Monday, January 4, 2016

It's All About the Dirt - part 2

The results of the recent soil test are in! In case you missed it, early last month, I sent out a sample of soil to Texas Plant and Soil Labs to get a baseline reading on my soil, which has been quite unproductive following the past 2 winters/springs excessive flooding rains. Read about it here.

I’m pleased to say that the work I did spreading all of those piles and piles of composted tree mulch was helpful. By adding composting mulch by the tractor bucketful, I was successful in raising the OM, organic matter. I think having a 2.2 OM reading is pretty dang good. And so did my advisor. A 2.2 reading on the organic matter chart – isn’t too bad considering my native soil here is sand. 


On a scale of 1 – 6, with 3 being loam and 6 being heavy clay, my soil is a 1 – sand.

So, imagine growing your vegetable garden, if you will, in a quarry full of marbles. That’s about what it's like at my farm.

Zero water holding capacity to speak of. And the CEC, (Cat-ion Exchange Capacity, which is a measure of the soil’s ability to hold and release various elements and compounds, namely, nutrients imperative to healthy plant growth.), was pretty low as well. It was estimated at between 3 - 5; potentially estimated a smidgen better because of the better than normal, (for sand), OM reading.

But when 7 of the 12 tested nutrients rate at critically low already, it’s my understanding that, basically, the plants were starving.

If it weren’t for the foliar applications of liquid fish and seaweed, along with compost tea that I put out nearly every week, they may not have made it as long as they had. And no wonder why 2015 will certainly not go down in the books of most production/highest yields.The garden was essentially on life support. Alive, but not thriving by any means.

So, my goal was, and is, to salvage the winter crops, be able to plant some more for early spring, and rebuild the fallow beds for a great warm season crop. This work starts now!

Follow up
I had a few questions for the lab and my adviser, as you may well imagine if you’ve ever stared at one of these soil analysis reports for the first time.  I compiled a list of questions, with the clarifications my adviser wanted to get from the lab as well, and I called in for my courtesy 15 minute follow up session.

There were a few notes on the summary and in the analysis that seemed to contradict each other or increase the amounts of the summary page on the analysis chart, of certain suggested amendments, that I wanted to clear up.

But mainly, I wanted to know how in the world the ultra low PH reading I consistently got in the field with my hand held meter could be so different from the reading they had taken in the lab.

Besides the soil sample being a bit more mixed and inclusive of topsoil that contained bits of active composting mulch, which indeed could affect the PH reading of soil; the hand held meters, I’ve read, are not nearly as reliable as the instruments at a lab which are calibrated regularly and taken under more controlled situations.

I’m told, that a lot of variables can come into play when getting a PH reading and not to lay a lot of merit on it, in and of itself, for decisions I make. So now I am not sure if I can grow blueberries out here or not, like I thought I could. Guess I’ll still have to just do a test row and see what I get. But I'm doubly glad I didn't do what many were encouraging me to do and that is to dump a bunch of lime on my soil! What a mess I could have created!! 

I also wanted to know what the heck I was going to do to raise the Cu (Copper) reading that suggested a pretty serious deficit – spread out a bucket of pennies in the soil? No, he suggested a light application of a product called Azomite.

I’d heard of this product before from some of my colleagues, but thus far had not tried it. Here was my chance. If you follow the above link, you’ll find it contains all sorts of trace elements – some of which my soil was low on anyway. 

Being low on salts, another nutrient measured, was actually a relief to me because I knew using horse stall waste could potentially raise salts due to the urine in the bedding I would add to the compost for the benefit of N, plus the bacteria it would contain and help develop. Our horses here are only stalled at night though, so much of the soil and wood shavings are drier than perhaps from places where horses are not turned out for the majority of the day. Plus, our horses stand on soil, not cement covered with wood shavings, so I imagine some of the salts are broken down naturally in the soil of their stalls before it’s ever removed and added to compost piles.

Humate was another low reading and the suggested application was 150lb/acre. Also, I could use either dry molasses or a liquid form at 3-5lbs/acre or a qt/acre respectively to boost things in general.

Sulfur plays a couple of roles in our soils. Namely it aids in the uptake and availability of Phosphate, the P on our fertilizer bags, and something my soil showed an abundance of, but it also helps improve the tilth of the soil as well as activating the Ca and Mg by “solubilizing them to the available water soluble form”. I’m not exactly sure what that means it does literally – but it sounds pretty important! So, of course using a dry, dusting – water soluble – form of sulfur, means it can be laid out in the trenches with P or without, if there's enough already in the soil, whenever planting.

As I mentioned, my soil tested adequate for P, so no additional bone meal or soft rock phosphate was suggested at this time – especially for winter, non-blooming, crops like lettuces, kale, and turnips, etc.

Potash, the K of the big 3, was also critically low. And it’s said (on this report anyway), that at least as much K is needed to grow healthy plants as N. Deep rooted plants will “mine the subsoils” to find K, but it is not something easily replaced without, I assume, planting deeply rooted cover crops, mowing them down, and then turning them back into the soil. I do this each winter, however apparently not enough had been mined and returned, or retained, to get a healthy reading. Plus, many winter vegetable crops don’t really develop a very deep root system.

Last, but in organic farming certainly not the least on the list of suggested additions, was activators, in the way of soil inoculates. These are generally what we find in freshly brewed and properly made compost teas, or, Worm Wine™. Here’s what the founder and owner of Texas Worm Ranch, Heather, has to say on the subject.

Fungal hyphae a necessary component of healthy soil, cannot survive well in wet/anaerobic conditions such as those described at your farm. The sandy profile also reduces opportunity for fungal hyphae--without humus and lignin in high quantities, (fungal hyphae) can't establish. Without aerobic soil microbes, fertilizer has a hard time converting to plant available nutrients. Anaerobic conditions (flooding) will reduce soil PH and result in ionic changes in soil mineral interactions that reduce plant available nutrients.

So Heather's approach would basically be to forgo adding nutrients and only add more organic matter and inoculates, be sure all of the soil is mulched, plant mixed rows of vegetables, instead of mono-culture beds, and put perennials in between my plantings for erosion control, and continue many of the measures I already have in place; over-seeding with legumes, using worm castings and minimal inputs (fertilizers). She also wanted me to use
"aerobically aerated finished compost or fungally dense worm casting tea" - such as the Worm Wine™ - giving Nature time to get in there, roll her sleeves up and restore things to balanced on her own.

The only problem being - I don't have the months this could take for that to happen if I am going to continue feeding myself and my CSA, as well as be ready for a warm season harvest. Some of the components are in place including compost that was made using decomposing leaves as well as horse stall waste and the mulched tree trimmings, so we will be testing these rows without amendments, other than those suggested by Heather, just to see how long it would take to restore the healthy yields of years' past.

But in order to take advantage of the predicted rains, which would help begin the breaking down process of the amendments recommended by the lab and my adviser, I knew I needed to get these suggested amendments out as soon as possible. I wasn't going to be able to produce 137lbs of N and K per acre for spring, simply by planting cover crops. And even though my organic matter rating was decent, the dismal fall harvest made it clear more that what I was doing was needed.

So, I spent the 23rd running around, not last minute gift shopping like many, but garden soil amendment shopping. I found everything I needed through my normal wholesale supplier, except a sufficient amount of dry humate. I’d need to apply the balance of this when it came in to the warehouse. Even my favorite go-to garden section in town was all but out of it. I picked up 1 of the last 2 small garden sized bags that Gecko had and would stretch it as far as I could.

The Drawing Board
I drew out and labeled the beds of my 4 sections so I could take good notes as to how much of what I was putting out in each bed. I wanted to be able to compare a few rows of no amendments, or “control” as it’s officially called; 2 with no amendments but using the Texas Worm Ranch’s Worm Wine™; and the rest with the amendments as prescribed along with my normal routine of foliar feeding and bi-weekly N application as I saw necessary based on observation.  Except where I was unable to secure enough humate, all of the amendments would be applied as prescribed.

Then came the task that challenges so many of us; converting x number of pounds per acre of said amendments, into the amount needed on my beds. I wasn’t going to spread these nutrients on the soon to be permanent foot paths, or on entire acres. So I was about to spend the morning of the 24th, calculating square footage and rates of nutrients per lb of this and that.....

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but a math wizard was not ever one of them. I figured out each bed was roughly 300 sq. ft., give or take a few feet. And to make things faster, I found THIS cool fertilizer converter on a website from the University of Georgia. Woo hoo! It took me less time to figure out how to use this on-line calculator than it would have for me to figure out all of the conversions for each amendment on paper. 

So, after recharging my brain with some lunch, I loaded up the bucket on my tractor with my scale, a bucket, and a couple hundred of pounds of N, P, K, humate, dry molasses, sulfur and Azomite, strapped a wheel barrow to the back of the tractor and headed out to the field. I was a woman with a mission!! Where's my cape?

In the wheelbarrow, after weighing them out, I mixed up the prescribed quantity of each of the raw materials for single beds, again, noting the quantities I was adding on the diagram of my 4 sections where I also had noted what, if anything, was currently planted. And trying to grow. On life support of foliar liquid fish feedings into a still pretty well saturated soil.

I hand spread the materials over the hungry beds of awaiting soil biology, like chicken scratch being tossed to hungry hens. On the fallow rows, I went over beds very lightly on the tractor with the disk to make sure things didn’t simply wash away in the predicted rains that were on the way. Some moisture is helpful to begin the process of breaking down the crystallized K-mag and Azomite, as well as the other materials, but too much rain at once, and I was afraid they’d just float over the edge of the beds if I didn’t somewhat incorporate them into the soil. Whereas some organic soil amendments are not water soluble, like many synthetic chemical additives are, too much water can still wash away much of the benefit. Besides, the roots aren’t growing on the surface of the soil, and the microorganisms don’t live up there, either.

The next day I finished amending the rows where crops were planted and gently hand-raked the beds to mix the ingredients into the topsoil. Hoping they’d get a kick start from the soil treat, I decided to leave intact, several rows pre-planted with winter crops. The rest of the beds and any empty areas were hand-seeded with Austrian Winter Peas. These beds did not receive the N amendment either. As a legume, the peas should add some nitrogen to the soil via the miraculous ability to secure it from the atmosphere and store it on their roots.The rest of the prescribed amount would be added at planting time.

As we all know, the predicted rains did indeed come. With a fury of tornadoes that many would like to have never witnessed, I might add. All told, from the time I put out the soil amendments until the storms passed, about 5 inches of rain fell here at the farm.

That’s quite a bit of moisture to get all at once. After discussing the situation with a couple of other farmers, we’re in agreement that it’s not a bad idea to go ahead and reapply a couple of the raw materials like the dusting sulfur and molasses. As we sweet girls know, sugar does, after all, melt in the rain. ;)

The nitrogen source I used is supposed to be water insoluble, but the directions from the lab were to not apply all of it at the same time anyway, so each week or so, I plan to put out some of the recommended rate until the full amount is reached for the growing season. I’ll add some more of it this week when I do my regular foliar application and as I put a few more transplants out. Rain is predicted for Wednesday night into Thursday morning again, but presently, less than an inch is expected.

So, all in all, thus far, that’s where things are in the soil saga. Amendments are out, and if the sun would come out to play for more than a couple of hours a day each week, we might actually start to see some improvements.

Heather will be coming over later this week to access the needs for the 2 beds she’s going to be tending and we’ll keep everyone up to date on the progress as time passes.

In the meantime, I'm starting more seeds in trays/flats for later transplanting and ordering seeds for the warm season. I'm anxious to get things back on track!

Eat Your Food - Naturally!

As a sign of hope to those who had tree damage - this beauty of a post oak was among the many here at Eden's that had parts of it twisted off by a 2008 spring tornado. They are resilient and I hope that hope is restored to those so terribly affected by the recent storms that ripped through so much of North Texas.