Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Garden Planting Time! (Or Ghetto Greenhouse Part III)

ready to plantOk, HERE is the planting article I started to write before I got distracted by the raised planting bed subject.
Only our peppers and tomato plants were started in the house and transplanted as seedlings, everything else I sowed directly into the garden as seed. The seed planting was fun with the kiddo, but I learned the hard way not to let her handle delicate new vegetable plants, even ones that have been well hardened off. She broke several before I found her an alternate job to do. I left the broken ones in their original plastic bottle containers. Maybe they’ll grow new leaves, maybe they won’t. As you can see from the pictures, I didn’t have any shortage of tomato plants, so I wasn’t too upset about the loss of a few.

These were the plants that I started from seed back in February or March. In the past couple weeks, when it FINALLY stopped snowing here and the night temperatures were above 50F, I began the process of hardening off the plants. Pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted to the ground until the earth has warmed to at least 50F; to do so earlier could kill them or hinder their growth until warmer weather comes. Tomato plants are a bit more forgiving, but you have to cover or shelter them if there is any danger of frost.
EggshellsHardening seedlings off basically entails getting those house-protected seedlings acclimated to being outdoors in a less controlled environment. The absolute best time to put them out is a cloudy day with a slight breeze. The breeze helps the stems to stiffen up so they can support the plant’s top growth and the cloud cover helps keeps the sun from scorching them. They’ll love all that sun later, but when they first come out from inside, they are a bit sun-shy. If you don’t have cloud cover, just sit them in at least partial shade. I put mine out for a week before transplanting them to the garden, starting off with only a couple hours and working up to 6-8 hours a day. The day I planted was also partly cloudy, which was helpful to avoid a lot of stress during transplant.
I don’t use my plastic containers more than one season. I’m not absolutely sure whether or not those water or Gatorade bottles are BPA-free and since I’ve read that the chemicals can leach into soil or be absorbed by plants when the plastics begin to break down, I just cut them off the roots and toss them when I plant. Cutting them off also means I don’t have to disturb all those tiny little roots any more than absolutely necessary.

I dug the holes, making them deep enough to plant each seedling at least as deep as it had been in its container- deeper for all the tomatoes, since they will grow new roots along the buried stems. Soil additives are the perfect task for little helpers; I had a bowl full of crushed eggshells and another of used coffee grounds to add to each hole. I instructed my daughter to get a big handful of eggshells and put it in the bottom of each hole. Coffee is a good green soil additive and gives the plant a nitrogen boost; we followed the eggshells with a handful of coffee grounds.PlantTomato
I’ve planted my tomatoes with crushed eggshells since my first attempt at growing tomatoes resulted in about 25% of them getting blossom rot. Blossom rot is fairly common in tomato plants and can often be prevented with good watering practices and adding calcium to the soil. Since eggshells release their calcium slowly, I add some to the hole when planting and top-dress more around the plants throughout the season. You can also save water from boiling eggs, cool it and use it to water the plants. They are also a great slug and snail deterrent; they don’t like to drag their soft little bodies over all those sharp edges. I don’t add extra fertilizers or plant food to seedlings, since I already grow them in soil amended with Miracle Grow Garden Soil and home-made compost.
After my daughter broke several plants trying to separate them from each other, I put her on additive and seed planting duty so I could pull the delicate plants out of their containers- I told her this was a Mommy job since it required sharp scissors 😉 – once the plant was in place, I helped her scoop some dirt back into the hole and pat it down very gently (don’t break the stems) to hold them in place. If you have trellis or stakes to add, you’ll want to do it NOW while your plants are small, even though it may seem unnecessary until they actually need the support. Add it later; you may damage the roots when you jam the spikes or stakes into the ground or snap off the vines trying to weave them through your supports. I have a sort of permanent trellis attached to our house of thin, bendable wire. I originally planned these to support climbing roses, so they are quite strong and support cucumber and tomato plants well. I found I preferred them to cages, since they keep the plants spread out, the fruits are easier to get to, there are less areas for bugs to hide and plenty of air circulation to prevent fungus or mildew. Whatever you use, make sure it’s going to be strong enough to support fully mature plants with fruits on them. I was surprised at first how HEAVY they can actually get!

GardenPlantsSince I was planting full size plants and not direct-sowing seeds, I went ahead and added mulch around the plants. Mulch really helps new seedlings retain moisture since they don’t have deep, established roots yet. The chunky pine mulch also helped some of my floppy plants stand up a bit straighter until their stems strengthen enough to support themselves. I skipped the mulch over the areas where we put just seed, to make sure the new seedlings are able to get enough light and heat to germinate. Once the plants are up and established, I’ll weed around them and add mulch then.

At the height of summer, it easily reaches the 100 degree mark here; I usually have to water at least every third or fourth day if there’s no rain to supplement. Too frequent watering won’t encourage your plants to develop deep roots and they will dry out quickly and have little support for bushy top growth. Soak them really well when you do water. Aside from this, there are really no hard and fast rules on watering; check your soil and watch your plants, a little common sense will tell you whether they are dry and need a drink or not. Morning and evenings have worked best from my experience; mid-day burns off quickly and seems to shock the plants that get doused with cold water when they’re really hot. I’ve read lots of advice about not getting the leaves wet because it causes fungal diseases, etc. This is fine advice if you can avoid it, but if you get the leaves wet, it’s not the end of the world. Rain doesn’t JUST water the roots of a plant when it falls.GardenPlanted
It helps to plant things like lettuce, broccoli and other plants that bolt in hot weather behind your trellised plants to provide them with some shade. Our garden area gets blasted with full sun from around noon-thirty until 4-ish in the afternoon, so the sun really beats down during that part of the day. I’ve noticed that my tomato plants will look a bit wilted during the really brutal summer days, but they always perk back up in the evening when it cools off a bit. I’ve read somewhere that this is a normal defense-mechanism of the plant and nothing to get excited about.
So I guess that’s finally it for the starting plants from seed subject; since I’ve seen them from package into the garden and it’s all maintenance from here. I’ll try to remember and post at least a few photos of our garden once it is well established and producing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for no beetle horror stories this year in the meanwhile, but we’ll see. 😉


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Getting Dirty

A blog that calls itself “Dirt” needs at least one post on the subject, don’t you think? So this post is about just that: dirt.
Dirt/soil is the most basic and also one of the most important building blocks of your yard or garden. It doesn’t just hold the plants in place; it gives them the nutrients they need, absorbs and collects and it protects the root system of the plant from sun and cold. Most plants grow in some type of soil. The exceptions to this rule are air plants, such as orchids that absorb nutrients through the leaves; roots are used as anchors only, usually to other plants. Some water plants do not need to root in soil, but get their food from the water. Or one of my favorites; plants like the Venus Flytrap that survive in very poor nutrient soil or watery bogs with little to no soil by ‘catching’ their food in the form of insects. Hydroponics, plants grown in controlled conditions in nutrient rich water, is another form of soil-less growth.

For most plants you buy in your local nursery though, they are going to need dirt. The nursery tag on the plant should tell you what type of soil it prefers. Like almost all living things; plants need air, light, water and food to thrive and grow. Good soil is one of the most important steps in the health and success of a plant. Some plants will not only do poorly in the wrong soil type, they will simply not survive.

This doesn’t mean that if the plant you want to grow doesn’t match the soil type in your yard, it is automatically off limits to you. It most cases, it simply means you’re going to have to adjust or amend your soil to meet that plant’s growing requirements.

There are three basic soil types: Sand, silt and clay. Each of these soil types has a different particle size and holds water and nutrients in a different way. If you aren’t sure what you have in your yard, one of the easiest ways to test it is by feel. Pick up a handful of wet soil and try to form it into a ball in your hand. If the ball falls apart easily, you have a lot of sand. If it forms a loose ball, it’s silt. If it forms a semi-solid, sticky ball, you have clay. Of course, I’m over-simplifying a bit here, but this is after all, a blog post and not a book. Give or take specific mineral content, the vast majority of plants prefer a moderate silt-type soil. If you have one of the other types, your goal will be to amend it until it resembles silt as much as possible. This usually means adding some form of organic matter to the soil.

Sand– Has a large particle size, feels rough when rubbed between your fingers, but doesn’t hold nutrients well. Sand usually provides good water drainage.

Silt– Has a moderate particle size, feels powdery when dry/smooth when wet, but not sticky. It holds nutrients and water well; it’s usually the preferred growing medium for the majority of plants.

Clay– Has a small particle size. It can turn to a brick when dry and is sticky when wet. Soils with high clay content are called heavy soils. Clay can hold a lot of nutrients, but drainage and air circulation is often poor.

There are many options when it comes to soil amendments. It’s not recommended that you try to adjust your sand or clay soil by simply adding clay to sand or sand to clay. This is a recipe for cement, not so great for plants. Your best bet is to add organic matter, or some form of man made additive or fertilizer. You can buy all sorts of things to improve your soil at your local nursery or garden center such as bags of humus, peat, vermiculite, chemical and natural fertilizers and so forth. I stay away from the majority of these for two reasons: 1) They are expensive and 2) I don’t like chemicals on my lawn/plants/food, etc. I prefer to use natural materials and make my own compost. I’ll write a more in depth post on the compost subject later, but for now I’ll just say this can include leaves, yard clippings, newspaper, vegetable scraps, etc. You break them down in a compost pile or drum, bucket, bin, what have you and just mix them directly in with your soil.

Another option if your soil isn’t quite perfect is to grow on top of it rather than in it. By this, I mean building raised beds, using planters, pots, or some other method of getting your plants out of your native dirt and in to purchased potting soil or garden soil instead. More expensive than composting, but often a lot less work and can require a great deal less patience. I’ll also try and revisit this subject later, as I’ve spent a good deal of time building raised planting beds around our yard.

Once you have the consistency of your soil right, meaning you’ve added material to it so that your clay or sand feels more like silt, you’ll then need to adjust the content for nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium depending on the plant’s individual needs. (Yet another subject that could be addressed at length…)  Commercial soil additives will usually list these nutrients on the bag and their concentrations in percentage form. Nitrogen helps leaf growth and dark green color, Phosphorus encourages plant cell division, flower and seed formation, root growth and protects plants from disease. Potassium increases plant’s disease resistance, encourages root growth and is needed for making chlorophyll.  You can buy soil testers to test the amount of specific nutrients in your soil if you feel your plants are suffering from a lack of one of the above. Testers can also help you with adjust soil Ph, which is especially important to the health and production of some plant types.

A Ph range of 4-9 is about the limit of plant growth. The Ph scale runs from 0.0 being the most acidic, to 14 being the most alkaline. You don’t need to be a chemist to adjust soil Ph. An application of lime and fertilizer will lower the Ph of acid soils, or if your soil is too alkaline you can apply sulfur to lower the Ph. Before home soil tests were readily available, some farmers would actually taste their dirt to see whether it was ‘sweet’ or ‘sour’. If it had a soap taste, they knew there was some lime in it and if it was sour, they knew it was acidic. Sand and loam require less lime/sulfur to raise or lower Ph than is needed to adjust clay.

Those are the basics on soil/dirt. As I said a couple of times above, I’ll expand later on several of the points I touched on in this post; this gave me sort of a jumping off point to start from. For those of you that have clay soil, keep reading… it’s one of my favorite gripes- er… subjects. I’m sure to have lots more to say on coping with it later.