I often wonder why I spend most of spring pulling weeds. I became a defacto gardener after I bought my house seven years ago-and soon realized that my small square footage house had a complex yard with multiple climate microzones and a consuming outdoor maintenance schedule during all four seasons.

I decided early on to never use chemicals in my yard. Being a former student of Agroecology, this became my mantra. I have to admit my copy of “Teaming with Microbes –  The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” by Lowenfels & Lewis has sat unread on my bookshelf for years. I picked it up this winter and am conquering the science-y chapters one at a time, slowly comprehending the mission of understanding how microbes, bacteria and fungi all interact like one big happy family to keep my little microcosm of a yard and garden in harmony sans industrial chemicals.

I know, I know, I’m kind of a worm and insect Guru.  Everytime I scoop up some dirt, worms and larvae and insects crawl out of each and every clod…I swear they look up at me and say, “Hey thanks Lady for not dumping a bunch of junk in our house”…but that might be the wine talking. I started wondering why do I have so many dandelions          and gobs of crabgrass overtaking my yard now? Turns out-my soil is lacking in Calcium after a quick Google search. Thanks internet. Here’s the skinny on Calcium soil amendments for your yard and some quick DIY pH tests you can try without having to purchase a soil pH test kit.  

Dried crushed egg shells – save all those shells. Dry out, pulse to a powder in your food processor. Lasts 3-12 months depending on quantity used and distribution percentage.

Ground oyster shells – available at any garden center – Lasts 1-2 years. Slow release.

Gypsum is 23% calcium and 17% sulfur, which means that it can provide a source of calcium without raising pH levels. Improves drainage by aerating the soil, neutralizes plant toxins, and removes sodium from the soil. The sulfur reacts with water and forms a weak sulfuric acid that frees up calcium.

Calcitic Lime vs Dolomite Lime – very different products. Both hail from ground limestone but you must discover your soil pH level first to determine which product to use. If soil pH is below 7 (acidic) you should raise the pH with Lime. I f soil pH is too high (above 7, alkaline) you can lower the pH with compost, worm castings, or Sulphur. Calcitic lime and dolomite lime are both made from pulverized limestone and both are effective at raising the pH in acidic soils. They have a different influence on soil, however.  Dolomite lime contains large amounts of magnesium along with calcium carbonate while calcitic lime only contains calcium carbonate. Magnesium is an important mineral for plant health. And if soil needs magnesium, wouldn’t it be best to just use dolomite lime all the time, just in case? Not if too much magnesium can also be a problem.

You’ll want to determine if your soil is lacking in minerals first. The soil type can usually point you in the right direction. Clay and clay loam soil tends to retain magnesium well because it drains poorly. Loam soil also retains magnesium well, but under certain conditions it can become magnesium depleted. Finally, sandy soil is much more prone to mineral loss because drainage can leach the soil.

  • dolomite lime (magnesium carbonate)

Dolomite lime contains large amounts of Magnesium. Magnesium deficient plants are often yellower, have shorter root systems, and produce noticeably lower yields than plants grown in healthy soil. Excess magnesium can cause your soil to become overly compact, deterring plant growth while also making the soil more difficult to water efficiently. It may also cause unchecked weed growth.

Magnesium deficiency is likely in quick draining sandy soils, while clay and clay loam soils rarely suffer from magnesium issues.  Dolomite can make soil compaction worse.

An incorrect application of dolomite lime (and magnesium) can be tough on your garden and soil, so for most purposes, plain calcitic lime is usually adequate. It works quickly to restore soil pH and doesn’t increase the risk of too much added magnesium.

  • calcitic limeThe main “ingredient” in calcitic lime is calcium carbonate.  It counteracts the acidification of soil. In addition to neutralizing pH, lime also encourages the growth of micro-organisms that contribute to plant health. With the combination of helpful micro-organisms and pH balanced soil, plants and crops will thrive.Calcitic lime works effectively, even with one treatment. If you garden every year, calcitic lime will likely be the only treatment you’ll need.

    Calcitic lime also works more quickly than dolomite lime: Calcium carbonate is better at balancing pHs than magnesium carbonate, and calcitic lime contains much higher levels of calcium carbonate than dolomite lime. Calcium is a component of plant cell walls, and it’s needed for enzyme formation and nitrate uptake. It helps neutralize excessively acidic soils, which is especially important when you’re growing green, leafy vegetables like lettuce and spinach, or cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.

    Calcitic Lime’s Limitations

    Typical calcitic lime treatments require some patience.Water is required for the chemical process to begin and the calcitic lime must be worked into the soil a little to help activate it. However, calcitic lime won’t replace depleted magnesium. If your soil is magnesium deficient, calcitic lime treatments won’t improve plant health.



How to test soil pH without a test kit:

  • Vinegar/Baking soda method:

Collect 1 cup of soil from different parts of your garden and put 2 spoonfuls into separate containers. Add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the soil. If it fizzes, you have alkaline soil, with a pH between 7 and 8.  If it doesn’t fizz after doing the vinegar test, then add distilled water to the other container until 2 teaspoons of soil are muddy. Add 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes you have acidic soil, most likely with a pH between 5 and 6.

If your soil doesn’t react at all it is neutral with a pH of around 7 – the ideal range.

  • Cabbage water test: 

Measure 2 cups of distilled water into a saucepan. Cut up and add 1 cup of red cabbage. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow it to sit for up to 30 minutes.

Strain off the liquid – which will be purple/blue. This will have a neutral pH of 7.

Add 2 teaspoons of garden soil to a jar and a few inches of cabbage water. Stir and wait for 30 minutes. Check the color. If it turns pink, your soil is acidic.  If it is blue/green, your soil is alkaline.

Good luck and don’t forget to leave some dandelion blooms for the Bees the first few weeks of spring! dandelion-weeds-indicator-plants

Life lessons learned from a small garden in Western Colorado

Mary Lyon (1797-1849) of Buckland, Massachusetts once wrote, “When you choose your fields of labor, go where nobody else is willing to go”.

Mary Lyon was the founder of one of the first colleges for women in the United States. She chartered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, now known as Mount Holyoke College, and opened its doors to the first 80 female students who desired a more challenging curriculum of science and mathematics. She required the students from all ethnic backgrounds and economic resources to engage in chores and upkeep at the college to keep the cost of tuition at a reasonable rate. Her student body quickly grew and in 1843 she wrote the book A Missionary Offering which challenged the educational community to develop other college resources for women, which subsequently encouraged the opening of Wellesley and Smith Colleges. Poet Emily Dickinson, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Virginia Apgar (developed the “Apgar score” for newborn infants), Francis Perkins (first woman to be appointed to the presidential cabinet), and Gloria Johnson-Powell (first Black woman to tenure at Harvard Medical School) are some of the fruits of her labor. Her roots grew from a small 100 acre farm in Massachusetts, where she and her siblings tended to the day-to-day operations of subsistence farming. Her first educational job was as an untrained teacher at the age of 17 in a local town in Massachusetts and she quickly realized that to grow as a professional teacher she would need more education. After enrolling in Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, her interests grew in the study of the sciences. After completing her education there she quickly realized her goal of desiring to share her experiences with other disadvantaged women in the turbulent times of the post-Civil War United States.

We could learn from this woman’s endeavors. Her first lessons came from farming such as the planting, growing, tending, and reaping of plants for food and materials. Her family farm chores were possibly mundane, but recognizing my own experiences observing how a family farm operated in central Illinois in the 1970’s, I can draw some reasonable conclusions on how these tasks must have impacted her own upbringing.

  1. For some to grow and prosper, others must be sacrificed. When small seeds, such as carrots, are planted in a neat little row they are often too small to pick out individually. So a gardener will plant the seeds in a haphazard way down a little 1/4″ deep row, then cover gently with a little of soil, to protect the seeds during their initial watering and emergence a few days to weeks away. When the primary leaves pop up there will be way too many seedlings to logically grow into carrots. If a gardener does not thin them out, they will compete with each other for resources, water, and sunlight, crowding each other, potentially all dying off and never growing into beautiful sweet tender carrots. Additionally if they are not thinned enough, a gardener perhaps feeling remorseful about the “taking of a life”, they will still be too spindly and overcrowded to grow into plump nice little salad offerings. Buddhism only goes so far.
  2. Unplanned surprises in life sometimes offer the most rewards. After gardening for several years accidental plantings will sometimes happen in a garden. I am reminded of three such occurrences this spring in my own gardening space. This sometimes happens during the fall when seed pods scatter, falling from birds or children playing. For example you might pick a raspberry for yourself and drop the innocent raspberry in some quiet, undisturbed fertile soil which might result in a lovely small raspberry bush popping up the next spring. I had a cute lone-wolf black seeded Simpson lettuce head grow between some paver stones on my makeshift patio. I let it grow and had a nice little salad. I did not pluck it because it “didn’t belong” with the sedums and tiny creeping thyme; who really cares anyway? Are there garden police out there? I don’t think so. I have little random Kale plants growing all over the place, even with my violas and pansies. Who knows how they got there? I have a single sunflower growing next to the fence right beside a pepper plant. Incidentally, I have tried for years to grow peppers unsuccessfully, it becomes Africa-hot during the middle of the day here in Gypsum, Colorado. It was too hot for every pepper I had planted, until now. I guess I discovered the micro-climate for growing peppers along one fence line. A gardening space is filled with many micro-climates that a good gardener has to explore through trial and error to find which plants thrive best in which locations. Sometimes it takes years and patience to find these micro-climates.
  3. Let life be life. We cannot control the forces of nature. We can try to nurture these forces with our own knowledge or the sharing of ideas but the cycle of life has a powerful healing quality of balance that will seek to reach an equilibrium within itself that we, as man or gardener, may have little influence upon. My raspberry bush pictured below began with one small $5 quart raspberry bush from a local gardening center. Now it has become friendly with my neighbor across the fence and he has a little raspberry patch. I had to cage it in with rocks and lava rock to control its babies sprouting forth like the ingenious idea I had at the age of 10 to buy a male and female hamster and “see what would happen”. (Don’t do this by the way). This process (the raspberry project not the rodent experiment) has only taken three years. I had some doubts. The first year my raspberry plant almost died. The second year the plant had a few berries, a couple of cousin plants, and mostly long, leggy stems which I cut back before winter slightly disappointed. Little did I know that plant was deep at work underground growing a root system that this spring showed its true purpose with so many little raspberry plants that I had to control them before they knocked my 1963 chain link fence down. Patience is definitely a virtue that a gardener must keep in mind. Things don’t occur or grow overnight, or even in one year. If you nurture the proper environment for something good to happen, it will happen eventually. It takes time. Within this digital and global world of instant gratification it’s good to remember things we learned in our past. It takes patience, time, and methodical planning for the end result to be fruitful in gardening and life.

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Small Home Composting with Affordable Plastic Bins

In under an hour, and only spending $30, I’ve devised a small space composting system for my garden. This could easily be used on a deck.
Check out the pictures and you will see I used a large drill bit to make air circulation holes all over each bin’s walls and the bottom of each bin has plenty of holes for water drainage. I placed mine on a pallet for better air circulation.
The tops of the bins have chicken wire and a mesh bird netting to prevent rodents from getting into any vegetable scraps (remember no meat or fats in your compost). I used the wire & netting combination over bin #1 and #2, the second size down, but it is probably only vital for the first decomposition bin because when you move your compost to bin #2, there shouldn’t be any solid food left or odor. It should never stink anyway, if it does then that means it has gone anaerobic and you need to turn it more and expose more oxygen to it. This happens over the winter in cold climates anyway like mine, and that first spring thaw compost turn can be rather “fragrant”, but it quickly dissipates after it is exposed to the fresh air and sunshine.
My garden is in dire need of bacteria & microbes for proper growth so, I’m excited to see how my compost system works. I will keep you posted on any improvements I need!