Monday, June 10, 2013

The sun and the Sandhills

Welcome back to a belated episode of lost in the farmer’s market, For those of you hardcore fresh food fans out there who came out to the Fayetteville farmers market this past weekend you no doubt know why this episode was delayed. For those of you, who didn’t make it, lets just say I was having a bit of a hard time getting out to do field work and leave it at that. Today’s topic is about soil and its effect on the need to water your plants. Of course we also have a lovely group of test garden pictures including one such picture that is probably the most awesome thing this year so far.

As some of you long-time readers of this blog might know I often talk about how important soil quality is. In fact I cannot stress enough how greatly it effects the margins of success or failure you will experience in the endeavor to have a productive garden. I have to state that ornamental gardens do better with improved soil as well but, in their case it’s not as much an issue because often it does not matter if ornamentals set fruit. So lets start with the region we live in; we are in the sand hills of North Carolina, an area that is composed of coarse to medium grit sand that is often of golden or gray coloration. There are areas of clay too often composed of mottled gray or bright tones of red but generally the rules of engagement remain about the same in either instance. A soil dominated by anything absolutely is bound to be a bad soil for productivity of the things you like. An overly loamy soil can be called muck if wet, an overly clay soil can compact to a hardness similar to concrete, a overly sandy soil has the nutrient and moisture retention abilities of a desert. Silt-heavy soils tend to be light and fluffy and thus are what blew away during the great dustbowl.

With that said no one expects you to perform a miracle and convert a soil in a single growing year. Admittedly it is possible to do the expense is insane, and thus we have today’s topic. As you may know Organic matter is often called loam and a bunch of things, but as with the old roman maxim ‘Nothing to excess’, loam itself does best in the right proportions to the mineral aspects of the soil usually about 30% to 50%. The reason you don’t want to get more then that is that the minerals in the soil tend not to wash off or blow away if the loam and sufficient anti-erosion measures are in place. This all relates to watering directly because it has now been established that clay and silt tend to repel water where as sand tends not to hold water. The quality of your soil is relative to it’s ability to hold onto water and nutrient long enough for your plants to make use of it. Mulch is your first line of defense for maintaining soil moisture as it disallows weed competition, wind and water erosion and eventually decays into a new layer of organic matter to add to your layers of loam. The real key is the actual amount of organic matter present in the first few inches of soil where all of your plant’s feet roots will be. Those feeder roots bring nutrients and water into your plants and they are quite important because relative to taproots and buttress roots they have more surface area with which to seek nutrients and absorb more of the water that is applied. The feeder roots are also what take up the fertilizers you apply and often are what find the manure or compost products you apply and thus are directly responsible for your increased yield.

To put it mildly, good soil quality, that is a presence but not overabundance of organic matter will aid your soil in retaining nutrients and moisture which in turn translates to greater heat, disease, pest and, drought resistance per cultivated plant. A case in point can be seen with the opuntia cactus shown later in this article which was given excellent soil quality and a dose of poultry manure last year. It responded by blooming several years early indicating early onset of plant maturity and exceptionally fast growth. As I always say, feed the soil, feed yourself, this is not a catch phrase, it’s a fact. 

One of the easiest and least expensive ways to improve your soil is to use low-cost indoor potting soil as it basically is a bag of perlite, vermiculite  possibly some bark fines and maybe some soil material with a dash of peat moss. The effect of this addition is that you get a basic topsoil going from which you can aspire to greater things without going broke. I do not advice the use of fertilizer or chemically enhanced soils because their performance and the side effects of the chemicals are uncertain. As soon as you can I advise setting up a composting bin or acquiring compost on a yearly basis to top dress your beds to further add nutrient and fertility. As you get further in you should also consider the use of a composted manure product to add additional fertility so chemical fertilizers are not needed. Barring all of the aforementioned, if instant gratification is the goal then you can always go for a truck load of compost from a reliable garden center or supplier. The effect of this method is that you get the fertile cropland you sought instantly without much more effort then it took to move and spread the stuff. The effect is the same, the more in balance the soil is, the better it will hold moisture, and the less frequently you will have to water barring extreme weather. With all that said lets move onto the pictures for this episode.

Opuntia humifusa - Spineless Prickly Pear

This is the showcase of the year so far. As some of you may know prickly pears take some time to get to a mature state and thus don’t bloom for a while. This one, decided to prove the normal wrong and bloom its third year and it seems to be ready to produce fruit as well. In fact the pair of cactus are so vigorous I may snap off a few pads and have them at the market in fall.

Physalis sp. - Ground Cherry ‘Cossack Pineapple’

For those of you in the know, I find ground cherries to be the most underused fruit in America and yet they are  both native to this climate and incredibly delicious. What makes these plants great is the fruits protective covering which means bird and critter damage is minimized. The harvesting method means you have to be a decent gardener and the plants sheer durability means it really does not ask for much but produces heavily when amply provided for.  I managed to snap a shot of a maturing ground cherry, as you can see the husk is enclosed. Later on I’ll take a picture of the fruit when ready and with the husk peeled back.

Ricinus communis – Castor Bean ‘Red Weed’

The stand of Castors at the test garden are growing on, pushing about a foot tall with leaves between 6-8” depending on how you measure. These guys are doing good in the blinding hot sun with absolute full exposure! Some of the more adventurous visitors to the booth bought some of the castors and I am sure you wont be let down by them either. For note, mine are planted the way they are to see if I can get them to bleach out their red and partially they do, this is not how one would normally plant a castor bean as the best color comes from providing some partial shade.

Coreopsis pubescens – Star Tickseed

As per request here is a picture of the dense clump of star tickseed in the shady rock garden section at the test gardens. As you can see it’s consumed its section and hungers for more. The soil below is barely enriched soil with appropriate amounts of pine straw. The plant is virtually never watered and more often then not other perennials have to be rescued from it. More of this plant will be available at the market next week.

Leptoglossus sp. – Leaf-footed Bug

These guys are a yearly feature in the garden. They are neither problematic nor beneficial but are a welcome site just the same. They started hanging out the year I grew a Wonderberry plant, and have appeared in groups in the garden every year ever since. For note these guys are true bugs as evidenced by the diamond shape seen on their backs when their wings are folded, and by the piercing/sucking mouthparts they possess. This year tons of them were just hanging out in the blooms of the Yucca I photographed last week.

Well this brings to a close a delayed edition of Lost in the farmer’s market, in the next episode which I hope to have posted on Thursday or Friday with a plant list, we will be covering plant selection and its effect on your need to water. I thank all of you who braved the weather to come out to the market and hope to see you this upcoming Saturday. As always folks be wary of the weather and keep ‘em growin!


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  2. sorry for the comment removal folks, the prior was apparently an advertisement for a company.