Organic Fertilizer Recipes: How to MacGyver Up a Custom Blend

DIY organic fertilizer recipes

DIY organic fertilizer recipesDeveloping a healthy soil is the goal of every gardener, but sometimes plants need an extra boost. Perhaps you are growing high-yield fruits and vegetables, plants with big blooms like roses, rhododendrons and camellias, or just feel that your soil isn’t performing well and your plants need a little help while you work to balance it with compost and other approaches.

In any case, creating your own organic fertilizer blend from single ingredient fertilizers is a great way of saving money and keeping control over what exactly goes into your garden. I would think that in using single ingredient fertilizers, you would also have the opportunity to learn more about your plants, as you watch their response to what you add and learn to find the proper balance of nutrients for your own garden over time.

In this article, I’ve compiled a few recipes for you to DIY-up, including a basic mix, one for shrubs, one for roses, and a veganic blend for those of you interested in a kinder approach to soil fertility.

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The Worm Factory 360 and The Earth Moved (With Video!)

worm-factory-360-2.jpg

When I first bought my own home years ago, there was one fact that made me particularly happy: as a responsible grownup and a homeowner, I was now allowed to get any pets that I darn well wanted, so long as I could take good care of them. No landlords or reluctant parents to tell me I couldn’t!

Chickens were an easy sell to my other half, since we love eggs, as were a couple of kittens. But after that, I started hitting a wall. “Guinea pigs!” I suggested. “Bunnies!” “Geckos!” Each of these brilliant suggestions was met with a dubious stare. Perhaps there were still some limitations on the pet front.

But when I read about vermicomposting, I realized that here was a pet that was useful, quiet, didn’t need their litter box changed, and wouldn’t get snippy with me if I went on vacation. There was still a doubtful eyebrow raise about the relative awesomeness of worms as pets, but there was hardly any reasonable objection to be made. I was to become a proud keeper of worms.

Figuring I’d better learn a little more about my new choice of pet, I picked up a copy of Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Even setting aside my new enthusiasm about worms, the book kept me rapt until the wee hours of the night, learning about the relatives of my new pets. Amy has a knack of finding the story in anything, and the curious tales of worms, and the scientists and business people who work with them, read like a thrilling bit of fiction. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up!

And I discovered that worms made me very popular at cocktail parties (at least at the type of cocktail parties I go to). Nothing like  bit of worm trivia, delivered with a cheerful grin, to perk up a boring conversation. Fern Richardson apparently agrees; she started the Twitter hashtag #WormFact to share her favorite tidbits. The fact I can’t get over? There is a type of worm, I believe in Oregon, with lily-scented slime. LILY-scented! I wish I could keep them as pets.

Anyway, we all know the benefits of worm castings: great for seed starting (helps prevent damping-off), helps retain moisture for hanging baskets or container plants, and generally full of good stuff for the soil. Being able to grab a handful of castings anytime is a great way of giving plants a boost.

worm factory 360 (4)And this is why I’ve been using a proper worm bin, the Worm Factory 360, instead of some manner of DIY setup – the castings are super-easy to harvest. My first boss as a gardener had a DIY worm bin in a large tupperware, and on the first rainy day of the year, she had us spend a very long few hours harvesting the castings. It went like this: pick out worms, one by one by one, and after two hours of tedious worm-picking, my boss was able to use the harvested castings in her containers. I am tired just thinking about it.

But a proper worm bin has three or four levels, so as the lower levels fill up with worm castings, you just start adding your vegetable scraps to a higher level to lure the worms up out of the old castings so you can use them. If you’re impatient, something like melon or pumpkin guts will draw them up very fast, and you’ll feel like a rock star when you see how happy the worms are wallowing in their melon bits. It’s not too hard to be a good worm parent, as long as you eat your vegetables and have some occasional peelings, guts or rinds to share.

The Worm Factory 360 is easily the nicest bin I have tried. It is small and square, so it fits under a sink or among a container garden with relative ease, and the flat, sturdy top means you can set a cute pot on top to disguise it. It comes in black, green, or terra cotta, and it kind of looks like a modern little table of some kind once you get it set up. It’s certainly not an eyesore, which is more than I can say about the cats’ litterbox!

Would you like to try your hand at vermicomposting? Amy Stewart and the Worm Factory have teamed up to offer an amazingly awesome giveaway: A copy of The Earth Moved to get you inspired, and a Worm Factory 360 to get you started! Just leave a comment to enter and I’ll pick the lucky winner on Wednesday the 28th. US only. Good luck!

Congrats to Karen of Le Jardinet, who has won! And if you’d like a special discount on The Worm Factory, visit this link until April 30th 2012.

Guest Post: Want Happy Plants? Feed the Microbes!

phil-spraying.jpgFive Ways To Improve The Health And Diversity Of Your Soil Food Web: A guest post by Phil Nauta, The Smiling Gardener. Most of the work in our gardens is done by the “soil food web.” If you’re not familiar with this term, it refers to the inhabitants of the soil, including plants and animals, and importantly (the very, very tiny) microorganisms. They do the work, and us gardeners are really just helpers. All of these soil dwellers manipulate the soil so it can support life. They also feed and protect plants. In fact, microorganisms play many vital roles, and there can be a billion of them in a gram of healthy soil. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have healthy soil, especially when we’re starting out, and without them, our garden gravitates toward being a desert, which is happening on much of our agricultural land. In fact, in most places where humans have spent some time, the health of the soil has gone downhill, but fortunately, we can move our garden back toward a lush paradise. A lot can be said about exactly what these organisms do for us, but I want to jump right into how to make sure they’re in our soil. While it’s less than ideal to bring in external inputs when we’re trying to be as sustainable as possible, our gardens often just need a little help at the beginning to move back toward a state of microbial abundance.

Here, therefore, are five ways to improve the health and diversity of your soil food web.

1. Compost. I know you already know about this one, but I have to list it first because it’s arguably the most important. We know compost brings in crucial organic matter to our soil as well as a broad array of nutrients, but just as important are the microorganisms. It needs to be well-made, aerobic compost in order to bring in aerobic microbes, which tend to be the most beneficial. You can make it yourself outside in a big pile, or even inside with earthworms. In the meantime, you can get it from the garden center. Action Step: Apply one-fourth to one-half inch of quality compost to your gardens this spring and/or fall. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually more than enough. 2. Compost tea. Compost tea has been made for centuries by putting some compost or manure into a pail of water for a few days, stirring occasionally, and applying it to the soil and plants as a fertilizer. Nowadays, we often add some microbe foods to feed the microorganisms, and aerate the water to give them oxygen and physically pull them from the compost. If done properly, this yields a vast number of diverse, beneficial, aerobic microbes that can be applied to the soil much less expensively/faster than compost, and can also be applied to the leaves which need to have these microbes, too. Making good compost tea requires some knowledge, so be sure to research before getting into it. Action Step: If you’re interested in this topic, read ‘Teaming With Microbes’ (note from Gen: this book changed my gardening life!), ‘Compost Tea Making’ and the more detailed ‘Compost Tea Brewing Manual’ before getting started. 3. Leaf mold. Every year, I watch gardeners rake their leaves to the curb for the city to take them away. Then some of them buy it back in the spring as “leaf mold,” which is just leaves that have been piled up and partially broken down largely by fermenting microbes, which is why it smells kind of like a brewery. In most climates, the leaves would have been better left right in the gardens over the winter (sometimes people in wetter climates don’t want too many leaves piled up because it can promote slugs and other pests). But if you have extra leaves, you can rake them into a pile to make your own leaf mold, which can be applied in the spring as a terrific mulch that’s loaded with beneficial fermenting microbes. Action Step: This fall, keep most of your leaves in your gardens or mow them right onto the lawn. If you have extra, compost them or make leaf mold. 4. Effective Microorganisms (EM). It’s not as well known in North America as in Asia and many other countries, but EM has been used successfully since the early 80s to inoculate plants, compost and soil with beneficial fermenting microbes, including some of the organisms in leaf mold. Whereas with compost tea we try to get tens of thousands of different species of microbes, EM contains only 5-20 specific microbes (plus perhaps a couple hundred wild ones) that just happen to be incredibly important in the garden. You can’t find it in most garden centers, but you can buy it online as ‘effective microorganisms’ or ‘efficient microbes’ for $15-$30. Sometimes the results are quite amazing. It’s easier to use EM than compost tea. Action Step: Get some EM and apply it this year – to your soil, compost and especially plant leaves – with a watering can or sprayer. It’s best used regularly, such as monthly. 5. Mycorrhizal fungi. These special fungi form relationships with the roots of over 95% of plants. They bring water and nutrients to plants in exchange for food from the plants. This symbiotic relationship is vital for optimal plant health. They should already be in our gardens, but as with many important organisms, they often aren’t. You can buy them as a granule or powder that is best applied at planting/seeding time when you can actually get it down into the soil near the roots, since this is where the relationship occurs. The powder can also be watered into porous soils. A good product will have several different species of fungi. Some garden centers carry it, but again, you can buy it online. Action Step: Get some mycorrhizal fungi and apply it whenever you plant and seed this year. As long as you keep the fungi happy (proper watering, no chemicals, no tilling), you don’t have to apply it again. I’m very much into creating self-sufficient gardens that don’t require external inputs in the long run, but if you live in an area that has seen much human activity, it’s often necessary to bring the soil back to more of a balanced state, not only nutritionally, but also in terms of the actual inhabitants of the soil. As our gardens age, if we’ve focused on creating a proper ecosystem, they will largely take care of themselves. But in the beginning, these five methods are exceptionally helpful to achieve balance more quickly. Phil Nauta is a SOUL Certified Organic Land Care Professional and author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally’, to be released by Acres U.S.A. this spring. He has taught for Gaia College and been a director for The Society For Organic Urban Land Care. He had been an organic landscaper and ran an organic fertilizer business before starting his organic gardening site to teach others what he has learned.

Thick Rind on Meyer Lemons: How to Fix It

thick-rind-on-Meyer-lemon.jpgThe reason all of us foodie gardeners grow Meyer lemons is that their thin skins and delectable flavor surpass the acidic pulp and thick white rind of the grocery store Eureka or Lisbon lemons. Yet there are two common garden conditions that make Meyer lemons taste more acidic, develop thick bumpy white rinds, and have mis-shapen fruit. I personally planted a Meyer lemon about five years ago for a client, and she called me recently to ask what variety of lemon I’d planted for her, because she’d thought Meyer lemons were supposed to have a thin skin. When I went to inspect the lemon, sure enough, the lemons had 1/2-inch thick rinds with an acidic flavor, instead of the thin skins and floral flavor of a Meyer. Since I’d gotten the tree from a reputable nursery, I was pretty sure it truly was a Meyer. But why then were the rinds so odd? A little research turned up the answer.

There are two things that cause thick rinds in Meyer lemons:

Too much nitrogen. Nitrogen is indicated by the first number on your fertilizer bag, and it’s responsible for the green leafy growth of plants. If you’ve been topdressing your garden with manure, or have been using an all-purpose fertilizer in the garden, your lemon tree may have more nitrogen than it needs. While lemon trees often show signs of nitrogen deficiency, which is to say pale yellow leaves, it’s important to make sure you’re not over-feeding with nitrogen as that can cause lush growth that is attractive to pests, as well as deformed fruit, thick rinds, and a lack of juice. Too little phosphorus. Phosphorus is the second number on the fertilizer bag, and it helps plants create flowers and fruit, as well as healthy roots. The symptoms of too little phosphorus on a citrus plant are the same as for excess nitrogen – bumpy thick rinds, acidic flavor, and not much juice in the pulp.

How to fix this:

Because the symptoms of excess nitrogen are made worse by having a lack of phosphorus in the soil, it’s often a good idea to start by applying bone meal to the dripline of the plant – the area of the soil around the outer edges of the leaves. Bone meal is a slow-release form of fertilizer that is organic and natural. It’s also wise to be careful in applying nitrogen to your lemon tree. While lemons do need nitrogen, don’t apply so much that the growth is super-lush and super-deep green. Manure’s a great thing to use elsewhere in the garden, but skip it under your lemon tree. Of course, the best route to take is to get a soil test before applying anything. I found a source for an inexpensive soil test, and I explain how and why to soil test in that article. The soil test may save you money and prevent a lot of trial and error, and it’s only about $15. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Cheap Soil Testing: How and Why To Do It

soil-testing.jpgOne of the best things about writing for this site is that occasionally, other gardeners will write in with their excellent garden tips. This was the case with Kathy Ormiston, a landscape designer and landscape gardener in the San Francisco Bay Area (south bay region). Kathy was kind enough to share a tip about an extremely inexpensive soil test that she has done via mail from the University of Massachusetts. How cheap is cheap? Ten. Dollars. Seriously, people, if you get a soil test, and find out that you’re cool on phosphorus for a few years or that the reason your such-and-such keeps keeling is that your pH is all wonky, then you just saved the cost of the test.

Here’s how soil testing works:

You decide which areas you’d like to test. Sunny and shady areas deserve separate tests, and sloping areas can have different values than flat spots. If you’ve been gardening for a bit, you probably have an idea of whether your soil varies a lot in different areas. You’ll want a new soil test for each distinct type of soil you suspect you have. [Read more...]

Worm Compost: A Fictional FAQ for Vermicomposting

compostbumpersticker.jpgI’ve gotten a few questions lately about vermicomposting -composting in a small bin using worms. Folks seem to know that worm castings rock, and they are really expensive to buy. Other folks want worms for fishing. And still others just want a simple way of keeping their veggie scraps out of the landfill. So I made up a “Frequently Asked Questions” list here. No, nobody’s asked me these exact questions. But they should! So I went ahead and answered them for you. You are very welcome. (the photo above is of a bumper sticker I found online. So cool!)

Why vermicompost?

My answer to this has three components.
  • I like worms.
  • I like compost.
  • I think it’s cool to have an effective way of composting kitchen scraps that doesn’t take up much room. Most small-scale home composters don’t seem to work that well. (I do like some of the tumbler-style ones, but the Darth Vader heads – you can’t really get in there with your shovel to mix it up, so the stuff doesn’t break down.) Worms work.
worm compost bin [Read more...]

The GroundHog Rake: A Video Review, and Why I Love it for Mulching

GroundHogRakeHead.jpgThis time of year, I’m adding a fresh layer of bark mulch to many of my gardens to hold moisture in and keep the weeds down. Right now it’s especially easy to do because the plants are still small from winter dormancy, so I can spread it out without having to bend and wiggle to tuck mulch in between all the crazy exuberant perennials. If you’ve ever spread mulch, compost or topsoil with a regular iron bow rake, you know it can be a tiring job, with a lot of stooping and leaning involved. My employees can tell you all about it.  :) You wouldn’t think a curved head and a different angle would make that much difference, but the head on the GroundHog Rake totally “grips” the mulch – I can’t think of a better way to describe it – and the angle on the head allows you to stand up straight while raking, which both keeps the pressure off your back AND makes you look slimmer (which means more Ben and Jerry’s, right? or is that just my excuse?). I ended up having to replace all my old rakes with the GroundHog if I ever wanted to use it, because my employees all seemed to be faster than me at getting to the “good rake”. If you’re moving soil, adding mulch, or spreading compost, this is definitely the tool for you. (The makers of this rake will have you believe that the green one (The Garden Shark) is actually the rake for mulching. They are on crack. The orange one with its long, straight tines holds way more mulch and doesn’t get tangled in roots like the green one does. The green one wins the lawn de-thatching contest and that is all.) Check out the GroundHog in action:

Want to know more about mulching or the GroundHog Rake?

Read reviews on the GroundHog Rake at Amazon.com Learn some professional tricks to applying mulch in garden beds Read my initial review of the GroundHog Rake

Your Gardening Body: How to Scoop Mulch and Use a Wheelbarrow Without Strain or Pain

1.jpgAnne Asher, a movement specialist from The MOVE! Blog, has been kind enough to answer some common questions about how professional and/or passionate gardeners can reduce the strain that comes from repetitive gardening tasks. Check out her new product – great for winter time – called Clear the Blear. Here’s this month’s installment: Dear Anne, In winter, I love to mulch my gardens, because mulch protects plants’ roots from the frost, keeps the soil surface from forming a crust when the rains beat down on it, and keeps the weeds from coming up. But shoveling loads of mulch, either from off the ground if we have mulch delivered by a dump-truck, or out of a pickup truck, can be repetitive and tiring on the lower back. I find I have a tendency to stoop while scooping. I’d love some tips on how to shovel light loads like this, where the material does not weigh much and you shovel more quickly than when working soil. Tips on using a wheelbarrow would also be much appreciated! [Read more...]

Fall Leaves: Leave ‘Em and Weep

To read about why fall leaves are so beneficial to wildlife, and how to leave them in your garden without adverse effect, check out this article: Fall Leaf Raking: Finding the Middle Ground. Once upon a time some newbie garden writer thought it’d be a great idea to encourage people to leave their fall leaves on the ground. Hey, it’s got all the qualities of a great article for the masses; it tells folks what they want to hear (stay in your jammies on Saturday and don’t bother with all that raking!), and it sounds vaguely earth-friendly, which generally goes over well.

The problem with this well-intended advice? [Read more...]

Calculating How Much Mulch or Compost You Need

So your garden’s mulch is getting thin, and you’ve decided that you want to add 2 inches of wood chips to top it up. Great! But how much mulch do you need to buy to make that happen? You can do this using math (yuck!), or you can use these great calculators I’ve found online. I’ll show you both in case you’re an accountant or something and you like numbers. [Read more...]

Rubber Mulch: Where the Rubber Meets the – Soil?

At Costco recently, I was happy to see some acquaintances coming out of the garden section, until… what in the WORLD was in their cart? It looked like bags of mulch, but… wrong somehow. They patiently explained to this landscaper that recycled rubber mulch is the newest thing and would look very pretty in their garden beds. I was speechless. Over the years I’ve prepared a number of gardening speeches to help my hapless friends make better gardening decisions – “Why that cute little redwood won’t do under the eaves”, for example, and “Please stick the ivy in a pot”. “Why putting ground-up old tires on your garden bed is a bad idea” is one I never expected to have to deliver. I mean, recycling old tires is a great idea, but… they don’t break down, do they? And what about all the chemicals? After sputtering some shocked words (“Think of the earthworms!”), I went home resolved to research the issue more thoroughly and find out if the stuff is really as bad as it seems. Heck, maybe there’s some cool new processing trick that removes the chemicals and turns the rubber into fertilizer-holding goodness for your soil. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions? [Read more...]