Tips for summer success!
Written for the Davis Enterprise, May 09 2013
Feed your plants!
Or feed your soil, and let your soil feed your plants.
I'm running into a frequent problem with organic gardeners who make their own compost. They're doing everything right: saving leaves and garden vegetation and composting it, then spreading it around the garden. Then their plants grow slowly and the older leaves are yellowing: a common sign of nitrogen deficiency.
You need to fertilize your garden for good growth and flowering. A standard rate of application that I find in soil service recommendations and fertilizer handbooks is Ò1000 lbs. of actual nitrogen per acre.Ó That's a useful statistic if you know how to convert your acreage to square feet, and how to read a fertilizer label. That's a little more than 2 lbs of actual nitrogen per 100 square feet; 2.3 to be exact, but you don't need to be exact. 2.3 lbs. of fertilizer? No: actual nitrogen. So you need to know what percentage of your fertilizer is actual nitrogen.
A little technical overview here.
Every fertilizer you buy, by law, has two things on the label. The N-P-K formula, and the "guaranteed analysis" telling you how much of each of those is in the bag, and what the sources are.
N = nitrogen.
P = phosphorus.
K = potassium.
I am not concerned about P or K. Neither is deficient here.
Here are some examples of guaranteed analyses of N-P-K:
o 4-6-2 (starter fertilizer, organic)
o 5-10-10 or 5-5-5 (common synthetic tomato-veg foods)
o 6-2-1 (cottonseed meal)
o 13-0-0 (blood meal)
o 16-16-16 (multi-purpose)
o 10-1-4 (natural lawn food)
o 21-0-0 (ammonium sulfate)
That's a lot of numbers. What should you use? How about manure; is it a fertilizer?
Manure is popular for gardens because it tends to be inexpensive and readily available. It's a pretty good source of nitrogen, and provides organic matter that makes the soil looser. Manure ranges from 1 to 3% nitrogen (steer is lower, chicken is higher). But to provide your nitrogen completely with manure, you'd need (for that 100 square foot bed) 75 lbs. of chicken manure (about four bags) or 230 lbs. of steer manure (six to ten bags).
You can provide ten to twenty percent of your nitrogen needs by growing a cover crop in the fall and winter. Legumes, which are plants in the bean family, 'fix' nitrogen from the atmosphere in the root zone, helping to feed other plants. A solid bed of fava beans, vetch, or clover can reduce the amount of plant food you need to apply. But they won't provide it all.
Your own home-made compost doesn't have much nitrogen. It's a great thing to add to your soil, but not for its plant food value.
Here's what I do.
o I incorporate some all-purpose garden compost to the whole garden bed each year, spreading an inch layer on top and turning it in. What I use contains 15% chicken manure. If you're using your own compost, add some extra manure. That's four bags (2 cubic foot) per 100 square feet.
o I add a small handful of an organic fertilizer that's 10% nitrogen in each planting hole as I put the seedling in. That's about 10 lbs. of fertilizer per 100 sq. ft.
o I grow cover crops, mostly fava beans or vetch, in garden beds in the winter, and I just mow those off in spring and spread the leafy top matter around. That provides about 10% of my total nitrogen, and the tops and roots enrich the soil as they decompose.
By my estimates, that all adds up to about 2 lbs. of actual nitrogen. I sometimes feed high-yielding plants like peppers and eggplant again during the summer, simply by sprinkling some more fertilizer alongside them and watering it in. And I plant bush beans in as many little corners as I can, because they put nitrogen in the soil as they grow.
Already planted your vegetables or flowers? That's fine. Just spread some fertilizer around them and carefully cultivate it into the top inch of the soil, then water it in.
Organic or synthetic?
Organic fertilizers are lower-nitrogen, so you need more pounds of them. They are somewhat more expensive than synthetic fertilizers. But there's a big difference: they release their plant food more slowly and steadily through the season. And the plant food is in the form of organic matter that breaks down and improves the soil structure.
With organic fertilizers, the nitrogen availability is a function of soil temperature, so they tend to be there for the plant when the roots are growing and the plant needs it. Organic fertilizers only need to be applied once a season. And you're very unlikely to mis-apply them and burn the plant.
Common sources of organic nitrogen, often blended in mixes, include:
o Alfalfa meal (very low nitrogen)
o Bat or seabird guano
o Blood meal
o Cottonseed meal
o Feather meal
o Fish emulsion or meal (great to get seedlings going)
Synthetic fertilizers are higher-nitrogen and cheaper. They are derived from petroleum products. You can feed a garden bed for a few dollars, and you see faster results. But they release all of their nitrogen very quickly, promoting vigorous and sometimes tender new growth. They're salts, which can damage roots if applied at rates higher than the label recommendation, and can damage those beneficial soil organisms that help plants feed themselves. They can burn the plant if they aren't watered in immediately and thoroughly. Within a few weeks they're gone, so you may need to fertilize again a couple of times during the season.
Common sources of synthetic nitrogen include:
o Ammonium phosphate
o Ammonium sulfate
o Potassium nitrate.
"Check daily, water as needed."
Newly transplanted vegetable and flower seedlings may need water every other day for the first few days. Within a week or so their roots have made a surprising amount of growth, at which point you can water longer and less often. Water thoroughly, deeply, and as infrequently as possible. We see a lot of young plants watered more often than needed.
Be aware of special situations.
Raised planter beds, and loose sandy soils drain faster and need more frequent irrigation. They don't hold nutrients as well, so you may need to apply nitrogen a couple of times during the season. In most other situations, one application would be fine.
Cage your tomatoes well.
The time to plan for the rambunctious growth of your tomato plants is when you plant them. Once they get going they become increasingly difficult to corral into reasonable production units. Most tomatoes are what we call indeterminate, meaning it is a vine that keeps growing all summer and into the fall, often to ten feet or more. Those cute little tomato cages sold at most garden stores are no match for a normal tomato in the Sacramento Valley! Make your own cages out of concrete wire that you buy from the lumber store. They need to be at least six feet tall, and staked securely.
Don't freak out about the weather.
When we get our first day in the 90-degree range, people start to ask Òisn't it getting kind of late to plant?Ó No! Soil temperatures for summer vegetables and warm-season flowers are just getting where we want them! I plant peppers and eggplant in May or June, and continue planting beans into July. Some of our favorite flowers love heat and loath cold: verbena, lantana, zinnias are some of the easy stars of the summer garden. Shrubs and trees go in just fine during warm weather so long as you water them properly. Summer is the very best time to plant citrus trees; plants root and grow very quickly in warm soil.
Manage your summer pests wisely.
Wash off your plants regularly with a strong blast of water. This kills aphids, mites, and other insects and removes dust from the leaves. A regular vigorous shower, preferably early in the day, can prevent a lot of pest problems.
Know the good guys! Beneficial insects are hard at work in your garden. Summer gardens rarely need any pesticides.
Smother summer weeds. Weeds that sprout in May grow very fast and take over by August. Good quality landscape fabric can minimize weed problems and help conserve soil moisture.
Plant some flowers among your edibles.
Or some edibles among your flowers. Certain flowers draw beneficial insects into your garden. Cosmos and marigolds draw butterflies, borage draws bees, sweet alyssum attracts beneficial predatory insects. Diversity is always good in the garden.
For picture links, visit the original article at http://redwoodbarn.com/DE_summersuccess.html
For picture links, visit the original article at http://redwoodbarn.com/DE_summersuccess.html
The label on the fertilizer bag or box tells you what's in it and what it's made from. On the left is a typical synthetic fertilizer. Most of the nitrogen sources are petroleum products. The nitrogen in the organic fertilizer on the right is mostly from animal byproducts.
Get your cage on your tomato plants while they're still small! This simple cage system is shown about four weeks after planting. It's made from concrete wire available from your local hardware or lumber store. Ask for the six inch grid, so you can get your hand through to pick the tomatoes! Just poke branches back in when they try to escape. Note the landscape fabric to reduce summer weeds. Good quality fabric can last for several years.
© 2013 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
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