FAQs

Compost (4)

Is my GB compost pile getting too hot?

If you’ve built your GB compost pile properly, alternating mature, immature, and soil, then you won’t need to worry that it’ll get too hot. Compost piles get too hot when they have a lot of immature materials, and/or when they are turned constantly.

Is my GB compost pile too cold?

If you’ve built your pile in accordance with the balance of mature material, immature material, and bed soil, and you’ve kept it sufficiently watered and drained, then you should be fine.

A colder pile may simply mean that you have less nitrogen materials than a hotter pile. If the ecosystem that is the compost pile needs more nitrogen, then it can get that from the air.

It’s not unusual for a pile to initially heat up, and then later cool down.

Why is it bad to add wood chips to my compost, but OK to add straw?

Check out this table from Cornell, which among other things shows C/N ratios:

http://compost.css.cornell.edu/OnFarmHandbook/apa.taba1.html

You’ll note that the C/N ratio of wood chips is given as 560, whereas the straw number is typically 80.

Given that the range of ideal C/N ratios, for a complete pre-composted mix, is from 30:1 to 60:1 (per Jeavons), you can see how far out of ideal the wood chips take you. And how the straw is pretty close to where you want to be.

What does this mean? For a long period of time, the biological composting processes around the wood chips are going to be demanding all of the nitrogen they can find. And there won’t be enough, for a long time, which means a long, drawn out composting process.

So why not just put it on your garden bed to finish? Well in that case the decomposition of the wood chips would be taking nitrogen from your growing plants.

So if you do have a lot of wood chips, what can you do with them? I have a neighbor who first dumps them on his pathways as a mulch, and then after 3 years, he starts the more formal composting process in special piles aimed at composting the wood chips. It works pretty well, but it takes time and patience.

What mistakes should I definitely avoid making?

By and large, your garden can take a lot of abuse and be OK. But there are a handful of mistakes that can take some time to recover from. Here’s what I’d advise avoiding:

  • don’t use city compost. there is a risk that it has bad stuff in it that will hinder your garden growth.
  • don’t use herbicides or pesticides. you’ll end up eating some of them, no matter how well you try to wash the crops. there are natural remedies, such as neem oil and peppermint soap, that you can call in if really needed.
  • don’t put a fine bark mulch (or saw dust) on your soil, or mix it into your soil. if you want to cover your soil, use a garden cloth of some kind. if you get too much fine wood particles in your soil, it’ll impact the fertility for several years.

Seedlings (7)

How do I know when it’s time to transplant?

The master charts give a range of likely transplant times, but you still need to decide what is the right day. Here are some factors to consider:

Size of the seedlings
In general the seedlings will hit the bottom of a 3″ flat when they are 3″ tall. You want to get the seedlings out of the flat before the roots are hitting the bottom.

Also look at the seedlings and consider how “bed worthy” they look. Do you think they’ll make, considering transplant shock?

If you’re going from a 3″ to a 6″ flat, there’s less to worry about regarding the size of the plant. Yes you still want to have it be hardy, but there’s less risk than when you transplant into the bed. For instance a Kale seedling may just be 2″ when you prick it out and that can be OK.

Weather
If you an very hot day is expected, you may delay a day or two to give the seedlings a safer moment to get into the ground.

In any case, for many seedlings you’ll want to cover them with shade cloth for about a week after transplanting so they have a chance to get acclimated.

Do I really prick out Quinoa and Amaranth while they are still so small?

Q: For Quinoa and Amaranth, “How to Grow” says to prick out in 1 week. I’ve waited more than a week for the plants to get a bit bigger, but they seem stalled. For those two do I just prick out at the 1 week point or do I wait for them to get bigger?

A: We tend to prick them out while they are still pretty tiny – I would say the leaves just need to be anywhere from a 3/8 of an inch to three quarters of an inch long. Generally, I find that point is right around the 1 week point. Pricking them out while they are this small makes their little roots, which get quite long quite quickly, much easier to manage.

 

Where should I put my flats? Is this important?

It’s critical for you to choose a good place to put your seedling flats to grow. Here are some factors. Consider also that where you germinate your flats could be different from where you grow the seedlings after germination.

Sunlight: will there be enough sun in that spot so that the plants can get used to being in the full light of the garden bed? If you’re on a balcony with a railing, you might consider having the flats raised up on a table so they can get more sun. In any case you’ll want to have a full day of sun, or close to it, if at all possible.
If only partial sun is possible, your seedlings might grow slowly and not reach the normal milestones for transplanting, in which case you might just transplant them when they are smaller than ideal. For many crops it can still work, though, if your actual garden bed has enough sun.

Moisture: a well watered double-dug bed can be a great source of moisture to keep your flats damp through the day. By contrast, a concrete balcony can heat up and evaporate out every last drop of water from your flats, leaving your seeds to dry out.

Critters: will snails and slugs be able to access your flats? What about birds? Or rats?

  • For snails and slugs, copper tape–if it’s wide enough–can keep them out. Shade netting is another worthwhile barrier.
  • For birds you could use 30% shadecloth hanging from a PVC structure.
  • For rats you could create an enclosure with 1/4″ hardware cloth.

What do I do if my flats dry out too much?

If your flat gets too dry, you can have a situation where even though you water from the top, the water doesn’t get through to the whole flat.

In that case, what you can do is water from the bottom. Put the flat in some kind of larger container, and put about 1″ of water at the bottom of the larger container. The dry flat soil will move the water up from the container, through capillary action, into the whole flat. Once you see that the water has made it’s way to the top of the flat, then you can remove it.

Note that you don’t want to “dunk” your flat in water–it’ll over wet the soil and disturb the soil ecosystem.

Note also that you don’t want to leave your flat sitting in a pool of water for more than a day–that’ll create other problems.

Help! I’ve already passed the “late” transplant date for my crop, and they’re still nowhere near ready.

On the one hand, there are no certainties in growing, and the best general advice is “watching closely.” Having said that, over time you’ll get a sense for when a crop is growing normally, and when it’s not.

The time ranges given in the master charts are fairly accurate, and cover a wide range of growing conditions. One key milestone to pay attention to is when your seeds germinate. Some seeds, such as parsnips, are known to be slow germinators, but once they start then they’ll grow at a predictable pace.

So if you count growing time starting from when your seeds germinated, and you’re coming upon the early and late transplant dates and they aren’t even close to being ready, there’s a decent chance that something is wrong. I had the experience of having my seedlings on a balcony that only got 3 hours of sun on a good day, and it just wasn’t nearly enough for most of my seedlings. After many questions and much gnashing of teeth, I ended up transplanting vegetables before the tell tale “2-3 good leaves” or “3 inches high” and for the most part they ended up doing OK. For my grains got stunted, though, and I had to try them again.

The key point is this–if you find yourself two weeks past the “late” transplant range, and your seedlings are going nowhere, chances are that waiting another two weeks isn’t going to help. Something is going wrong, and it’s worth your time and energy to figure out what it is–and to consider starting a new batch of seeds, if it isn’t already too late–trying a different set of growing conditions.

What is the best way to store inoculant?

Inoculant is a bacteria culture which is necessary for legumes to fix nitrogen. Although your soil may already have the right kind of inoculant for the type of legume that you’re planting, it’s said to be a good idea to get that bacteria on the seeds and into the soil.

Bountiful Gardens sells inoculant for a variety of legumes. Being that it’s a living thing, you might rightly wonder “what’s the best way to keep it?” Here’s what Bountiful Gardens said:

“Keep it in the fridge in the jar. Also, no silica gel in the inoculant is necessary.

Where should I put my seedling flats?

The short answer: somewhere that you can control soil humidity.

Often when I struggle with germination, it’s because of the soil drying out. Once I learned that most seeds don’t need light to germinate, then I realized that I could put them on my covered front porch to germinate. The porch is almost enclosed, it warms up nicely but not too much, and it gets some scattered light. Plus I walk by it every time I enter or leave the house, so it’s easy to check on the seedlings.

Once they germinate, then I promptly move them into a raised bed in the backyard, so they can get proper sun. Otherwise the seedlings will get “leggy,” tall and spindly, and fair poorly. I find that the raised bed provides a nice source of backup moisture for the soil in the flat, and helps the seedlings get used to being outside in full sun.

Transplanting (8)

How do I do the “3 sisters” with Grow Biointensive?

3 sisters spacing can be complicated. Page 111 of the 8th edition of HTGMV (or page 162 in the 7th edition) has a good diagram of 3-crop interplanted spacing.

General rule of thumb – maintain each crop’s individual spacing – you don’t want roots to become competitive because of crowding. Also, keep in mind the purpose of each of the “sisters”: corn – structure for beans to climb, squash – spreads and covers the soil, beans – climb up the corn (choose a pole variety).

*Important*: Transplant the corn first. Two weeks later, transplant in the beans and squash. If the corn does not get a good start, the beans, especially can overwhelm the corn. Thanks for your great questions!

How long do I keep the shade netting on after transplanting?

For leafy greens, on average leave shade net for a week. But if the seedlings look droopy longer than that, I would keep the shade net on for a day or two beyond when they perk up.

Do you have to take the shade netting down every night?

In “How to Grow” it mentions having the shade netting on from 10am to 5pm. Nonetheless it’s fine (and less work) to leave the shade netting on all day and night, while the seedlings need it.

Should I water the bed before transplanting into it?

On the days leading up to transplanting, you definitely want to water the bed thoroughly, as if it already has transplants in it. Remember that we want the soil to be like a “damp, fluffy sponge” and so you want to get the soil ready.

On the day of transplanting, you can water the bed however you don’t want the soil to be too wet when you’re transplanting into it. That will damage the soil structure. So if you do water, you want to give the water some time–15 minutes or so–to percolate before you start transplanting.

Note that if you’ve done a good job of keeping the bed moist in the days before transplanting, you don’t need to water before you transplant.

Consider also the amount of clay content in your soil. If you have a fairly heavy soil, watering before transplanting will make it harder to move the soil, and lead to more chance of “air pockets” as you transplant. So you might find it easier to not water, and take advantage of a lighter soil that will naturally spill into the hole for you the instant after you place the seedling.

And remember, in every case you’ll want to also give the plants a good, gentle watering after you transplant.

Should I shade everything after transplanting? For how long?

In general, yes, it’s a good idea to shade all seedlings after transplanting, for about a week. Freshly transplanted starts get a form “transplant shock”, and so the shade netting can help ease the transition and improve survival rates.

For more sensitive greens, you might consider doubling over the shade netting for the first week, to give the greens a slower shot at adjusting. In particular if you get hot weather shortly after transplanting, consider extra shading.

Some greens might benefit from an additional week of shading, although grasses (wheat, sorghum) should be fine with just 1 week of shading. Or if you have mild weather, possibly no shading at all.

It’s a good idea as well to get acquainted with the symptoms of sunburn on plants.

How can I make it easier to get the seedling root straight down into the hole?

One way of making transplanting faster and easier is to pay attention to the moisture level of the soil.

First of all, it’s good practice to be watering the bed, as if it had plants in it, for several days before you transplant into it. This way the whole bed will be appropriately moist.

However on the day that you transplant into the bed, it can be to your benefit to not water before transplanting. In this way, the soil will be easier to move when you insert the trowel. Furthermore if you develop the rhythm of putting the seedling in *right at the moment* that you open up the hole for the trowel, the dry-ish soil as it falls will push the roots down into the hole.

Naturally, after you finish transplanting then you want to give that bed a gentle and thorough watering, and cover the seedlings with shade netting that floats over them without touching.

By contrast, if you water well right before transplanting, you’ll find that it takes more energy to move the soil. Furthermore you’ll open up a bigger hole with your trowel, and you’ll have to battle the electrostatic charges on the roots to get them to go down into the hole, rather than sticking to the sites. Then you’ll wonder if you’ve left air pockets in the soil that will be bad for root health.

Whatever you decide to do, pay attention to the soil moisture when you transplant, and it impacts the process of putting seedlings in the ground.

Transplanting is killing my back. Any suggestions?

The name of the game is to keep your back naturally straight. Once you start hunching your back, then that’s where the pain begins.

If you have flexible hamstrings, you might be able to transplant from a standing position, while having your back straight.

Otherwise, you might consider getting a small folding 8″ step stool to sit on. This way when you lean forward, your body will have much more room to accommodate a naturally straight back. It may seem counter-intuitive to sit on a small stool to better get at the soil, but it really can work–give it a try.

How do I know when parsnips are ready to transplant?

Technically, you should wait for that 3rd true leaf. The only problem with this is that sometimes root growth is faster than leaf growth and sometimes the opposite is true.

Do this: carefully remove one seedling and observe it:

  • How long is the root?
  • How big is the root system?
  • Will you be able to comfortably transplant it into your bed maintaining the straightness that parsnips enjoy?

If you answer yes to these and think the answer will still be yes in a few days, then wait.

If you answer no, then it’s probably best to get them in the ground now, before it becomes more difficult. Good luck!

Equipment (8)

Help, my Haws Watering can isn’t flowing well any more!

Because of the small holes in the watering rose, the Haws can is susceptible to plugging up. There are several things you can try:

  • The simpler way is just to unplug the “rose” or front part, from the base, and rinse out anything that you can dislodge from inside of there.
  • If that isn’t good enough, it is actually possible with the plastic rose housing to dislodge the metal part with holes, clean that out, and then re-install it. HOWEVER it’s not easy–when I did it, I felt like I was almost going to break one thing or another. But I didn’t. If you attempt this, a tip: make a mark on the metal part of which side is up, so you can re-install it the same way. I couldn’t quite tell if this made a difference, and if I got it right.
  • The way to prevent needing to do this is to only put debris-free water into your Haws watering can, and to keep the top covered if it generally sits somewhere that debris can tumble into it.If your source of water has a lot of sediment in it, consider filtering it, perhaps with cheesecloth, as you fill the can. Since I started being careful about this, I haven’t had to clean the rose again.
  • Over a longer period of time, it’s possible for deposits in the water to calcify the holes in the watering rose. In that case, you might try removing the metal part and soaking it in vinegar for a few minutes (or longer–keep an eye on it) and then scrubbing to see if the deposits come off. NOTE: I haven’t tried this with my Haws watering can rose  (and so there could be a good metallurgy reason not to) however I have done this with a filter for a watering fan, and it worked very well to get the pesky deposits off.

What’s a good source for shade netting?

Gardener’s Edge, a company of A.M. Leonard, sells a premium shade cloth at a reasonable price. Because it’s a knitted shade netting, you can cut it with scissors and not worry about unraveling.

Here’s a link that works currently:

http://www.gardenersedge.com/black-knitted-shade/p/VP-KS/

The shipping is based on weight; if you’re concerned about shipping costs you can call them and ask where the break points are for various shipping tiers.

Note that the shade netting you’ll find at big box stores doesn’t have a percentage rating, and is likely too high a percentage to be healthy for new seedlings.

What width of shade netting should I buy?

The short answer is 10′ wide. It’s a standard, easy to source size, and very versatile.

Based on “How to Grow,” it may seem like an 8′ wide shade cloth, which is sold by one well-known supplier, would be the way to go. “How to Grow” advises having a shade cloth at least 3′ wider than your bed, so that’d be 8′ for a 5′ bed. And frankly, that might work just fine for you.

However one big advantage of 10′ shade cloth is that if you want to do some early growing, and you are doing a “hoop” bed then the 10′ shade cloth will fit just right over that considering the arch from the hoops.

On a related note, sometimes you’ll want to use shade netting to keep critters out of your bed; in that case you’ll want to make sure you have that extra netting so you can seal all of the sides. And besides, extra netting can always be folded under.

So between the versatility, and also the ease (and price advantages) of shopping for a standard width, 10′ shade cloth is what I’d recommend.

Is the fancy Clarington Forge garden fork worth it?

The short answer is “yes” and here’s why.

You can shop around for cheaper forks, and get one for maybe half the price. But what you’ll find if you read enough reviews is that the cheaper forks break. Let’s face it–even if you prepare the bed patiently and use lots of water, you’re going to be putting a lot of force on the fork. So you can buy a good fork that lasts, or buy a cheaper one every other year (or more frequently). Once I understood this, it was a much easier purchase.

Clarington Forge also sells a “strapped digging fork” which is somewhat stronger, and also more expensive. I don’t think you can go wrong with this, if you want to spend the extra money.

It is also possible to buy heavier duty forks, such as the Garden Tool Company’s Boeren Fork but there are tradeoffs. On the one hand, it looks like an extremely well made fork that is all metal and will never break. Furthermore it has a fantastic handle that allows you to get your weight on the fork using both hands. On the other hand it weights 50% more, it sells for 50% more, and I doubt it’s practical to use as a turning fork for compost.

The often “forgotten factor” in buying a fork is thinking about the soil.

If you’re dumb about it, you’ll start by hacking away at the soil with a pick axe, and jump on the soil with your poor garden fork, which is sure to have a shortened life. If your smart about it, you’ll use lots of watering, gentle loosening with your fork, and patience over several deals to ease into the soil. In this way, the regular Clarington Forge fork will be great.

Over time I’m realizing that although I put my spade away after I finished bed prep, and haven’t needed to go get it again, I use my garden fork quite a bit. For instance it’s really useful to reloosen the ground, for weeding, or right before transplanting.

Is it really worth it to buy the fancy Clarington Forge garden spade?

Short answer is “maybe not, although it *is* a beautiful tool.”

So you’re faced with spending a pile of money for a Clarington Forge garden spade, or getting something similar from another company for half the price. My research on product reviews didn’t find a lot of problems with garden spades, as opposed to garden forks which often break and bend.

In my experience, a garden spade just isn’t subjected to the kinds of forces that a fork is. The way that I prepare beds, if I hit a hard area then I am watering, forking, and waiting long before I’m trying to shovel with a spade.

Having said this, there is something very fun about having a beautiful, high quality, hand-made tool in your hands. But if you looking to save money, I’d say that a less fancy garden spade will do the job fine.

If you do buy a less expensive spade, look for these features:

  • About 12″ wide so you can get your trenches the right width.
  • Treaded so you can get your weight on the shovel head safely.
  • Long enough for your body so you can work the shovel with good posture.
  • At least having a D-handle, and possibly an O-handle, so it’s easy to handle.

Also if you are new to spades, beware that there are several different kinds of different purposes, and so you’ll want one that has head dimensions similar to what you see on the Clarington Forge.

Is it worth spending the extra money for a fancy hand fork?

In GB, it’s common to use a hand fork to loosen your seedlings from the flats, as you take them out to transplant them. You will also likely loosen the soil just before transplanting.

Clarington Forge sells a beautiful hand fork. However you can buy a similarly shaped tool for 1/2 to 1/3 of the price that will do the same thing.

The reality is that this hand fork will not be subjected to large forces. The flat soil will easily be handled by any fork, and the soil of a prepared bed will also readily loosen, since you’ve already done the work of double digging it.

So again, there is a nice feeling of holding a tool like this in your hand, but this is a place where you can economize and get something less expensive.

Can flats of seedlings be grown in any container?

Can flats of seedlings be grown in most anything?  Do there need to be drainage holes in the bottom, or can I just be careful not to over-water? I’m trying to use what I have rather than go out and buy something new.
For example, what about — pyrex casserole pan — plastic nursery tray with foil or plastic lining the bottom — what about metal pans or cupcake pans…
The key thing to understand is that drainage is critical, or you’ll end up with pooled water and possibly disease. Old plastic nursery six-packs can work, as long as they are they deeper kind, ~3″. I use these sometimes when I don’t have enough seeds to justify a whole flat of soil.
In terms of other re-use, the closest flat I’ve seen is wooden boxes that wine sometimes comes packaged in. They can be on the flimsy side, but I think they’d last for a season. The problems happen when you move them–the soil is heavy, and even heavier when it’s well watered. I’ve broken a few flimsy flats, and it can be awful when it costs you a batch of seedlings.
In Willits they make flats out of reclaimed wood. I made mine out of redwood fence boards that I bought cheap at Home Depot. If you have basic wood-working skills, it’s quite straightforward to make flats. Just be sure to leave 1/8″ spaces for drainage in the bottom. 

Help, my hose watering head isn’t flowing well any more!

Whatever watering hose head you use (I love the Dramm one touch fan head), it can get plugged up! For my Dramm, I discovered that it has a filter, known as a “hose filter washer” that filters the water before it gets to the head. With the water I’m using, this tends to plug up within about a month. Fortunately it’s not too hard to clean it or even replace it.

For the Dramm one touch, I unscrewed the head from the base, revealing the hose filter washer. You can even try dislodging debris using your finger–didn’t work for me, but might work for you and save you time.

Then (the tough part) I used a small flat head screwdriver to pry the hose filter washer out of the fan head. You’ll note that the rubber gasket is connected to the filter, and so you need to get between the outside of the gasket and the inside of the hose head.

Now that you have the hose filter washer out, you can try cleaning it. Since the deposits on mine were tough, I couldn’t just rub them off. So I soaked it in vinegar for about 10 minutes and then I was able to rub off the deposits. The vinegar didn’t seem to degrade the plastic–I didn’t get any leaks upon reinstallation. You may need to soak for longer, but personally I wouldn’t leave it in there for days.

If your hose filter washer just can’t be cleaned out, or if you accidentally poke a hole in it when trying to uninstall (been there) you can always buy more online. I got this pack of 3 filters online for just over $1 per filter–not bad. You’ll need to double check what size you need. I believe the size, 1″ in the case of my hose head, refers to the outer diameter.

Germination (6)

Help, my parsnips aren’t germinating!

Parsnips are known to be slow to germinate. As well, their normal rate of germination is relatively low (60%) compared to many other seeds.

Some people report good success with pre-germinating their parsnip seeds indoor on a damp towel, before transplanting into a flat. If you decide to do this, consider arranging the seeds on one inch center on a flat pan, so that you can easily slide them into the flat when enough have germinated.

My seeds seem to be taking a long time to germinate. Any hints?

Assuming that your flats are sufficiently moist, the other factor to look at carefully is temperature. On page 99 of “How to Grow” edition 8, there’s a table called “Soil Temperature Conditions for Vegetable Seed Germination.” I didn’t grasp how important temperature was until I planted seeds–in particular carrts and daikon radish–and had a very poor rate of germination.

If you look closely at the “optimum” column on that table, you’ll notice how high the optimum soil temperatures are for germination. These numbers have been worked out in lab tests where they try to grow seeds at a whole range of temperatures, and find where the peak of germination is.

Consider carrots: a soil temperature of 80F, which is pretty warm, indicates an even hotter air temperature. For many locations, the only reliable way to get a temperature like that is to use a green house of one kind of another. If you don’t have a “big” green house, you can make or buy various little and even tiny versions of one.

A cold cell is basically a tiny green house. I’ve had success using a plastic storage container with a lid as a ready made cold cell. If it’s in direct sun, pay close attention to the temperature–you’d be surprised how much a small enclosed space can heat up, and if it gets too hot, your seeds will die. So you’re going to need to pick your spot carefully, and keep the cover well opened during the day. A high-low thermometer can tell you how hot the soil is actually getting at the peak, so you know if you need to put the cold cell and flat somewhere less hot.

One other thing is that in general, most of the vegetables that you’re growing don’t need much if any light to germinate. I’ve struggled to find clear information  on this for vegetables; I have learned that there are some flowers that are known to need light to germinate. But in general you could have a germinating flat in a shady but warm spot, that gets to the right temperature, and get great germination results. Just be sure to move it to a good sunny spot once you have germination, so that the seedling development can happen properly.

[update] I’ve been having a lot of luck germinating my seeds in flats which are in plastic storage boxes with lids. I keep them out of the sun, and quite moist. I find that I get fast and high percentage germination this way. The catch is that I need to move them into sun fairly quickly after the germinate, or they’ll get leggy within a day.

My seedlings are tall, thin, and leggy. Is that a problem?

Basically, yes. This happens when the seedlings grow but there’s too little light. And apparently if it’s too wet, this can happen, also.

If you’re doing special things to enhance germination, such as keeping the seedlings in a humid container in the shade, the key thing to do is to move them to a sunnier spot as soon as a critical mass of them are germinated. If you wait too long to move them, you’ll get leggy seedlings.

A problem with leggy seedlings is that they are too tall for their limited root structure, and will easily fall over.

Leggy seedlings may or may not be usable, depending on how badly it’s gotten, the type of plant, and how you transplant.

There are lots of discussion here on the topic:

http://search.gardenweb.com/search/nph-ind.cgi?term=leggy+seedlings&forum=seed&forum_name=Growing+from+Seed

What is the best way to store inoculant?

Inoculant is a bacteria culture which is necessary for legumes to fix nitrogen. Although your soil may already have the right kind of inoculant for the type of legume that you’re planting, it’s said to be a good idea to get that bacteria on the seeds and into the soil.

Bountiful Gardens sells inoculant for a variety of legumes. Being that it’s a living thing, you might rightly wonder “what’s the best way to keep it?” Here’s what Bountiful Gardens said:

“Keep it in the fridge in the jar. Also, no silica gel in the inoculant is necessary.

Can flats of seedlings be grown in any container?

Can flats of seedlings be grown in most anything?  Do there need to be drainage holes in the bottom, or can I just be careful not to over-water? I’m trying to use what I have rather than go out and buy something new.
For example, what about — pyrex casserole pan — plastic nursery tray with foil or plastic lining the bottom — what about metal pans or cupcake pans…
The key thing to understand is that drainage is critical, or you’ll end up with pooled water and possibly disease. Old plastic nursery six-packs can work, as long as they are they deeper kind, ~3″. I use these sometimes when I don’t have enough seeds to justify a whole flat of soil.
In terms of other re-use, the closest flat I’ve seen is wooden boxes that wine sometimes comes packaged in. They can be on the flimsy side, but I think they’d last for a season. The problems happen when you move them–the soil is heavy, and even heavier when it’s well watered. I’ve broken a few flimsy flats, and it can be awful when it costs you a batch of seedlings.
In Willits they make flats out of reclaimed wood. I made mine out of redwood fence boards that I bought cheap at Home Depot. If you have basic wood-working skills, it’s quite straightforward to make flats. Just be sure to leave 1/8″ spaces for drainage in the bottom. 

Where should I put my seedling flats?

The short answer: somewhere that you can control soil humidity.

Often when I struggle with germination, it’s because of the soil drying out. Once I learned that most seeds don’t need light to germinate, then I realized that I could put them on my covered front porch to germinate. The porch is almost enclosed, it warms up nicely but not too much, and it gets some scattered light. Plus I walk by it every time I enter or leave the house, so it’s easy to check on the seedlings.

Once they germinate, then I promptly move them into a raised bed in the backyard, so they can get proper sun. Otherwise the seedlings will get “leggy,” tall and spindly, and fair poorly. I find that the raised bed provides a nice source of backup moisture for the soil in the flat, and helps the seedlings get used to being outside in full sun.

Insects and Critters (3)

Something is eating my plants! What is it and what do I do?

There’s a fantastic book called What’s Wrong with my Vegetable Garden which helps you learn what the likely culprit is and then take action organically.

There is a companion book that includes a step by step diagnosis section, and that goes beyond just vegetables to plants in general, called What’s Wrong with my Plant that is also excellent.

What works for dealing with slugs and snails?

1. Hunt them at night.
Snails and slugs come out at night to feed, and so by going out with a flash light, you’ll get a sense for the scale of your problem. Depending on the plant, they are relatively easy to spot at night.
If you have chickens, they’ll love to eat your snails and slugs. Otherwise you can crush slugs, or cut snails in half with scissors.

2. Put out decoy leaves to eat.
My potatoes are growing so vigorously that the leaves are invading neighboring bed areas. Since I need to prune back the leaves anyhow, I put them on the soil right by the seedlings that I want to collect. And sure enough, at night I often find a few slugs on these decoy potato leaves, rather than on my seedlings.

3. Gather them from hiding places during the day.
Upside down pots and pot drip holders can make great hiding places for slugs in particular. Just leave them on the bed nearby where you think they are attacking. During the day, periodically check under them–I’ve found a few this way.

4. Protect seedlings with shade netting.
I’ve pulled many a snail off of the shade netting protecting my seedling flats, and also my newly planted snails.

5. Protect flats with copper tape.
I haven’t tried this yet, but I hear that a sufficiently wide copper tape will keep slugs and snails from crossing it, due to the electrical shocks they get from it. The downside to copper tape is that it’s somewhat expensive.

What do you think of using iron phosphate “Sluggo” type products for slug and snail control?

Although Sluggo is promoted as a benign way to deal with slugs and snails, it seems to impact earthworms as discussed in this study. Bill Meyer brings up a number of worthwhile points in this paper. Long before using a product like this, put on some gloves, get your scissors and your flashlight, and spend a few minutes for a few evenings “doing it by hand.” This way you can keep the soil, and its beneficial creatures, as healthy as possible.

Bed Preparation (3)

I’m having trouble loosening the soil for the second part of the double dig. Any suggestions?

When you’re preparing a bed for the first time, it’s not uncommon to find that the first foot of soil is relatively straightforward to loosen, but the second foot is extremely hard. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that most people only work the first 8″ – 12″ of soil, meaning that everything below that is largely untouched.

The key watch words are “water, patience, and persistence.” In the best case, you are digging your bed well ahead of when you need to plant. In that case you can dig the 12″ trench, water within the trench, give the water some time to settle, and then fork the trench to help the water go deeper. You may even do this a couple of times.

In the first year, you may decide to just go down a further 6″ into the trench, for a total of 18″ of loosening, and get the last 6″ next year. That’s fine.

What you don’t want to do is hurt your body, break your tools, or pull out the pick ax and pound the soil.

[followup: I can report that in the second year, if you’ve planted and watered well, the soil will be much easier to work. It is ironic that for the first time gardener, the first bed they double dig will likely be the most difficult. So if you only get partway down in year 1, don’t worry–year 2 will be easier.]

I have a new bed that’s been covered in wood chips. Can I just leave them there?

I have a new bed I’m preparing, that’s been covered in wood chips. Can I just leave them there? I could just remove the large chips but leave the partially decomposed stuff that has disintegrated to small splintery debris, and add that into the heavy clay soil to give it more texture, couldn’t I?

My sense is that you *could* leave the partially decomposed wood splinters there, but it’s a matter of time, and of extent. To the extent that you can remove the wood debris, that’s going to help you move forward your growing soil. Water wood pieces are left will demand nitrogen from the soil in order to compose. That will take away from the nitrogen available for your plants.

Having said that, I learn more and more over time that growing is a matter of “the ideal vs. the actual” and so I wouldn’t spend the time to get *every* wood splinter out of there. Rather I’d do what I could with a raking pass or two, and then call it good enough.

There are some natural amendments that you could add, such as blood meal, that would provide nitrogen to the soil, and could help move the decomposition process along, of water wood pieces are left, so that they don’t interfere with your growing.

Having said that, the reality is that if you do a decent job of raking, then the overall volume of wood chips left, as compared to the overall volume of soil that’s going to be turned around when you double dig two feet down is relatively little. Nonetheless in season 1 it might be a good idea to provide some nitrogen in the main root zone for whatever you are growing, just to be sure.

SF Gate on how to speed up the decomposition of wood chips in a compost pile.

Mother earth news on how to build soil from wood chips.

 

 

What mistakes should I definitely avoid making?

By and large, your garden can take a lot of abuse and be OK. But there are a handful of mistakes that can take some time to recover from. Here’s what I’d advise avoiding:

  • don’t use city compost. there is a risk that it has bad stuff in it that will hinder your garden growth.
  • don’t use herbicides or pesticides. you’ll end up eating some of them, no matter how well you try to wash the crops. there are natural remedies, such as neem oil and peppermint soap, that you can call in if really needed.
  • don’t put a fine bark mulch (or saw dust) on your soil, or mix it into your soil. if you want to cover your soil, use a garden cloth of some kind. if you get too much fine wood particles in your soil, it’ll impact the fertility for several years.

Growing (2)

Which crops do you need to stake?

I typically stake quinoa because it gets top heavy and tends to topple over. sorghum, millet, corn, wheat, amaranth, etc. seem to do just fine. It may be a function of your soil, as well.
I have never had hard red wheat lodge, but some years barley will lodge and others it wont. The same goes for triticale. I am thinking that next year I will stake all of the winter grains, just to be sure.

When is a good time to do staking?

 I generally stake a week or two after transplanting, but that is usually more a case of finally getting a chance to get around to it.
One reason I might not stake immediately would be to be able to shade net transplants if it is still hot outside.
Stakes can make it more clumsy to weed, so if you’re anticipating needing a weeding pass, you might want to wait to stake after that. Having said that, the winter grains are planted so densely that I rarely have to weed them.

Planning (1)

When planning my winter garden, how do I decide which areas need a nitrogen fixing crop, and which ones can have an “extractive” crop?

[Answer from Ecology Action]
We like to refer to winter cover crops as compost crops because most are intended for the spring-built compost pile. What we aim for is 60/30/10 annually. See the Bed Crop Months Information Sheet in your Workshop Manual to determine this.

You can still use the 60/30/10 for the winter, just make sure to rotate each winter so that all beds will receive the benefits of a cereal rye and/or fava, vetch other legume treatment. Also, in the section that you put the “extractive” crop in, notice what happens to the summer crop vs. a bed that receives a grain/legume compost crop.

Two other things to refer to: The Booklet 14 Compost Crop Recipe. It works well in the Bay Area. Also, check out Google+ John Jeavons: the Intercropping Section.

Watering (1)

Does the Grow Biointensive system require a lot of water?

In my experience Grow Biointensive uses less water than other techniques I’ve seen. Why?

  •  most crops are grown from seedlings and then transplanted. plants are the most water sensitive at planting and young seedling stage, and so starting them close together, in small flats, dramatically saves water. (consider the water needed for 30 square feet of garden space, vs. 2 square feet of seedling flat space. of course it varies by crop). it also gives you more growing time in your garden for other crops.
  • the seedlings are planted an optimal distance apart to give a “canopy” effect. it allows each plant’s roots enough soil volume to get nutrient, while shading the soil once that canopy grows out. that shading saves a ton of water because the soil is cooler and much less water evaporates.
  • the cold compost, with lots of grain straw, creates a soil structure which is excellent at holding and distributing water.
  • by keeping the soil moist, you get much better distribution of water through the soil. once a soil gets too dry and goes “hydrophobic” it takes a ton more of watering to get water to your plants.

Although it’s not part of Grow Biointensive, I also mulch my onions and garlic with wheat straw (that I grow) before transplanting, since they don’t “canopy” like many crops do.

Seed Savings (1)

What does it mean for a seed to not “grow true to type?”

Regarding “true to type” I have heard of this mostly in the context of “Hybrid” seeds. From what I understand, to create a hybrid plant, they take a “mother” and “father” plant, have the pollen of one germinate the other, and depending on the varieties involved, they can get a “child” plant that will reliably grow to be a known combination of the two parents.

The problem is that if you take the seeds from that child plant, the plants that grow from the child seeds (the “grand child” plants) will be very different from the child seeds, and won’t consistently have the desired characteristics or benefits.

So the “opposite” of hybrid seeds are “open pollinated” seeds. In this case the plant has developed a stable seed that grows “true to type,” meaning almost all of the child seeds will look just like the parent seeds, and the grandchild seeds will also look a lot like both the parent and child seeds, and so on. It’s stable over time. Because of my interest in developing local varieties of vegetables that are ideally suited to my climate, I only grow “open pollinated” varieties.

[NOTE: if you are a biology expert and can explain in very simple, non-technical terms why this is the case, please let me know and I’ll share it with everyone. The explanations I’ve found out there assume a lot of bio background. thanks.]

Soil (3)

I’d like to rest my soil. What cover crops do you recommend for summer and winter?

For summer, sorghum interplanted with fava on 12″ centers is a good combination. You need to cut the fava when it reaches full flower, before the beans start coming out.

For winter, cereal rye interplanted with vetch is a good combination. Again, cut the vetch at full flower, before the beans emerge. This way you’ll get the maximum amount of nitrogen from the legumes to be left in your soil.

I’ve heard it’s best to never “till” your soil. What do you think?

I think there’s a continuum, from rototilling to never ever touching your soil.

On the one extreme is using a rototiller to basically “blend” the soil into a fine dust. It seems to me that this would destroy much of the life in the soil, along with the established relationships. Furthermore it would kill the soil texture, making it harder to capture water. And I think you’d end up with more soil erosion as well.

On the other extreme, in the “never touch” camp, I would think that their soil would compact over time, between inevitable “people standing on or near it” compaction, rain, and settling. If you’re planting a landscape or a forest and you’re not going to harvest from it either, I think this could work fine. In any case I would like to see how such “never touch” beds look over time. One challenge is that I’d want to dig into the soil to see what was going on!

For me, I’m continually working with the soil to add carbon, build the soil, and eat the food from the garden. For a new space, I think it’s really important to double dig. My experience is that in a new space, the soil is surprisingly compacted underneath, and in some cases there just isn’t much life going on under there, in part because of the lack of air. So for a new space, adding air to the soil is a big deal, and contributes a lot to getting it going.

I should add that I’m talking about digging with a 4 pronged digging fork and a garden space–no tillers. Even when I’ve jackhammered a severely compacted space, I just used the jackhammer as a type of spade, and retained much of the soil aggregate. I’ve observed I can dig and still retain the soil texture and most of the aggregates.

Once a garden bed has been successfully grown out for a few years, and is clearly uncompacted, then it can be single dug in between seasons–in other words loosened to 9″ to 12″ with a garden fork or a broadfork.

At the end of the day, “the proof is in the pudding.” So when deciding what path you want to follow, find garden beds that have had a certain philosophy applied for a long time, and see what you think. Ask about the pro’s and con’s, and be suspicious of folks who say “there are none.”

When it comes to what I’ve said about double digging / single digging:

  • the demonstration gardens I’ve seen in Palo Alto, Mendocino, and Willits that do this have soil with fantastic texture and aggregates
  • the upside is that aerating the soil really helps moisture retention, promotes root growth, and supports great yields
  • the downside is that digging–especially double digging–takes time and effort. it does get easier over time.
  • also some of the soil relationships will be broken in the course of a dig.

 

Also I’ve seen soil that’s been double-dug every year for 20 years, and it still looks amazing.

What mistakes should I definitely avoid making?

By and large, your garden can take a lot of abuse and be OK. But there are a handful of mistakes that can take some time to recover from. Here’s what I’d advise avoiding:

  • don’t use city compost. there is a risk that it has bad stuff in it that will hinder your garden growth.
  • don’t use herbicides or pesticides. you’ll end up eating some of them, no matter how well you try to wash the crops. there are natural remedies, such as neem oil and peppermint soap, that you can call in if really needed.
  • don’t put a fine bark mulch (or saw dust) on your soil, or mix it into your soil. if you want to cover your soil, use a garden cloth of some kind. if you get too much fine wood particles in your soil, it’ll impact the fertility for several years.