Thursday, September 20, 2007
Organic Gardening Tips & FAQs
Frequently asked questions Can you recommend any "vegetarian" fertilizers that do not contain animal by-products? There are a number of excellent plant-based fertilizers you can try. These include alfalfa pellets (5-1-2); kelp meal (1.5-.5-2.5); and seaweed liquid (.1-.1-1.0). The numbers in parenthesis after each product name indicate its nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (N-P-K) ratio. How can I improve my clay soil? Soil preparation is very important to a successful garden or landscape. In clay or heavy soil it is advisable to add lots of well-rotted compost to help break up heavy soil particles, introduce microbial activity, add nutrients, and improve drainage. To sustain these positive benefits, you will need to amend your soil regularly throughout the life of the garden. Making your own compost is a good way to keep a supply on hand year-round. You can also improve clay soil by planting cover crops, also known as green manures, in the winter. Alfalfa, buckwheat, and white clover are all cover crops that loosen and add nitrogen to the soil. Rather than working with your existing soil, you might also consider constructing raised beds and filling them with a good-quality, all-purpose potting mix. Whichever method you try, do not work with clay soil when it is wet as this forces the particles closer together. Compaction restricts proper gas exchange, the percolation of moisture and the normal growth of roots. Are there any harmful side effects to using newspaper as a mulch? Any risks from the slight amount of heavy metals present in the ink of daily newspapers are extremely remote. In fact, one environmentalist stated that to have any ill effect at all, you would have to eat twelve complete Sunday newpapers in one sitting! Newspapers are a great way to mulch your garden for weed control. Use a thick layer (no slick inserts) under your mulch and you will eliminate weed problems. Any that do appear are very easy to pull. The paper will break down over time, adding organic material to your soil. The following tips will help you maintain a healthy garden Ensure that plants are healthy before adding them to your garden beds to avoid introducing pests or disease spores. Water wisely Avoid overhead watering to prevent disease spores from washing onto healthy foliage. Using drip irrigation equipment not only prevents the spread of disease, but also helps to conserve water. Allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings to prevent fungal infections. Do not work among plants when they are wet to avoid the spread of water-borne diseases. Remove and destroy severely infected plants or plant parts to avoid spreading diseases to healthy plants. Do not compost infected material. Clean your cutting tools with rubbing alcohol or a weak bleach solution between cuts when pruning diseased foliage. Space plants widely to allow good air circulation. Crowded plants also tend to be weak and spindly, making them targets for pests and diseases. Incorporate compost into the soil to introduce beneficial soil organisms and improve drainage. Fertilize properly Nutrient deficiencies and imbalances make plants more attractive to pests. Overfertilization with nitrogen can cause lush, tender growth that attracts sucking pests such as aphids. Controlling pests and diseases Despite your best efforts to prevent pests and diseases, infections and infestations may sometimes occur. The least harmful way to combat these intruders is through physical controls. Install barriers, such as floating row covers, fences, netting, cutworm collars, and copper barrier tape, to protect your plants from future infestation or infection. Traps and repellents are other low-impact options for foiling insect and animal invaders. If mechanical methods do not solve the problem, the next option is biological control. There are a number of biological control options available to the home gardener. Attract beneficial insects by creating a diverse ecosystem. Plant small-flowered nectar plants such as alyssum and dill to provide an additional food source for beneficials. Attract pest-eating birds, by placing birdhouses, birdbaths and feeders near your garden. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring bacterium that acts as a stomach poison when consumed by certain pests, but it is harmless to beneficial insects. Milky spore is a bacterial disease that specifically targets Japanese beetle larvae. Beneficial nematodes, microscopic soil-dwelling organisms, parasitize many harmful insect larvae. The adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" also holds true in the garden. With proper maintenance, you can virtually eliminate pest and disease problems before they start.