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They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.


Several of my readers have commented on my cloches, made on-the-cheap from various bottles that largely have come from my household. By and large, these are one- and two-liter soda bottles. We had an entire winter’s supply of plastic bottles in our garage, awaiting recycling, when the idea came to me that I might be able to use them in my garden.

(Actually, if truth be told, we really don’t drink that much soda from bottles. I, however, love seltzer water, which I buy in two-liter bottles, and average about one bottle a day, whereas my daughters are fans of Walmart’s flavored seltzer, which comes in one-liter bottles. Between the two of them, they probably average eight to ten bottles a week. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic, but our water here is very bad quality, and even purifying it doesn’t seem to remove the bad flavor.)

Initially, I cut the bottles roughly about one-third down from the top of the cap. Two-liter bottles are 12-inches tall, and using a utility knife I cut the bottles at the point where the label ends, somewhere between 7-1/2 and 8 inches from the bottom. I cut the 10-inch tall one-liter bottles in about the same place, two-thirds up from the bottom, along the edge of the label. Then I’d remove the labels and use the bottoms. Later, when I ran out of bottoms, I realized that the tops also could be used with the shorter seedlings.

When I place the bottles over my seedlings, if the surrounding ground is soft, I can push the bottles down into the soil an inch or two, which secures them from toppling or getting blown about in the wind. We have had some windy days, but I have only had a couple of bottles desert their posts. With the fence around the garden — which is really not fencing at all, but deer netting secured to stakes — none have blown away to liter my neighbors’ yards. When I covered the spinach seedlings, which had sprouted in place in their garden setting, I soon learned to loosen the soil surrounding them with my hand spade before attempting to secure the bottles over them. Otherwise, the flimsy plastic of the bottles curls under and the cloches don’t stay in place.

One of the reasons I really like the cloches is that I can pile up the mulch fairly thickly around the plants and close to each individual plant without smothering the seedlings underneath. As the mulch settles into place and weathers down after steady rains, it forms a nice ring around the plants without actually touching the stems. My regular readers may recall that I have been fighting unusually high pH levels in my soil — it measured above 7.5 when we first turned over the soil in March — and after an initial application of aluminum sulfate that brought the pH down to just under 7.0, I have been attempting to maintain and perhaps lower that a bit more with pine needle mulch, graciously provided by my next-door neighbors. The cloches help prevent the needles from actually touching the seedlings, thus avoiding any possible burning from their high acid content.

The cloches also have very nicely protected the plants from rabbits, mice, raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and all of the other Rodentia that prey from above the soil. Additionally, they had been very effective against the much-despised cutworms that strike from above — that is, of course, until the cloches were removed. They didn’t seem to protect them from underneath though, and the cutworm species that attacks the roots were able to achieve their mayhem unhindered, even with the cloches in place. I’m hoping that I will not have the problem with cutworms in subsequent years as cultivation alone seems to work against them as time goes on.

The two-liter bottles, by virtue of their larger circumference, fit over larger peat pots. I have sprouted my seedlings in 2.5-inch and 1.75-inch biodegradable cells, and the one-liter bottle cloches do not fit around the larger cells. So I have used them on the seedlings in the smaller cells (the lettuce and spinach, for example) and saved the two-liter bottle cloches for the seedlings in the larger cells. My lettuce plants have gotten so large now though that I am transferring the larger cloches to them as they become available. I expect I’ll soon be harvesting some of the lettuce, perhaps within the week.

However, I find I actually prefer the smaller one-liter cloches whenever I can use them. I have found that the flimsy plastic on the larger bottles curls under with age, which makes it harder to push them down into the soil. Loosening up the soil around the small plants first before pushing in the bottles over them helps prevent the curling, but in time the plastic eventually curls anyway. I extend the life of these larger cloches by trimming off an inch of the plastic when it starts to curl, but they will end up in the recycling bin before the season’s end, I’m afraid. The smaller bottles, on the other hand, will likely survive several seasons.

As I’ve needed larger and larger bottles, I started cutting off the bottoms of the bottles instead of the tops. I only take off between an inch and two inches when cutting from the bottle, which gives me a couple of inches more in height. This also is actually a better design functionally for cloches. The plastic at the bottom of soda bottles is a tiny bit thicker, which makes for a sturdier cloche. And the tapered top of the bottle allows debris to slide off easily, optimizing the sun that reaches the plants inside. Additionally, I have the option of removing the bottle cap and watering the seedling inside the bottle without removing the cloche, when I think that not enough moisture is reaching the roots directly under the cloche. This isn’t a frequent problem, though. Being able to mulch up close to the seedling allows the soil to retain moisture much more effectively between rainfalls. And, of course, I water with a soaker hose, so as long as the roots are getting what they need, it doesn’t matter whether or not the surface soil is damp.

I’ve been so happy with my improvised cloches that I’ve started using just about every plastic and glass container that would otherwise head straight to the recycling bin. This is what I’ve learned: I don’t like the gallon-sized milk and water bottles. The plastic in our gallon bottles is milky in color and translucent rather than transparent. I don’t think the seedlings inside get enough light or enough water to best sustain them. I love juice bottles the best, especially the large round Juicy Juice bottles. They are made with a thicker plastic, but are big enough in circumference to fit around larger peat pots. And when the bottoms are cut off, I have the same tapered top and the same option of using them with or without the lids.

Any clear glass or plastic container can be put to use in this way. The only limit is the size of the opening. Smaller jars can be used on tiny first sprouting plants and replaced with larger ones as the plants grow. In time, of course, the plants will outgrow them all, but by that time they will have a more solid footing in this world and be less vulnerable to attack. A loss of one leaf on a large plant is not the potentially fatal blow that it means to a seedling. Roots are larger, stems are sturdier, and leaves are more plentiful on older and larger plants.

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Yesterday (Saturday) I planted the first seeds into my garden — spinach seeds, which I’ve read can actually be broadcast on frozen ground if the ground has been prepared in the fall. That wasn’t necessary, as it’s been pretty warm most days for about a week now. However, we live in northern Indiana, and we can still get overnight frost into the first part of May. The weather, from the middle of March through the end of April, can vary widely. We may yet have large amounts of snow. Or it may be quite warm, even into the 80s. Most likely, we will have a little of both. But I’ve been assured that spinach can handle it.

I have decided to plant many cold-tolerant plants, such as spinach and lettuce, in the plot that we prepared last in the far southeast corner of yard. The pH level there is a bit less alkaline, somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0, so we can work on lowering the pH throughout the season and worry less about getting plants to grow at all. The nitrogen levels there, while still low, are at least measurable. I will water between the rows today with a very mild solution of aluminum sulfate, which will lower the pH immediately. I don’t want to lower it a full point, as in the other plot, but I would like to get it down below 6.5. After the seeds sprout, I will mulch between the rows with pine needles.

This garden plot, in addition to having somewhat better soil, also is likely to get a bit of shade, as there are trees close by, although not directly overhead. I’m hoping it won’t be too shady, as this is where I’d like to put the tomatoes, but I won’t know for certain until the trees’ leaves come in. (They are starting to bud now, so it won’t be very long until I have a clue.) The hardest part about putting in this garden is doing it on land that I haven’t lived with for a while. We have only lived here since the beginning of the year, so the only season I have experienced with this particular land is the winter. I don’t know it’s history, apart from having been told it was once part of a farm, and I don’t have a really good feel for the sun and shade through the seasons or the pests that I might expect. (Although I can tell we have moles. That’s obvious.)

In preparing the soil, the rototiller pulled apart the sod, returning it as organic matter into the ground. Yesterday, I turned over the soil again for about one-third of the most northern end, and then I hoed and raked until I felt the soil would be hospitable for the seeds. I put in four 12-foot rows rather close together, about 12 inches apart.

When I opened the seed package (Baby’s Leaf Hybrid, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), I was surprised that they were somewhat larger than I expected. I was expecting seeds more like the small flat lettuce seeds that I planted nearly two weeks ago in a flat. Those are now growing heartily on my sun porch, and I expect I will be transplanting them into the garden next sometime within the next week. Spinach seeds are rounder and goldish-tan in color. They look a little bit like grape seeds, I think.

This is what spinach seeds look like.  These are what is leftover from the packet I started yesterday.

This is what spinach seeds look like. These are what is leftover from the packet I started yesterday.

I think it’s odd that the seed packet directions say to thin the rows when the seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall so that the plants are six inches apart. Why not simply plant the seeds six inches apart to begin with? After all, I’ve noticed that with the flats I have already started nearly every seed sprouts successfully. So that’s what I did. If there is significant seed failure, I figure I can put in new seeds in the spots where the previous seeds did not sprout. I hate to waste seed, and I have plenty of garden space. I hope this is a reasonable strategy, but I suppose I’ll learn in time what works best for me.

Putting in the rows of seeds yesterday reminded me quite a bit of helping my parents when they planted our family garden years ago. I don’t suppose I’ve sown a row of vegetables in 40 years, but I still knew how to take the hoe and drag it across the earth so that it barely scratched the surface. (Spinach seeds, say the package, should be planted about 1/2 inch beneath the soil.) I dropped the seeds in about six inches apart. I’m not so anal as to use a yard stick or tape measure for this. My hand stretches about 8 inches from thumb tip to the tip of my little finger, so the seeds are planted slightly closer together than that. Once the seeds were in their place, I used the hoe once again to push the right amount of soil over them. Finally, I tamped the soil down lightly with the end of the hoe so that the seeds were securely tucked into their bed.

My father always used kite string stretched across the width of the garden to mark out the rows. I didn’t, but now I’m feeling guilty about my decision. I did shove sticks into the ends of the rows, but I didn’t tie them together with string. We’ll see if this is enough. Once everything was in place, I watered the soil lightly, taking care to direct the spray up and allow gravity to pull the water down, my best effort at mimicking a light rain.

Here's where I planted the spinach.  I'm unhappy that my garden doesn't look more tidy.  Next year, after I've been able to add more organic matter, I'd like to put in a somewhat raised wood border.

Here's where I planted the spinach. I'm unhappy that my garden doesn't look more tidy. Next year, after I've been able to add more organic matter, I'd like to put in a somewhat raised wood border.

Our first pest concern is going to be rabbits. I have wire farm fencing that was left behind in the garage, but I’m not sure the fence gauge is fine enough to keep out rabbits. It might better serve us as a trellis for all of the peas I have planned (snow peas and snap peas), and then maybe later in the season to support the tomatoes. I expect I’m going to need chicken wire instead. I’ll have to get that within the week and get started fencing off this little patch.

My plan is to use the remaining 10 by 12 feet of this plot for lettuce and a later planting of what I have left in spinach seed. I’ll separate the four close rows (12 inches apart) by a larger 24-inch space for tending to my plants, weeding and harvesting. I’m also thinking I might be able to squeeze in rows of radishes, carrots and even onions between the spinach rows and the lettuce rows. I’ll have to see whether or not that works. I’m definitely pushing the use of this space quite a bit already. I’ve already mentioned that I’d like to use the plot for our tomatoes as these crops taper off by early June. We are not big tomato lovers, but there are a few who enjoy sliced tomatoes, and almost everyone (except me and my daughter Allison) likes cherry tomatoes. However, we do consume a hefty amount of tomato sauce, so I expect to plant a full packet of Roma tomatoes, which I started in flats nearly two weeks ago and — hurray — finally sprouted after I brought the flats inside from the sun porch, which still can get quite cool at night. I want to start another flat today and hopefully polish off that packet of seed. I intend to sow another flat of the mixed variety of lettuce also. I’m not entirely certain where it will all go, but we have so much garden available, and it seems like a good idea to try plantings in several locations, to see which area is best suited for each plant.

Additionally, in that back plot (the one with the spinach already in), I intend to border the whole thing with marigolds, which are said to be particularly beneficial for tomatoes, as they help to repel tomato hornworms. Keep in mind that I’m getting all of my information from the Internet, not from personal knowledge, so my opinions of what plants should be planted together may indeed change over time. But I feel very much in debt to all of those generous gardeners who share on line from their body of knowledge. As it turns out, marigolds also are beneficial for beans and peas, which I’m told are not compatible at all with tomatoes. So today I also will be starting another flat of marigolds to use up that packet of seed. The marigolds that I started a week ago have all sprouted and are thriving on my sun porch, despite the cool nights. I intend to bring them in on nights when hard freezes are expected, but I think they’ll be fine with anything warmer than that.

Every available square inch of my rather small sun porch is being put to use. I’m hoping soon to be able to get the peas in place out in the large garden plot that runs along the south side of my garage and drive. I’ve been waiting on that a little while in an effort to get the soil pH down somewhat. I haven’t measured the pH since the day I applied the aluminum sulfate there. Since it never rained, I expect I should sprinkle it with water, at the very least to help the chemical better absorb into the soil. Once that happens, I will start moving the peas outside. They will get even better sun in the garden, and they are already accustomed to the cool nights.

The peas, by the way, are today starting to sprout. These seeds were soaked overnight, and then I tried something I found recommended on the Internet by a successful pea grower. After the overnight soak, drain the pea seeds and rinse and drain again. Cover the glass container with plastic and allow the moist seeds to sit another day or two, rinsing and draining again every 12 hours or so. When you see a little root begin to grow — botanists call this a radicula (radical, don’t you think? It’s really just Latin for “root.”) –then you plant.

These peas have had me feeling so foolish. First, I misunderstood the directions and I didn’t drain the seeds after rinsing them on the second and subsequent days. Well, the directions I read didn’t exactly say to drain. They said to rinse. Well, I drowned the poor things. The little root sprouted right away, but then never grew. After that, I realized what I had done wrong, bought new seed, and the little peas are simply rooting away.

But then I realized how desperately alkaline my soil here is. The lack of nitrogen evidently isn’t a concern, since the peas pull nitrogen out of the air and then deposit the excess back into the soil. That’s great for me. That’s why I’m intending to put them in the large garden plot along my drive and garage. That soil appears to have no nitrogen. But then there’s the pH problem.

So I bought myself some time by putting the rooting pea seeds into peat pots with potting formulated mix. That was a little expensive, but I just wanted to keep them alive until I could get my garden soil’s pH down where it should be. (I already was suffering a fair amount of guilt for killing the first batch.) I applied the aluminum sulfate several days ago, as I knew a heavy rain was forecasted, by sprinkling it over the prepared soil and then raking it just below the surface. But, then, no rain. So I’ll be making my own rain today (with the garden hose, of course) and then I’ll plant the peas. Since they’ve been in the peat pots for such a short time, I’ll simply reuse them again with other crops. In the end, the whole ordeal will cost me about $3.49 for the potting mix that I used for them. I guess that’s not too bad to rescue four packages of snap peas and snow peas. Let’s hope I haven’t caused any damage, anyway. At this point, I’m wondering if I would have been better off taking my chances with the high pH soil.

The peas will be planted on the garden’s periphery. That way the afore-mentioned aluminum fence can double as a support fence for the peas, as well as protect the entire inside garden from the many pests residing nearby. Once we get into May, I’ll plant marigolds on the outside of the fence, as they are said to be beneficial for most garden plants for the pest-repelling qualities.

Okay, those are my plans. Keep your fingers crossed that it all works out. Gardens do take work, and I’m going to be very disappointed if there isn’t a big pay-off in the end.

Over the past weekend I sowed several flats of snow peas. I used larger 2.5-inch biodegradable pots for these seeds, rather than the smaller 1.75-inch pots that I used for the previous flats: the lettuce mix, the Roma tomatoes and the leeks.

I also sowed a 50-cell flat of marigolds in the smaller cells, as I had read that marigolds make very good companion plants for almost all vegetables, particularly tomatoes. Marigolds are said to repel nematodes, whiteflies, mexican bean beetles, and tomato hornworms. I’ve never been a big fan of marigolds as flowers, but if they will keep pests out of my garden, then I will begin to regard them as botanical guardian angels.

The seed packet of the variety of marigold that I selected it Snowdrift (W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). Snowdrift says that it will grow to a height of 22 inches, with 3 to 4-inch cream-colored blooms. The lighter color appeals to me, and it occurs to me that this larger variety will need to be planted farther apart, which means I will not need so many to line the periphery of my garden, as is my intention.

Well, here’s the exciting news: my lettuce seeds have sprouted. And so have my marigolds. I am such a worry wart. Should I be concerned that the marigolds sprouted a mere four days after planting. The lettuce, which sprouted exactly seven days after planting, is right on target. But what about the Roma tomatoes and the leeks? They still have a couple of days, of course. But what if I did something wrong? I’ve decided maybe I should be taking them inside again at night for a while. While nothing is actually freezing overnight on my sun porch, they may need a little more warmth to coax them into showing their faces.

More wonderful news: My sons’ father Tim also has taken an interest in our garden, and he was able to borrow a rototiller. Leave it to guys to go crazy over any tool with an engine, particularly one that digs through dirt. Zac and Jacob had that sod mulched and then the soil fully plowed in one evening. (And Jacob also plowed our neighbor’s smaller garden the next afternoon.) I expected to be digging daily until May. So hurray for rototillers! Our garden measures roughly 12 by 60 feet, and then there is another patch farther in the back of the lot that we prepared for crops that can tolerate a little less direct sun. This plot measures about 15 by 15 feet. I know that sounds like a lot of garden, but when you consider how many hands we have involved now (who will likely be reaping the benefits as we start to harvest), maybe it’s just about the right size.

I have a couple of additional flats that I will be sowing today. Here’s a photo of one section of our garden.

Our garden is taking shape.

Our garden is taking shape.

Let me also add a brief update regarding the soil pH: I was able to treat the soil yesterday with aluminum sulfate, which is supposed to lower the pH immediately. I put down roughly what the package directed in order to lower the pH one full point. That should get us down around 6.5.

But storms were forecasted yesterday, and I could hear thunder in the distance as I prepared to treat the soil. So I made the decision to scatter the aluminum sulfate on top of the soil — yes, I wore gloves and used an old colander as a spreader. The package directions said to mix with water and then pour, but that was assuming that it would be used to lower the pH around established hydrangeas (which need highly acidic soil to get those deep blue blooms). I figured that, since I had nothing planted yet, I could save time by raking it into the top soil and allow the rain to distribute it further.

So, you guessed it. We had lots of thunder but not one drop of rain. The problem can be easily solved with a garden hose, but we have none. At least, not yet. We lived in an apartment for the year between leaving our last house and moving here, so I gave all of our old hoses away. I expect I will get one before the day’s end. I am truly grateful that we are so close to Home Depot, Menards and Target, as well as the higher end garden center where I bought the aluminum sulfate. I expect there will be many things that I’ll need as I learn more how to do this thing called gardening.

The temperature reached 72 degrees yesterday, just shy of the 75 degree record for our county here in Northern Indiana. What a perfect day to be working in the garden. And what was I doing? I was sitting in Memorial Hospital’s emergency ward getting three x-rays and stitches in the top of my foot, as well as a tetanus shot.

To say this injury was a gardening injury is a little bit of a stretch. But it wouldn’t have happened had I not been testing the soil yet once again. (Monday I conducted my fourth pH test, this time using distilled water. And yet the results remained the same: high pH, somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0, and, as close as I can guess based on the inaccuracies of matching to a color chart, probably nearer to 8.0 than 7.0. Oh, and the second test for nitrogen was the same as well — no nitrogen to speak of.) This is what happened:

To conduct the nitrogen test, I had followed the directions to the letter. I took 1 tablespoon soil samples from three locations in the garden and from depths of four inches. I mixed the soil samples in a drinking glass and thoroughly stirred in 15 tablespoons of distilled water (one part soil to five parts water). After waiting 10 minutes for the mixture to settle, I used an eyedropper to remove the proper amount of water from the mixture, without disturbing the sediment at the bottom of the glass.

And, here’s my critical mistake, I put the glass on a ledge just inside the back door after shaking out the water and most of the mud. It had been my intention to wash the glass right away and return it to the cupboard, but this is a household with two teenage girls, three golden retrievers, and frequent visits from two adult sons, my daughter-in-law Jenni and my two young grandchildren. Somehow, with all of this going on, my attention was diverted and the glass remained on the ledge until yesterday morning when, at about 5:45 a.m., the tangle of golden retrievers at the back door coming in from our first walk of the day caused the jar to fall. It landed on carpet-covered concrete a few inches from my slippered foot, broke and one of the larger pieces ricocheted into the top of my foot.

Miraculously, all of the dogs escaped injury, but I was wounded. It turns out that the skin on the top of our feet is not very thick, and I was pretty certain that the inch-long gash completely cut through all layers of skin. The washroom is just feet away from our back door, so I immediately rinsed my wound by running warm water on it for about as long as I could stand. I could tell that I was going to need stitches. Rinsing the wound seemed to make it bleed more heavily, but thankfully, I was able to stop the bleeding with liberal amounts of antibiotic ointment on a wad of gauze, which I secured with surgical tape.

After I saw the two teenagers (and my daughter Anna’s assistance dog Blue) off to school, Jenni came and drove me to the ER, where over the course of the morning, I was x-rayed and stitched. Little Jaxon, my 21-month-old grandson, was fascinated by all of the buttons and gears in the little room where we waited and was far more well-behaved than any of my children would have been under similar circumstances. On the drive home, he fell soundly asleep. After lunch, I did too. And that was the extent of my day. Entirely unproductive, to say the least.

And so, what’s the moral of this story? I suppose it would be this: don’t use glass when testing your soil, or at least pick up right away after yourself if you do.

Today, thundershowers are expected. I have purchased a 15-pound bag of aluminum sulfate to sprinkle over our garden soil and hopefully lower the pH about to around 6.5. It’s also supposed to add nitrogen as well. I’m doing this reluctantly, because I’d rather not be adding a chemical. But it is a chemical that is supposed to occur naturally in soil. Still, I would have preferred to attempt to lower the pH entirely by mulching with acidic natural matter, like pine needles and oak leaves. I’m hoping, by practicing good mulching techniques throughout the growing season and then through the winter, that we will be able to maintain a mildly acidic level. But for now, it’s aluminum sulfate. (Which, I must say, is rather pricey at $24.99 for a 15-pound bag at a near-by garden center. Unfortunately, I was not able to find anything similar at Home Depot or Menards, which are also within a two mile radius of my home.)

Okay. That blog title sounds a little creepy. But my obsession with my soil and it’s high pH levels may be getting a bit unhealthy. However, if I’m going to put a lot of work (not to mention the investment of good dollars) into this garden for the next six months, I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot before I even get started. Working with soil that’s unlikely to be productive is exactly that.

The thing about high pH levels is that, at a certain level, many nutrients become less soluble in water. And since plants drink their nutrients through their roots, elements like iron, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc become less available to them. Without the right nutrients, they starve.

Now some plants seem to like the higher alkaline soils. Cabbage, probably, would grow really well with my dirt just as it is. However, while we like cabbage in this family, there are a number of other vegetables we would like also. And we have to find a pH level amenable to all of them, with minor adjustments for their differing tastes. By and large, most vegetables do well between pH levels of 6.5 and 7.5. So that’s what we would like to aim for.

I still can’t figure out why I’m getting such a high alkaline reading on this soil. We’re east of the Mississippi, which tends to be acidic and not alkaline. The soil looks good and black, with an abundance of earthworms crawling around beneath the surface. I’ve accepted the fact that our drive probably is or has been a limestone covered drive. (What’s there presently doesn’t look like limestone to me, but even if it isn’t now limestone, I’m certain at one time it probably was.)

I conducted two more soil tests yesterday. One was with soil about 30 feet from where I tested the first time. I also tested for nutrients. This test yielded a somewhat lower pH result – around 7.0. (I’m using one of those inexpensive kits that you mix with soil and water and then match to a color chart.) But I was astounded to see an extremely low result for nitrogen. The phosphorous and potassium levels seem okay — maybe a bit low (again, hard to be precise due to the color-matching aspect of the test). But the nitrogen test failed to show any color at all. Does that mean there is no nitrogen?

That’s when I went over the test directions once again. It appears that I’m not very good at reading directions in their entirety. That’s when I noticed that I was supposed to have mixed together three tablespoons of dirt from three different spots where I intended to garden, at a depth of four inches. I had neglected to dig down four inches. So I headed out to pick up yet another test and proceeded to test the soil once again, taking dirt from three locations at the far end of what I hope will in time be my gardens eastern-most edge (and away from the drive on the most westerly side of the intended garden).
And, for the third time, I again obtained an alkaline result (somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0), as well as nearly medium levels of phosphorous and potassium (I guess gardeners call this “potash”) and, as far as I could see, zero nitrogen.

I am accepting the zero nitrogen test results. The grass in this area of the yard is not very lush. So that seems probable. (But zero?!!) However, I really want to be sure about the pH level before I set out looking for sulfur to bring it down. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to find sulfur here in an area of the world that seems to suffer more from the other end of the spectrum. But, also, if I’m wrong, it seems as if it could cause me a lot of potential difficulties later. And the pH test is only $1.19 anyway, so it’s a small cost to avert potentially big problems later.

It occurred to me overnight, as I fixated further on my sad pH problems, that I had not used distilled water for the test, as the directions suggested was best. I had instead used bottled drinking water, thinking this would be better than water from our tap, which goes through a water softener. Alkaline soil is often called “sweet” when compared to the “sour” nature of acidic soil. If I can believe what I’ve been reading, evidently farmers of yore literally would taste the soil (hopefully in small amounts) to decide if it was right for their crops. Do you suppose people who bottle water might add a bit of mineral that would push the water toward the sweeter side of the pH scale? I don’t know. But it does seem possible.

So, I have decided that the small investment of yet another pH test and a gallon of distilled water is in order to be absolutely positive of my soil’s pH level before I work to change it.

In the meantime, we’ve begun turning over the soil. Here’s a photo of my older son, Zac, having a go at it yesterday, which was an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day. We were able to get a 10 by 10 foot patch turned over with very little effort.

Zac digs in.

Zac digs in.

 

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on soil since my last post.  I’m concerned about the high pH level result that I got yesterday.  If you recall, it appeared to be very close to 8.0, which is not typical for our area.  According to what I’ve been reading, usually soil east of the Mississippi River (that’s us) tends to be acidic, while soil west of the Mississippi tends to be alkaline.

I don’t know how I got it into my head that oak trees can make soil alkaline, but according to multiple Internet sources, the leaves from oak trees should leave soil acidic.  Now, given that we have a lawn, it’s possible that the leaves have been removed to such an extent over the years that they are not getting a chance to compost and return nutrients to the soil in this particular patch of grass.

I think, however, I have a more likely explanation.  We are planning this garden for the sunniest area of the yard, a plot from the back southeast corner of the property extending west along the garage and then following the drive toward the street.  And here’s the important factor:  this is an old farmhouse, and the drive is not paved.  It’s limestone.  That’s right.  I’m betting the lime is what is making the soil alkaline.

So here’s my plan.  First off, I’m going to do a couple of additional soil tests, since for the first test, I simply walked outside down the porch steps and across the drive until I got to the nearest spot we will till and cultivate.  I dug up a bit of dirt, came in and completed the test.  Yup, that’s right.  I tested soil right off the top and about a foot away from our limestone drive.  Hence, the alkaline results.  Since the test was only $1.19, it seems reasonable to do a few more in various spots along the 60-foot length of the garden plot.

However, I have also searched out sources for pine needles which I hope to use as much on the garden this summer.  The needles also can be chopped up and mixed into the soil in the areas where we need to lower the pH.  Pine needles, of course, are quite acidic and would help pull the pH levels down to the more acceptable range of 6.0 to 7.0.  

My son Jacob and I went to pick up six large bags of  pine needles from a kind woman who lives about 2 miles from my house.  She had recently had 60 trees removed from her property, and we were able to get another seven bags of shredded pine that had been left behind.  We will be able to use that in between rows, once we have our plants in the garden in May.

We filled the entire back seat of the car with the bags of pine needles and shredded pine.  Once we got it home, we emptied the bags on the ground behind the garage, to begin the weathering process.C  Clearly we are going to need much more.  Here’s a photo:

piles of pine needles and shredded pine

piles of pine needles and shredded pine

I’ll report later on the additional pH tests.  Keep in mind that this is a learning process for me and that I am likely to make many similar errors in the course of this adventure.  Hopefully, they will all be as easily caught as this one has been.

 

My little plot of land.

My little plot of land.

Here it is, everyone. My little plot of land. It doesn’t look like much, does it?  It’s only March here, and temperatures went down into the single digits last night, so it’s hard to envision what this piece of land will look like in a few months.  We have a piece of land that measures about 15 by 60 feet that is sunny, flat, and evidently fertile.  We’re told that a garden once sat on this very same site, so that’s reassuring.  

There also is another 15 by 20 feet available behind the garage and tree in the photo that could be used to grow vegetables needing less sunshine, such as the spinach crop I have planned.  We will have to dig that site right away, as the seed can be sown on frozen soil for early harvest.  What will grow there later in the season I haven’t yet figured out.

Today, the temperatures are above 40 degrees, and it is quite bright and sunny.  So I have returned my previously planted flats to the sun porch, and I planted another today:  leeks.  Again, one flat of 50 cells.  It is not supposed to dip below freezing this weekend, so I won’t have to move the flats in and out, which makes me very happy.  I need to find someone who can tell me how much cold my sprouting seeds and seedlings can tolerate overnight in their enclosed but unheated space.  

We are expecting sunny days in the 50s over the weekend, and my sons and I will be starting to dig.  The spinach patch will be our first priority, so that we can get the seed in right away.  We’ve purchased a bag of peat moss to mix into the soil for the spinach patch.  I have no experience with this, and I don’t know how many bags of peat I will need in total for the entire garden.  I’ve decided to buy one bag at a time.  The first bag, purchased at a garden center about one mile from our house, was $8.99.  It’s very heavy, so I expect it has been compressed a great deal, given that — in my experience, at least — peat moss is not particularly dense.  It may be also that in time I’ll find a better price.  

I just did a soil test with a little kit that I purchased at the same garden center for $1.19.  It turns out that our soil is very alkaline — I’m guessing close to pH 8.0.  As I said in my last post, we have ten large trees on our property, and as best as I can tell now (given that they have no leaves at present), I believe they are all oak trees.  So the alkaline soil is to be expected.  Tonight I’ll be researching my options on how to get that pH down between 6.0 and 7.0, which evidently is where most vegetables like their dirt.

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