Improving Production: Better Gardening Through Home Chemistry

The first HG 1.0– was intended to demystify the process of beginning a garden and, while merely removing the grass sod and poking a hole in bare ground underneath can let you grow something easy like tomatoes or zucchini, even those rugged plants will benefit from some extra work – just understand that any tools or even work beyond periodic watering and mulching is truly extra intended to produce better crops.

If all you can do is grub up a little dirt and stick in some seeds you will probably end up with food.

Getting more production from the same plants is a process generally referred to as making soil amendments. Unlike Congressional amendments that are often pork, you will be adding vegetable matter and perhaps even sand in an effort to improve your soil.

You can do this in a large area by renting a tiller and digging over the plot while digging in peat moss and, if the soil is too compact, perhaps some playbox sand.

Or, you can do this with a small shovel, just digging holes where you will be planting; many gardens were begun this way and, since tomato plants or squash/cucumber plants of any sort will be separated by up to five feet, you really only need to improve the soil where their roots are, perhaps a hole six inches deep and one foot across.

In fact, for squash- type plants, you should build small mounds a foot or two across and a foot high using good soil. If you can’t dig a hole and mound up the soil, just pile dirt right on top of the grass and the soil will kill that patch of grass.

The goal is to eventually have black dirt you form into a ball in your hand – soil that hasn’t been filled with chemical poisons such as weed killers or burnt plastic (that often produces dioxin).

Adding ashes from a wood burning stove or fireplace is fine if you don’t burn plastic or paraffin-based sawdust “logs” which contaminate the ashes.

Local ordinances permitting, it is okay to burn small amounts leaves and old plants if you don’t have room to compost them properly (more about composting in another issue). In fact, this will kill the grass and weeds nicely if you burn a small pile where you will plant.

The first step in soil amendment is to simply dig a hole and remove the rocks you encounter. This loosens the soil, improving drainage and making it easier for the plant roots to spread.

Next comes adding organic matter, which acts as a fertilizer.

You may have noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned testing the soil. The reason is that basic gardening shouldn’t be that involved – if something is already growing where you want to plant, then you can grow something. Tomatoes like more acidic soil but will tolerate a lot. Squash too will grow most places. Plant both and one or the other, or perhaps both will do reasonably well. Soil tests cost money.

If you have a big plot and the money to rent a tiller, then you should get a soil test kit because you are investing a lot of time and money on the garden. But, if you are experimenting small-scale and perhaps took my advice to just buy a bag of topsoil to mix in with your dirt that is probably enough.

Also, digging in a garden is good exercise.

As for fertilizer, you can make your own – we will go into that in detail later in the season.

Here on Highland Ranch Sanctuary we are blessed (if that is the correct term) with tons of sheep droppings mixed in with old hay and straw. Now sheep droppings are very different from cow or horse droppings because they can be put right on a garden without burning the plants because of extra nitrogen.

Most of you won’t have my surplus but you can begin composting quickly – I’ll have one or more reports on that a bit later because it takes time and you need something that will work this spring.

If you are not working on a minimum budget then the same store which sells topsoil probably also has rotted manure – a single bag will well at about a 1:5 or 1:10 ratio of manure to your dirt.

While there is no need for most of us to rush around getting plants in the ground before the end of April, it is time to plan and work on the soil itself.

By the way, if you aren’t enthusiastic about digging in the hard ground, tell the kids you buried some treasure and stand back – you can always drop a quarter or two in the ground after they get bored and show them that they only needed to look a bit harder!

(Just be really careful not to start them digging where you always buried the dead turtles!!)

Now that the ground is loosened up a bit you need to add nitrogen, the most critical plant nutrient. Fortunately you have easy access to just the right amount – hair!

Organic gardeners know that the hair on your brush or the pet brush is little more than slow-release nitrogen – stick some in the bottom of that hole you dug. The British and Chinese have done this for centuries. You can also put it in compost heaps.

Another important soil ingredient is Epson salts – a small amount (perhaps one teaspoon per plant) is very important for peppers and won’t harm other plants.

Now farmers and those with big home gardens buy big bags of magnesium sulphate but you can just buy a small carton of the foot-soaking Epson salts at the drug store – in fact, you can just pour the used foot water on the soil.

Old dishwater is often a good source of micronutrients. Our laundry happens to pour right onto a pasture and the grass is always very green there.

Egg shells are important for tomato plants because something called blossom end rot is simply a calcium deficiency.

If you get a rotten egg, throw the whole thing in; the sulphur (which causes the bad smell) will also be good for tomatoes.

Sugar is also used by plants; try watering the hole once with a can of non-diet cola just before planting.

If the soil seems too hard, shred up some newspaper (remember, black newspaper ink is soy-based) – another job for the kids; add some play sand (but nothing from near a highway that has salt and other chemicals in it), or crunch up very dry and brown leaves, and mix together.

In fact, do all three if practical – variety is best.

If you burned leaves or wood or have a fireplace where you didn’t burn plastics, then add the ashes – they contain essential nutrients.

The reason you don’t use green leaves or fresh mowed lawn clippings is because they absorb nitrogen – brown leaves and week-old dry grass makes fine additives or mulch.

Or, you can go to a farm store and for about $15 buy enough 10-10-10 fertilizer to feed a very large garden and dig a small amount into the ground. (I’ll go into various forms of fertilizer later since you will mostly be adding them to an already growing garden.)

Now your ground (or a few select holes or mounds) are ready to plant – cover with black plastic to warm the soil and kill off weeds. Your next job is to choose plants or start your own indoors.