Organic Gardening questions and answers with organic farmer Mort Mather.

The Garden Spot
by Mort Mather

Up
Organic Excerpts
Q & A
organic lawns
Mulch
Compost
Pictures
Animals
Arizona Worms
Book
Carrots
Catalogues I
Catalogues II
Cold
Erosion
Fickle Frost
Flowers
Frost
Frost Out
Genetic Engineering
Harvest Frustration
Insect Control
Keep catalogues
Leaching
Midday Sun
Newspapers
Onions
Organic Books
Peas
Planting Dates
Radishes
Records
Spinach
Spring
Stew
Succession planting
Tomatoes
Ugly
Weeds
Worms

Click here to order Gardening for Independence, by Barbara and Mort Mather
Gardening for Independence by Barbara and Mort Mather.

 

You'll find topics like these throughout The Garden Spot: organic gardening, questions, answers, Q&A, Q & A, advice, manure, worms, organic lawns, fertilizers, fertilizer, fertilize, mulch, weeds, poison, poisons, Roundup, roundup, round-up, round up, herbicides, humus, organic matter, dandelions, thorns, thistles, yards, yard, garden, gardeners, gardener, weeding, organic weed control, and mulching.

 

The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control
The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control - recommended reading from Mort Mather.

 

The Garden Spot is brought to you by Bald Mountain Press, home of one of the oldest organic gardening sites on the web!

These organic gardening questions were sent by readers of The Garden Spot by Mort Mather.  Mort answers most of his e-mail, so if you have an organic gardening question and you can't find the answer here, write him.  His book, Gardening for Independence, sells for only $6.50 (+ shipping & handling) - a small price to pay for a great book from a man who actually answers his e-mail!

bullet

Organic Fertilizer Mixes

bullet

Clay Tomatoes

bullet

Brick Weeds

bullet

Hornworms

bullet

Slugs

bullet

Mushrooms

bullet

Onions

bullet

Round-up

bullet

Weeds

bullet

Manure

Hi! I'm emailing you from Victoria or beautify British
Columbia, Canada. Canada's gardening capital, haha. Anyway, I make my own organic soils from a peat based medium, been using the same tried and true recipe (blood, bone, and kelp meals with lime, Epsom salts and worm castings for years. I would love to expand my understanding of how the various organic amendments break down and how they contribute to NPK ratios in general. In addition to that, I'm looking for other recipes that and where those recipes are most successfully used.

There is one fertilizer mix up here that works quite well and consists of "green sand, rock phosphate, fruit bat quano, feather meal, steamed bone meal- regular & fine, kelp meal, sunflower seed hull ash, canola seed meal, cotton seed meal, alfalfa meal, langbeinite, corn gluten meal, pyro clay, diatomaceous earth, and calcium peroxide". It gives an estimated NPK of 2-6-5. But I failed to grab the recipe of how much of each to add. Can you offer any clues on how one would go about mixing these to gain a suitable fertilizer? Or do you know of any secret recipes close to this? hehe.

Anyway, I thank you for your time, Vic

Vic,

One of the wonderful things about gardening is that there are a lot of ways to do it, no one right way. As long as your formula is working, why change?

Personally, I'm a lazy gardener. I figure that once I get the nutrients pretty close to a good balance as shown in soil tests, the soil organisms will keep it in pretty good shape as long as I feed them. They like to eat organic matter so I mulch with grass clippings, hay and straw and I spread compost, manure and seaweed in the spring. What when?

Very casual, I am. It is mostly what is readily available and that seems to change. At one time a man with a horse delivered horse manure. He got rid of the horse and I found some spoiled hay for sale cheap. Then a landscaper was looking for a place to dump grass clippings. For the past two years my neighbor has been delivering cow manure mixed with hay which comes in such quantities that I have to compost it because it would otherwise overwhelm the garden.

The materials you mention are expensive which is one reason I don't use them. I'm a parsimonious devil. However, I wouldn't hesitate to use them as a side dressing for a specific problem because they are either water soluble or so finely pulverized that they will break down easily and provide nutrients fast in an emergency. That quick fix is another reason I would only use them in an emergency. Fast acting fertilizers will provide nutrients rapidly but they will also circumvent the jobs of soil organisms to convert organic material to plant nutrients. When this happens the population of soil organisms changes to accommodate the new soil chemistry. The quick fix is not going to stay in the soil very long. Hopefully it will be used by the plants but some may leach out of the root zone and be lost.

I'm just not a fan of soluble fertilizers even when they are naturally occurring. Of course manure has a substantial soluble percentage and is subject to all that I have just said. The difference is that it also has organic matter. An analogy is carrot juice. The juice is a quick fix of nutrients but the fiber has been removed. Carrot juice is good for us but we also need fiber. If we take the fiber out of carrots or other vegetables, we better be getting it somewhere else.

Regarding your question of the amounts of various fertilizers I suggest you look in the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening by Rodale Books, Inc. Emmaus, PA. I have an old edition but I imagine the current edition still has a number of fertilizer formulas. An example is 1 part bone meal, 1 part leather dust, 3 parts granite dust will yield 2-4-2 or 1 part dried blood, 1 part phosphate rock and 3 parts wood ashes will yield 3-7-5. The fact that these yields are less than chemical fertilizer means that more has to be spread to get the same values which means that there will be more organic material.

Whatever you are doing, I recommend having the soil tested every 3 to 5 years to make sure you aren't overloading with something or leaving out something else. Any time you have problems either with unhealthy-looking plants or with a disease or insect, get the soil tested because an imbalance is probably the reason.

Happy gardening,

Mort


Greetings,
I am stationed with the military in Okinawa.  We have clay soil.  I have been trying to grow tomatoes.  Often the branches on the lower part of the vines turn brown and die.  I also seem to get more vine than fruit.  I have used miracle grow in the past and still had the same results.  Any suggestions?
Thanks,
Kevin Breshike

Stop using Miracle grow.  It kills soil organisms and worms and you may be "burning" the plants with too much nitrogen, when they're trying to flower and set fruit they don't need as much niotrogen.  We (Mort Mather (CC) and myself) may sound like a broken record here, but mulch over a natural fertilizer like horse manure or composted steer manure is the organic and best way to go.  Near the ocean, like you are, you might try seaweed or kelp, and ALWAYS compost, spreading the compost around under the mulch - like hay or grass clippings - and in the holes when you transplant the seedlings.
Scott

Scott is right on. I would only add that clay soil desperately needs
organic matter which it will get through the additions Scott mentioned. Plants can actually suffocate from a lack of air in a clay soil. I also suggest you try different varieties of tomatoes. And then there is my old stand-by of stand by and observe. I have some tomatoes in the garden right now with many dead lower leaves and stems but they are producing just fine. My tomatoes also started producing later than a friend's who lives farther north than I do. Your tomatoes may come through yet.  No matter what, you can start adding manure and a mulch of grass clippings, hay or straw now. Leave it on the soil over winter and turn it under in the spring to improve the soil tilth. Or turn it under as soon as the season ends and add more or plant a cover crop.
Mort


Mort- How can I best control or eliminate the weeds between the bricks? I have been using a string trimmer, but it only does the trick for a short time. I have been thinking of getting a goat and tethering him to the patio. Must be a better way. Thanks for any suggestions.
                           Len

Sorry Len,
I don't  have a better idea. We have a brick walk as do friends of ours. Visiting them we remarked on how trim theirs looked and were told they use a string trimmer. Bought one. Tried it. Thought it was too much work for too little gain. Perhaps we need to learn how to use it better but it is also noisy. Anyway, we just pull stuff occasionally when it seems necessary. The walk was my wife's idea so I figure it is her problem. We did notice that a little grill killed everything under it and so I move my outdoor cooking area around. A flame thrower would probably work. Or just take a philosophical approach and tell people you like it that way, whatever way it is.
Mort

I'm at wit's end....I have an invasion of tomato hornworm the likes of which I've never seen! I picked 32 yesterday, most of the HUGE. This morning I picked off 14 in ten minutes! They are distroying my tomato plants. I don't want to use chemicals---what can I do? Will fall tilling
help discourage them next year? I will be very grateful for any help you can give me. Thank you.

That's a lot of hornworms. There is help available. Bt is a bacterial disease that is only harmful to Lepidoptera that eat it. When you spray it on the leaves of the tomatoes the hornworms will eat it and get sick. They stop eating right away but will be around for awhile longer before they die. Bt is sanctioned in all organic certification standards.
Bt comes in several brand names Dipel and Thuricide are  two brand names I am familiar with. There is a Bt for potato bugs, too, but it won't work on worms. Your garden store should have it. If they don't find another store. They don't deserve your business.
You need something to spray it on with. I have a little plastic bottle  with a hand squeeze pump. A flit can will also work. It doesn't have to be big, expensive or fancy. Keep the Bt in the refrigerator and it will last for years. For next year, make sure your soil is in good shape with lots of humus.
You can start adding humus right now by mulching around the plants with grass clippings. Compost is great. Any manure dug into the garden is very helpful. If you haven't had your soil tested, you should.  Check my site. There will be more on insects sometime in the not too distant future and there are articles on soil I'm sure. An insect infestation like you describes is a sure sign of plants under stress which is usually caused by an imbalance of soil nutrients.
Mort

Note from the editor:  I used to take the kids out looking for them (they got pretty good at spotting them - which is hard), and I'd carry the scissors to cut them in half.  Easier than picking them off.... Scott Supak

Mort, I've found the culprit thats eating holes in my Hosta Plants. It's slugs, not only are they eating those but also eating some of the anual flower leaves that are near them . What can I use to get rid of them.
Dawn

Ah, slugs. Fortunately there are a lot of things that will help. They can't stand to be dry. That is my favorite approach. Cultivate around the plants keeping a dust mulch that they won't like. Keep the grass close cropped in the vicinity. You can also make a barrier of diatomatious earth (sp).  Trapping is another possibility. Put down boards that they will crawl under during the heat of day. Turn over the boards and stomp on them or pierce them or drop someting dry on them like ashes or diatomatious earth. They also like beer and will crawl into a dish of it and drown. There are also bait traps you can buy. I don't generally recommend chemicals or poisons and am not now. However, if you don't like any of the free and organically acceptable alternatives, these traps do have the advantage over other such poisons in that they only attract the critters you are after and the poison is not spread around. I don't think they leave the trap. Good luck.
Mort

Help! I have what I call wild mushrooms growing in my yard. I should rapidly multiplying. They are around the base of an old pussy willow bush turned into a tree. I do not know what kind they are nor do I want them to take over my yard. Whatever I do has to be safe for a dog. She is a really nosey female and gets into everything. Any help you can give me will be appreciated. Thank you.

I don't know if you will find my advice helpful or not. First, don't panic. They won't take over the yard or gas you or your dog with spores. They are growing on the wood of the stump. They will probably not be there for very long and they will probably come back again same time next year. That is based on my own experience.

I don't know where you live or what kind of mushrooms you have so your experience may be different, but I still advise that you observe rather than worry. Even if they are poisonous, the dog is not likely to eat them and there is no other reason for concern. I am not a mushroom expert and even if I were, I wouldn't try to identify whether or not they are edible over cyberspace. I recommend that you find someone in your area who knows mushrooms and get them to identify them for you. You may find them to be a delicacy.

We had mushroom growing from an old elm stump for many years. A car stopped once and asked if they could pick the mushrooms. They were very excited about the delicacy growing in my yard and they seemed to know what they were talking about. We decided we would try them if the people came back for more. They never did. But we have lived happily and safely with dogs and cats and several different kinds of mushrooms "blooming" at various times each year in our yard for 27 years. They are all really quite beautiful and I'm sure some are edible. We have just never taken the time to figure out which.

Mort
-----------

Could tell me were I can find information on growing onions.   I have a small garden in my back yard and planted some onion sets. I need to find out how to care for them and when they can be taken out of the ground.
Thank you.
Charlie

Charlie,
Most important in the care of onions, assuming you planted in fertile soil, is weed control. Hoe between the rows 10 days after planting and again 10 days later or mulch with 2 to 3 inches of grass clippings. Harvest is easy. You can pull them any time and eat them at their condition at that time. First they will be scallions and then scallions with bulbs. To get the most out of them let them grow until the tops die then harvest. They are really very easy. I'm not sure if I  have anything on onions on my web site but there is an article on mulch and probably cultivating that you should find helpful. I wrote an article for Mother Earth News on onions. I think it appeared in the May 1998 issue which you should be able to get through your library.
Happy gardening.
Mort

My husband tilled in sheep manure in my garden-Help! I have some kind of thistles-not teasles-about 18" high. I want to plant perennials and some vegetables here. The garden is fenced in to keep the sheep from eating everything planted. I cannot physically dig up or hoe this plot that is probably 30'x50' (I have M.S.) I cannot find info on Real Safety of Roundup by Monsanto-only their ads. Can I trust it? Until this I have always tried to be organically safe-but, I'm desperate-but, not stupid enough to believe just anybody. I have always loved Rodale publications-but, could have missed info on safety question. Will vegetables planted here after thirty days take some sort of hazardous(to our family) or toxicity into plant that will harm us upon eating? No one lives forever but I want healthy grandchildren that I'm not predisposing them to biohazards. Worry wart? No-but I was one of those kids sprayed with DDT. in the 60's in Florida. Please, Please email me quickly. I need to take quick action because of short growing season.
Thank you!!! Patty.

Dear Patty,
I wouldn't touch Round Up. I don't believe the vegetables will take it up but I wouldn't want it in my air or on my soil or on my clothes. Want to believe what Monsanto says? Read the label carefully--the part where it says to wear proper protective clothing and breathing apparatus. Forget the pretty pictures of people with smiling faces zapping weeds.  People are always asking me how I handle the weeds I bring in with manure and mulch. It's true that I import millions, probably billions, of weeds and spread their seeds on my garden throughout the year. I also have a field up wind in which many weeds go to seed not to mention the garden which is surrounded by a lawn that sprays the garden with grass and dandelion seed periodically.

The key is to control the weeds rather than to worry about them. In your case with 18 inch thistles you have an immediate task of getting these beauties out of your way. If you zapped them with herbicide, the plants would die but they would still be there standing in your way and more prickly than when green.

I assume that the manure was tilled in and then the area fenced which is why you can't go back and till it again. If you can till it again, that is the easiest solution. If not, go to plan B. As a barefoot gardener I would probably begin with gloves and taproot cutter. The taproot cutter is a kind of a spear that can be pushed into the ground at the base of a plant and cut the taproot below soil level. Pull those thistles and chuck them on the compost pile. If you wear shoes and don't mind that you may encounter an occasional prick while planting, knock them down. This could be done with a mower, swisher, roller or just by pushing them over with your shod feet. Then I would cover the whole garden with mulch. My choice would be grass clippings laid down green about 8 inches thick. This will be heavy enough to hold down the thistles if you just knocked them over. Thistle grows with a taproot and for them to be as big as you describe above ground they must have a very healthy taproot. These plants will try to get through the mulch. Your job, should you accept it, is to make sure they don't get through. if one finds a way through the mulch, drop more mulch over it or pull it. You can also cut off the taproot.

Just keep in mind that most of the work here is due to the fact that the weeds were allowed to get so large. Round Up won't dispose of the weed, only turn it brown from green and make it even nastier on the skin as the barbs will now easily fall from the plant and stay in the skin. The key to weed control is to get them while they are small. Hacking away at grown weeds with a hoe is hard work but running a hoe lightly just below the surface of the soil when there are no weed visible is about as easy as any garden activity could be. You just have to remember to do it 10 days after the ground is first turned or planted and again ten days later. That will take care of most weeds.  See my articles on mulch and weeds.

Let me know if you need clarification or if I made some wrong assumptions. I'd also be interested in knowing where you are located.
Mort

Howdy.

Okay so I have stopped spraying and have a lawn full of dandylions, clover and thistles. How can I get my grass back without using chemicals?

Thanks tons
Neal

Well, you're off to a good start.  The grass wants good soil, so, if you've been fertilizing and spraying for a while, it'll take a while for the soil to reapir itself.   The dandelions are actually helping that process.  Only mow the top third of the grass, leave the clippings behind (best with a mulching mower) and as your soil improves (and worms move back in to eat the decaying humus) you'll see the yard improve.   It may take a while, but will be worth the wait.

Scott Supak

Neal,
A couple of more thoughts. Grass clippings return about 1/3 of their nitrogen to the lawn which means than every mowing causes some loss. What your lawn is probably most deficient in is humus. Spread some compost, rotted manure or other fairly finely chopped organic material to improve the humus.

I'm following this with part of an article I just wrote for Mother Earth News that will give you my view of dandilions. Thistles are something else and not at all welcome in a lawn, especially since I love to go barefoot. I remove them physically with a jabbing instrument made for the purpose of digging tap-root weeds from a lawn. If you have a lot of them, it will be a bore getting them under control. Once under control it's not much of a problem. I only had to dig out two this year...so far.

Ground Cover

That brings us down to ground level, the two dimensions of  the paper plot. Remember that I consider myself to be a lazy gardener. The laziest ground cover is to leave it natural. No matter what the soil surface, something will grow there. That something as provided by nature will probably be a combination of plants, grasses, weeds, maybe moss, mushrooms, whatever. The natural ground cover can be changed into a lawn by mowing regularly. It can be changed somewhat by mowing once or twice a year. The timing will make a difference in the change. But consider it in its natural state before doing anything much.

Unmowed natural cover comes to within four feet of one side of our house. Admittedly it is the back of the house but it is right outside the windows we look out most often. It is the view presented to our guests. When we sit outside we sit on lawn within four feet of unkempt natural cover.

I recognize that many people think dandelions are unattractive weeds. I glory in the first dandelion of the spring--the beautiful yellow against the new bright green of the grasses. I recall making pipelines with the stems and learning how a siphon works when I was a child. I can see my children picking dandelions and bringing their beautiful bouquets in to show their parents. They saw their beauty. We dutifully put the flowers in a vase and appreciated their gift.

Our wild garden provides us with year round pleasure. We have planted daffodils on the near bank and a patch of iris a bit farther away. These plantings don't need any attention. If the daffodils were planted in a bed, we would have to cultivate and if in the lawn they would have to be mowed around. In the wild they provide us with a dazzling patch of yellow before the first dandelions. When the flowers are gone the leaves compete well with the other growth of grasses and weeds and continue to gather enough sunlight to keep them healthy. There is a continuing change in the wildflowers during the summer and when the grasses go to seed they provide another beautiful, delicate shape and color that is contrasted with the deep greens behind them. Queen Anne's lace is one of the more prolific flowers. Sometimes we ignore a perfectly beautiful wild thing because it is so common. Look closely at Queen Anne's lace. Is it not as beautiful as any snowflake? Birds eat the seeds and when it snows the dried blossoms pile up with snow and provide a fairy wonderland.

I would like to go on but had better stop. Suffice it to say that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. If you have not already beheld the beauties of which I wax, I urge you to train your eye on some of the things in your everyday life that you currently take for granted.

Letting your yard go to wildflowers in an urban setting is not likely to increase the value of your house or the good will of your neighbors. You can attain the same effect and get away with it if you mark off a special place and plant wildflowers. A wildflower seed mix is likely to be a bit more colorful and more acceptable and if it is set aside as such, you are not just making excuses for being lazy.

Deep green, single species, closely cropped lawns are an environmental disaster. The more cared for the lawn, the bigger the disaster. My research was unable to turn up recent figures and my memory for facts is not the best but I believe I read once that more chemicals were put on lawns than were used in agriculture in this country. The figures aren't as important as the fact that more chemicals are put on lawns per acre than on agricultural fields. They are  also frequently applied excessively and at times when they are most environmentally damaging.

There is little or no regard for need. Pesticides are applied where kids and pets play. You really don't want to be a part of that problem.

My lawn has had no care of any kind for over 20 years other than mowing and leaving the grass clippings. It is far from a putting green or even a fairway. Maybe it would qualify as a mowed rough. There is some ground ivy, pretty little purple flowers in spring and green all growing season long. There is a patch of hawk weed, another yellow flower that blooms in mid summer. There are several varieties of grass. My lawn is green when others are brown in a hot dry August. My lawn's growth slows in dry weather which doesn't bother me. Sometimes it gets a little brown but I never water it.

I do use a power mower. Hey, I'm 60, I'm entitled to being a little soft. When I was 11 I mowed a lawn at least as big as my lawn now with a hand push reel mower. I could do it again but I just don't feel like it.

You might consider saving money and your ears by using a hand push mower. It's the environmentally preferable way. It might also influence the size of the lawn. Smaller is better.

How about a two mower width around the house and similar paths to the garden, car parking area and compost pile? Then you need an area about the size of a room for sitting around outside. The rest can be in wildflowers as suggested above or a variety of ground cover plants. The ground ivy in my lawn would do fine without my mowing it. It is not thick enough to dominate but it could if I worked at it. Partridge berry, spurge, periwinkle or myrtle and pachysandra are a few suggestions.

Once these are established the job is done.

This should be an easy 1 for you.  I haven't done anything to my soil since last fall when I put pigeon droppings & their corn-cob bedding down.  I just got a load of horse manure today (haven't put that down B4--1 yr. old garden)  & am unsure of when to put it. B4 I till?  After?  Till it in?  Let it breathe for a week, them till? Does it matter?  I don't want to 'burn' my seedlings ....    Been a while for me & a garden--like 15 yrs--ie. a kid.

Thanks for your time.
Sincerely,
Tina Jumbelick

Dear Tina,
Regarding your horse s. question (not a reflection on the quality of the question). My approach to the application of manures is generally pretty casual. I should say that some people are getting pretty conservative about the spreading of manure these days and recommending that all be composted thoroughly before using. Thoroughly means that the compost pile should get hot to cook out any pathogens and be turned at least once   and cooked again. They are afraid of pathogens. I am a fearless person who spreads raw manure in bare feet and has not qualms about handling it. I am not a stupid person, I hope. I do wash my hands before eating and I don't eat with my feet. If I were a wine maker, I would wash my feet before pressing the grapes.

Composting before spreading is the best because it does break down the materials making spreading easier and more even and it, in effect, predigests them so this work doesn't have to go on in the soil.

I usually have a compost pile going but I also usually spread manure on the garden in the spring. When I had a market garden and hired someone to till the soil, I spread as close to before having it tilled as possible. The longer the spread manure lies on top of the soil the more nutrient is lost to the air. Best to get it mixed in with the soil asap.

This year, right now, there is a pile of cow manure mixed with hay next to my garden. I will be turning the garden by hand this year. Since the manure-hay pile is not easy to turn into the soil with a spading fork, I will apply it after the garden is planted. It will go between the rows and around the hills of squash acting  as a mulch. The manure nutrients will percolate into the soil ("Hey, what about the nutrients escaping into the air?"  Let's not get technical.) The soil microorganisms will work on the material where it meets the soil, this is called sheet composting. By next spring the material will be largely composted. I'll rake it back in some places next spring when it comes to turning the soil again. In some places I'll just plant right through it. This is a modified version of the permanent mulch system that Ruth Stout advocated.

If you are confused and don't know what I am suggesting, that is the point. Do what feels right to you or what works for your. Perfection is a bloody bore. So you lose some nutrients along the way. You won't burn the plants or hurt them. Horse manure is not a "hot", high in  nitrogen, manure. Pigeon and other bird manure is but yours has been on the ground all winter--losing nitrogen to the air-- and is not so hot now. I once put pure chicken manure an inch under corn seed when I planted it on half of my crop to see if it would burn, stunt or otherwise effect the plants. If there was any   difference in the corn with hot manure and without, I was unable to detect it. The results would likely have been different if I did not already have a soil high in humus. Keep building humus with the addition of organic matter and have fun.

Oh, and buy a good book like Gardening For Independence by me.

Organic Gardening Answers 1999 by Mort Mather, The Garden Spot