Archive for January, 2013

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Talking About Plant Nutrients

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This week at my Master Gardener course we learned about soil nutrients and how they affect the way our plants grow. Nutrients are pretty important to all plant growth, especially vegetables since they are generally annuals. Any plant that lives and dies in one year is going to require a lot of nutrients.

There are 13 nutrients that are essential to plant growth. None of them are optional. All of them are required for plants to grow healthily, they are just required in different amounts.

Nitrogen (N) is the one that most plants need in abundance. If you think about it, most vegetables will need this in spades since they tend to be leafy, fast growing plants. Phosphorus (P) is another nutrient that plants need a lot of, and so is Potassium (K). These are called the ‘Primary Nutrients’. If you have ever bought a box of general purpose fertiliser for your vegetable garden that said NPK on the side, then now you can see why. They are the three biggies when it comes to growing healthy vegetables.

The nutrient table goes on like this:

Primary Nutrients
Nitrogen (N)
Phosphorus (P)
Potassium (K)

Secondary Nutrients
Sulfur (S)
Calcium (Ca)
Magnesium (Mg)

Micronutrients
Zinc (Zn)
Iron (Fe)
Copper (Cu)
Manganese (Mn)
Boron (B)
Molybdenum (Mo)
Chlorine (Cl)

I think I must have been off sick on the day that my chemistry teacher covered Molybdenum because I’d never heard of it before!

Remember, none of these are optional. They are all required for healthy plant growth. So how do you know if your soil is deficient in any of these and how can you correct it?

The easiest way to get to know your soil is to do a nutrient soil test. Not the kind of test that you buy from the nursery that looks like a test tube but a test done by a laboratory. There are soil testing services (do a Google search) that will test your soil sample and tell you the levels of nutrients in your soil. If your soil is deficient in any of the nutrients above they will tell you and also recommend the amount and type of fertiliser to you need to add to correct it.

I’ve never had my soil tested but I plan to do it in the next few weeks. Autumn would probably have been the best time to do it so that I could add any corrections then but we were in the middle of a huge re-landscape then and so it wasn’t ideal.

Your soil is most likely to be deficient in the primary nutrients since plants use them the most. Calcium and Magnesium deficiency is most likely in acid soils. Zinc deficiency is usually associated with high pH soils.

You can also tell if your soil is deficient by looking for characteristic symptoms in the leaves of your plants. Here is a handy chart that helps diagnose nutrient deficiencies just by looking at the leaves of stressed plants.

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If you are adding lots of organic matter to your soil, taking care to preserve soil structure and not planting too intensively then your soil should be balanced. Keep an eye on the pH of your soil too and make amendments where necessary. There is a reason why a pH of 6.5 is recommended for vegetable growing and that’s because most soil nutrients are available at that pH. Once your pH starts to move away from 6.5 certain nutrients become unavailable.

I hope this is interesting. I found the workshop enlightening. Soil nutrients is a subject that I’ve largely avoided over the past years because I thought it was complicated and, in truth, a bit boring. But I think now I can trace some of my major failures back to soil issues. So in the future I’ll be keeping tabs on the state of my soil.

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My Greenhouse

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The greenhouse is half finished and I’m so, so happy with it.

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This is what it looked like only last week but over the weekend the glass went in and it has been transformed into my garden dream. In mid December it was just a base wall. Now it’s a beauty in the making.

I’ve ALWAYS wanted a greenhouse. Every since my Dad had an aluminium one in the garden when I was growing up. He would grow Tomatoes and store his hanging baskets in there until it was safe to put them out. He would potter and potter in there for hours. Me and my mum had no clue what he was doing! And now I have my own to potter in. Maybe, it’s hereditary?

All I know is that I can’t wait to move all of my stuff in. To arrange my plant tags, set up the potting bench, plug in the heated mats and start growing. It seems like such a long time since I actually grew something. I have the seeds, the potting soil, the seed trays. I just need a door and some benches and all systems are go.

The grey wall you see will be covered by red bricks soon. There are automatic window vents to fit and probably a small heater to install (nothing too crazy just to keep it above freezing). Although someone on my gardening course had a smashing idea. She said she plugs in low-voltage Christmas lights to keep the frost away. No that, sounds like my kind of greenhouse!

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All About Soil Structure

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I learned all kinds of useful facts about soil at my last Master Gardener session so I thought I would share some of it here. I already knew some things about soil, like clay soils hold water and can be difficult to work, and sandy soils tend to be harder to keep in one place and don’t hold nutrients quite so well.

I also knew that you could figure out what kind of soil you have by putting some in a jar with some water, shaking it and letting it settle over time. The layer at the bottom will be sand, the layer in the middle will be silt and the layer at the top will be clay. That way you can determine how your soil is built up. But what I didn’t know was the reason why.

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As you can see from the photo above sand particles are huge compared to silt particles and effectively gigantic compared to the miniscule clay particles. That’s why the sand particle settle first, then silt, then clay. Because sand particles are so big there are large spaces between each particle and that’s why sandy soils don’t hold water – because the water flows right through.

Similarly, when it comes to clay soils the particles are so tiny that they stick together very tightly and let hardly any water through, that’s why they are often water-logged.

Sand, if rolled into a ball will not hold together. Silt, if rolled into a ball will hold together somewhat but then fall apart, and clay, if rolled into a ball, will stay in a ball because the particles are so small.

And then there is Loam. Lots of gardeners talk about it but what exactly is it?

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Loam is the perfect soil. It’s what you’re aiming for in your garden. Loam is simply a soil that has equal parts sand, silt and clay. So it’s not too waterlogged, and it’s also free-draining. Look at the soil triangle above. You’ll notice that loam is in the middle. You are most likely to find clay particles in your soil that’s why it takes up so much of the triangle. Silt and sandy soils are less likely and they take up small portions of the triangle. But what you’re aiming for is somewhere in the middle with a little bit of each particle in your soil.

But what about organic matter? Well, organic matter is not really calculated in soil structure. Mainly because it’s transitory. You add organic matter, it breaks down into humus which is a kind of natural glue to strengthen and bind the soil but is not a permanent part of the soil. Gravel and rocks are also not included in this as they don’t contribute to the soil’s productivity.

When the sand, silt, and clay cluster together they form aggregates called peds which provide structure to soil. Organic matter helps bind these particles together. A well-structured soil is like a sponge allowing water in but also enabling it to leave when there is too much of it.

Because soil structure is so important it’s vital to preserve it when it’s attained. That’s why gardening books always warn against walking on the soil, as compaction ruins soil structure and also digging when the soil is either water-logged or frozen. This also destroys soil structure.

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Master Gardener Course

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Last week I started the Master Gardener course at the Oregon State University. It’s 11-weeks of classroom learning followed by 11-weeks of practical gardening out and about in Portland. I’m so excited to be learning so much about gardening and being able to do it with people who are as enthusiastic as me about gardening. My plan is to select some of the most interesting and enlightening parts of the course and blog about it. I’ll file the posts under Master Gardener and there will be one a week. So it will be like you’re doing the course too. Well, sort of.

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My Plants Arrived

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So… half of the plants have arrived for the ornamental part of the garden. They arrived on a big van while I was out so when I came home there was a surprise waiting for me on the driveway! I must confess to be really, really excited about putting them in.

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The weather here is still pretty cold and the ground was frozen today until the sun came out and warmed things up a little. We managed to get one of the large Amur Maple trees in (of which there are five), some Hebes, two Rosemary plants and five Flamingo Heathers. It’s a start. The rest will go in over the next week.

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It’s amazing how just positioning a few plants around, particularly ones that give height to the garden makes it look smaller. They bring the edges in and make it feel cosy, less stark, and more useable.

We’re planting the following:

Evergreen shrubs:
Flamingo Heather (Calluna Flamingo) size 1G, 23
Camellia Elegans Splendor size 6′, 3
Variegated Winter Daphne (Daphne Odura Auro-Marginatea) size 2G, 2
Great Orme Hebe, size 2G, 3
Emerald Gem Hebe, size 2G, 4
Hinera Hebe, size 2G, 2
Blue Star Juniper, size 2G, 8
Hazel Spanish Lavender (Lavendula Stoechas Hazel) size 2G, 13
Fringe Flower (Loropetalum ‘Chaing Nian Hong”) size 5G, 3
Drew’s Blue Siberian Carpet Cypress (Microbiota Condrew) size 3G, 5
Blue Spires Rosemary, size 2G, 5
Evergreen Blueberry size 3G, 4

Deciduous Trees:
Flame Amur Maple (Acer Ginnala) size 8′, 5
Toyo Nishiki Flower Quince (Chaenomeles Toyo Nishiki), size 6′, 1
(although I’ll need another one if I want fruit)

Deciduous Shrubs:
Crimson Ruby Japanese Barberry (Berberis Crimson) size 2G, 8
Spike Winterhazel (Corylopsis Spicata) size 5G, 2
Diablo Ninebark (Physocarpus Diablo) size 5G, 4
Teller Blue Hydrangea (Hydrangea Blaumelse) size 5G, 1
Dark Violet Blue Hydrangea, size 5G,1
Pee Wee Oak Leaf Hydrangea, size 5G, 4
Little Princess Spiraea, size 2G, 3

Ferns:
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum Pedatum) size 2G,14
Royal Purple Fern, Osmundra Purpurascens, size 2G, 4
(I actually decided against these as I realised I don’t like Ferns!)

Grass:
Elijah Blue Fescue (Festuca Glauca Elijah Blue) size 1G, 33

Hosta:
Empress Wu Hosta, size 1G, 4
Elegans Plantain Lily, size 1G, 11

Ground Cover:
Hybrid Epimedium (Rubrum) size 4″, 8
Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis Oregana), size 4″, 18
Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum Tectorum), size 4″, 5
Stonecrop (S. Cauticolum Lidakense) size 4″, 12
Cauticola Coca Cola, size 4″, 17
Woolly Thyme (Thymus Pseudolanuginosus) size 4″, 8

Anyone got any ideas what I can use instead of Ferns? They’re mostly in damp, shady areas.

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Planting a New Fig Tree

I’ve always wanted to grow a Fig tree, I’ve just never had the room. I used to work in an office where there was a beautiful and quite large Fig tree outside the window. It was covered in Figs come late Summer but no-one ever picked them. It was so sad.

So here is my opportunity to put things right and grow my own Fig tree. I planted it on a south facing wall in a protected corner of the garden. As per RHS Fig planting instructions I prepared a pit and put stone slabs on all sides to contain the root system. Then I put rubble and broken bricks on the bottom too. It seems a bit harsh but apparently it helps the tree fruit better.

All I know is that, if and when my Fig tree produces fruit I will definitely be picking the fruit and none will be left on the tree!

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Brand New Soil

The landscapers are virtually finished here in the garden. The last thing they did was to bring in this new, black, crumbly soil and dig it in to all of the beds. They have also hooked up my cute little copper mushroom lights that light the pathways at night.

It’s all coming together nicely. The rose arch is in place. I’m planning to do a pale pink climbing rose with some nice boxwood edging along the pathway a little something like this rose arch. I’m also trying to source some sand-coloured gravel. It seems to be impossible to find here in the northwest. Most gravels are dark grey or reddish. Hmm… I’ll keep looking.

The only problem when it comes to planting anything is that the weather here has taken a dive in terms of temperature. A week of freezing winds has frozen the soil, and my lovely fountain too!

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Building Up My Seed Box Again

When I moved from the UK I had to give all my seeds away to neighbours and friends. The customs laws in the US prevented me from bringing them into the country. Understandable really and I didn’t mind at all. But, that meant that when I arrived my seedbox was empty. That was strange for me because it has never been empty since the day I bought it. Infact, most of the time it was bulging and groaning under the weight of new seeds that I simply COULD NOT avoid buying or saved seed that, ‘well I might sow one day!’.

So, since this is the new year and in preparation for that lovely time of year when we all ‘start sowing’ I bought some seed. Okay, I might have gone a bit over board but I won’t be needing any new seed for a while. Most of them I bought from Botanical Interests – simply because they have lovely illustrations on the front. And I also bought some Herb seeds from the Territorial Seed Company too.

A few of the packets are seed that I’ve never grown before; Watermelon, Edamame beans, Black Krim beefsteak Tomatoes and some Chilli Pepper.