At the risk of alienating some of my readers I make the following statement, “I do not use any chemical pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides on my garden, but I do use some chemical fertilizers.” I use chemical fertilizers as part of what I like to think of as a balanced approach to soil amendment. Some people will only use organic methods of soil amendment, while other people think that organic growing is a waste of money and is more of a philosophical statement than an actual gardening method. Let me explain my reasoning for a balanced approach to soil amendment and then you can decide if you think it makes sense or not. Here are my reasons for using both natural and chemical soil amendments in my garden.
Reason 1: You can’t raise food without putting nutrients back in the soil.
Everything that grows in your garden represents nutrients that have been taken out of the soil. If you save every non-edible part of the plants that grow in your garden and all of the peels, cobs, rinds, etc from the food that you harvest; and compost all of that and return it to the soil; you will still be removing the nutrients that are contained in the food that you eat. You can rotate your crops so that you plant legumes that add nitrogen back into the soil, but this alone will not be enough to make up for the nutrients that you remove. You can bring in outside organic materials and compost them, as I do; but consider this. My garden is about 3000 square feet. To cover my garden with a three inch layer of compost would require about 750 cubic feet of compost. This would be a 10 foot by 10 foot pile that is 7 ½ feet tall. And since organic material shrinks down by as much as 75% as it decomposes, this means that I would have to start off with as much as 3000 cubic feet of compostable material. Who has the time to do this? So the alternative is that you have to bring in some kind of concentrated soil amendment to add to your garden, which brings us to fertilizer.
Reason 2: Organic fertilizers are not all that organic
So I think I’ve made a reasonable case for having to add some kind of amendments to the soil, but the question is, “What kinds of amendments?” Many people who follow the totally organic method of gardening use natural sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Some people use animal manure for a balanced fertilizer. Blood meal is often used as a good source of nitrogen; bone meal and rock phosphate are used as sources of phosphorus; and hardwood ashes or granite dust can help provide potassium. Let me address these one at a time and tell you my feelings on each of them.
I use manure on my garden, but only the manure that I rake up out of my goat pen. I am about to get back into raising chickens, and I will also use their manure in my compost pile. I don’t buy manure. The bagged manure that you buy at garden centers and big box stores is usually packaged and sold from feedlot operations. The cattle that produce this manure have been injected with steroids and antibiotics. They have been treated with worm medicine and sprayed for ticks and flies. They have also been fed large amounts of salt to increase their weight by water retention. All of this stuff finds its way into the animal’s manure. Doesn’t sound all that healthy or organic to me. If you are going to use manure I would suggest that you use manure from unvaccinated, grass fed animals only. Ditto to everything above as it applies to factory raised chickens also.
If you have a neighbor that ranges cattle you can get some good manure from them but be sure that you compost it in a good hot compost bed to kill the grass seeds. I made the mistake of gathering up a truck load of manure from one of my neighbor’s pastures and throwing it straight onto my garden without composting it. I am still fighting Bermuda grass ten years later.
Blood Meal and Bone Meal
Both blood meal and bone meal are by-products of the slaughter house. The animals that are slaughtered are typically raised in industrial animal operations. This means steroids, growth hormones, antibiotics, etc. All of these unnatural products make their way into the blood and bones of the animals before they are slaughtered. Again, this doesn’t sound healthy or organic to me.
I have no problem with rock phosphate. Rock phosphate is a mined product that contains about 20% phosphorous whereas the phosphorous in chemical fertilizer is also a mined product that has been chemically treated to extract a more concentrated phosphorous from it.
I have no problem with granite dust as a source of potassium. Well, I do have one problem. If you don’t have access to some kind of free granite dust, it can get pretty pricey. A bag of granite dust costs about $25.00. If applied at the recommended rate, and depending of the condition of your soil, this will treat about 500 sq, ft of garden. For me, that would be about $150 to amend my entire garden. That’s not horribly expensive, but it is a little steep. One advantage of granite dust is that it releases the potassium slowly, so you don’t have to make an application every year.
Hardwood ash can contain up to 10% potassium, and hardwood ash raises the pH of soil; so it is a good fit for my garden which has very acid soil. I cut hardwoods off my farm to burn in my wood stove, and every time I clean out the stove it is a simple matter to take the ash out and sprinkle it on the garden. Wood ash should be applied at a rate of one to two pounds per 100 sq. ft. depending on your soil. If your soil is already alkaline you may want to stay away from wood ash or be sure to balance out the alkalinity with a lot of compost.
Reason 3: Chemical fertilizers are cheap, convenient, and easy to use; but they won’t solve all of your problems.
Let’s face it, to obtain the same amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium found in one bag of chemical fertilizer from natural, organic sources would cost a minor fortune. For example, I looked at a bag of cow manure at one of the big-box stores. It was rated at .5-.5-.5. In other words it would take 26 bags of cow manure to equal the amount N-P-K in one bag of 13-13-13. And here’s the thing, plants absorb nitrogen on a molecular level. They don’t know if the molecules are coming from manure, blood meal, or chemical fertilizer.
Blood meal is rated at 12-0-0, but a 50 lb. bag of blood meal costs around $50.00. Bone meal is rated at 3-15-0; but a 50 lb. bag of bone meal costs nearly $60. Granite dust is rated at about 0-0-5, and a 50 lb. bag costs from $20 to $25. If you add it all up, it would cost about $160 to purchase natural, organic fertilizers that would contain approximately the same amount of N-P-K that is contained in one $20 bag of 13-13-13 chemical fertilizer. Now do you see why the grocery store price of organic produce is so high?
Of course chemical fertilizers are not the be all and end all of good gardening. One of the big arguments against chemical fertilizers is that they only supply the three macro-nutrients (N-P-K) necessary for plant growth, while plants actually require an additional 12 or 14 elements known as micro-nutrients if they are going to have healthy growth and production. I agree with this argument 100%, and I would go on to add that these are only the micro-nutrients that we know about at this time. The scientific study of plant growth is still in its infancy, and I would be willing to bet that, over time, we will find many other things that are necessary for healthy plant growth. So, the bottom line is that you have to do something beyond basic chemical fertilizers to address the need for micro-nutrients.
It is also argued that chemical fertilizers don’t add any bulk to the soil. This is also 100% true. If you have heavy clay soil, adding chemical fertilizers won’t change that. If you have loose sandy soil that loses moisture too quickly, chemical fertilizers won’t change that either. You have to do something else to add bulk to your soil and address proper water retention.
There is much debate over whether chemical fertilizers kill/repel earthworms and soil micro-organisms. It has been my personal experience, using the methods that I use, that I have an abundance of earthworms in my garden. I think that if you use nothing but chemical fertilizers, and if they are applied at a high rate; then this might have an adverse effect on earthworms and micro-organisms, but I don’t know this for a fact. I wonder if the lack of earthworms and micro-organisms in some chemically fertilized soils might be more related to a lack of organic mater in the soil. Again, I don’t know; but I would sure like to see some good scientific data on the subject.
The final argument against using chemical fertilizer, especially from a preparedness perspective, is that it is not sustainable. This is also true. If everything collapses, you will no longer be able to run down to the feed store and buy a bag of 13-13-13 or anything else. But the good news is that chemical fertilizers can be stored indefinitely if they are kept away from moisture. I raise around a hundred ears of corn using a total of about 6 lbs. of chemical fertilizer. I use more fertilizer on corn than on any crop I raise. If I continue raising this amount of corn, two 40 lb. bags of fertilizer would last me for over 13 years. By the way, a 40 lb. bag of fertilizer fits almost perfectly into a 5 gallon plastic bucket with a water-tight lid. After the fertilizer runs out I, and everyone else, will go all organic, but by then I will, hopefully have plenty of time to compost, gather manure, etc. I guess if I need potassium I can always bust up my wife’s granite counter tops, but then survival would probably take on a whole new dimension.
A Brief Summary of How I Amend My Soil
In summary: My soil has a lot of clay in it and it is very acid. I bring in sand to help keep the soil loose, and I turn in home-made compost and uncontaminated manure. I use a pre-plant application of dolomatic limestone, Epsom salts, and borax. I turn in a light broadcast of 13-13-13 fertilizer before planting unless the bed is to be planted in legumes. I rotate my plantings and try to plant all beds in nitrogen fixing legumes every other year. I mulch every year, allow the mulch to decompose, and turn it in. I use targeted side dressings of chemical fertilizers to boost the N-P-K content of the soil. I use 10-20-10 for my root crops like onions, turnips, and sweet potatoes, and I also use 10-20-10 for my cucumbers. I use one application of 13-13-13 around peppers, squash, tomatoes, etc just before they bloom. I side dress my corn with 33-0-0 when it is knee high and again when it tassels. I find that this program works great for me, and I get wonderful yields.
I mentioned in passing to a friend of mine that I was looking for an old-time hand operated corn sheller, and that I had seen a couple on the inter-net but, since they are made of cast iron, the shipping was outrageous. He called me about a week later and said, “I’ve got something in the back of my truck that you might be interested in.” It seems that he had come across his late uncle Wallace’s corn sheller out in the barn, and it was just sitting their getting rusty. He offered it to me on loan saying that it was just going to ruin in the old barn and that if he needed to use it he would know that I had it. I told him that it sounded like a great deal to me, so I went over the next day and picked it up. It was a Blackhawk sheller; patented in the late 1800’s and probably came into uncle Wallace’s possession in the early 1900’s. It was rusty, but not real, real bad; and, to my surprise, it was mounted on a really nice collecting bin that would funnel the shelled corn kernels into a waiting bucket. I dissembled the sheller, worked it over with a wire brush, oiled it good, replaced a couple of bolts, and re-mounted it on the collecting bin. The collecting bin itself was very well crafted (uncle Wallace had been carpenter), and all I had to do was repair a broken leg and give it a good coat of paint.
Shelling corn by hand is a pain, and since every little farm grew their on corn for food and livestock feed, these shelling machines were very common back in the day. The way it worked was that farmers would grow a good size crop of field corn and let it dry out on the stalk. For animal feed you would carry the corn, cobs, and stalks to the local co-op and have it all ground up into feed. The corn alone was too rich, so you had the cobs and stalks ground up with it. For people food you shelled the dried corn off of the cobs and carried the corn to the local grist mill to have it ground into meal. You could pay the miller to grind your corn, but it was more common to pay a toll by allowing the miller to keep a portion of your cornmeal. The miller would then turn around and sell the cornmeal to city folks or people who didn’t raise a corn crop. There was a little mill still in operation close to my farm as late as the early 1980’s; but, sadly, it is now gone. Turns out that this was the very mill that my friend’s uncle used to carry his corn to.
If you’ve never seen one of these shellers in action, they are really very ingenious. They will shell an ear of corn and then spit the cob out in a heartbeat; much, much easier than doing it by hand. I’m going to try out a little new (for me) technology here and attach a brief video of the Blackhawk Corn Sheller in action.
Well the video worked on my preview, so maybe it will work for you also. Geez, I’m just getting to be a technology wizard. Next thing you know I’ll learn how to work an ATM machine.
One of the things that I promised myself that I would do after I retired was to start grinding all of my own wheat and baking all of our bread. I have owned a small Victorio grain mill for a couple of years, and I have used it occasionally with good results; but I felt that if I was going to grind two to four pounds of wheat every week that I needed to have a better mill. I have wanted a Country Living Grain Mill for a while, and my wife finally took the hint and bought me one for Christmas. I unpacked it and set it up about a month ago and started grinding away, so I thought I would do a post about my impressions of this mill.
First of all, everything that you have heard about the quality of this mill is true. It is super well made. You can look anywhere on the net and get all the specs about the materials and design of this mill, so I won’t belabor all of that.
I will make one comparison between the Country Living Mill and the Victorio Mill. The grinding plates on the Victorio Mill are approximately 1 3/8 inches in diameter, whereas the grinding plates on Country Living Mill are approximately 4 5/8 inches in diameter. So turning at the same revolutions per minute the Country Living Mill will process way more grain than the Victorio Mill. But, here’s the drawback; the turning radius of the handle on the Victorio Mill is 6 inches. That’s a 6 inch long handle turning a 1 3/8 inch diameter grinding plate. The Country Living Mill has a handle with a radius of about 5 ½ inches. That’s a 5 ½ inch long handle turning a 4 5/8 inch diameter grinding plate. Guess which one is easier to turn. But remember, it’s a trade off. The Victorio is easier to turn, but you have to turn it a lot more times to grind the same amount of grain. Top, Victorio grinding plates; bottom, Country Living grinding plates.
Country Living sells an extension handle that gives you a little bit better mechanical advantage when hand turning the mill, but I decided to skip right past all of that and go straight to peddle power. I kept my eyes open at the local thrift stores for a few weeks until I came across an old Sears exercise bike. This is a super basic machine. Just a seat, handle bars, peddles, and a wheel. I picked it up for $9.99, and it was perfect for what I needed.
The wheel has a hollow but rigid tire on it. I was able to use a utility knife and trim off the outer half of the tire. The inner half of the tire remained firmly fixed on the wheel and since the tire was hollow, it left a nice groove to slip a V-belt around.
The Country Living mill has a large pulley on it that is already set up for a V-belt, so it would be a simple matter to link the bicycle to the mill once I had them both mounted on some kind of a platform.
Never one to waste a dollar, I dug around in the shop and came up with a couple of old two-by-tens and a two-by four that I could re-purpose to make the platform.
Before I could start cutting and building, I had to find a V-belt that would be long enough to go around the mill pulley and the bicycle wheel/drive pulley. This ended up being my biggest expense on the project. I bought a V-belt that is used to drive the blades on riding lawnmowers. It cost me $21.00 and change at Home Depot.
Once I had obtained a V-belt, I did some rough calculations as to how long the platform would needed to be, cut all my lumber, and screwed everything together with some old dry-wall screws.
When mounting the mill it is important that the mill pulley is in the center of the platform where it will line up evenly with the drive wheel on the bicycle.
I used the mill as a template to mark where I needed to drill mounting holes, and bolted the mill down.
I wanted to mount the bicycle so that it would keep good tension on the V-belt, but I didn’t want it to be so tight that it would cause undue wear on the bearings in the mill. I decided to nail a board across the platform that would hold the front feet of the exercise bike in place and keep the bike pulled back tight away from the mill. What I ended up doing was putting the belt on the mill and the bike, laying the loose board across the platform, and then pushing the board (and bike) back as hard as I could by hand, and marking the position of the board. I then unhooked the belt and moved the bike out of the way. Now I scooted the loose board 3/8” farther away from the mill than my mark and then screwed the board down. When I positioned the bike behind the board and reattached the belt, the belt was tight enough that it actually held the back end of the bike about an inch up off of the platform. When I sat down on the bike it snugged the belt up nice and tight so that when I peddled the bike, the mill hummed right along. It was not necessary to make any kind of permanent attachments to hold the bike down on the platform.
That pretty much completed the project.
I did build a little removable platform that holds my flour bin under the grinding plates of the mill.
I loaded up the hopper on the mill and did a little test run.
It worked fine. Much easier than turning by hand, but still a pretty good workout. Speaking of workout, be sure and remove the tensioning knob from your exercise bike if you build a set-up like this. The mill will give you a good workout without adding any more resistance to the peddles.
I love it when I can solve two problems at the same time, and chili-lime squash chips do that very thing for me. First they provide me with a healthy and tasty snack; second, they give me a way to use up some of those nine-jillion extra squash that come out of my garden at this time of year. Here’s how to make chili-lime squash chips:
First, select several large squashes (my dehydrator will hold about 5 or 6 squashes after they are sliced up). I have used yellow squash and zucchini with equally good results.
Now, slice the squash into thin pieces, about 1/8th inch thick, and place the slices in a bowl.
Pour about a quarter cup of lime juice into the bowl and use your fingers to lightly toss the squash and coat it with lime juice.
Now you can add your spices. I use salt, garlic, and chili powder. How much to use is entirely up to you. Toss the squash a little more to make sure that it is evenly coated with spices.
I use a Nesco counter top dehydrator to dry out my squash chips. You can use whatever type of dehydrator that you have, or you can use your oven. If you use an oven, set it at about 150 degrees and leave the door propped open.
To get the chips really crisp takes a long time. I leave mine in the dehydrator for about 9 or 10 hours.
When they are nice a crunchy, I let the chips cool and then store them in plastic zip-lock bags.
I eat them with my lunch instead of potato chips, and they are really good. If you are plagued with excess squash, give this recipe a try. I bet you’ll enjoy it.
Sweet potatoes were developed several thousand years ago by Native-American tribes in Central America. Sweet potatoes are only very distantly related to “Irish” potatoes. Sweet potatoes require a long growing season, warm temperatures, plenty of rainfall, and light soil. They grow best in sandy, acidic soils. They do not tolerate a frost. In the tropics, sweet potatoes are a perennial plant that can be harvested as needed. In temperate regions sweet potatoes are planted as an annual. They will store for several months after harvest. Sweet potatoes grow best when average temperatures are 75 degrees F or higher, and they require around 120 days to reach maturity. The sweet potato puts out very long vines, 15 feet or more, so they require a lot of room in the garden. Sweet potatoes have few natural enemies, and they can be grown without much in the way of fertilizers although a light dressing of 10-20-10 will help improve their production.
Unlike Irish potatoes, which are traditionally planted from seed potatoes, sweet potatoes are usually planted from slips. The slips are small leafy shoots that grow out of mature sweet potatoes, and there are a number of different methods for growing slips. The method that I am outlining here is the one that I consider to be the simplest. It requires very little space and no special equipment.
First you will need two or three mature sweet potatoes to grow your slips from. You can beg, borrow, or buy these potatoes from someone who already grows their own; or you can buy them at the grocery store. Some store potatoes are treated with a sprouting inhibitor, but this only “inhibits” sprouting, it doesn’t stop it. The sweet potatoes shown below were purchased from a local grocery store, and they sprouted without any problem.
Growing the slips takes a pretty long time, so you will want to start your slips about ten weeks before you plan on putting them in the ground. In my area, slips are put in the ground from around mid-May to the first part of June. Backing up 10 weeks from this date, I usually start growing slips around the first of March.
Growing the slips is simplicity itself. Just take a wide mouth glass jar that your sweet potato will fit down into. Hold your sweet potato upright and stick four, evenly spaced, tooth picks about half-way up the potato, and set the potato into the jar. The toothpicks will support the potato so that it doesn’t rest on the bottom of the jar. Now fill the jar with water to about a ¼ inch from the top. You should now have the bottom half of your potato submerged in the water and the top half sticking up out of the jar. Set the jar in a sunny window and wait.
And wait……and wait…….. You will be convinced that this is not going to work; you will be tempted to throw everything into the trash and forget it, but be patient. During this waiting time the water in your jar will probably start to turn green. When it does, empty the water out and refill the jar with fresh water. By the way, I have a water well; so my water doesn’t have any chemicals in it. I don’t know if treated, city water might affect the slip growing process. If you are using city water you might need to run a bucket full and let it sit for a few days before using it on your slips; or you could catch rain water to use.
So, back to the process. After two or three weeks you will begin to see little white spindly roots growing out of the underwater portion of the potato. The roots pictured below are well established.
A few days later you will notice small purple buds appearing on the un-submerged part of the potato. Your slips are about to take off.
As the slips and roots begin to grow they will start drinking up the water in your jars. You will probably not have the water-turning-green problem anymore, but you will have to check your jars daily and keep them topped up with water. You don’t need to add any fertilizer or plant food to the water. The slips are feeding off of the nutrients stored in the mother potato.
When the slips are four to six inches tall and have several leaves growing on them, you can begin to harvest the slips. Just break a slip off right up next to the mother potato and then place the slips in another jar that has a couple of inches of water in the bottom. In this jar the slips will begin to sprout their own roots.
You will get many slips from one mother potato over an extended period of time. When I have fifteen or so slips in the rooting jar, I start putting them in the ground.
The mother potatoes will continue to produce slips, and you can continue rooting and planting them. As long as you still have 120 days to the first frost, any slips that you plant will grow to maturity and produce potatoes. The slips pictured below have been in the ground for a little less than two weeks. They are well established and ready to grow into good sweet potatoes.
Irish potatoes are fun to plant in the garden and fresh from the garden potatoes taste way better than what you buy in the store. Irish potatoes are planted from seed potatoes that are cut into small sections, each section containing a sprout or so-called “eye.” What you are doing is actually cloning the original seed potato. Many gardeners here in the southern United States plant one crop of Irish potatoes in the spring, save some of the potatoes for seed, and plant another crop in the fall. This will work for a year, and if you are lucky you may be able to plant several generations from the original seed, but eventually you will have problems. You see, “Irish” potatoes aren’t Irish at all. They were developed by Native-America tribes in the high mountains of South America, and this is their natural environment. When you try to raise generation after generation of Irish potatoes in the warm, humid climate of the southern United States they will eventually develop diseases that they do not have a historic immunity to. Witness the fact that most seed potatoes in the U.S. come from the high and dry states of Montana and Idaho.
Sweet potatoes are the traditional potato crop of the South. Sweet potatoes are also a Native-American plant; but, unlike the Irish potato, sweet potatoes were developed in the warm, humid climate of tropical Central America. The long, hot growing season, the acid soil, and the abundant rainfall of the South are ideal for growing sweet potatoes; and they can be cloned for generation after generation without problems. This makes sweet potatoes an ideal long-term survival crop for the southeastern United States.
Because they require a very long growing season, raising sweet potatoes is more problematic in northern latitudes; but it can be done. Starting young vines in cloches or starting them in a greenhouse and transplanting them when the weather warms make it possible to raise sweet potatoes in cooler climates. The one thing that you definitely must have in order to produce good tubers is loose soil. Sweet potatoes do not do well in heavy, clay soils. They need loose sandy soil to give the tubers room to expand and fill out.
In my next post I will show you how to get a bed of sweet potatoes started