Friday, May 27, 2016

Tim Miller: Water Conservation in the Vegetable Garden

We were lucky to have Tim Miller of Millberg Farm as our free class speaker May 21st at The Natural Gardener.  Tim owns and operates a thriving CSA farm where he grows vegetables and fruits without using aquifer water (hasn't used a drop in over 25 years! Amazing!), and he spoke at length to an attentive crowd on how he does it.

Tim was kind enough to allow me to photograph his handouts and post them online.  Tim is the copyright holder of all information unless otherwise specified.  And click on the images to embiggen.

Trench Composting Benefits and Critical Periods for Irrigation of Vegetable Crops

Benefits of Trench Composting

Trench Composting How To

Critical Periods for Irrigation of Vegetable Crops

Drought Proofing Your Soil

Planting by the Moon Signs & Weather Using Almanacs

Monday, April 18, 2016

I'm Too Sexy for my Beesuit

Too sexy for my beesuit, so sexy it huuuuurts.

Caught a swarm today.  My first one since I was a kid, catching them with my dad.  And MAN, was it fun!

Saturday, a woman posted in the neighborhood group on (Facebook) that she had a swarm in her tree above her garden and they flew after her husband when he was mowing the area where her grandkids play, so did anyone know who would come get it?  Well, sure!

Many of y'all reading know we've been having some hellacious storms since then, so I was hesitant.  She said it was twelve or fifteen feet up off the ground.  The thought of knocking the hell out of a branch full of bees with a four-tined hoe and hoping they fell into the bucket I was holding while standing on a ladder that was standing in a truck IN THE RAIN didn't sound that appealing.  I'm a brave Aries, which really means sometimes I'm too stupid to realize things aren't a good idea.  Luckily this time I wasn't so dumb and thought that didn't sound smart, so we waited.

Hey! My diet's working!
Swarms are a fascinating thing.  They're honeybee reproduction.  It's so funny that we call it "the birds and the bees" when their reproduction is really nothing like ours.  When a colony of bees grows too big for the home they're in, they start making a bunch of new queens.  When those queens are nearing hatching time, the old queen takes off with a bunch of the population.  When the first queen hatches, sometimes she takes off with a bunch more of the bees and sometimes she does the thing we've usually heard of - either stings the unhatched queens to death or fights them, again to the death.  Then she makes her mating flight (the only time bee reproduction is even close to our reproduction) and comes back to reign supreme in the current home.

Meanwhile, the old queen and her followers (which is funny - she's the follower - it's the colony that decides all this) fly around looking for a new home.  Sometimes it doesn't take long.  Scouts will have been scoping out new digs since before they even left the old place, so many times they'll fly right to it.  But sometimes they run out of time and have to get out of their old home before they've found a new one, so they all light somewhere, cluster around the queen to protect her, and wait, sending out scouts to look around the neighborhood.

Once the scouts have all found prospective accommodations, they come back and each do a waggle dance for the rest of the group.  They're communicating about what they've found so everyone can decide whether they'll like this new place.  Can you imagine?  Wagging their
butts seven times to the right and twelve times to the left means "It's a 4K bedroom with a POOL!"  Three times to the left, eight to the right, and two back to the left says "But the one I found is in a great neighborhood two blocks from a supermarket (veggie garden)!"  Those are some talented derriers!  And when one of those derriers convinces the rest that they want that pool more than convenient shopping, they all take off to the new place at once, queen in tow.

While all this is happening they're quite gentle really, and don't at all fit the stereotype.  A swarm is just a ball of bees with a queen in the middle, so she's the only thing they have to protect.  Bees are usually only aggressive when guarding something.  A fat hive full of brood (babies) and honey is really something to protect. That's when they're the meanest.  Just protecting one little queen isn't that big of a deal, so they're quite calm about it all, lots calmer than I am when I'M moving.

Being cold and wet makes them calm, too.  I don't know why.  That usually makes me pissed off.  But I'm not a bee.  So today, after watching the early-morning weather forecast and seeing that the big storm headed our way was going to be gone by noon, I texted Terri and we made a plan.  A little after noon, sure enough, the rain quit and the sky cleared so I gathered my gear and took off for Terri's.

My little truck wasn't quite tall enough, so Terri's husband Melvin backed theirs up under the branch.  But I'm short.  Too short.  He already had a stepladder out, so while I was getting my beesuit on, he was kind enough to put it up in the back of his truck.  He put it in the perfect place and it was actually quite stable!  I was so glad of that.  (He helped me so much that this whole thing was an absolute breeze.  He's also responsible for the lovely photos you're seeing here.  Thanks, Melvin!)

The actual collection story is rather boring really.  Not for me, but for you.  I climbed the ladder, held up the bucket, and knocked the hell out of the branch. The cold wet lump of bees fell straight in the bucket and somewhat on me, and that was that.  I set the bucket down in Melvin's truck bed so all the rest could fly in and went to sit on the porch with Terri to wait.

We had a good visit!  I like her.  It's so nice to meet good people.  Melvin joined us and I got to find out that he's pretty cool, too.  We talked about kids and bees and grandkids and organic gardening.  They told me they didn't want to spray the swarm, that they didn't believe in that, but in helping them instead.  Man, I love living in the country where people are smart enough to not scream "KILLER BEESAAAAHHHHHH!" and grab the Raid.  They had an adorable little veggie garden in the back where the bees were, so that was a good part of what we talked about.  I'd go check on the bees every so often, knocking the branch again because some wanted to cluster back up there where the queen's scent still was, then scoop up more and put them in the bucket.  Then back to talk of gardening.

I finally figured I'd gotten the queen for sure when almost all the bees were in the bucket.  I loaded everything up, taped the top on with Melvin's butterfly-covered duct tape, said my thank yous and goodbyes, and off I went, one happy beekeeper.

When I got home, I thought it would be a good idea to give the newbees a frame of eggs and brood just in case the queen was injured in all this - with recently laid eggs, they can make another.  I tore apart the Lilith hive, the one that nailed me last year, and man did that piss them off.  Rain was coming so I didn't have time to light the smoker, plus bees don't fly in the rain so everyone was home.  Yeah.  Big old box full of mean bees.  Oh, joy.  They got angrier and angrier as I opened both boxes and looked through them frame by frame for that perfect one.  They stung me a couple times, but not badly.  I don't blame them really.  Luckily it was on my arthritic wrist.  Bonus!  I couldn't find a frame with eggs I liked, so I just took one full of honey thinking that would make a nice housewarming gift, and closed the mean little bitches back up.

The rest of the story is just me unceremoniously dumping the bucket o' bees into the new hive box with the frame of honey.  I think they liked it.  Even if they don't, they don't have much choice since it's still really stormy and they can't go anywhere.  I hope the forecast for more clouds and rain tomorrow holds true.  The longer they're in that box, the more likely they'll be to stay.  They've been away from a working hive for at least two days now.  Add another one tomorrow and into Wednesday and methinks that's long enough to get them jonesin' for some comb-makin', so they'll just do it.  The drive is strong.  Once they get started on that, they won't want to leave.  I hope.

So thank you, Terri, and thank you, Melvin.  I hope to come down to visit again some day with jars of honey in tow.  Wish me luck!


Next day update: 
They're still in there!  I just checked late this morning and saw a bunch of little faces staring at me when I looked into the top entrance with a flashlight.  So far, so good.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Potting Soil Trials

Every day at work I get asked "What kind of potting soil should I use?"  We started carrying a lot of new potting soils at work, so I thought I would evaluate them myself so I can recommend them (or not) from experience.  This is a record of that trial.

I bought some of all the "old" potting soils, some of the garden soils (since some customers keep wanting to use them as potting soils since they're cheaper, despite my warnings), and Rhiannon, the lovely Fox Farm rep, gave me one each of theirs.  I found ten large pots to put them in, planted two Roma tomatoes in each, and watered them all in with regular (not the "iron added") Maxicrop liquid seaweed.

My plan is to let them all go for one month without any inputs except water.  After one month, I plan to feed the non-pre-fertilized soils to have an even playing field.  After two months, the amount of time the pre-fertilized soils say their fertilizer runs out, I'll use the same Fox Farms products on all the pots.  I'll post photos throughout.

The soils are:
Ladybug Brand Hill Country Garden Soil
Ladybug Brand Rose Magic
Organics by Gosh 5-in-1 Potting Soil
Organics by Gosh Flower & Garden Soil
Ladybug Brand Vortex Potting Soil
Black Gold Potting Soil
Fox Farm's Happy Frog Potting Soil
Fox Farm's Ocean Forest Potting Soil
Fox Farm's Happy Frog Soil Conditioner
Fox Farm's Coco Loco Coir Fiber Potting Soil

One month out:

Left to right: Hill Country, Rose Magic, 5-in-1, Flower & Garden Soil, Vortex, Black Gold, Happy Frog Potting Soil, Ocean Forest, Happy Frog Soil Conditioner, Coco Loco.
In future photos, I'll likely rearrange the pots to group like soils together - "garden" soils next to each other, potting soils next to each other, etc.  For now, they're loosely grouped by brand.

I'll start fertilizing them tomorrow.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Organic Vegetable Gardening 101 ~ Class Outline

The following is the outline of the Organic Vegetable Gardening 101 class I teach, mainly at The Natural Gardener.  To find out when the next class will be, check out the Events Calendar of The Natural Gardener's website.


“Though an old man, I am yet a young gardener.” ~ Thomas Jefferson when he was 72 years old

“You’re not really learning a thing about gardening if you’re not killing a few plants. 
 But it’s okay, they’re not puppies.”


Most all the vegetables we grow today aren’t native to the area.  They have evolved to grow in other climates with better soil.  We can get close to replicating that, but it does take some effort.  

Making a Bed:
1) Site it where it gets enough sun and where a water faucet is close.
    a) Sun – Some vegetables can make do with six hours of sun, but most need eight to really do well.  Plants need the sun to make food, and since vegetables are the Olympic athletes of the plant world, they need a LOT of food, therefore a lot of sun.
    b) Water – Make sure it’s close to a dedicated water faucet, or run a hose that you leave there.
2) Drainage – make sure it’s not in a low spot where rain sits for long periods of time
3) Raised bed, wide row, or flat?  Raised bed is definitely best.
    a) Materials for sides – wood, metal, cinder blocks
4) Fill it from existing soil or buy soil
    a) Soil – Contrary to popular belief, most soil isn’t “bad”.  It’s just devoid of nutrients and organic matter.  Even if it had something toxic in it or a disease organism, quite often it can be fixed.  Rarely does soil need to be replaced – only when there are large amounts of something toxic in it.
6) Put a sittin’ spot out there and some Christmas lights to encourage you to be out there more enjoying it.

Amending the soil:
1) Soil is the digestive system of the plant
2) An analogy:
    a) Compost is a veggie-filled salad with yogurt dressing with live and active cultures
    b) Dry fertilizer is meat and potatoes
    c) Liquid fertilizer is fish stew
    d) Seaweed is a bourbon and water
    e) Compost tea is a probiotic
    f) Molasses is a probiotic booster
    g) Mulch is a blanket that tucks everything in
3) Texas soils, generally speaking, don’t have enough organic matter or nitrogen – it gets baked out every summer and nitrogen gets used up and washed out by the flooding rains.

Planning the layout
1) TIMING!!! Pay attention to it. Use TAMU's Travis County Vegetable Planting Guide.
2) Square foot gardening
3) How much should you plant?
    a) Don’t try to grow “X” number of plants per person.
    b) Just grow a few of everything you like.
4) GROW WHAT YOU LIKE. DON’T grow it if you don’t like it.
5) Grow more expensive/nutritious things first.
6) Perennial herbs can be put outside the bed.
7) Use the Square Foot Garden Spacing Guide to determine how big some things are.

    a) Green side up.
    b) Don’t plant too deep
    c) Water in with seaweed
    d) Water extra the first couple weeks, then ease off.
    a) Don’t plant too deep. Twice as deep as the seed is big.
    b) Don’t let them dry out.

1) Watering  – Roots need both air and water.  Soggy, sopping wet = all water and no air.  Dry as a popcorn fart = all air and no water.
    a) Dig into the soil and feel it.  Aim for keeping it as damp as a well-wrung-out sponge.
    b) Soil moisture reservoir.
    c) Long, slow, infrequent soaks are better than frequent light waterings.
    d) MULCH
    e) Drip irrigation, soaker hoses, ollas.
2) Fertilizing –
    a) NPK
    b) Nitrogen – Phosphorous – Potassium
    c) Green – roots, flowers, & fruit – overall health
3) Season extenders
    a) Shade cloth
    b) Row cover

1) Harvest early and often
2) When in doubt, just pick one and taste it
3) Wash  and refrigerate, just like fresh produce from the market
4) If you don’t know how to cook something, try simply slicing and browning in butter with some salt
5) If you have too much of something, freeze it!
    a) Make a cooked dish with it and freeze that
    b) Blanch
    c) Can it or dry it (come to Canning & Preserving Class in fall)


More Info Sheets from The Natural Gardener.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Gardening on the Porch

Have you ever seen those dreamy pictures of gorgeous porches overflowing with plants?  You know the ones - white porch railings, porch swing on one side, inviting steps leading up to the cozy sitting area with mint juleps* waiting on the side table.  They're on the covers of those garden porn magazines like Southern Living and House Beautiful, placed there by clever marketing people who know those images will take you away like a bottle of Calgon, making you want more.  You're standing in the supermarket checkout waiting patiently for your turn.  You finish loading your groceries onto the belt, look up, and something catches your eye.

"Lose AMAZING Amounts of Weight Using This One Simple Trick!"  Ugh.  "I am Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton's Love Child."  Double-ugh.  "A Spaceship Destroyed my Windmill and Crashed Into my Garden!"  Ug- wait, what?

Then you see it.  ...  Heaven.  ...  Sitting right next to the alien accident.

Oooooooooooh you involuntarily sigh as in your mind's eye you stand there at the end of the walk, imagining yourself in front of that porch, drinking in the coolness, about to walk up the path and take a seat. Heaven, I tell ya'.  Heaven.

*Y'all know what a mint julep is? It's a little bit of mint, a little bit of sugar, and a whole lot of bourbon.  Now we know what those "vapors" Scarlet kept getting really were. 


Now back to your regularly scheduled reality.

Here in Texas, it gets so hot so quickly that even if we can achieve the aforementioned porch bliss, it's fleeting.  The wisteria quits blooming within a week or two, in a month the geranium leaves turn a vomitus shade of yellow that clashes unattractively with the few necrotic blooms left, and the petunias soon follow suit, petering out in the heat after getting so long they look like wet cats hanging on a clothesline.  And if your porch faces west, speed up those timelines by half.

What to do?  Are we doomed to long for the unattainable, working so very hard for a few fleeting moments of bliss?  Buying new hanging baskets every month, when the first ones fry, in a futile attempt to chase the dream?  Not necessarily.

I'm not going to promise you pie-in-the-sky.  (Mmmmm ... pie ...)  Due to our hot and dry climate, our biggest foe in this race for beauty, we do have to work at it more than our Eastern Seaboard cousins.  But with a few different plant choices, better soil, and a little more attention to other things than just plants-in-pots, we can have a beautiful display just like them.

GORGEOUS porches with very few potted plants.
See? It CAN be done! And done well.
"More attention to things other than plants-in-pots?  But I thought this was a container gardening post!"  Nope.  It's Porch Gardening!  Gardening with the porch as a whole.  I will focus on container gardening - a lot on container gardening - but what good would gorgeous pots do if the rest of the porch looks tired?  Think about it - if you spend all your time and effort making those pots look great, but ignore the cobwebs in the corners, leaf stains on the concrete, dog-nose-smudges on the front door, and dead bugs in the patio light, how good are those pots really going to look?  Especially when they peter out in the heat and non-plant things are all that's left.  And since it's much harder to get a plant to thrive in a pot than in the ground, wouldn't it make sense to use the ground around your porch to make it look fabulous, too?

Why, yes it would!  So when making your battle plan to achieve that photo-spread-quality porch, don't ignore those things.  You don't have to rebuild the whole porch, but fixing the things you can will go a long way towards making the things you can't fade into the background.

Cleaning and Straightening:
First take everything off the porch so you can get a good look at it all.  We get "snow blind" to things we see every day, so you probably don't even notice those dirt-dauber nests and piles of flip flops, and your mind covers over the faded chair cushions with the memory of them when they were new.  Taking everything off the porch will get them out of their familiar surroundings that hide the imperfections and allow you to see them as they really are.  And it gives you room to work.
Even peeling paint can look good.
     Don't forget to look outside and around the porch as well.  It's amazing what accumulates there.  Even a little junk makes a big impact.  Think of just one metal folding chair waiting on a trip to Goodwill leaning against the side of that porch in the gorgeous magazine photo.  It ruins the whole thing.
     Sweep away those cobwebs and wasp nests, wipe those slobber spots off the door, and do the best you can to scrub those stains off everything, or at least lessen them so they aren't as noticeable.  If the paint is peeling on the railings and door trim and you're feeling especially industrious, spend thirty bucks at the local hardware store and repaint them!  If that's not in the cards (and let's face it: it probably isn't), then at least lessen the "paint dandruff" by scraping and brushing off as much of the peeling paint as you can 'til you're left with "Shabby Chic" instead of just shabby.
     Now turn your attention back to what you took off the porch.  Clean it up and put it back if it belongs there.  (Hint: Mud boots and bags of recycling don't belong there.) Is the furniture clean and in good enough repair that if you sit on it you won't end up on your butt?  If not, sqirt some glue in the cracks and add a few screws.  If anything's still suspect after that but you don't want to throw it away, turn it into a plant stand so no one sits on it.

It may be hard to believe that just cleaning and straightening can make such a big impact, so to illustrate, let me "show you my underwear".  My back porch after two months of neglect:

And again after 57 minutes of cleaning and rearranging (yes, I timed myself):

That time included putting everything that didn't belong back where it does belong (three trips to the garden and four to the tool shed), potting a few plants, finding a few new decorations, AND staging and taking photos for this post. Bet you could do yours in half the time I spent. I'm most proud of that porch light. It cleaned up really well.  And speaking of finding "a few new decorations"...

Think about how you use the porch, or could use it, and arrange things attractively with that in mind.  Would it be nice to have a spot to sit and read on a sunny spring day?  Put one there.  How about a little table next to the door to set your shopping on while you fish for your door keys?  I have one now and it's SO VERY handy.  If you can't break yourself of the habit of kicking your shoes off on the porch, don't fight it.  Find a little bench, staple a "curtain" to the front edge, and hide them under there.
     Stand back and look at what you did.  Rearrange and look again.  Rinse-wash-repeat 'til you're happy.  Still have some holes to fill?  Take a walk around the backyard and peek in the garage looking for anything that would be useful or look cool.  I found that double-handled pot in the barn, the round rusty one in the photo above, and not only does it look great, but it'll double as my bottom-waterer to sit overdry pots in to rewet the soil.
     Get creative!  Let your imagination run wild with things you don't think would work at first glance.  An example: That old wooden stepladder of your dad's that you really need to quit using because it's falling apart, but can't bear to part with?  Lean it against the wall in a corner and put your gardening tools on the rungs, switching them out seasonally with things like dried corn in fall and pansies in winter.  Maybe get some old metal loaf pans from the baking-pan aisle next time you're at Goodwill and screw them to each rung, then use them as cache pots (pots without holes that you set another potted plant in).  Of course come summer you'll be better off getting rid of the plants (unless they're cactus) and filling the pans with decorative rocks, or shells from your last trip to the beach.  Or put some pillar candles in there.  Bonus points if you go out there one night and actually light them.
One of these days I'm going to put some plants in there.
     Still have holes?  Keep looking for more stuff.  Get Grandma's antique propane heater out of the garage and set it up in front of the sitting area as if it's going to warm you up when you're out there.  Of course it won't, but it's amazing how it almost feels like it does.  A mirror would look awesome leaned up against a wall with plants in front of it, and the reflection will make it look like there are twice as many.  That extra end table would look great on the porch - if it's the wrong color go after it with a can of spray paint.  And that chandelier you grabbed at that garage sale thinking you'd fix it and hang it in the dining room - well let's be honest, you're never going to do that, so hang it up on the porch instead.  It doesn't matter if it doesn't work.  It'll still look great and you can finally enjoy it.

That chandelier makes me think of something else ~ real lighting, the kind that really does light up.  You've already cleaned those dead bugs out of the porch light, right?  Right?  Okay, stop what you're doing right now and go do it before you forget again.
Now that that's done, think about replacing that regular white frosted bulb with an Edison bulb - they're only about eight bucks and are fairly easy to find nowadays.  If no Edison bulb is available, look for anything in clear glass.  And unless you have a modern-style house, get warm white.  Cool white or "daylight" bulbs are too harsh and make your porch look like how the inside of your car looks when a cop pulls you over at night and lights you up with his spotlights.  Or how I'd imagine that'd look when that happens ... yeah, that's the story...
   Now go look at that light after dark.  Walk out to the street and take a good look.  Still really dark?  Well turn it on, silly! *snicker*  See if it's enough to illuminate all of your cleaning and redecorating job, or at least look good.
These and more are at The Natural Gardener
     If not, look at where you need more light and think of how to put some there.  If you have an outlet on your porch, you're home free - pick up an outdoor swag light to hang out there, one of those with it's own plug-end and on-off switch.  Or find a cool outdoor stand-lamp that would work.  And there's always my old fave - white outdoor Christmas lights.  Strings of mini-lights give a good bit of light, but the bigger C7s or C9s give a little more and don't necessarily look seasonal so fit right in when used year 'round.  Staple them up along the porch ceiling, at the edges or criss-crossed across the middle, so the light casts a nice glow on the entire porch.  If you're using the small lights, tuck them up in places you can't see them from the road lest everyone think you're a lazy Christmas decorator.  Or not - I use them year 'round and as long as they're white they look fine.  If you don't have a porch roof to staple them to, stuff the entire string in an interesting glass jar and plug them in, then lay the jar on a table on it's side so rain won't accumulate.  If it's round, prop it between two pretty rocks so it won't roll.  Even a gallon pickle jar will work.  Maybe set it underneath a chair or in a corner so all you see is the light glow and not the lights themselves.
     If you don't have an outdoor outlet on your porch, there are lots of beautiful solar or battery-powered lights that don't cost much and would do the job nicely, and more safely than an extension cord.  I've seen them in all shapes and sizes and I'm sure you have, too.  At the Natural Gardener, we have Soji Lanterns that look like those cool paper lanterns from Pier One, but they're weather resistant and solar powered, and some are even colored or patterned.  We have cute little strings of them, too - mini lanterns all in a row.  And I'm sure you could find lots more if you shop around.

Dressing Up Around the Porch:
Now that the porch itself is done, stand back and take a good, hard look at what's in front of it.  Any planting beds there?  If so, bring that soil back to life with some compost and molasses (good old blackstrap, either from your pantry or agricultural grade, available at most nurseries - a quarter cup per gallon of water, one gallon for every ten square feet or so).  Prune what's there and fertilize, or rip it out and replant with things that will really give you a show.
I love how they filled in the gaps underneath with
jasmine about as much as I love that little rose.
     If you don't have a planting bed there, make one!  Though it would be effort well spent, you really don't have to build a big stone planter box or kill yourself double-digging.  Put some beer on ice on the new porch table as a carrot-on-a-stick for yourself, then spend half a day marking off the new planting bed and remove all the weeds you can. (If it's bermuda grass: first, my condolences; second, go ahead and have one of those beers now, ...or three; third, come see me at The Natural Gardener for advice since more drastic measures need to be taken.)  Next, spread at least three inches of good live compost over the entire thing, top with some pine straw or pine bark mulch, and water it all in with molasses as you enjoy one of those beers.  In the coming weeks, keep watering that bed as if something is growing there because it is - the soil life.  In a month, rake back the mulch and go at it with a shovel, mixing in that compost as deep as you can.  You'll be amazed at how soft the ground is now that it's alive again.
     Now comes the fun part - plant it!  Plant choice is so very important since if you don't choose right, what looks great in spring right after you plant it will look like a chicken in a windstorm by July.  If you're an old hand at gardening, then you know what to do.  If you're a new gardener, come talk to us at the Natural Gardener so we can help you pick just the right plants for a really nice show.

Some tips on choosing plants for on and around your porch

Evergreen yaupons and showstopping sagos will
still be green in winter
Pay attention to bloom times and seasonal interest.  If you want year-'round bloom, or almost-year-'round, leave room for annuals.  There are few if any perennials that bloom in winter (if there are any, I can't think of them), so if you want color out there then, leave room for snapdragons and pansies.  If you don't want to have to replant all the time but don't want a bleak scene in the dead of winter, make sure to plant some evergreens.  Fluffy grasses that die back in winter would be great, too - just be sure to whack them down at the last winter minute so they grow back nice and green in spring.

Look around in other peoples' yards for plants you love.  Make sure you're comparing apples to apples - in other words, look in yards that face the same direction as yours and have similar amounts of sun or shade.  Don't look across the street because that aralia that looks great in your neighbor's east-facing yard will fry in your west-facing one.  If you see something you love but don't know what it is, take a closeup picture of the flowers and leaves, and another of the entire plant, then bring it to the nursery and we'll identify it for you.  Chances are we'll have it for sale, so you can buy it right then and take it home.  And while you're yard stalking, look for non-plant ideas, too, and take a picture so you don't forget.

Figure out which way your porch faces and choose plants with that in mind.  North-facing means shade-tolerant plants that are extra hardy to withstand the arctic blasts come winter, west-facing means tough survivors that can handle the blasting heat of the afternoon sun coming at their fronts AND backs (after it and the heat it brings with it bounces off your house), south-facing means still heat tolerant and sun loving but extra-hardy isn't so much a concern, and east-facing ... well, east-facing is the sweet spot.  Your plants there will get morning sun and evening shade, so your plant choices are wide open.  Lucky you!

Perennials or Annuals?  Why not both?  Annuals give you that instant gratification thing, but they poop out and have to be replanted.  You don't have to replant perennials, but it takes a couple years for them to get going and looking great.  So plant perennials with a bunch of annuals between them to take up space and add some color while the perennials mature.  It's the best of both worlds!  Plus, you won't be as tempted to plant your perennials too close together, something you'll regret later, just about the time they get settled in and start blooming their heads off.

Now THERE'S a porch ornament!
Use Seaweed.  Seaweed is like a bourbon and water for plants - it's great for plant stress, so use it liberally when planting things out.  It also has hormones that promote root growth, so it'll help your new transplants really take hold.  When I'm transplanting, I mix up a couple gallons in my big watering can using the directions on the package (a couple ounces per gallon of water if you're using the liquid, which I highly recommend), plant about 50 square feet of area, then water them all in with every bit of that two gallons of mix.  Hold the watering can so it showers the tops of the plants, putting enough on each plant to soak the ground under it pretty darn well, too.

And, unless it's high summer when you shouldn't be planting anyway, FERTILIZE!  Right away, right after planting.  I like to use dry fertilizer since I only have to fertilize every couple-or-three months, instead of every two weeks with a liquid.  I scatter handfuls like I'm feeding chickens, spreading it all over the whole bed to encourage roots to grow out there to get it.  I use some higher-nitrogen stuff at first (higher first number) to promote lots of new leaves, making sure there is some phosphorous and potassium (the next two numbers) in it, too, for great roots and overall plant health respectively.  Next time, I switch to something with higher phosphorous (second number) so they have everything they need to bloom like a house afire.  I repeat this next spring - higher nitrogen for new leaves, then higher phosphorous next time for blooms.

Water regularly at first, then less after they get established.  That's a few weeks for annuals and over a year for perennials.  You don't have to water every day necessarily, but more than once a week probably, definitely in summer.  Long, slow soaks from a drip system or soaker hose are best - put them under the mulch.  Make sure that water's getting six inches or more down in the ground every time you water.  Dig a hole to check a few times 'til you learn about how long to leave the water on to achieve that.  Then check often to see when you need to water again - take a little trowel out there, stick it in the ground, pull it to the side to open up the ground, and stick your finger in, ALL THE WAY in.  Dry as a popcorn fart for the first inch or two and damp as a well-wrung-out sponge three inches down at the bottom - time to water.

Container Gardening ... Finally

Container choice:
There are so many things to pick from here that you're sure to find exactly what fits.  Plastic, terra cotta, glazed, metal, wire - all have their plusses and all have their minuses.  There are some nice-looking plastic pots nowadays that are lightweight, but in our Texas heat they can deteriorate rapidly.  Glazed can be expensive, but if you get good quality that's been fired correctly so it doesn't flake in the freezes of winter, they can last for decades.  Wire hay racks and baskets look cool and are fairly cheap, but they can dry out quick (I put extra vermiculite in mine, and line them with a bit of plastic to help hold in some moisture.).

Use your imagination.  Think of anything that will hold soil and put a plant in it.  Even if it doesn't have holes, you can use it as a cache pot - a decorative pot without holes that you put a plant-already-planted-in-a-pot in.  (Say that three times fast.)  Cache pots are great since repotting is a breeze - just go buy another plant and plunk it in, pot and all.  You won't see the ugly plastic nursery pot since it'll be hidden inside the other.  The drawback is you have to make sure to dump them after a rain, and again a little later once the potted plant drains as much as it's going to.
     Or use regular pots-with-holes as cache pots - rain problem solved.  This is a great trick for us procrastinators.  Even if you are going to pot it IN the pot eventually, for now, just put it the decorative pot until you get time to do that.  Just don't forget and leave it in there for months.  Truth: Yes, I have one like that right now, on the back porch no less. *blush*  But it's the perfect pot for it and the pot's too big, so I'll be overpotting if I do that!  Yeah!  That's the ticket.
A cactus fountain. Oh, the irony.
     ANYway ... I like to get creative with my containers.  I have some antique five-gallon buckets from back when they used to make them out of metal.  They're old and rusted, sometimes all the way through at the bottom but that's a good thing - pre-installed holes!  And I have some enamel soup pots that started getting chipped and rusty - I drilled some holes in the bottom and boom, done.  My mom had an old gas tank from who-knows-what machine that she cut the top out of and painted, then set atop the frame stand from a treadle sewing machine.  And everyone's seen the planted boots.  They're so cute.

Just please, for the love of GOD don't be tempted to plant in a toilet.  Not even as satirical statement.  Really.  Just don't.

Choosing a Potting Soil:
Most people put more attention into choosing their plants than their potting soil, but that's ass-backwards.  If you have a really great soil for the plants to grow in, they'll grow almost as an afterthought, without much effort on your part.  So start there.

Many commercial potting soils are made up of Peat Moss, Vermiculite, and/or Perlite, and some have a bunch of sawdust or bark mulch thrown in for filler.  Peat holds moisture VERY well, sometimes too well, staying way too soggy for plants - though in our heat it also has a maddening habit of getting so dry so fast that it pulls away from the sides of the pot and becomes hydrophobic, "afraid of water".  Vermiculite holds loads of moisture as well, but sometimes, like in our waterlogged spring rainy season, that can add to the problem.  Perlite helps drainage quite a bit, opening up those soils so that excess moisture can pass through and adequate air can get in.  Uncomposted Sawdust and Bark Mulch don't do much of anything except dry out quickly and tie up nitrogen, which starves your plants - potting soil makers add it as cheap filler (yes, commercial plant growers use it in their growing mixes, but they also have automatic feeding and watering systems that deliver lots of chemical nitrogen regularly along with water at almost the push of a button).

This isn't to say that none of the above should be used.  Quite the contrary.  Just use them in such a way that their positive properties are a benefit and the negatives are avoided.  That means mixing them with other things instead of using them as the entire mix.  Things such as:
Coir Fiber ~ holds moisture, but doesn't get so dry that it's an exercise in futility to rewet it with a water hose like peat
Compost ~ also holds moisture, has some nutrition, and adds a LOT of LIFE to the soil
Rice Hulls ~ don't get waterlogged, though CAN dry out quickly so use sparingly
WELL COMPOSTED Sawdust, Bark or other wood products ~ I avoid wood in my potting mix unless it's so well composted it's unrecognizable, but if you have a soil already that has a lot of it in there, just sift it to get the big chunks out and know you'll probably have to fertilize more often, preferably with a liquid fert so the nutrients are immediately available even if the bacteria are busy elsewhere.  Watering with compost tea and molasses regularly will help break those down quicker, too.

Choosing Plants:
This is the second most important step in successful container gardening.  If you don't choose the right plants, nothing else you do will matter - they won't thrive for long.  
Split-leaf philodendron and purple zebrina
     So what are the right plants, and how do you choose them?  First, remember the tips I gave above, especially the ones about which way your porch faces.  Second, match the plant to the light conditions - a covered porch with lots of shade or a sunny one without a cover.  Thirdly, get what's pretty.  You very well may choose wrong, but that's all part of gardening - learning from your mistakes.  With that in mind, it'd probably be best to not buy that thirty-dollar fuschia basket that says "keep moist" on the label until you get some plant-killing experience under your belt.  'Til then, stick to the little 4" pots for two bucks or the quarts for five so your massacres don't break the bank.
     I will give you some hints, though.  These are some of my favorite porch plants:
Brightly colored Swiss Chard
Purple kale
Snapdragons and pansies in winter - they're so cold tolerant there's no need to cover them ever
Herbs like thyme and mint
Bearded iris
Citrus trees, especially when they're producing
Sweet Potato Vines
Lantana - I know, I know, done to death. But they're about the only thing still blooming in pots in July
Purple Heart and Purple Zebrina - those good old standbys some call wandering jew
Dwarf bananas
Tropical house plants, atleast in the warm seasons
Asparagus ferns, especially foxtail ferns
English ivy and it's cousin Algerian

Planting those Plants:
Why, yes, Sugar Pie, I DO need help.
Thank you.
This is the easy part.  Pick the right sized pot, one just a little bigger than the rootballs of the plants you want to put in it (more on that in "Repotting" below), throw in some of your fabulous potting soil, and stick those plants in there, filling any voids between and around them with more soil.  No need for gravel in the bottom - it doesn't really improve drainage and takes up valuable real estate.
     Before you actually plant them, set them in the pots and stand back to look at them.  Call up your inner flower arranger and make sure they look good and balanced, thinking forward to when they grow and fill out the pot.  Remember how tall those snapdragons will be one day, so put them towards the back or in the middle.  The alyssum is probably going to spill over and hang off the edge, so put it near the front.  And don't forget colors - try to avoid putting all the purple on one side.
     When you find your first placement won't work after all, it's a simple matter of rearranging and looking again.  If you'd already planted them, this step would be a real pain in the ass.  So arrange first, plant next.
     Be sure to leave a little room near the top so water won't run off.  Having the soil an inch or so lower than the pot rim is perfect, half an inch for small pots.  And use that seaweed I mentioned above.  It's great stuff!  And water in well so the entire pot is soaked.  Speaking of that...

This is the biggest bugaboo for us here in hot-as-hell Texas.  Since the soil in pots is separated from the Earth, they don't have access to the soil moisture reservoir the ground has.  This means you have to be extra-dilligent in making sure they have enough.  If you have a great potting soil that holds moisture well, you're halfway there.
     Make sure you have a watering setup that you will really use, even when you're tired from a long day at work.  Be honest with yourself - if you think toting watering cans is a downright chore, then don't kid yourself thinking you'll keep up with that in high summer when you may have to make three trips to water everything well.  Set up a hose with it's own watering wand right close to the porch, or even on it so it's exta-easy to grab.  If you're worried about it cluttering up your nice job of cleaning, just hide it.  I have one - look closely at the "after" picture of my porch.  See that blue peeking out from behind the chair in the corner?  Didn't see it at first, did ya'?
     If you don't have extras of these to dedicate to porch watering, then buy some.  Trust me.  If you don't, you'll take them off the porch to use somewhere else in the yard, and when you get home from work one day that following summer and your plants are bowing down begging for water, you'll cuss yourself to high heaven when you have to go off searching for it when all you really want to do is go inside in the air conditioning.  Or worse - you'll go inside, thinking you'll relax a bit then go water, and you'll forget.  There go all your plants - crispy-critter dead.  Even if you water them the next morning and they're not quite dead yet, they'll look like they want to be, especially after a few rounds of this.  And keep blooming?  YAHAHAHAHAHANope.  They'll go on strike until you cave to their demands and install that dedicated water hose after all.  
     Moisture meters: Be careful when buying one.  Go online and read reviews.  I've seen some cheaper ones read "dry" while sitting in a gallon of Ozarka.  The best moisture meter is one you already have ten of - your finger.  Those digital meters are handy if you get one that works, but double-check them every so often by feeling for yourself, down a few inches into the soil.     
Plant Nanny in action.
     Ollas and olla-type waterers are handy as all get out!  I highly recommend them.  For big pots, get the little quart sized ones that you bury up to their neck in the soil.  In little pots those would take up too much room, so use the smaller Plant Nannies that you push into the soil and upend a water-filled wine bottle in.  (Be sure to push them into the soil first with the palm of your hand.  Don't put the wine bottle in and use that to push them in or they'll break. Ask me how I know that one. *sigh*)  Yes, we have both of these things at the Natural Gardener, or I'm sure you can order them online.

Bottom watering: This is a handy technique for rewetting those pots that you've accidentally let get overly dry.  Don't feel bad - we've all done it.  It's just another thing we have to contend with down here.  To bottom water, just fill a shallow pan with water and set the pot in it all day or overnight.  The water will slowly wick up from the bottom, rewetting even the most stubbornly dry soils.

Since beneficial bacteria are oh-so-helpful in breaking down compost and dry fertilizer, and since pots don't usually contain enough of them to do the job well, a liquid fert is best to use.
     Finding an organic liquid is a trick, but they are out there.  I like fish-based ones.  They come in hydrosylates and emulsions and don't ask me what the difference is.  I've read about them and tried to understand which is which, but I'm still not sure I've got it right.  I do know that some are made from the entire fish while some are from what's left after the filets are removed.  Some are cold-processed while others are heated during production which destroys some of the nutrients.  You can do some research to figure out which you prefer, or just remember first-number-nitrogen is for greens and second-number-phosphorous is for blooms and choose the larger number accordingly.
     If you're like me though and don't like fertilizing every week or two, you can certainly use dry and it'll work just fine.  Again, first-number-nitrogen is for greens and second-number-phosphorous is for blooms.  Unless you're shopping at The Natural Gardener where everything's natural, look on the label for "Nutrients derived from..." to see what's in it.  Just like groceries, if you can't pronouce it, it's probably not natural.
     Dry ferts are fine to use, but they're much better if you keep those bacteria in that soil alive.  When you garden in containers, it's completely separated from the Earth.  In the ground, your plants and the soil they're in have access to the massive moisture reservoir below them and the life everywhere around them.  In a pot, the soil will dry out a lot faster since it doesn't have that big reservoir to wick water up from, or for roots to grow down in.  And when the soil dries out the life in it dies and can't be replaced by more migrating over from the leaf mold under a bush a few feet away.
     To keep the soil alive and/or bring life back to it, remember these two tricks: Water your pots every month or so with aerobically brewed compost tea, or put a couple handfuls of earthworm castings on top and water those in with some molasses water like I mentioned above.  Aerobically brewed compost tea is brewed beneficial bacteria, aerated so the bacteria will have air to live, while earthworm castings are alive with similar bacteria and fungi.  So it's like feeding your pots yogurt, the kind Jamie Lee Curtis touts on tv.  The molasses gives those good bugs carbohydrates, sugar, energy to reproduce and do the job of softening the soil and breaking down any compost you have in there, feeding the plants all the more.

This is simply removing the spent, faded blooms.  It makes the plant look better, and encourages more blooms.  Blooming is a reproductive plant process.  That's right - blooms are plant sex. That we give them to our sweethearts makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it?  If a plant blooms and sets seed, hormones tell it it's successfully reproduced, so it's less apt to bloom more.  If you cut those blooms off right as they fade, well before they set mature seed, you'll encourage it to make more blooms.

If you're successful at your job of giving your plants everything they need, they're going to get bigger, so you need to keep them in bounds.  Pruning things also encourages rebloom, so make it a regular part of your gardening routine.
     You can do a little selective pruning every now and again, taking a limb off here, a stem there, so they don't look bald by doing it all at once.  You can cut them back a little, taking only a few inches off the top, all the way around, to encourage rebloom.  Or you can whack 'em, shearing them to a chrome dome like a kid in basic training.
   To show you how to prune, I took my coleus outside and chopped it.  If you look at the photo collage over there on the left, you'll see in the top left photo that it was looking a little tired.  Before taking the scissors to it, I planned out my cuts, looking down the stems for new sprouts.  Look closely in the top right photo and you can see them coming out at the nodes (stem joints).  Look for those and if you find them, prune just above that node.  Those sprouts will grow quickly and take over, filling the plant's "body" back in.  If you don't see sprouts, just clip above a node, any old node, and they'll show up.
     Bottom left photo: poor, pitiful little thing.  But it's for it's own good.  In no time at all it'll grow back out twice as bushy since every cut you take makes two new branches.  And if you have an easy-to-root thing like my coleus, you can strip some of the leaves off those cuttings and poke them back in, like I did for the bottom right photo.  Or stick them in other pots and keep them watered 'til they root.  It's like getting free plants!

This one's too big!
This can be either pulling out the old and putting in new or putting the old in bigger pots (called potting up).  For pulling out the old and putting in new, just do just that - dig out those old plants, roots and all.  Leave as much soil as you can, knocking it off the roots of the oldsters, then throw the whole things in the compost pile so that they may one day live again in another form. (Why do I have "The Circle of Liiiiiiiiife!" playing in my head right now? An earworm. Lovely.) Those old plants most certainly took some nutrients out of the soil, so put them back with copious amounts of compost and a little bit of fertilizer.  Then replant.
And this one's too small. :(
     When putting the old in bigger pots, the most important thing is to get the right size pot.  You don't want one so small you have to stuff the rootball down in it - there won't be any room for it's roots to spread out.  And you certainly don't want to get one so big that the little plant is swimming in it.  One about an inch or so bigger, or twice the soil volume of the rootball, is about right.
     Why not pick a BIG one?  ("That plant's going to get big and need the room anyway!")  Because you'll drown your poor little plant.  Soil dries out not so much from drainage or evaporation, but very much mostly from the plant's roots sucking that moisture out of the soil.
But this one? Ahh, this one!  Yeah,
this one's juuuuuuust right.
If you put a tiny little plant in a great big pot like in that first photo above, the vast majority of the soil around that plant doesn't have roots in it to dry it out.  It'll stay wet, soggy sopping wet, and that soggy soppy wet will constantly wick over into the original rootball, drowning the plant.
     If you have a big pot that you just have to use, then pick a bigger plant.  If you're hardheaded like me and you just have to use THAT pot and put THAT PLANT IN IT!!!, then put more of them in there.  Fast growing annuals are great for colonizing new soil with roots super-quick, so maybe tuck some of them in around That Plant's feet.  But still, watch the watering.  It'll be easy to overdo it.
     I don't know what to write here since we're coming to the end of our story and are just about done, but if I don't put something here, there'll be a big old blank spot on the page when I post it.  Do-dee-do-daaaa-killing-time-la-la-LA!


There!  We're done!!
Man, that was a lot of work.  I'm worn out.  I don't know about you, but I'm going to pinch the fat cheeks of that Kentucky Colonel mint to make me a mint julep and go drink it on my nice clean back porch.  Yeah it's January and we just had a cold front move in, but I earned it damit.  I bet the three fingers of bourbon in it will keep me warm ...  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Just What IS Potting Soil, Anyway?

Potting soil.  We've all used it, but very few of us know what's in it.  "Oh, I know that!" you may think.  "I'm a gardener and we ALL know what's in potting soil.  It's potting soil!"  Okay, then try this little test: Guess what's in that bag you have in the garage.  The ingredients.  Peat moss?  Probably.  But what else?  Dirt?  Styrofoam beads?  Compost?  ... Now go read the package.  Unless you are a very experienced gardener, or are a gardening nerd like me who needs to know the "What?! - Why?! of Everything", chances are really good you guessed wrong and that there are things in there you didn't realize were in there.

Now try another little test: Tell me what all those different ingredients do, why they are used in potting soil.  Even if you passed the first test with flying colors, chances are slim that you can pass this one.

Knowing what is in your potting soil and why it's there is important.  If you want to grow those lush green house plants or profusely blooming annuals we all see spilling out of the pots on the porches in the gardening porn magazines, you must give those plants what they need to grow.  And that means knowing exactly what's in the potting soil you're using and why it's in there.

NOT all potting soil is the same.  Far from it.  Most people think it is and pay no more nevermind to it once bought, as is evidenced by the standard answer I get when asking a customer what kind of potting soil their plants are growing in: "Regular potting soil."  There are so many brands of potting soil made by so many different companies in so many different places that "regular potting soil" doesn't really mean anything.  It's like saying you had food for lunch.  There are too many variables to determine what that really is.  What's the main ingredient?  What kind of plants it formulated to grow?  Does it have fertilizer in it?  Is it all quality ingredients or does it contain cheap fillers?

Sounds like buying groceries, doesn't it?  It is like that, very much like that.  So just like with groceries, you have a choice - keep on blithely trusting that whatever's in whatever bag you buy is good and healthy, which means you can stop reading here (but I hope you don't!).  Or become a label reader.  Label Readers, read on!

Firstly, the "soil" in "potting soil" is a misnomer.  According to Wikipedia, soil is an American metal band formed in Chicago, Illinois in 19...  Wait. What the hell?! Wikipedia is ALWAYS WRONG!  Those freaking morons!  They're always ... Huh?!  There's more than one entry for "soil"?  Well ... uh, um ...

Cross section of soil
Soil is the mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and the countless organisms that together support life on Earth.  It's a natural body, the "skin of the Earth".  There are many types of soil, about as many as their are places on the planet, but the one thing they all have in common is they're naturally occuring on the ground.  They ARE the ground.  They're just what's there, what Mother Nature made.

Pots are non-natural environment we have created, so we have to take on the role of Mother Nature.  Most plants have evolved to grow in particular soils She gave them, soils with certain attributes like moisture retention or fertility, and we have to match the soil to the plant just like Ma Nature does.  Unless we just want to grow plants that are native to our area (which leaves out ninety-nine percent of all vegetables, flowering annuals, tropical houseplants, and other miscellaneous ornamental plants), we can't just go out in our yards, dig up some "skin of the Earth", plunk it in a pot, and expect it to work.  You can use some in a potting soil mix, sure.  A few handfuls to add in some good minerals and seed the new soil with beneficial organisms, especially if it's taken from that top layer, the dark rich looking one in the photo above.  But pure dirt?  Very much most often, no.

But take heart - picking a good potting soil isn't as daunting a prospect as it may seem.  Most of the plants we like to grow in pots can make do nicely with similar potting soils made of easy-to-find ingredients that hold moisture and nutrients well, doing just fine in soil that's not necessarily what they've evolved to grow in, but is plenty close enough to make them happy.

Instead of telling you which soil is best and sending you on a sometimes-fruitless search for "The One" that ends up being "The Not-So-Good-One-For-Me", I'd like to teach you how to pick a great potting soil by reading the ingredients list on the label and knowing what those ingredients do.  Also, once you learn that, you can easily pick another one when your usual brand isn't available.

Better yet, once I get done with you, you can buy those ingredients separately and custom mix your own potting soil that's perfect for the particular plants you want to grow.  Talk about freedom!  No longer will you be constrained by the meager choices at the garden center!  No more will you spend good money on cheap crap!  Never again will you be held hostage by not knowing, having to settle for whatever someone else thinks you want!  You can grow ANYTHING YOUR LITTLE HEART DESIRES, AND GROW IT WELL!  WOOT!!

But I'm getting ahead of myself (... !melodramatically! ...).  After the list of common potting soil ingredients I'll give a basic rundown on how to make your own.  But first...

The most common potting soil ingredients and what they do
(in "sort of" order of how often you'll encounter them in potting mixes, most common first)

Peat, aka Sphagnum Peat or Peat Moss: Good for moisture and nutrient retention.  Peat is the most common ingredient in potting soils and seed starting mixes.  Avoid anything labeled as "sphagnum moss" without the word "peat" - peat is the dead, decaying moss that is good for use in potting soil while "sphagnum moss" is harvested when it's alive, holds together in sheets or chunks, and is more suitable for ornamental purposes such as lining wire baskets.
          Pros:  Is acidic, so is great to use with our alkaline water.  And it holds that water well when hydrated (holds 16+ times it's weight).  Is widely available most anywhere.
          Cons:  Sometimes holds water TOO well, becoming so throughly soaked and soggy that it takes forever to dry out.  Conversely, sometimes it gets so dry it pulls away from the sides of the pot and can't be rewetted easily, the water just beading up on the surface and not soaking in at all.  When this happens, it runs "around" the root ball - across the top, down the sides, then out the bottom - with little or no moisture soaking in.  For these reasons, and since our climate is feast or famine when it comes to rain, it's best to mix in a healthy amount of other things with that peat, making your mix something like less-than-half peat.  (Hint: When peat or any potting soil gets too dry, either use an olla-type waterer or bottom water overnight to rewet it.)
            Environmental concerns:  The US gets 80% of it's peat from Canada.  Canada has a vast area of peat bogs, over 200 million acres, and peat is harvested from less than one percent of that.  Apparently learning from the Europeans who in turn learned from the past damage to and destruction of so many of their peat bogs, the Canadians harvest their peat in a sustainable, managed way - they leave enough moss underneath and at the sides of the harvested bog to grow back relatively quickly.  The North American Wetlands Conservation Council estimates that a bog managed this way can return to an "ecologically balanced system" in 5 to 20 years.  That doesn't necessarily mean "full-blown, healthy, peat bog", but it's a really good start.  Couple that with the estimate that new moss growth in all of Canada's peat bogs is 60 times as much as what is harvested and it does appear that using peat is not the great evil it once was.  Just check the label to ensure you're getting Canadian, eh?

Coir Fiber:  Good for moisture and nutrient retention, similar to peat.  Coir is simply ground coconut husks.  Coir holds less moisture than peat, though still a good bit, while not having the maddening tendencies towards extremes that peat does.  Comes loose in bags or compressed into bricks.
          Pros: Doesn't get waterlogged or quite as dry/hydrophobic as peat (doesn't pull away from the sides of the pot like peat does), yet holds eight or nine times it's weight in water.  Has a high nutrient-absorption capability, so holds on to those liquid ferts well and doesn't let them run out the bottom as much as other things do.  Due to it's high lignin content (tough, indigestible fiber), it lasts a long time before it breaks down, but doesn't tie up nitrogen like uncomposted wood (see below for more on that).  Very renewable and a good use of a former waste product.
          Cons: Not as easily available as peat, though it's getting easier to find as time goes on.  May contain too many salts - look on the package for "washed" or "desalinated".
            Further Environmental concerns:   It literally grows on trees, so in that way it's a sustainable resource, being a waste product of an industry that has been around for hundreds of years.  Coconuts are grown for edible coconut, oil, and fiber that is used to make brushes, rope, and padding for automobile seats and matresses.  The coir we use in horticulture is the fine dust left over after the larger, longer fibers have been harvested.  This dust previously had no widespread use and took twenty years to break down into compost, a fact that makes it good in potting soil but problematic for the producers.
     Most coir is produced in India and Sri Lanka, so there is a concern with the environmental cost of having it shipped to our side of the world.  It's relative light weight and compression into bricks to take up less space during shipping lessens that somewhat, but it's still a very real concern.  Also, the retting process (soaking in water for long periods of time to soften it) uses copious amounts of water, much of it being fresh water that has had salt or other substances added, so there is a pollution concern there as well.

Vermiculite:  Good for moisture and nutrient retention, as well as aeration (the ability to keep air incorporated into the soil, something roots need).  Vermiculite is a naturally-occuring mineral product made up of multiple flat mica-like flakes.  It is heated-treated after mining to make the layers exfoliate or "puff up", increasing it's water-, air-, and nutrient-holding capacity.  Vermiculite is mined from deposits all over the world, including some in the Eastern US.  As with peat, to lessen the environmental impact of long-distance shipping, check the label to make sure you're getting it from the US.  And since it comes in different particle sizes, check the label so you don't get the wrong one.
          Pros: Easily available.  Does not break down over time.
          Cons: Since it's takes hundreds of thousands of years to form, it may not be sustainable.  For now though, our use of it isn't threatening to use up all the world's stores.
          Further Environmental Concerns: Today's vermiculite does NOT contain asbestos.  For much of the 20th century, the majority of vermiculite came from a mine in Libby, Montana, which had a deposit of toxic asbestos (also a naturally-occuring mineral product) intermingled, contaminating the vermiculite.  Since vermiculite is commonly used as loose-fill insulation, and since, during it's years of operation, as much as 80% of all vermiculite insulation produced in the US came from this mine (along with vast amounts used worldwide), this was a massive danger to public health, finally showing up when miners and others that worked around it became seriously ill and the mortality rate rose quite high.  This finally led to the Libby mine being shut down in 1990.  Today we get our vermiculite from other mines that continually do asbestos testing to ensure it is asbestos free.

Perlite: Good for aeration and drainage.  Perlite is a volcanic mineral that, when heat treated, pops like popcorn, increasing it's air-holding capacity and lessening it's weight-by-volume.
     The science nerd in me has to geek out for a minute about how it really does pop like popcorn. The tiny bits of water trapped inside it expand when heated and finally explode, just like in a kernel of corn. The water gets there when the molten lava flows into a body of water like the ocean, then slowly cools, trapping it inside tiny little "cells". How COOL is THAT?!
          Pros:  Fairly readily available.  Does not break down over time.  Much lighter in weight than other things used to increase drainage in pots, such as sand, gravel, or decomposed granite, and also has much better air-holding capacity than those more dense products.  That air-holding ability makes it really great for use in peat-heavy potting mixes.  It's so good at that that a mix of peat and perlite is one of the, if not THE, most popular potting media choice for commercial greenhouse growers.  It may be (arguably) sustainable since it is a volcanic product and volcanic processes are ongoing, and it isn't mined in the traditional tear-up-and-devastate-vast-amounts-of-land sense, but "harvested" by scraping from the top of the ground where it is deposited by previous volcanic activity.
          Cons:  Can float to the top of potting mixes when they are continually flooded, but doesn't do it as badly as the styrofoam pellets some potting soil makers use instead.  (To find out which is in your soil, pick out one of the big pieces and squeeze it.  If it flattens, it's styro - if it feels more like a crunchy grain of sand, it's perlite.)

Compost:  Good for moisture and nutrient retention.  Compost is naturally-broken-down (rotted) organic matter.  Leaves, food scraps, manure, grass clippings, byproducts of the agriculture industry (such as cotton burrs and shredded landscape refuse), and many more things that were once alive are piled up and left to be colonized by beneficial organisms that rot things, unlocking the nutrients.  It is a natural process though most times, especially with commercially made compost, the rotting is managed by humans who ensure the pile doesn't dry out or get too wet, is turned (stirred up) to ensure all components of the pile are equally broken down, and is monitored to determine when the composting process has been completed.  Good quality fresh compost made yourself or obtained from a reputable source is one of the best, most natural things you can use in your potting mix.  It is the basis of all life in Nature, being one of the main links in the food chain.
          Pros:  I can't say enough good things about compost.  IT'S ALIVE!  IT'S NATURAL!  IT'S SUSTAINABLE!  And it's SO VERY healthy for your plants.  Fresh compost contains beneficial bacteria and fungi needed by most plants to live, just like how we need the beneficial bacteria in our guts.  Compost has excellent moisture-holding capacity, and contains a decent amount of needed nutrients (Dead and decayed organic matter is what plants have evolved to use for food.  Makes me think of vultures in the animal kingdom. Plants are the buzzards of the plant kingdom! They're Arizona Chickens! YAHAHAHAHA!!).
          Cons:  It's fairly easy to get bagged compost that is old and has dried out, killing the beneficial organisms in it, though that's easily remedied by re-inoculating it with the beneficial organisms (adding a few handfuls of fresh compost or pouring on some aerobically brewed compost tea) and watering that in with molasses (1/4 cup per gallon of water) to bring life back to it.
          Also, manure compost can contain broad-leaf herbicides that can still be present in large enough concentrations to damage plants.  Herbicides are commonly sprayed on hay fields to kill weeds, and there are herbicides today that can survive the hay being cut, baled, stored, fed to livestock, and come out in the manure still able to kill broad-leaved plants.  That's some scary shit, huh?  It can take up to two years of composting for these herbicides to break down enough to not be a threat.  To test for this, simply plant some pinto beans or other dried beans from your kitchen cabinet in some of it, planting some in regular soil as a comparison, then look to see if the beans growing in the compost/manure grow deformed.  If so, that compost is probably tainted.

"Raw" rice hulls, before boiling or composting
Rice Hulls: Increases drainage and air-holding capacity in the soil.  Rice hulls are just what they appear to be - the tough, outer covering of rice left over when it is processed for human consumption.  For agricultural uses, the hulls are usually parboiled and/or lightly composted before being sold to the public.
          Pros: Like coir fiber, it's a good use of an agricultural industry waste product.
          Cons: Can dry out quickly.
          Further Environmental Concerns: Many people erroneously believe all rice and it's associated products like rice hulls are imported from far away when in fact over ten percent of the world's rice is grown in the US.  Certainly some is still imported since our climate isn't amenable to growing all types of rice, but it's doubtful that rice hulls are imported in as large amounts, so the environmental threat from shipping isn't as large of one as may seem from first glance.  Many people take issue with rice farming's massive use of water.  In rice-growing areas such as Texas and California where water is in short supply, this is a valid concern.

Sawdust, bark or other wood products:  When fully composted, certain types of wood products can hold a decent amount of moisture and, similar to other types of compost, can add some nutrients.  However, if it's not composted, or the wood is in chunks that are still recognizable as wood, it's not good in potting soil.  Pine bark fines, little pieces sifted from bulk pine bark, might be an exception (maybe because they're a soft wood? Dunno for sure), but other woods, especially hardwoods, are best avoided.
     Some unscrupulous manufacturers will use sawdust or fresh shredded wood as filler since it's cheap.  Again, read your labels - "pine bark fines" = fine (see what I did there?), "sawdust" = avoid, "composted sawdust" or "composted shredded wood/landscape refuse" = maybe, but only if it's low on the list and is WELL composted, not leaving big chunks of wood still in the mix.
          Pros: Can be sustainable if obtained from a reputable source who composts it well and mixes it with other good things.  For instance, Austin company Organics By Gosh takes in landscape trimmings from professional landscape companies as well as homeowners, diverting it from landfills.  They compost all that stuff correctly and mix it with other good things for use in their retail products, including good-quality potting soil and compost.
          Cons:  Since they make such a cheap filler, it's easy to get potting soils and composts with a lot of uncomposted wood products in them, especially when they are bought at "big box" stores.  Again, uncomposted wood is NOT good for any kind of horticultural use except as mulch ON TOP of the soil, NOT IN IT.  Here's why: When wood decomposes, it ties up nitrogen in the soil.  Wood contains much more tough fiber (such as cellulose and lignin) than other soft plant matter like leaves and compost, so the beneficial bacteria in your soil will be so busy working so hard on that wood that they won't be breaking down those other easier-digestible things.  Bacteria breaking things down is what feeds the plants, so if that process is compromised, slowed down, those bacteria aren't making as many nutrients and the soil can become nitrogen-poor, starving your plants.  To sum it all up: Fully-composted wood products that are rotted to the point that you can't tell they're wood anymore are fine to use in potting soil, but if you can still tell it's wood, avoid it.  
     One note: You may notice that a lot of commercial plant growers use wood or bark chunks in their growing mixes.  Usually it's pine bark and for some reason pine isn't as bad as other wood, plus commercial growers fertilize a lot more often than we do with chemical fertilizers that have nutrients that are immediately available to the plants and don't have to be broken down by bacteria and fungi.  That's how they can get away with it - they have push-button fertilization that they use often.
Coarse Sand, Gravel, and Other Minerals:  Increases drainage dramatically and some kinds add needed minerals to the potting mix.  If you're making potting soil for succulents or cactus, a coarse mix of sand or minerals would be a good thing to use as one of the main ingredients.  Rabbit Hill Farms' Minerals Plus is a good mix to use that's fairly easily available (Get the big bag and throw the rest in the veggie garden. It helps your plants be healthier and, I think, tastier.).
     If you're not growing xeric things like succulents or cactus, and don't need to add weight to the pot of a top-heavy plant, you may not need much if any of these.  Drainage can be better accomplished by other things in the above list since they also increase the soil aeration and actually catch some of that moisture as it goes by, releasing it later - same with nutrients.  Since they're not porous in any way, sand and gravel just let those pass on by.
          Pros: Adds needed minerals. Can be cheap.  Increases drainage dramatically, so is good for cactus and succulent mixes.
          Cons: Heavy. Can be TOO free-draining and doesn't contribute to aeration of the soil, so is best to avoid in large quantities except in cactus and succulent mixes.
Fine sand: DON'T USE this
     A note about fine sand:  Too much fine sand such as play sand can actually decrease drainage since it fills up the small empty areas in between other potting soil components, making it more compact and even less draining than without it.  A little fine sand that comes along with other ingredients such as decmposed granite and Rabbit Hill Farms' Minerals Plus isn't enough to worry about.  Just don't go get "play sand" and use it as a standalone potting soil ingredient.
     And a note about "gravel in the bottom for drainage": That's a myth and can actually be bad.  There's a normal thing going on in your pots called a "perched water table", a constant-level layer of moisture at the bottom of all bodies of appropriately-hydrated soil that contains more moisture than the rest of the soil due to gravity.  That perched water table is present in ALL potting soils that aren't parched-dry, and putting a layer of gravel at the bottom does nothing except move that perched water table up higher and take up valuable real estate in the pot.  If your potting soil doesn't drain well enough, you need to mix that gravel, or better yet perlite, into the soil, not put it at the bottom.  And if your shallow pot always seems to stay too wet, then you need either the aforementioned something-else-mixed-into-the-soil or a bigger, deeper pot - not gravel in the bottom.  Here's an article that explains it in much more detail, with pictures.  And here's another page with some good tidbits on this subject.

Lithops, a type of succulent, in soil heavily amended with coarse sand.
And more lithops because they're just so damn cute.

Fertilizer: This is something that's not usually in potting soils, but a lot of people think it is so I thought I'd mention it.  Unless it says specifically on the label, potting soil shouldn't have fertilizer in it, so you'll need to add it.
     If you think it'd be good to buy a soil with fert in it, be aware that doing that can limit your use of the soil later.  If a soil has a phosphorous fertilizer in it for flowers, your herbs will be more apt to bloom if you use it for them.  If there's a high nitrogen fert in there and you want to use it for flowering annuals, be careful adding a flowering fert since you can overdose on nitrogen.
     Plus, what kind of fertilizer is it?  Organic?  Commercial chemical?  Time-release?  Sometimes it'll say on the package, but not always clearly.  Once ferts are added, you're committed since you can't really get them out again, at least not easily.  So I prefer a potting soil without fertilizer in it so I can have more control.


Now that you know what the most common potting soil ingredients are and what they do, you are well on your way to finding that perfect potting soil that's really worth what you pay for it.  Now you can walk into a garden center with confidence, read those labels, and pick out the one that you know will do what you want it to.  And if you want to make your own but would prefer a recipe to follow, you can go look through the myriad potting soil recipes on the 'net and make an educated decision.

However ... ("however"'s like "but", isn't it? And there's always a "but" ... ) just like cooking, a good box-mix or recipe is so subjective - one person's to-die-for pancake mix or soup recipe is another's BLECH!  My potting soil recipe works great for my houseplants, but it'll kill my more-devoted-and-regular-watering friend Janice's, or at least give her fungus gnats.  Ick.  You can certainly make a much more informed decision on which recipe to use now that you know the usual ingredients, but even so (there's that "but" again) sometimes those recipes don't turn out like you thought they would (Peppermint Cake, I'm looking at you...).

Wouldn't it be better if you could make up your own recipe and custom-blend your own soil that fits you perfectly?  To never have to go without because you're cooking from scratch with easy-to-fnd ingredients?  Why, yes it would!  And here we go...

Making your own potting soil

Generally speaking, most things we grow in pots - vegetables, annuals, and tropicals - are heavy feeders that like a moisture-rententive soil that doesn't dry out quickly and hangs on to that water for a good while, staying rather moist but still fluffy with air.  That doesn't mean constantly soggy wet without much air in it.  The only things that like that are water lilies and bog plants.  It means somewhere in the middle of soggy wet and popcorn fart dry - "like a well wrung-out sponge" is a good goal to aim for.

Think of it this way: "Soggy wet" = all water and no air.  "Popcorn fart dry" = all air and no water.  Plants' roots need air and water both, so aim for the middle.  Use the ingredients that will give you a nice mix of both air and water, and you'll do well.  From that point you can adjust up or down for plants that need more or less of either, things like cactus or ferns.

From the list above pick out which ingredients sound like they'll give you that good mix of air and water, ones your Inner Environmentalist feels comfortable using, and go get some of them.  We carry most if not all the ingredients I mentioned above at The Natural Gardener, a lot of them in smallish sizes as well as large so you don't need to buy a Number 8 washtub full if you don't need that much.  If you still need a little help, come see me or one of my coworkers at the Info Desk and we'll be glad to help you find them.  If you live too far from us, check out your local nursery to see what they have - chances are good they'll have most if not all of them.  And if you just don't have a local nursery, most of the big box stores should have this stuff, though sometimes coir fiber is hard to find there, and do remember the caution about using their bagged manure composts.

Once you get your purchases home, it's time to get cooking!  As a starting place, think back to what potting soils that worked for you looked like, or take a look at some potting soils in pots you have now that are doing well.  How many white specks are in them?  And which kind of white specks - sort-of-round like styrofoam beads (perlite) or kinda' flat and shiny like itty bitty shards of glass (vermiculite)?  Are there any particles in there that don't look like peat, but look more like compost?  Or coir fiber?  Do you still have the bag so you can read what's in it?

Use those memories and findings as a guide.  Since they will be the bulk of your mix, pour any peat, coir, or compost you'll be using into your mixing tub first.  Next add in small amounts of vermiculite, perlite, and/or other ammendments, mixing as you go, until you get something that looks like the good potting soil you've used before.  If you're growing herbs, succulents, or cactus, now's the time to add a bunch of coarse sand or mineral mix - a little for herbs, more for succulents, and a lot for cactus.  Don't worry too much about getting too much or too little of something.  You probably won't, and if it ends up that you did, just fix it later, unpotting that plant and mixing in more of what you think it needs.  You'll learn from that and can adjust next time you mix up more.

Measure out the amounts and write it down for the future if you want.  Or not - I usually "mix by the seat of my pants", adding things until it looks and feels about right, and it usually ends up just fine.

Voila!  You just made your own potting soil!  Yes, it really is that easy.  Over time, just like cooking, you'll refine your "recipe" until it's absolutely perfect.  You'll get to know the properties of the mixes you make intimately and can customize them for any type of plant you want to grow, perfecting it all until your plants thrive, growing bigger and healthier and more gorgeous than before.  The container gardening world really will be your oyster then, and that's when you'll start finding a lot of pretty pearls a lot more often.


Further Notes
Here are a few more things I've found helpful, and hopefully you will, too.


A note about storing all this stuff:  An attractive way to store your ingredients and even your mixed soil is in galvanized trash cans.  They're rain-proof, squirrel-proof, and usually fit right under your potting table!  Even if they don't fit under it, they'll look good sitting next to it.

If you're a buy-small-bags-of-ingredients kind of person, just one of the big thirty-or-so-gallon ones will hold all of them and probably even have room left over for a bag of extra home-mixed soil.  But buy two anyway.  You'll thank me later when you use the second to store things vermin like to get into, like corn meal and bird seed.  Man, that stuff's rat crack, so you'll definitely want to keep it in something they can't chew through.  Get extras of different sizes for pine straw, empty pots, tools, used potting soil, extra compost, and yes, even trash.  They're not expensive.  Not as cheap as plastic, but plastic doesn't last anywhere near as long as galvanized does so you'll be way ahead in the long run.  Plus, plastic cans aren't rat proof.  

You can save an empty mulch bag and turn it inside out to store your home-mixed soil in.  They're usually white on the inside, which would then be the outside, so you can write what's inside it outside it with a magic marker, even writing out the recipe you used to mix it.  Nifty!  Those mulch bags are made to be TOUGH, so they'll last longer than a garbage bag.  And it keeps another one out of the landfill.


Seed Starting Mix: If you think the potting soils we've been talking about mixing sound like most seed starting mixes, you're right.  The only differences I've come across between the two are that the seed mixes are usually sifted to be finer with no chunkies to squash your seed babies and they rarely if ever contain much if any fertilizer.  So yes, you can mix your own seed starting mix, too!  And cutting mix!  And rooting mix!  And everything else mix!  Any kind of gardening mix you can think of, you can mix yourself.  Really.  Just make an extra-moisture-retentive-but-still-well-aerated potting soil, sift it, and there ya' go.  

A note on sifting: Some coir fiber and compost can be a bit chunky for even regular potting soil, so it helps to sift out those big chunks first.  You can buy pre-made compost sifters or make a simple one yourself out of boards and small-holed mesh wire like hardware cloth.  
Mine is made to sit atop a wheelbarrow - its simply a bottomless "box" made of 1x4 boards nailed together on edge (in the shape of a capital H with an extra horizontal in there) and hardware cloth stapled to the bottom.  The boards running along two sides are long enough to set it on top of a wheelbarrow and be grabbed and shaken back and forth to sift.  It looks a lot like the one the people are using in the picture at left, only mine has "handles" on two sides, not just one like theirs.  It's just like this commercially-made one from Amazon for fifty bucks, only mine's a lot cheaper.

The way you use it is pour in some coir fiber and push it around on the wire, back and forth, shaking it some so that they fines fall through into the wheelbarrow.  You can use it like the people in the picture are doing, too, though that works better for sifting compost or regular old dirt - lean it against something, pour your compost or soil at the top so that the fines will fall through and the large chunks and rocks will roll to the bottom of the sifter.  If you need to catch the sifted stuff, put a tarp or shallow pan under it.


Match up the soil to the type of plants you're growing and to the kind of waterer you are.

"Wait. What?  What kind of waterer I am?"  Yep.  If you're a chronic underwaterer like me, then you're gonna' need a more moisture-retentive soil, maybe something with extra vermiculite in it to keep it from drying out before you get around to watering again.  However, if you're a chronic overwaterer who just lives to visit their plants every day and can't refrain from loving on them with water every time, you'll probably do better with something with more drainage, like with extra perlite or rice hulls in it.

Not sure which one you are?  Think about all the plants you've killed.  (Don't feel bad. We've all done it.  Besides, like I always say: it's okay 'cause they're not puppies.)  Think back to see if you saw leathery yellow leaves or brown crispy ones - yellow means too much water while brown means not enough.  DON'T GO BY WILTING.  Wilting is a sign of stress, NOT DRYNESS.  A plant will wilt just as often from too much water as not enough.  It'll also wilt from stress from transplanting, or even just being too hot.  My peppers do this every summer and even though I KNOW better, I still get the urge to water them every time I see that.  So I just don't look at them between 1 and 9pm. *snicker*


Something else to take into consideration: Indoors or out?  If this potting soil will be for pots kept indoors, then just make one that's fairly moisture-retentive so the water doesn't often leak out onto your floor and you're done.  If it's for pots that will be outdoors, you've got one more thing to think of: the vagaries of weather.  Add in enough drainage-inducing ingredients so that flooding rains don't waterlog your pots, and enough moisture-rententive things so that you're not watering twice a day in summer.  Finding the mix that does that well takes some practice and experimentation (and a lot more plant killing - remember, NOT puppies - NOT puppies), but you'll figure it out.

On using "used" potting soil: Do it!  If the plant that used to be in it didn't die of some contagious pest or disease, go for it.  No sense in letting it go to waste.  If it makes you feel better, you can bake it (yes, in the oven) for half an hour at 200 degrees F.  Do be warned that it can stink up the house, so do it on a nice day when you can open the windows.  

The plants that grew in it before did take out some nutrients that'll need putting back, so amend appropriately.  And if that old soil looks like it contains too much of something like peat, add in something else to counteract that.  If you have your own stash of compost, vermiculite, et al, it'll be a cakewalk.  I add compost to enliven it as a matter of course, and don't use it for planting anything rare or sentimental, just in case.  


Now, get out there and go for it.  
And Happy Potting!

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