Kathryn wants to know:
“I have gardened organically at my current home in Hiram since 1980 in raised beds. These beds were hand turned and over the years, I have added layers of homemade compost and composted manure from a nearby organic horse farm. More recently, I have not felt that the soil was as fertile as I wanted and some, but not all, of my crops were not producing as much as my friends’ gardens were. I had my soil tested at Penn State and they recommended a general organic fertilizer which I purchased by recommendation of one of the Countryside farmers. I’m still not getting what I think I should. How can I improve my soil fertility this coming gardening year?”
Do you still have the soil test? If so, you can talk it over with your local Ag Extension Educator. If they recommended a general organic fertilizer, you may have just been adding the yearly nitrogen. Or adding other macro nutrients (P or K). Or maybe they were recommending that you add organic matter to your soil, which is something slightly different. Organic matter will improve the soil structure, which is key to productive soil. Ways to add organic matter are through adding compost (which is sounds like you have been doing), leaves and grass clippings, cover crops and manure. It is also possible to have too much of a good thing; if you add too much compost it is possible to have some nutrients in excess. Plants really need those soil “parent materials” (sand, silt, clay) to thrive as well. Again, taking a look back at that soil test would help us know what the issue might be, I’d be happy to help you with that!
It’s hard to know without seeing the soil test, but also consider the role of soil biology in fertility. The Soil Food Web is a concept used to describe how different organisms contribute to the creation and availability of nutrients in the soil. Also, do you know about mycorrhizal fungi? They are soil fungi that feed on sugars released by plant roots and in exchange, help the plant access nutrients and moisture from the soil. Tilling or turning the soil disrupts these processes, so you may want to consider a “no-till” or “no-dig” gardening system, such as Charles Dowding’s.
“I’m just wondering if you know about the availability of vegetable plants when we want to plant our gardens in a couple months. If the coronavirus shutdowns continue into May and June, do you know if garden stores, where people usually get their tomato plants, pepper plans, etc., will be considered ‘necessary’ businesses and will stay open? It seems that people growing their own vegetables would be an ideal way for us to avoid going to stores and being around crowds when shopping.”
It’s hard to say what will happen in the coming weeks, but even if garden centers close, plant starts should still be available at home improvement stores and farm supply stores. Better (and safer) yet, many farmers are counting on a surge in interest in home gardening this year and are planting extra starts to sell.
Each store and garden center is making the decision for themselves on whether they fit the state-order’s definition of essential. So some garden center may close but others will stay open. Call ahead to see if they are open and if they have what you are looking for. Stores that sell water heaters & appliances will more likely consider themselves essential. So they may have plant starts, again call to confirm. The next decision is up to the gardener. You have to decide on whether a trip to that store is safe and worthwhile to you. If so, make sure that you observe all the guidelines about staying safe when you are out and about.
Ginnette Simko is Countryside’s Farm Manager. Maggie Rivera is the Agriculture and Natural Resource Educator at OSU-E, Cuyahoga County. To submit a question to “Victory Garden Gurus,” email Ginnette at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also consult OSU’s Ask an Expert online!