Watering 101

standing water in a bed

This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

Straw Bale Garden Tour Part I

In this vide we take you into the backyard for a tour of our straw bale garden.

We started rotting the bales in late April by adding blood meal. In May we added a balanced fertilizer and started planting the bales. In the video you’ll see the veggies we planted in early June.

The soaker hose you see comes from Home Depot. I’m pretty sure it is this stuff.

Every other week I add some fish emulsion to a watering can and hand water the plants to make sure they have enough nutrients.

Leave your questions in the comments.

Straw Bale Garden Part V: Growing Vegetables

basil in straw bale garden

It’s too early to call my straw bale garden a success but, so far, the vegetables I planted in the bales are growing. I got a late start on planting–I put in the tomatoes, squash and basil in mid May/Early June–just in time for the cloudy, cool weather we have here in early summer.

raised bed vs. straw bale tomato

Check out the difference between the tomato I planted in a bale on the left, compared with a tomato in one of my raised beds. The tomato in the bale is doing a lot better.

mushrooms in straw bale

The bales are home to organisms that support healthy vegetables: mushrooms and worms. When I dug into the bales to plant some chard seedlings yesterday I found a lot of worms. I had thought that straw bale gardening was like hydroponics–essentially fertilizer added to a growing medium. But the presence of worms and mushrooms indicates that well rotted straw bales are more like the kind healthy soil that supports a web of soil organisms that, in turn, help vegetables grow.

squash in straw bale garden

Some of the plants, like this winter squash, I planted as seedlings.

cucumber in straw bale garden

Others, like this cucumber, I sowed directly into the bales by making a little hole and putting in the seed with some home made seedling mix.

Again, the vegetables in the bales are doing better than veggies in my two remaining raised beds. The reason, I believe, is that the beds are depleted and the compost I added to them was low quality.

While more resource intensive than growing in the ground or raised bed, straw bale gardening has a lot of advantages for the beginning gardener. Integrating fertilizers into a straw bale is a lot easier than making high quality compost and a lot faster. While not a long term strategy, I’m looking forward to trying straw bale gardening again.

How is your straw bale garden doing?

Picture Sundays: A Keyhole Bed and Straw Bale Garden in Texas

keyhole and straw bale garden

John W. from Kerrville, Texas sent in some pictures of his garden. John says,

This is my first year to use compost tea.  I am growing plants in two Keyhole Gardens, self watering 5 gal plastic buckets and two hay bales (coastal Bermuda hay) that have a wooden framework on top containing bulk landscaping compost from a local nursery. My plants are growing super fast and my tomatoes are loaded.  This looks to be the best garden I have ever had.

Judging from the fencing it looks like you’ve also figured out a way to deal with the deer. Thanks for the pics John and good luck with the garden!

Biochar: Miracle or Gimmick?

Biochar-and-Pyrolysis_1

Cornell University illustration showing biochar as a means of sequestering greenhouse gases.

I’m always skeptical of what I call the “notions and potions” school of gardening. Every few years there is some new substance touted as the secret to a lush vegetable garden. One such substance is biochar, a kind of charcoal used as a soil amendment.

The University of Minnesota Extension service is in the midst of a four year study to test the use of biochar in vegetable gardens.

Preliminary results (which you can read here) show benefit for some crops such as kale, but a decrease in growth for others such as asparagus.

The more we learn about biochar, the more we need to learn. From an overall standpoint, there appeared to be some benefit of using biochar in the nutrient-depleted sandy soils at the Andover site for some crops. Yet, there was a decrease in growth in some plants and higher yield in others. In the Arboretum and St. Paul campus sites, we noted similar results, but more crops seemed to decline with biochar than without it.

There’s nothing new about biochar. It was in use by native peoples in the Amazon region before Columbus. Hopefully this study will help clarify what types of soils and what crops benefit most from its use.

Do you have an opinion about Biochar? Leave a comment . . .

And thanks to Michael Tortorello for sending me the link.

Straw Bale Garden Part IV: Almost Ready to Plant?

straw bale garden

Over the past fifteen days I’ve been “conditioning” my straw bale garden by adding blood meal and a lot of water. During the conditioning process we had both a freak rainstorm (helpful) and a freak heatwave (not so good).

The bales did not heat up as much as I expected–as of this morning they are around 80° F, around 15° to 20° higher than the ambient temperature. Several sources I checked, however, suggest that this is hot enough. The test will be when I plant seedlings. If they end up stunted, I’ll know that I did not let the bales compost long enough.

One problem I had with the conditioning process is that the straw on most of my bales was oriented with the stem sides facing the wide (vertical) side of the bale. This made it difficult to get the blood meal into the bales. One or two of the bales had the straw oriented with the stems facing up and these bales seemed to heat up faster.

Another problem was keeping the bales moist in our hot and dry climate. Tarps may have helped.

The next step will be to plant seedlings and add a balanced fertilizer (fish emulsion) every other week.

Compost and Pharmaceuticals

happypills

We get this question a lot–will pharmaceuticals end up in my compost if I use human urine or animal manure? This is really three questions:

  • Does composting break down pharmaceuticals?
  • Are some pharmaceuticals worse than others in terms of their ability to survive the composting process?
  • If pharmaceuticals persist after composting do edible plants uptake them in sufficient quantities to effect humans?

A look at what science has to say
We really need a Root Simple research department! I was able to find a few studies that, at least partially, address these questions. If you know of more please leave a link in the comments.

A 2010 study looked at the degradation of salinomycin, used on chickens to prevent coccidiosis. The study concluded,

On the basis of the results obtained in this study, it appears that the composting technique is effective in reducing salinomycin in manure.

Another 2010 study looked at the composting of sewage sludge containing fluoroquinolones (broad spectrum antibiotics),

The concentrations of pharmaceutical residues in compost were significantly lower, if compared to the relevant concentrations in sewage sludge . . . It is concluded that before using the sewage sludge compost as a fertilizer it should be carefully tested against the content of different pharmaceuticals. The content of pharmaceuticals in the compost made from sewage sludge may easily lead to the elevated concentrations in food plants, if the compost is used as a fertilizer.

A slightly contradictory Estonian study concluded:

In the current study, uptake of ciprofloxacin, norfloxacin, ofloxacin, sulfadimethoxine and sulfamethoxazole was demonstrated in lettuce. The uptake of fluoroquinolones and sulfonamides by plants like lettuce does not seem to be a major human health risk, as the detected levels of the studied pharmaceuticals were relatively low, if compared to their soil concentrations. Further studies are needed to determine the uptake of different types of pharmaceuticals and other organic pollutants by various crop plants.

What about hormones? A paper in the Journal of Environmental Quality concludes,

composting may be an environmentally friendly technology suitable for reducing, but not eliminating, the concentrations of these endocrine disrupting hormones at concentrated animal operation facilities.

But we’ve got a lot of hormones making their way into the environment due to agriculture, according to a study done by Temple University,

Animal manures (poultry manure and cow manure) contribute to a significant load of estrogen hormones in the natural environment.

Conclusions
Clearly we may have some big societal problems caused by the overuse of pharmaceuticals and waste generated by industrial livestock operations. Those issues are beyond the scope of this blog.

But what about home composting? Should I pee on my compost pile if I’m on lots of pills? Maybe not. But I think there are a few common sense guidelines we can follow when working with human and animal urine or manure at home:

  • Don’t use municipal compost that is made with sewage sludge, though I’m more worried about heavy metals in that compost more than I am about pharmaceuticals.
  • Since I’m not on any pharmaceuticals, I’m not worried about my own urine in the compost pile.
  • Joel, who commented on an earlier Root Simple post about using urine in compost, had this to say, “The main thing I’d worry about is radionuclide therapy, such as treatment with radioactive iodine vs. thyroid cancer. I guess I’d also worry a little about people who are on chelation therapy to flush toxic heavy metals from their system. If it’s not concentrated enough to harm your kidneys, though, I’m thinking it’s not enough to worry about in soil…perhaps that is me being naive.”
  • If I were collecting pee soaked straw bales at a French heavy metal concert (unlikely!),  I might have the resulting compost tested if I were going to use it on vegetables. But composting those bales would be better than flushing all that urine down the sewer system.

As to the bigger environmental issues, the good news is that some of the research shows that composting can help reduce pollution. And, since some of us have the space to compost at home, we can all contribute to a cleaner planet.

What do you think? Leave a comment . . .

Straw Bale Garden Part III: Adding Fertilizer

watering fertilizer into a straw bale garden

After watering our straw bales for three days our next step is to apply a high nitrogen fertilizer. We’re following West Virginia University Extension Service’s Straw Bale Gardening advice. They suggest a 1/2 cup of urea per bale or “bone meal, fish meal, or compost for a more organic approach.” (I think they mean blood meal as bone meal does not have much nitrogen in it.)

Choosing the organic approach, we’re watering in two cups of blood meal a day to each bale for days four to six. Days seven through nine, we’ll cut back to one cup of blood meal per bale. By day ten the bales should be almost ready to plant.

Once the bales are conditioned I’ll need to add a balanced organic fertilizer to provide potassium and phosphorous. And I discovered that taking the time to level the bales prevents fertilizer from running off when you’re trying to water it in.

Fertilizer Issues
Buying a high nitrogen fertilizer, even an organic one, is a bit of a conundrum. I object to chemical fertilizers, like urea, on philosophical grounds, but blood meal, a byproduct of our industrial food system, doesn’t make me feel much better. Urea would be a lot cheaper.

Perhaps the best solution would be human urine. Throw a week-long party, serve a lot of beer and invite your guests to fertilize your bales! Undiluted human urine has an NPK ratio close to that of blood meal.

Those of you who have experimented with straw bale gardens please leave a comment on what fertilizers you used and how it worked . . .

A Straw Bale Urinal

straw bale urinal

L’Uritonnoir, a plug-in straw-bale urinal. Photograph: Faltazi

At the risk of becoming a blog entirely about urine and straw bales, Anne Hars alerted me to an article in the Guardian, “L’Uritonnoir: the straw bale urinal that makes compost from ‘liquid gold’” about French design studio Faltazi’s plug-in straw bale urinal.

The device comes as a flat polypropylene sheet, which is folded into shape and slotted together, then threaded on a looping band around the bale, its funnel wedged deep into the centre of the straw to channel the fluid to the composting core. A deluxe version is also available in stainless steel – presumably for the VIP bale urinal area.

L'uritonnoir by faltazi

According to the article, Faltazi’s straw bale urinal will debut this summer at the French heavy metal festival Hellfest.

Ladies will have to pack their funnels.