This told us the organic materials were being composted into a fertile, fluffy soil. With the heavy rains this summer, some of the material was washed away, but the mulching around the garden beds helped hold its borders. We were able to harvest bountiful lettuce, tomatoes and the other vegetables. We had concerns that the lack of green grass clippings would slow down the decomposition, but the “green” materials (kitchen scraps and coffee grounds) we used were sufficient so this wasn’t an issue. As we cleaned up for the fall, this wonderfully fertile, loose soil can be spread and used over the adjacent garden plots or added to for another lasagna garden. It’s definitely a sustainable way to keep your organic material out of the landfill and improve your soil at the same time. I definitely recommend this process. On to next year’s plans; what will the next team do? It was a fun and learning experience for us!

Reprinted from the OCMGA member newsletter from the winter of 2014

 

Little Scientists at Work

by OCMGA Master Gardener Shirley Martin

As part of the preparation for the upcoming planting season several Master Gardner volunteers went to some classrooms at the Appleton Bilingual School and presented a seed starting class. These children and their teachers were very interested in the project and took the instructions very seriously. They are documenting their results with words and pictures. They were so excited to see the seeds sprout in the “planters” made from old water bottles.

The bottles are cut in half and the top is inverted into the bottom. A coffee filter is stuffed into the neck of the bottle then the top of the bottle is filled with soil and seeds are planted in it. This coffee filter acts as a “water wick” to transfer water from the bottom of the bottle (reservoir) to the the planting medium. It is inexpensive and effective. It fits on most windowsills and is an ideal mini-planter.

Expert’s Tip: New Invasive Species Jumping Worms

Lisa Johnson, Dane Co. UW-Extension Horticulture Educator

 

worms1

These invasive worms jump when handled.

As you are doing yard clean-up this fall, there is yet another new invasive pest to look for, identified in Dane County in October of 2013. Jumping worms (Amynthas spp.) are of Southeast Asian origin and they can be very damaging to soil structure in gardens as well as forest environments. No earthworms are native to Wisconsin—they were all killed off during the Ice Age. We do have 20 European species in the state, however. Earthworms all have negative effects on the forest duff or litter layer, which acts as a protective cover and helps forest floors to retain moisture, insulate tree roots, provide nutrients, prevent erosion, etc. When that litter is eaten by earthworms, the protective cover is removed, exposing the soil and causing erosion, compaction and increased runoff. This disturbance favors the spread of invasive plants such as garlic mustard and buckthorn. Researchers have also documented the negative effects of earthworms on forest regeneration and ground nesting bird populations.

The jumping worm is especially destructive since it lives right in the duff layer rather than lower in the soil profile. Jumping worms tend to outcompete European earthworms to become the only species in forest environments. They consume the layer of leaves and other organic matter on top of the soil faster than other earthworm species. They have been found in Dane, Sheboygan, Jefferson, Waukesha, Milwaukee and Racine counties, and signs of the worms (though no adults) have been noted in 8 other counties. Jumping worms have also been found in some states in the Eastern U.S. We don’t know how long they have been here in Wisconsin, but introduction through contaminated soils or plants is suspected. Since they can spread very quickly, it is important to slow the spread. Best management practices are being developed by the DNR and municipalities. Don’t share plant divisions from your garden or soil if you know you have jumping worms.

Jumping worms are parthenogenetic, producing eggs without the need for a mate, so just one worm can start a new population. Their eggs survive as microscopic cocoons over winter, with all the adults dying in fall. You won’t see the young worms until late June each year, but you will see the ‘soil signature’ from their feeding during the previous season. Jumping worms feed on soil organic matter, leaf litter and mulch and create very grainy-looking and hard little pellets when they excrete. The excretions resemble coffee grounds, and have poor structure for plants to grow in. Also, the worms’ feeding removes the organic matter that plants, fungi and bacteria need for nutrients. Adult jumping worms are 3 to 5 inches long but can grow to up to 7 inches in length. Jumping worms resemble regular earthworms but there are some important differences. Unlike European earthworms, they don’t produce slime and are more gray or brown in color than pink. Their clitellum, the band of lighter-colored tissue near the head, is smooth, not raised like other earthworms and whitish, not pink. It also goes all the way around the body, not just partway, like the European worms. The body is more rigid as well. Jumping worms get their name from their behavior—when handled, they thrash violently, may jump into the air or even shed their tails. They move in a serpentine fashion like snakes, as well.  Check out this video to observe them moving.  After hatching in late June, each worm begins reproducing; their life cycle lasts 60 days, so we can have two generations easily each year. Unfortunately, other than killing any worms you find by placing them in a closed plastic bag in the sun, there are no products labeled to kill them, since soil drenches would also kill beneficial soil organisms. Some products are being tested, but I haven’t heard about any results as of yet.

To report a sighting of jumping worms, email Invasive.Species@wi.gov . For more information and to see photos, visit http://dnr.wi.gov/ and search for the keyword ‘jumping worm’. There is also a great article in Wisconsin Natural Resources that you may want to check out . 

Editor’s note: these worms have also been identified in Outagamie County.

Cut down on that raking!

Such a beautiful time of year with the colorful leaves huddled together in the trees. Unfortunately, they don’t stay on the trees, leaving us with the chore of how to dispose of the leaves. Some people choose to leave them on the ground until spring, which is a wonderful idea for your gardens but can kill the grass on your lawn. Here are some ideas for using the leaves:

  1. When they’re completely dry, rake them into a big pile and have your kids or grandkids P1050466-500x375run and jump into the pile. Remember how much you enjoyed that when you were a kid?! I grew up in the country and we could also burn leaves; I still miss that smell of burning leaves and branches.
  2. Using your lawn mower, mulch the leaves onto your lawn thereby providing a wonderful source of nutrients as the leaves decompose over the winter and spring. Better than buying expensive fertilizer each year!
  3. Gather and mulch the leaves to use in your compost bin or compost pile. You can use whole leaves, but shredded leaves will break down more quickly to provide that ‘black gold’ compost to use in the spring. Note: continue to add your vegetable scraps and egg shells to your compost heap through the winter. You may not be able to turn the pile as often in the winter, but the nutrients will be there as the snow melts into the pile. Never add meat by-products, fats, animal waste, or leaves or stalks from diseased plants.
  4. Remove the leaves from the lawn and put them around your shrubs and perennials in the garden. They’ll help conserve moisture around the plants, and also stabilize the soil temperature to reduce the fluctuations of freeze and thaw that tear plant roots and heave them from the ground. A 2- or 3-inch mulch of autumn leaves will at least partially decay over the winter, releasing vital nutrients and improving soil structure, but be sure to rake away any leftovers in the very early spring before the perennials and bulbs start peeking up. Large piles of whole leaves will provide great insulation, but they can also turn into soggy mats that smother emerging plants.
  5. Finally, if you must, rake the leaves into the street for the municipal removal teams. Note: the city knows what to do with all of that garden and lawn waste they pick up around the city:  they turn it into compost and mulch!

randy_bish_rake_the_leaves_2

Written and posted by Vicki

Follow Up on Air & Soil Temperature Experiments

You may recall from a previous post that we have installed a hoop house/cold frame in The Learning Garden.  As part of this project we are following the air and soil temperatures.  Those temperatures are summarized in the graph below.  We compare the soil temperature inside the hoop house (orange) to a similar bed without a hoop house (green).  The hoop house does consistently increase the soil temperature by about 5 degrees.  The fluctuations are largely due to the amount of sunlight on the particular day that the readings were taken.  The high temperatures during the day are also dependent on the amount of sunlight.  On bright sunny days the high temperatures approach 80 degrees.  Venting keeps the heat from building up to excessive levels.  The low air temperatures probably are similar to the outside air temperature.  The hoop house if just too small to hold heat through the night.  On April 7 radish and lettuce seeds had germinated.

Hoop House

The other temperature study that is going on is black vs clear plastic mulch laid directly on the ground.  It is very clear that clear plastic, the green line, heats the soil faster.  The temperature difference is 10 degrees.  The soil temperature is similar to the hoop house temperature.  It was a bit of a surprise that black plastic did not affect soil temperature compared to no covering.  Although the sun does heat the plastic, that heat is not transferred to the soil.  We will be continuing this study through the summer.

Plastic Mulch

Written by Tom Wentzel

Posted by Rachel