By Valerie Barr
Feeding the Plants
The history of fertilizers is interesting. Pre-WW1 most growing was done traditionally using barnyard materials and basic elements/minerals like sulfur, copper and bordeaux mix. Post-WW2 the chemical age came into its’ peak with synthesized fertilizer (especially nitrogen) and chemical pesticides. The following decades of ‘just being the way it was done’ complacent attitude led us to Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. We have come a long way. In this post I am focused on Organic additives and for clarification I reference OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute).
At home, we have spent many years building up our soil and feeding it annually with leaves, weeds, grass, kitchen compost, and manures. Besides liming we generally do not use additives, with the exception of giving my transplants a boost when planted.
The seedling starts that I have germinated in the house I will plant outside with a few tablespoons of Kelp Meal at the bottom of each hole. I hope I will be able to purchase more Kelp Meal through On Root Greenhouse during this next year since I have just enough for this season.
Kelp Meal is a wild harvested product found in many areas of the world’s oceans, including both the west and east coast of North America. Depending on demand and harvesting permits, it may be okay environmentally to harvest kelp. It is listed as allowed on OMRI. I have in the past blended it with Green Sand, another ocean product that has a different but similar nutrient content. Kelp Meal does not have much N, P or K but is a great source of minerals and up to 70 different vitamins. I first noticed what a difference Kelp Meal made in transplants when I was doing patio planters for customers. I could see the influence of the fertilizer on the new plants: they were sturdier and greener immediately.
Other organic or natural fertilizers include: Blood Meal which is a source of nitrogen, Bone Meal which is a source of phosphorus and calcium (or Rock phosphate if Bone does not work for you), Epsom Salts which is magnesium, Green Sand which is iron, potassium and magnesium, and Alfalfa Meal which is an NPK boost. These are all considered organic fertilizers. Check out the ORMI list for details. The mineral based fertilizers will take a longer length of time to break down to soluble nutrients in the soil.
Alfalfa Meal is very well liked by gardeners and I believe Lucretia Schanfarber has been selling it bulk this year if you are interested. Just a caution: watch out for mice and rat problems when using any edible natural fertilizer (alfalfa, feather meal, etc.) as it may attract pests. We fertilized our orchard by poking holes on the drip line of the fruit trees and dropping in organic fertilizer, until we realized that something was eating the fertilizer as fast as we put it down. We do sometimes have a rat problem: we do not want to feed them with costly fertilizer.
If you are starting a garden on new soil you will want to fertilize your plants as you build up the nutrient held in the soil. Marie at On Root says she has some Gaia Green 4 – 4- 4 (an all-purpose organic fertilizer), liquid fish fertilizer, Humic which is an extract of soil humus used to stimulate plant nutrition, and Oyster shell Lime. She also carries many other types including fertilizer for vegetable starts. The Quadra Island Builders also has a stock of fertilizers, lime, and seeds.
As a result of everyone starting a garden (Covid 19) this year, we may need to return to making our own compost tea to use as a fertilizer. Compost tea goes back in history to ancient times. Traditionally it is a simple method of brewing fertilizer with compost or aged composted manure for watering plants in the garden. I remember using compost tea when I starting growing vegetables. There are also packaged commercial products that will blend with water into a potent compost tea fertilizer (Google it).
There are new improved methods of brewing compost tea which increases micro organisms in the mix. This process includes aeration of the tea to stimulate the organisms into reproducing. Marc Doll on Quadra Island makes Actively Aerated Compost Tea – if you are interested in finding out more about this process check out.this link or contact Marc.
If you are making compost tea yourself, use a shovel or two of mature compost in a sizeable barrel of non treated water (no chlorine) and let it brew in the sun. If you are using animal manure, it is cautioned to only use aged partially composted manure. This is because E. coli is found in most manures. With time and the high temperatures of the composting process it dissipates. When possible, it is also recommended to manure your garden in the fall to allow enough time for the E. coli to break down, although many of us manure in the Spring without ill effect.
Starting Cruciferous Vegetables: Two varieties of Kale and two varieties of Cabbage
I started Vates Blue Curled Scotch Kale and Lacinato Kale (both West Coast Seeds) on April 4th and they have germinated in four days. We also allow the Red Russian Kale to re-seed on its own in the garden and it grows well each year.
The Spring regrowth of Kale is sweet and lovely eaten raw. This month we are enjoying Kale leaf salad daily from last year’s plants. Since Kale is a biennial plant it goes to-seed in the Spring allowing us to harvest the flowers for salad with a vinaigrette. Soon enough the insects will take the Kale flowers over as their food source, which is part of the cycle. Eight individual plants survived this winter with several of each variety not making it through the wet and cold.
During summer with so many other fresh greens, we mostly eat our Kale cooked. The Lacinato, which has a tougher texture, is great in a stir fry, after removing the heavy centre rib. Not only does it taste lovely but is a beautiful feature plant in the garden.
I also harvest all three of these Kale through the summer and pesto them for the freezer. I chop them in the food processor and add olive oil to protect them from freezer burn. Through the winter, while the Kale outside sags into the winter doldrums, this pesto goes into every pot of soup, stew and curry we make.
Kale, like Cabbage, Broccoli, Kohlrabi, Mustard Greens, and many other vegetables we grow in the garden, are Brassicas. Most of them are cold hardy and full of nutrition. They are easy to grow in summer and many varieties grow year-round. Brassicas germinate well in the house and some types are easy to direct seed in the garden.
A major problem however with the Brassicas is club root – a fungus that may come into your garden with contaminated soil. If we accept seedlings from friends, we only want seedlings that are started in sterile soil and not from soil taken from their garden. I carefully never used the same tools in our garden that I used in customers gardens – even though very few customers had vegetable gardens. It does take a long time to get rid of club root in the soil, so using caution is good advice. Gardeners who are coping with club root will put lime directly into each planting hole to sweeten the soil for Brassicas. If your soil is too acidic club root can become a big problem.
On April 4th, I also started Cabbage: Danish Ballhead (Green) and Integro (Red). This is the first time we have tried Danish Ballhead seed. We were ready for a change because of the weather last year. Our green cabbage was quite loose leafed and we wasted some of each plant at harvest. We will see how the new variety grows – it is an heirloom that is winter hardy.
Also last year was not a good year for red cabbage. The heads that grew out were small and we used them up quickly by fermenting them into sauerkraut. We have had good luck with Integro Red in the past and are willing to try it again. It may have been the hot dry Spring or the wetter Summer that produced a poor crop in 2019.
I have also started Zinnia flowers which, after three days, quickly germinated. I love the colours of Zinnia and I have noticed that they are a great insect host. I have been excited to find ladybug larvae on Zinnia flowers for a few years. Lady bug larvae are fascinating little creatures and I am in awe of their form since I feel I am looking at a little dragon. I don’t think they are beautiful but rather ferocious. The larvae are in the garden to eat aphids – so please go for it and chow down.
Update on Previous Posts
Grant grows most of the root vegetables. These are direct seeded when the soil is warm enough for each different species of vegetable. In late March he planted the potatoes saved from last year’s crop.
We are still eating last year’s squash and yellow onions but there is only Kale left now in the garden. The plants that annually self seed are just starting to sprout. We have a few new small Russian Kale growing and we are waiting for the mustard greens to sprout for our salads.
For early crops, I have seeded Turnip and Radish and will watch for germination in the next couple of weeks.
The snap peas are growing and are up to 6 inches long on April 7th, but I have had to baby them along. There was one day last week when we had a snow storm for several hours in the morning and we have had many nights of freezing or close to freezing weather. I have been putting tarps over the tunnel for the peas each night and removing it when the temperature warms in late morning. Is it worth it? We will find out soon!
I have transplanted lettuce and peppers into two-inch pots. It was noticeable that the lettuce I put in the fridge overnight (Karen Dunn’s advice) had a slight head start on the other lettuce seeds. It was that chilled pot that I have transplanted first.
The leeks are hardened-off and I am just waiting for the nights to be warmer before I plant them out. The red onions are well on their way to being hardened-off but I will wait longer for transplanting – they like more warmth than the winter leeks do.
Next Post I will start Swiss Chard, Kohlrabi and Brussels Sprouts.
Grant Hayden and Val Barr are happily retired to play in their garden as they like. Val worked in horticulture for almost 45 years and started her first food garden at 18. Grant grew up as a prairie farm-boy and his last occupation was in forestry. He has planted thousands of trees and cut quite a few down as well.