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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Killer gardens

It was bound to happen, I suppose.

For the last several years we have been enjoying fresh organic vegetables out of raised beds we built in our backyard. The first year we had three, each measuring 4x8, and we quickly decided we needed more. We doubled it the following Spring.

Our horses supply us with a nonstop source of great compost, which we keep and age behind the barn. We've somewhat haphazardly used our compost in our gardens with no testing or mixing or science knowledge involved and we've had amazing results of more veggies than we've known what to do with by the middle of the summer each year. Everything was great, until now.

This year, like every year prior, I topped off each of my raised beds with more compost, mixed it in, and let it settle while I started my seeds indoors. Once the plants are showing their big boy leaves, I pop'em in the garden and whah-lah! They grow like weeds.

Except this year. One of our raised beds decided to reject our gardening methods and kill the cucumber plants I put in it. Thinking it was bugs or a fluke, I tried more cuke plants about a week later (luckily I had started extra seeds) and also planted beans for the trellis in the same bed. Much to my surprise a few days ago, I found that four of the six new cuke plants died and none of the beans were sprouting.

In the meantime, all five other beds are looking great. I decided to breakdown and get a cheap soil test kit to see if anything obvious showed up. My results told me that the nitrogen had bottomed out. Apparently from what I'm learning, this is common in gardens, especially ones fueled by horse manure compost. Somehow we've escaped it for the last several years.

So I called people, emailed people, bugged people on forums... I got a lot of advice on how to not only raise the nitrogen for immediate use but also I learned long-term solutions to hopefully avoid this problem in the future. I knew I could pour chemicals on the soil and raise the nitrogen but I'm not willing to do that. My organic options were to add blood meal (I can't stomach putting dried pig blood on my gardens, sorry) or to add fish emulsion (gross, but an option I'm more willing to take). Fish emulsion, it is. I found it at one of our local nurseries.

That is where I am now. This afternoon I mixed the solution as directed -- 1 tablespoon per gallon of water, and drench as you would for a regular watering -- and treated the killer bed. Advisers also said that it is good for all of my plants so I went ahead and treated everything except the lettuce (which is doing fine on its own, but more importantly, doesn't need to be fish flavored, thanks).

We'll see how it goes. I'm trying to decide right now if I should start my new seeds in pots and transplant or if it is safe to just start from seed in this bed now. I have a little more research and forum haunting to do tomorrow while I am held captive in class for six hours I guess. Other items to research during that time include cover crops and aquaponics.

In other news, I found out that the local extension office has a gardening club that meets on Wednesday mornings and they said I am welcome to come out and watch them work and ask all the questions I want. They are also going to have a training session in the fall all about winter veggies that do well locally and how to grow them. I need to get the date... it is definitely going on my calendar.

By the way, I came across some good composting information worth bookmarking:

Guide to composting horse manure

Composting horse manure (PDF file)

Forum post: Is horse manure compost too hot?

Are all animal manure composts safe for gardens?

As well as this useful table:

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