Category Archives: organic fertilizers

Put your Garden to Bed

 There’s a peaceful quality to this time of year.  Mother Nature is winding down for the season turning deciduous trees ablaze with fall color.  Cool season pansies and violas turn their little faces to catch the sun.  It’s time to put the garden to bed for a greener spring next year. 

 Here are some suggestions, but promise you won’t try to do everything on one weekend.  it’ll just seem like work.  Gardening should be something you enjoy. 

  • Build up your soil by layering the vegetable beds with 2" of leaves newly fallen from your trees.  Soil building worms and organisms will start their work right away.  In the spring, dig what’s left into the soil.  If you want the leaves to break down faster, run over them with a lawn mower, then rake them up for mulch.
  •  Prevent erosion of your precious soil by mulching with straw or bark.  Mulch used around perennials, shrubs and trees will help moisture percolate into the soil instead of running off into storm drains or creeks along with fertilizers.    Mulch also keeps the soil from becoming compacted by winter rains.  If you don’t have enough leaves to use as mulch try layering newspapers and cardboard and cover with straw.  3-4" of mulch around the base of trees and large shrubs will hold weeds down, too.  Be sure to keep mulch a couple of inches away from the base of your plants so trapped moisture doesn’t rot the trunk. 
  • Chop down leftover vegetable plants and spent annuals flowers and layer on the vegetable bed under cardboard to decompose.  Don’t do this with diseases plants such as squash plants with powdery mildew.   These can be put in the curbside yard waste can.  Hot commercial composting systems can kill disease spores.
  • Clean empty pots and store them upside down in a dry location.  That way you’ll keep any soil diseases from being passed on to next year’s plants. 
  •  Store any excess leaves to use next summer if you have a lot of deciduous trees.  They’re like gold.  They make great bedding for a worm bin and next summer you can use them in the compost pile when you have an abundance of nitrogen rich green material but little carbon-based brown stuff to mix with it. 
  • Leave a little debris for wildlife so beneficial ground beetles have a place to live and birds can snack on seeds left on shriveled flowers.  Coneflowers, ornamental grasses and crocosmia all attract birds to their seed heads through the winter. 

The bottom line is to do those fall clean-up jobs as you have the time and energy.  Cleaning up in increments leaves height and interest in the garden and feeds the birds, too.

What you should do first, though, is to bring indoors houseplants that  spent the summer out on the patio. Also bring in any plants too tender to survive the winter outside. Be sure to inspect them for insect pests and wash them off.   Sub-topical plants  like tree ferns and bananas benefit from extra mulch to help them survive the worst of the winter weather.

It’s not too late to reseed thin spots on your lawn or apply a fall fertilizer to an existing one and if you have citrus trees, rhododendrons, azaleas or camellias they’ll benefit from an application of   Citrus use it for flower bud development and fruit sweetness.  Rhodies, azaleas, and camellias need it when flower buds begin to form.  It also improves flowering and root development of any plant and helps plants resist diseases and cold weather damage. 
 

Originally posted 2008-11-07 15:34:14.

Planting Fruit Trees in the fall

 We all know fruit is good for us and it tastes so yummy, too.  I love it when a plan comes together !  I’m still enjoying juicy, late nectarines, plums and pluots in addition to newly ripening apples and pears.  Can persimmons and pomegranates be far behind?

Trees are an essential part of every garden so why not have some that produce something good to eat, too?  A large apple or plum can serve as a shade tree if you prune the lower branches so you can walk under it.  A dwarf fruit tree would make a good focal point in a garden bed.  Consider adding a fruit tree now to your garden.  The trees available now are now more mature that those sold bare root in January.  Many are already producing fruit.  

If you have fruit trees in your garden already, look to add late ripening varieties that can extend your season.   Goldmine nectarines ripen in late summer where most other varieties mature earlier in June and July.  Their juicy, sweet white flesh has excellent flavor.  Needing only 400 hours of chilling in the winter – this refers to the # of hours below 45 degrees during the dormant season – they are good for mild winter areas like Pasatiempo.  A great late peach ripening in August is Late Elberta.  You’ll love its large, delicious yellow fruit.

And many apples, like my favorite, the Fuji, ripen in the fall.  With firm, crunchy white flesh Fuji apples can’t be beat for eating right off the tree.  They also keep well and bear in mild winter areas.

So what should you be doing to keep your trees healthy?

  • Water:  A trees network of roots generally extend to the drip line, which is as far as the branches spread from the trunk, so set your sprinkler or soaker hose to cover the entire area.
  • Fertilize one last time for the season to replace the potassium and magnesium that have been leached out of the root zone.
  • Weed:  Young trees especially will benefit from careful weeding around their trunk which can be a hiding place for rodents in the winter. Girdling can be fatal for a tree if the bark is chewed away. 
  • Cleanup:  Practice good sanitation by cleaning up fallen fruit , especially if it has signs of pests and diseases that can come back to haunt you next spring.

It’s too late for light summer pruning and too early for dormant pruning.  However, there are a couple of things you can do now before leaves drop.  Assess the tree.  A main pruning goal is to allow light into the central part of the tree so the lower branches aren’t shaded by those above.  Also look for weaker branches, those with fewer leaves or less fruit.  You might even put a piece of yarn on those branches to mark them for later pruning. 

If you have a fruit tree that is just too large for your space, despite pruning, consider replacing it with a smaller variety.  Many types of fruit trees are available in dwarf varieties as well as semi-dwarf.  It depends on the root stock.  Remember: right tree, right spot.
 

Originally posted 2008-10-13 07:30:43.

Harvesting and fertilizing apples, pears and plums

Time to take a break from heavy gardening tasks and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  Check vegetable gardens daily for ripe produce to be sure you are harvesting them at their peak.  Keep faded flowers picked regularly to prolong bloom.  Inspect fruit trees for luscious ripening fruit to be picked at just the right time.

How do you know when fruit or nuts are ready to harvest?  It’s not as easy as picking zucchini or tomatoes.  Take apples, for instance.  Apples approaching maturity may be broken off easily from the spur.  Do not pull an apple downward or you may damage the spur.  Twist it upward with a rotating motion.  When a few non-wormy apples fall to the ground, this is a sign that fruit is nearly ripe.  Check inside.  Apples are ripe when their seeds turn dark brown to black.  If you prefer tart apples, harvest them a little earlier.

 What about that plum tree loaded with fruit?  For best quality, plums should remain on the tree until firm-ripe.  This stage is often very difficult to determine.  The best guide to ripening is to watch for softening fruit that is fully colored.  When they are ripe, the plum stem will easily separate from the spur or branch when the fruit is gently lifted.  Early maturing  varieties like Santa Rosa should be picked 2-3 times per season taking the ripest at each harvest.  Late maturing varieties like Golden Nectar can be picked all at one time or at two pickings spaced about a week or ten days apart.  Burgundy plums have the best of both worlds.  Ripening in early July, the fruit holds well on the tree until mid-August and can be picked over a long period before it drops to the ground and is lost.

 
    Pears are unlike most other fruit.  They are best when ripened off the tree.  Pick fruit when they have reached mature size and are just starting to lose their green color.  Don’t let them soften or turn entirely yellow before harvesting.  Bartlett pears are usually harvested sometime in August.    This variety ripens on its own without cold storage.  Buerre d’Anjou , Bosc,  Comice,  Monterrey and other varieties are usually harvested in September or October, placed in a plastic bag and refrigerated for at least 2 weeks, then brought out to ripen at room temperature.  To harvest pears, lift up fruit until the stem separates from the spur; do not pull or twist.  If the stem does not break easily from the spur, allow fruit to ripen for a few more days.
 
    Each fruit and nut has an optimum harvesting time.  If you are unsure about your tree, email me and I can tell you about yours.  
    
    After harvesting, fertilize your trees one last time with an organic fertilizer formulated specifically for fruit trees.  All that fruit takes energy to produce.  Plants make their own food by photosynthesis, recombining carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms from water and air with energy from sunlight.  They also need small amounts of other elements, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, just as we need certain vitamins and minerals in addition to protein and carbohydrates.  Feed your soil with compost and organics like blood meal, feather meal, bone meal, chicken manure, bat guano, alfalfa meal and kelp meal.  Organic fertilizers have soil microbes to help insure that more nutrients are available to your trees.  They contain mycorrhizal fungi– beneficial organisms which colonize the roots of most plant and become a natural extension of the root system.  These organisms serve to enhance the absorption of many nutrients as well as promoting drought resistance.  Organic fertilizers also contain humic acid that provides carbon for the microbes in order to help them propagate and do their work.

    Apple trees live for 60 years, plum trees can live for 40 years and pears for 75 years.  Take care of your trees and they’ll take care of you.  
 

Originally posted 2008-08-03 06:38:48.

Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

Orin_Martin_prunig_fruit_trees
Orin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

sunflower pollinator attractors
Sunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

Ginger_Gold_apples
Ginger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

UCSC Farm_Garden_crops
UCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest

strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.

Growing Cover Crops – Part II

Orin_Martin_bell_beansOrin Martin of the Alan Chadwick Garden on the UCSC campus is widely admired for his incredible knowledge and skills as a master orchardist, horticulturalist and teacher. I was lucky a couple of years ago when he visited a group of fellow designers and brought his favorite russet apples. Another time he brought a dozen different kinds of potatoes that we roasted, critiqued and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Alan Chadwick Garden was nothing but poison oak and chaparral in 1967 when Alan Chadwick first got his hands on it. Martin came to UCSC in 1969 as a literature major but was soon impressed with Chadwick’s work, preaching the gospel of treating the garden as a self-nourishing system. Together they worked the garden, building the soil and teaching others.

Now Martin runs the appreaster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048ntice program which teaches future organic gardeners and shares his knowledge in workshops like the Cover Crop class I recently attended.

Last week I wrote about how and why to plant cover crops. This is what to do next spring after they’ve done their magic in the soil fixing nitrogen.

Cover crops are plowed or skimmed off in late February to early April. Because it takes 3-5 weeks for the cover crop to break down so crops can be seeded or transplanted, it is often best to skim off the cover crop at the base of the plants and combine with straw or leaves to make compost. Previously made compost can then be applied to the surface. It is important to retain the roots and nitrogen-filled nodules in the soil. Take only the vegetative portion.

cover_crops_Orin_Martin.1280Another method is to skim the foliage with a weed wacker or mower chopping it into small pieces 1/4″ to  4″ long. You can then rototill this into the soil and allow it to decompose on its own. In about 2 weeks the material should be broken down to be unrecognizable as plant material before replanting.

If you are developing your soil to build organic matter and improve structure incorporate the cover crop at a more mature stage (half to full bloom) when it has a higher carbon content. The nutrients will be stored in the reservoir of humus and released slowly over a number of years.

On established soils where you want primarily to fertilize next spring and summers crops, incorporate the cover crop after skimming and chopping when it has just started to flower as it decomposes quickly at this stage.

The Chadwick Garden fertilizes its established fruit trees by simply cutting down the cover crop growing at their base with a machete at the 25% flowering stage. 4-6″ of wood chips are laid over the chopped up pieces and left for nature to decompose. That’s all their is to it. Martin explained that the garden used blood meal and the organic fertilizer, Sustane, during the first several years while the trees were becoming established.

Picking up a clump of grass sown just 2 weeks ago, Martin teased off the soil to show the vigorous, fibrous root mass. “This is why the riches soils of the world, the Steppes of Russia and the original Midwest prairies, are so fertile and are called bread basket soils”, he explained.

Plant a cover crop this fall and your soil will be richer for it.