Archive for the ‘Technical’ Category

WYPIWYG – What You Plant Is What You Get

May 26, 2010

You may have seen this infomercial doubling as a YouTube video. It is put out by Survival Seed Bank and can be seen at this URL.

Survival Seed Bank Video

While I like the quality of the video and can appreciate the message—that we all need to be responsible for our own food supply and not be dependent on those that might not have our best interests at heart—I do have a problem with the company. Now I know that they certainly have the right to sell a product to make a profit. And if they can get people to pay them what they are asking for seeds, then more power to them. But, that being said, since most of us don’t have unlimited amounts of money, wouldn’t it be better if you could put together your own Survival Seed Bank? Let me tell you how.

Before we get started, there are a couple of things we need to address. First, for survival seeds, you MUST make certain the seeds you purchase and store are open-pollinated or non-hybrid. What is the difference between the two? Open pollinated seeds will “breed true” as is the common vernacular. What this means is pretty much WYPIWYG or “what you plant is what you get” from the next generation of seeds or the seeds you save. Hybrid seeds, common notated as F-1 (first generation hybrid) is usually a cross between two (or more) separate plant strains in the same family that combine desirable characteristics from each plant to produce a “hybrid” or cross. For a more detailed explanation, see this link, Wiki. By way of example you could cross a tomato that produces small numbers of large fruit with another tomato that produces copious numbers of small fruit. So in theory you end up with a F-1 hybrid that produces large numbers of medium size fruit.

So for our purposes, we want to not only provide food for our family for this year but also subsequent years as well. In addition, we also want to grow our seed stock through barter, so we need more than we need so we have some to trade. Also, you always want to keep some seeds back, just “in case” something goes wrong and you have to replant. Because “things” happen, such as a late season frost or a flood or even vandalism by either humans or animals. So, always keep some seeds as insurance, because we are talking about survival after all.

Okay, on to the solution to the problem. Where do you get your non-hybrid, open pollinated seeds? Below is an abbreviated list, with many other links and sources available. The important thing is to get busy and do NOT procrastinate. If you wait until EVERYONE is concerned, then the supply of available seeds will be exhausted VERY quickly.


JohnnySeeds This site sells all types of seeds, so check each variety before ordering

These are just two of the better known seed selling websites. Don’t overlook local coops, seed and feed stores, farmer’s markets as well as old time gardeners. There are even organizations dedicated to preserving “old time” seed varieties.

Southern Exposure


Once you have your seeds, how to you keep them viable for as long as possible? The short answer is to store them in a cool, dry, dark location in air-tight containers. Some suggestions are to use old film canisters, but I mean really, who has those any more? Tupperware containers work as well. Just remember that viability will decrease with time, but most seeds should be viable for at least two seasons. And even if your germination rate is low, with most plants, all you need are a few to keep the flame alive.

Now, how to prepare YOUR seeds for storage is another topic entirely, which I can go into at a later date. The important thing at this point is to get the seeds for the foods you would normally eat NOW and store them. This is just like buying insurance. While I can’t say that I don’t expect to use my seeds, ’cause you know I will, I hope I don’t have to DEPEND on what I grow to live. However, if I do, then I do.

Saving seeds is just ONE small step you can take to ensure the safety of you and yours. But a word of caution is in order. Don’t wait until you HAVE to plant to survive. Start gardening now, so that IF (and some would say WHEN) you start relying on your produce to survive you are ready. Preparation removes the tendency to panic. Because, remember, “only YOU can prevent starvation.” 😉

This is just the opinion of “a man out standing in his field.” Judging by some of my opinions, some of you think I’ve been standing out in my field under the noonday sun without a hat, but that would be YOUR opinion. And in the battle of opinions, mine wins, at least on this blog. Happy saving…


Can magnesium deficiency be causing your problems?

March 3, 2010

This is a quote from what looks to be a really good blog devoted to health and well-being associated with good health.

The following quote is from the post on magnesium deficiency. I post this because he references artisanally grown foods using heirloom varieties grown in “better soil”. This has been my take all along. As Hippocrates stated, “Let food be your medicine”. Of course what he left out of this oh so famous quote is this. Food grown on deficient soils produces deficient “medicine/food”. Take care of your soil and your soil will take care of you. Mineralize your soil; add organic materials, good fertilizer, and copious amounts of mulch on the surface and the veggies from that soil will truly be medicine that will do your body good.

Now the quote from the Whole Health Source blog. Thanks go out to Stephan Guyenet, the author.

Speaking of nutritious diets, how does one get magnesium? Good sources include halibut, leafy greens, chocolate and nuts. Bone broths are also an excellent source of highly absorbable magnesium. Whole grains and beans are also fairly good sources, while refined grains lack most of the magnesium in the whole grain. Organic foods, particularly artisanally produced foods from a farmer’s market, are richer in magnesium because they grow on better soil and often use older varieties that are more nutritious.

The problem with seeds such as grains, beans and nuts is that they also contain phytic acid which prevents the absorption of magnesium and other minerals (16). Healthy non-industrial societies that relied on grains took great care in their preparation: they soaked them, often fermented them, and also frequently removed a portion of the bran before cooking (17). These steps all served to reduce the level of phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. I’ve posted a method for effectively reducing the amount of phytic acid in brown rice (18). Beans should ideally be soaked for 24 hours before cooking, preferably in warm water.

Industrial agriculture has systematically depleted our soil of many minerals, due to high-yield crop varieties and the fact that synthetic fertilizers only replace a few minerals. The mineral content of foods in the US, including magnesium, has dropped sharply in the last 50 years. The reason we need to use fertilizers in the first place is that we’ve broken the natural nutrient cycle in which minerals always return to the soil in the same place they were removed. In 21st century America, minerals are removed from the soil, pass through our toilets, and end up in the landfill or in waste water. This will continue until we find an acceptable way to return human feces and urine to agricultural soil, as many cultures do to this day.

Another good link about letting food be your medicine can be found here.

Americans are literally STARVING themselves by eating foods that are devoid of the necessary nutrients their bodies need. Most commercial farm land in the US has been sub-par for almost 100 years, and the USDA KNOWS IT! The gov’t makes NO distinction between fully mineralized, nutritious food and the industrial swill that passes for “food” in most US grocery stores. The large scale commercial farmer is NOT compensated on the QUALITY of his produce but rather the QUANTITY of his crops. So what is the solution to this quandary? GROW YOUR OWN!

Because remember, “Only YOU can prevent personal starvation”.

I would say these are just my “opinions” but that would not be the case. This is the TRUTH about our food system, from a man “out standing in his field.”

Growing Hemp for Fun and Profit

February 26, 2010

Now that I’ve got your attention, what in Sam Hill am I talking about? Am I advocating growing the “demon weed” in defiance of DEA edicts? This is a GARDENING blog, not a drug advocacy rant. Okay, I have to digress here and say that “weed” is a naturally occurring plant and as such should be left out of drug policy, but that’s just my own libertarian tendencies sneaking out when I wasn’t looking. But seriously, what “hemp” am I talking about?

First, I hope we all agree that bare ground is a bad idea. It is wasteful for solar energy to fall on bare ground with nothing present to capture it. It (bare ground) is susceptible to erosion, compaction and temperature extremes. So, cover crops are mandatory in order to collect solar energy, keep the little beasties in the soil happy and fed, and protect bare soil from erosion and compaction. Most importantly, cover crops are a CHEAP method of putting valuable nitrogen into the soil for just the cost of seeds, plus you get THOUSANDS of pounds of organic matter for FREE! It’s MUCH easier to grow your own organic matter in the soil than it is to buy it and HAUL it. Let nature do the work for you. Remember, we want to work WITH her not AGAINST her. She can be a great friend and helpmate or a cruel bitch on an enemy. Kind of like… well you know. 

Okay, back to the original question, “what hemp am I talking about?” That would be Sunn Hemp or for those who can actually READ Latin, (Crotalaria juncea L.).

These are some links to web sites advocating the growing of hemp, and just so everyone is clear, nowhere in these links will you find a reference to websites advocating the growing of the “other” hemp. So, just so I am CRYSTAL CLEAR, these are RESPECTABLE references with details about a valuable agricultural crop. Damn, no matter how I put this I just keeps getting deeper and deeper. Okay, here are the links.

This is a US government agency advocating the growing of hemp. 

This is a link to a main stream agricultural magazine detailing the advantages of growing hemp. 

And finally a link from the USDA, a gov’t agency that is always looking out for the American farmer. 😉

Just to briefly summarize the benefits to growing hemp, they are, in no particular order:

1. Production of up to 200 pounds of organic nitrogen per acre every 60-90 days
2. Production of up to 6000 pounds of biomass per acre
3. Suppression of noxious weeds
4. Suppression of nematodes
5. Improved soil properties and water conservation
6. Reduced erosion and soil compaction
7. Has potential as a forage crop, paper fiber and as an alternative fuel

Who should use Sunn Hemp? Anyone who has soil that needs to be improved. The crop can be used by conventional as well as organic growers. Sunn Hemp ‘Tropic Sun’ works very well as a precursor crop for small grains (winter wheat/oats) or as a legume to restore soil fertility and to increase organic matter. Just think about it. You can turn 50# of seeds (15000 seeds per pound) into 6000 pounds of organic matter without having to pick up a shovel or use a wheelbarrow. And, as a BONUS, you get 200# of organic nitrogen, ready for plant uptake!

You can proudly proclaim that you are a producer of AMERICAN HEMP for both FUN as well as PROFIT!

Just be prepared by keeping copies of ALL seed receipts as well as copies of ALL gov’t recommendations to actually grow the variety of hemp I am advocating. I would not want you to be the victim of confused drug enforcement agents who don’t have the good sense to read useful and informative blogs such as this one. 

All kidding aside, Sunn Hemp is a completely LEGAL plant, not even in the same family as Cannabis sativa L. commonly called marijuana or pot. No, Sunn Hemp has REAL value to farmers and gardeners in the south.

I proudly proclaim myself to be an advocate of growing American Hemp, but that’s just me, Michael LaBelle, “a man out standing in his field.” Just don’t tell the DEA WHICH field I am out standing in. I wouldn’t want them to find out where I am after this blog hits the net. 🙂

Planting in Lasagna

February 13, 2010

This is the second part of a two part duology on permaculture. If you haven’t read “The Do-Nothing Garden – is it just a myth?” then this post probably won’t make much sense. But then again, if you are wondering about the title, that might be a good thing.

In the blog on getting started with a “Do Nothing Garden” we discussed “setting the table” so to speak in the garden or, in other words, getting things ready for the fun part of gardening – planting. I know the quote applies to something else, but one of my favorite passages of literature is “hope springs eternal in the heart of man” and I apply the quote to planting a garden. If you really think about it, planting a garden is one of the ultimate indications that you plan on being around for at least a few more months AND you plan on being both ACTIVE as well as HUNGRY! I mean, who would plant a garden if they didn’t think they were going to be around to harvest it? You get the idea.

Okay, to the nuts and bolts of planting in lasagna. Huh? Is that a sentence you have EVER seen typed in the English language? I mean, I wrote it and I’ve never seen it before.

As we address the garden prior to planting, please be respectful. You do NOT want to piss off the garden. She (and yes, it HAS to be a she, ‘cause the garden is the source of SO much beauty and goodness while also being the POTENTIAL source of SO much heartache) will tolerate NO disrespect. I mean there are RULES that MUST be followed. That is one of the reasons you are here; to learn the rules. But you have to be careful who you learn the rules from, ‘cause not all rule teachers are equal. Some are more “equal” than others. There! Did I successfully navigate that little minefield? Okay, all is good.

If you will recall, we laid down layers of various materials over the soil of our planting beds, almost as if we were making lasagna. As I mentioned, it would have been better to have done this in the fall, and it would be a good thing to do NEXT fall. But since we didn’t, let’s work with what we have. The order in which to proceed is as follows:

1. Determine what you are going to plant and where – if you are planting live plants (dead ones are NOT a good choice at this time) then I recommend you have a container of planting mix (see blog on getting started in container gardening for recipes) to fill in around the plant.

2. For the next step, procure a sharp trowel. Okay, who am I kidding; you don’t have a sharp trowel do you? I have only seen one SHARP trowel, and that one belongs to me. You probably don’t take the time to sharpen your little shovels. Do you? You really need to get out more. Okay, take a “sharp instrument” of some kind—a knife, the aforementioned sharp trowel, or whatever you need in order to cut the soggy cardboard layer to allow you access to the soil below.

3. If you are planting live plants, make a small recess in the soil below the cardboard larger than the root ball of the setting. Place the plant in the hole and fill in around the plant with the potting mix.

4. If you are planting seeds, then repeat the above procedure, but instead of putting in a plant, simply fill in the recess with potting mix and then plant your seed(s).

5. Depending on what type of mulch you are using, you can move some of it back either around your live plant or lightly sprinkled over the seed you just planted.

6. Lightly water your plants or seeds and PRAY that “she” will be good to you. If you have already forgotten who “she” is then please refer back to fourth paragraph of this blog. You know you really should take something for this memory issue you have.

Bonus Material

In order to really get into permaculture, you can plant PERMANENT plants in the raised beds and then plant your veggies/flowers in between. This is the best of both worlds. The permanent features of the garden will prosper due to all the nutrients you put into the soil prior to planting and the veggies/flowers will benefit from the permanent biology around the permanent plants as well as the protection from the scalding summer sun that we are expecting any day now.

BTW, if you haven’t figured out yet what I’m talking about, “permanent plants” would be things like small (or large) fruit trees such as peach trees. In certain climates and soil conditions, blueberries make good permanent members of your garden. I know it would seem a little “weird”, but you could plant roses or some other ornamental in the garden. You get the idea. There are NO rules! Oh, did I say that out loud? And after all the fuss I made about the rules above.

The next installment (or it could be the one after that), will take up the discussion of companion planting. No, this does NOT mean finding places to bury the bodies of childhood companions you have grown tired of. “Companion planting” is the age old practice of planting two or more varieties together so that they compliment (no mean or nasty plants are accepted) each other’s biology. Think of it as a marriage, where each plant has strengths and weaknesses, but together they are both stronger than they would be alone. A prime example of companion planting is planting onions around squash plants. The phytochemicals in the onion plant protects the squash from such little beasties as cut worms, while at the same time the onion benefits from special chemicals given off by the squash. Also, since they are both right together, when you get ready for steamed squash and onions; you don’t have to look for the onions.

As usual, if you have any comments or suggestions for future blogs, please leave them in the comment section just below this entry. That’s all for today from Michael, just a “man out standing in his field,” which today happens to be 5” deep with SNOW. How the hell am I supposed to garden in the SNOW? I live in the SOUTH, not north of the Mason-Dixon! If I wanted SNOW I would live in Maine! Oh, well. I’m sure that “global warming”, known locally as SPRING, will take care of things soon.

Get your seeds NOW!!!

February 5, 2010

Check out this link to a story run by ABC News regarding the upcoming gardening season.

The high points of the article, in no particular order, are:

1. Last season was a bad one for seed farmers – expect shortages
2. Europe had a really bad year for seed farmers, and are raiding American seed stores (as in stockpiles) – expect shortages
3. The economy is bad everywhere, so more people than ever growing a garden – expect shortages
4. People fear seed shortages because of all of the above and are buying earlier – expect shortages
5. Seed farmers can make more money growing corn for ethanol – expect shortages

Are you getting the idea? Go TODAY! Buy enough seeds for you, your family and your friends, especially if you want to make friends. You know Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Nothing says “I Care” like a packet of vegetable seeds.

Now the rules for buying seeds, in no particular order.

2. Most seeds will remain viable for two seasons, if properly stored. Use what you need for this growing season and vacuum seal the rest, as insurance against not being able to get more seeds NEXT year.
3. Buy a good variety of seeds for all types of veggies. There is an amazing array of possibilities out there just waiting for you. Example – tomatoes. Big ones, little ones, red, orange, stripped, black, and purple ones. Ones that go on salad and ones that go in spaghetti. Ones even that are spotted. And don’t get me started on high acid and low acid varieties. You get the idea.
4. Always, always, always SAVE SEEDS from year to year. If you are using open pollinated seeds (as opposed to hybrid varieties) then you can save the seeds and they will come back “true.”

And now a word about hybrids. What this means is WYPIWUG, “what you plant is what you get.” Hybrids are just that, a cross between two (or more) varieties, each having a particularly desirable trait that the hybridizer wants to incorporate into the new variety. By way of example, you could have a variety of tomatoes that produces very large tomatoes, but not very many. The other variety produces lots of tomatoes, just not very large. The tech thinks he can “improve” nature and cross pollinates the two to get a variety that produces (in theory) lots of big tomatoes. The problem is, other than it doesn’t work that way, if you save seeds from the hybrid, you will not GWYP. The seeds will “revert” back to which ever variety had the strongest genetic expression. So you think you will get lots of big tomatoes but what you will really get is either lots of small tomatoes or a few big ones. Not to mention the hybrid doesn’t generally take up as many minerals out of the soil as a “natural” variety, which kind of defeats the purpose of growing your own food.

So, again, go out and buy the seeds you need—or THINK you will need—this weekend. Sunday afternoon would be a PERFECT time to go, as most sheeple will be partying while watching the Superbowl. Remember ONE of my mottos. “Your lack of planning does NOT constitute an emergency on my part. These are MY seeds!”
Follow these simple guidelines and you, too, can be “a man out standing in his field.” Or a woman, but I get distracted when I see a woman out standing in her field. I forget about the field and instead concentrate on the woman. 

Please comment if you like this stuff. I feel like a voice, crying in the wilderness. No, that was someone else’s tag line. What about “a man shouting, while out standing in his field?” Yeah, that works.

If you have specific questions, please send them to

The Do-Nothing Garden – is it just a myth? Could it be true?

February 5, 2010

In a previous blog I alluded to this subject of low-maintenance gardening. That’s called foreshadowing. You see it all the time in movies and even in some books. The author (that would be me) cleverly lets the reader (that would be you) know that something either very cool or very bad is coming. I hope you find this very cool, since I am trying to save you from something very unnecessary work. I define “work” as something you have to do but don’t want to do. Gardening is NOT work, for some of us, yet it is “hell on earth” for those who can’t stand it. The idea behind the type of gardening outlined in this blog is to get everything in order in the beginning so that you can reap the rewards of your labor later.

Now what is it about gardening that people don’t like? Okay, okay, calm down! One at a time:

• All the digging and constant work
• The expenses – every year
• Having to start over EVERY spring
• WEEDS and GRASS – no, not THOSE weeds and certainly not THAT grass
• Bending over – the ground is SO far down there

Okay, nominations are over. What if I could show you a gardening method that addresses ALL these issues while at the same time improving (not guaranteeing – we went over that earlier) the outcome of your efforts. In other words, you have a MUCH better chance of growing what you want – tasty veggies, while not growing what you DON’T want – weeds and grass. One caveat – this presupposes you are not trying to grow GRASS and WEED. 

Okay, let the lesson begin. What I am talking about goes by several names and, as with most things in gardening, there are no hard and fast rules. The phrase de jour is permaculture, which, as the name implies, is permanent agriculture. The idea is to mimic as closely as possible the forces that Nature employs in her natural gardens.

Okay, another list. I love lists. This one details what Nature DOES NOT do to grow, well, nature:

• No artificial tilling – natural tilling is performed by worms, bugs, beetles and roots
• No/Reduced fertilizing – just what generally grows on the site and what the plants take out of the air
• No/Reduced weeds – such as you would expect to find in a permanent landscape, such as an old growth forest
• No/Minimal failures – Nature makes a crop every year. Some years are better, but there is always a crop.

Now how do you suppose WE are going to do all these wonderful things? I’m glad you asked. I have to warn you that while I promised less work than conventional gardening, the first time will probably be more work. But you can rest assured that NEXT year your garden will be better than this year and will take a LOT less work. The idea is for you to look forward to springtime so you can garden, rather than dreading the very thought of gardening.

We are going to build a raised bed garden. Actually “we” aren’t going to build anything. You are going to do all the work. 😉 First, when we talk about a raised bed, what we are trying to accomplish is to deepen the good soil we have to work with so we can control the outcome of our planting and growing. You do not have to use anything to hold the soil in place, but it is a good idea for those planting areas you plan to use for growing typical garden veggies as opposed to “field” veggies. I put peas, beans, and corn into this “field veggie” category. It is just too much work to have that many raised beds. What you would typically plant in raised beds are early spring crops such as lettuce, spinach, herbs, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, etc… These work very well, especially if you can grow three or more crops per year, so you get maximum production from your initial work and investment.

These are step by step directions in an ideal situation with easy-to-work soil and lots of raw materials; or in other words, probably NOT where you are coming from. But just follow the principals outlined in the instructions as best you can. While I would like to do everything at once, that may not be practical. If you can just get the beds tilled and the soil amended, the rest can happen when it happens. Ideally, this should have been done last fall, but since my time machine is on the fritz, we will do what we can.

1. ***Get your soil tested. If you have ANY idea what your soil is like, then most county agents can give you at least an idea of what “most” soils in your area need. For example, in the Dallas area with the very heavy black clay and the high pH, you need LOTS of compost tilled into your soil, along with gypsum (to supply calcium without raising the pH) along with sulfur flowers (to lower the pH). In Mississippi, where I am currently living, we need high calcium lime, along with LOTS of compost tilled into the soil, Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate) and boron (from 20 Mule Team Borax). You get the idea.

2. Till (for the LAST time) all the recommended soil amendments into the soil. After the soil is well mixed, open up a trench, moving the soil to either side. The trench is backfilled with a mixture of wood chips, compost, tree limbs, and grass clippings. The idea is to put as much organic matter UNDER your beds as possible. Then replace the amended soil on TOP of your organic material. Water in your newly formed beds. This practice is called HUGELKULTUR, which is German for “mound culture.” BTW, does it strike you as strange that the German’s would have a NAME for something like that? It does me.

Ideally, all of this would have been completed last fall. I realize you didn’t know me then, but we are doing the best we can. Let’s continue.

3. Scatter a thin layer of manure or natural fertilizer. I recommend MightyGrow Organic Fertilizer with Trace Minerals or some other (howbeit less effective) good quality fertilizer.

4. If you can find it, lay down an overlapping layer of cardboard or just use a 3/8” layer of newspaper (no shiny print – that contains heavy metals). Make sure you overlap at least 6” so the weeds will not reappear. (Remember the weed discussion we had? I don’t, as I have wiped weeds from my MIND!) Yeah!
5. Another thin layer of manure or natural fertilizer scattered on top of the weed barrier.

6. Now comes the piece de resistance – 8 – 12” of OLD hay, straw, stable bedding, leaves or other mulching material. A good source of material for this layer can be found out in the country. Keep on the lookout for old round bales of hay that are of no value for feed. Tree companies will sometimes deliver loads of chipped limbs for FREE right to your door. BTW, that is actually just a FIGURE OF SPEECH. Put them as close to your garden as possible, not by the front door.

7. On top of the bulky mulching material, apply a 1 – 2” layer of good compost. If you have a compost pile, go ahead and raid it, since from this point forward you can do most of your composting IN the garden rather than composting somewhere else and taking it TO the garden.

8. Finally, put 2” of straw (not pine straw – use wheat straw or some other weedless material) on top of the compost. Don’t forget the areas between the rows.
You are done—for now. Water everything in and go get a beer! If you want you can go get a beer and THEN water everything in. Either way, drinking a beer is crucial to the success of your garden. I know. I drink beer every time I garden and my garden is always great. Now it is possible the beer is NOT the reason I have a great garden…but I’m not taking any chances. 😉

Next blog will be how you go about planting in this stuff. Relax, it’s easy. Trust me.

*** For soil testing you can try your local/state agricultural colleges such as Miss. State or Texas A&M. They offer low cost soil testing, but the timeliness of the results sometimes leaves a little to be desired. For fast, efficient, well qualified soil tests, contact Midwest Laboratories. They are good people to work with you can get your results online.

One of the primary reasons for a soil test is you cannot “fix” what you have not measured. Your particular soil may not need a lot of soil amendments or lime or sulfur or whatever. It may need something you just don’t know about. Also, a soil test provides a benchmark so you know where you are starting from. You can test every year or every other year, especially if you have problems. The soil lab can be one of your best resources to facilitate your gardening success.
This is just home spun wisdom with a sprinkling of experience from a “man out standing in his field.”

If you find this helpful, please let me know. If you have specific questions about gardening, you can email Michael at: For general questions, like “what is the meaning of life” just ask in the comment section.

Is Organic Fertilizer Really “All That?”

February 5, 2010

If you haven’t heard about the organic revolution you must have been living in a cave.  BTW, if you happen to be living in a BAT cave, you are living right on top of a GREAT organic fertilizer, which would be bat guano.  But then you knew you were living in a bat cave because all you could smell would be bat s#*t.  This is not to be confused with “going bat s#8t” which is an entirely different situation.

Okay, back to organic fertilizer.  A brief (for me) definition would be in order at this point, so we all know what we are talking about.  Well, I know what I’m talking about.  You are just waiting to see if I know what I’m talking about.  But, answer me this.  How would you know if I knew what I was talking about unless you too knew what I was talking about?  At which point this whole exercise would be kind of pointless wouldn’t it?  Let’s just say I DO know what I’m talking about and, while you don’t, you are going to give me the benefit of the doubt.  So that at the end of this blog you will know MORE than you started out knowing while at the same time being able to argue with anyone (using my logic) about organic fertilizers.  Deal?

An organic fertilizer is any material whose origin is either plant or animal.  So, the aforementioned bat s#*t WOULD be organic and, say, rock dust would not.  Rock Dust?  What do you use rock dust for?  Don’t get me sidetracked.  You KNOW what happens when you get me sidetracked.  We go off on a tangent into who knows where with who knows whom, which come to think of it is quite fun, but that is for another day.  Back to organic fertilizer.  A partial list of organic fertilizers would be compost, with or without manure, rotted mulch, grass or any plant material, pond muck, liquefied animal parts, such as hydrolyzed fish protein and ground and dried animal parts, such as bone meal, blood meal, hatchery waste, etc…  Anything that was once living can be used as a soil amendment, which is what we in the biz called “fertilizer.”

Now here are some inorganic “soil amendments” that can still be used in “organic crop production.”  Confused yet?  Don’t worry, you will be.  The aforementioned rock dust, (I really had to work hard to use aforementioned in a sentence) such as granite dust, or ground limestone (commonly called “lime”), or gypsum (you know this as sheetrock—I told you I could confuse you), or almost any other ground rock, such as basalt.  You can also add to this list things that look like rock powder but are actually of organic origin, such as ground egg shell, oyster shell, shrimp/crab shell, feather meal and yes, even hair meal.  So, there you have it, a partial, but pretty damn exhaustive, list of “organic fertilizers.”

So, what are synthetic or commercial fertilizers?  These are typically manufactured chemical compounds that are used as concentrated plant food.  They are normally not considered “soil amendments” because if they are used as directed, they cause great harm to the soil and its inhabitants.   Examples of these synthetic fertilizers would be ammonia nitrate (34-0-0) MAP/DAP – mono & di-ammonium phosphate, and Triple 13 (13-13-13), my grandfather’s favorite, with 13% nitrogen (N), 13% phosphorus (P) and 13% potassium (K).  Just an FYI, what makes Triple 13 such a poor fertilizer is first, plants don’t use N-P-K in equal amounts and second, the last 13 is potassium chloride (about 50/50 K and Cl).  The Cl (in this case chloride) is the dangerous component (from a soil’s standpoint) that will actually sterilize the soil and, over time, create a hard layer 12” +/- under the surface restricting the movement of roots and water.

Okay, enough with the chemistry lesson.  What happened to the funny repartee?  (That’s French for hilariously funny give and take, just so you know.)  😉  Anyway, why do I care about this whole organic/synthetic question anyway?  N-P-K is N-P-K, right?

Okay, let’s back up.  All plants need, at a minimum, three major nutrients (N-P-K) and 16 minor nutrients (you really don’t care what is on that list so I will fill in the space with this statement) to grow and reproduce as in make fruit, which is why we plant a garden in the first place.  The issue is not only what form do these nutrients take but how concentrated they are and what do they do to the soil and its inhabitants.

You could make a very good case that gardening is more about “soil farming” than it is about “plant gardening.”  The reason being that if you take care of the soil (and all its inhabitants) then the soil will take care of your plants.  That is not to say there is not a place for SOME of the synthetic fertilizers, organic gardeners notwithstanding.  While you cannot use synthetic fertilizers and call your crops 100% organic, you can use small amounts of synthetic fertilizers and achieve good results in the food department while actually benefiting the soil.  It really is all about moderation.  Side note:  best quote of all time.  WC Fields said, “I practice moderation in all things…especially moderation.”  But I digress.

Aside from cost and the damage they do to the environment and the fact that using synthetic fertilizers further enriches rich Arab oil men (virtually ALL synthetic nitrogen is manufactured using either petroleum or natural gas) they also don’t hang around and do their job, like you paid them to do.  What do I mean by this?  Most synthetic fertilizers are “water soluble” which simply means they will dissolve in water.  This is great if you are growing hydroponically (no more Mexican dirt weed) but NOT good if you are wanted to fertilize plants in the ground before a big rain.

Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, are typically “slow release” which means that SOME of the nutrients are immediately available, while the rest must be released by the actions of soil microbiology, root exudates (weak plant acids such as carbonic acid), earthworms, time and temperature.  What this means in a practical sense is you can put out an organic fertilizer before a rain and it will not all dissolve and run off or pollute the water table.  It will stay in the root zone so your plants—remember plants, that’s what this whole thing is all about, growing plants—can get to the fertilizer and grow like crazy.  The end result to you, the consumer, is that organic fertilizer, while initially more expensive, is much LESS expensive in the long run.  Over time, the continued use of organic fertilizer will build the soil structure and fertility to the point you will not have to continue to purchase more fertilizer.  This is good for your soil, but not so good for my company.  Alms, alms for the poor…

So don’t be fooled by the apparent low analysis of organic fertilizer compared to synthetic.  While MightyGrow Organic Fertilizer has a guaranteed analysis of 4-5-5, it will actually perform like 15-15-15 (or better!) at less than 1/3 the price per unit.

A well informed consumer is our best customer.  Really, who am I kidding?  My best customer is someone that sends me a blank check and say to make his garden grow; I don’t care what it costs.  But that doesn’t happen too often.  Okay, it has NEVER happened, but I do still have hope.

If you are confused about the whole “organic vs. synthetic” fertilizer question, don’t be too hard on yourself.  That is your mates job.  😉  Besides, you are in good company.  The agrochemical companies hope you STAY confused, so long as you keep buying the nice bags of easy to use granules they call “fertilizer”.  What I call it can be USED as fertilizer and is often seen coming out of the south end of a north bound male bovine!  Just remember my simple rule of gardening, and repeat after me.  “I promise NOT to put anything on my garden that will kill an earthworm, so help me Michael”.

That’s all for now from Michael, just a “man out standing in his field”.

If you have specific questions, you can email the author at: or leave a comment.  If you can figure out how to use the RSS feed, that will keep you in the know as well.

Getting Started – With Container Gardening

February 1, 2010

It is rapidly approaching the time of year when the hearts of men (and some women) turn to thoughts of love….love of gardening, of course.  Now I know that there are some out there who don’t LOVE gardening and growing things like I do, and I feel for you.  The process of growing food or flowers, or just creating a quiet place to reflect is both good exercise for the body AND a way to exorcise the demons of day to day hectic living.  My goal in this series of blogs is to encourage you to at least THINK about trying gardening again even if you were “over worked” as a child in the family garden.

My wife, Anne, really isn’t much of a gardener, but loves having the basic salad veggies and herbs near at hand.  She tries, unsuccessfully, to share my delight in endless rows of beans and corn and tomatoes and anything else I have ground and seed to plant. But, you see, she spent childhood summers slaving away in the fields of her youth, tending and harvesting truckloads of produce. According to her, the rows were uphill from BOTH ends and it was ALWAYS at least 100 degrees and she was hardly even permitted a drink of water while she was workin’ in the fields…..well, maybe that is a bit exaggerated, but to hear her tell it, not by much!

And then there are those people who have NO background in gardening or growing ANYTHING.  This is the intimidated soul who says, “well, I can’t grow anything. I have a ‘black thumb.’”  First, there is no such thing as a “black thumb.” There may be some with uneducated thumbs, but that can be fixed.  All it takes is a desire to learn and experiment and a willingness to “bury your mistakes” cause as I’ve said before, even your mistakes can be useful, for fertilizer if nothing else.  😉

One of things that is peculiar about humans, and I speak as one, is we fear what we do not understand.  You may have heard the question posed by motivational speakers before that goes something like this. “If you knew you could NOT fail, what would you do today?”  It is the FEAR of failure that stops many people from trying new things, and gardening is no different.  What if I could show you how to get started with only a minor investment, with the certainty that you would not fail?  Would that interest you?  Well, I can’t do that—the failure part.  What I can do is give you information that will lessen the likelihood of failure and make the experience a whole lot more fun.

Because let’s face it.  Eating is FUN!  That’s why there are so many people who LOOK like they enjoy it SO much!  Well, what if you could grow your own highly nutritious food that tasted great, and for pennies a serving?  And what if you could brag about what you had done at dinner parties and to friends at work?  I mean, it is the cool thing to do in this economy—grow your own food.  Do you know that last year 20% MORE people grew some of their own food than at ANY other time in recorded history?  Some people are growing their own food ‘cause they are foodies (like Anne and me) while others are growing their own veggies ‘cause they have to.  Whichever category you fall into, and it may be a combination of the two, I can help you do better. So, let’s get started.

Where to begin? First, we need to decide on whether or not you want to plant a garden or just plant in a few containers.  I mean, I’m okay with whatever you decide because often you may start out with a few containers and catch the bug and end up with 40 acres and a mule!  Okay, THAT probably won’t happen, but you COULD start out with a small herb garden and end up with a raised bed garden on the side of your home.  If you do catch the bug, then you may find yourself out looking for more ground to take in. I know I did.  But that is a subject for another blog, because, to say the least, Anne’s vision of “gardening” differs from mine just a bit.  😉

So, if you either don’t want to “go to the field” so as not to risk a flashback of your horrible childhood, OR, more likely, you just don’t have the room or time for a REAL garden, then container gardening is a great way to supplement the available fare from the local supermarket with locally grown, highly nutritious food.

The basic process is easy.  Locate suitable containers, as close to free as possible.  Craig’s List is a good source, as are local nurseries.  I have used 55 gallon plastic barrels, cut in half with drain holes drilled in the bottom and they worked great.  You can add the flair of “southern” raised bed gardening by using old tires filled with planting mix, but that might not be the look you are going for. If you want to combine gardening with woodworking, you can build your own.  In the next blog I will talk about raised-bed gardening, which is conceptually related to container gardening but gives the gardener more latitude with what can be planted and how permanent the garden can become.  Raised bed permaculture gardens can even prosper with NO added fertilizer. It also reduces weeding time to almost zero….Anne likes THAT! Stay tuned.

Other than good drainage and stability (which is why the bigger the container the better) the most important decision you will make is: “what type of growing soil do I use?”  Some of the commercially available mixes are fine, but I personally would mix my own.  Because containers are not as forgiving as planting in the ground, you have to take into account that the planting soil MUST drain well and have a balanced nutrient content.  What that means is you need to have more in the soil than just compost.  The following is a good rule-of-thumb soil mix:

  • One part peat moss (or equivalent – aged compost works well so long as it has lots of organic matter),
  • One part garden loam (garden soil from Home Depot works okay for this)
  • One part builders sand which is washed sand that would be used for mixing mortar (NOT “play sand”).  This can be found at nurseries or even masonry supply businesses.
  • ***Some organic fertilizer (1%-5% of the total mix, depending on type of fertilizer), such as composted cow manure (5%) or poultry litter based fertilizer (1%).  Remember that plants take over 80% of what they need from the air, so you don’t need too much. *** I realize “some” is a VERY subjective term.  It is something you here from experienced cooks who say “add some butter” or “mix until it LOOKS right”.  The main idea here is temperance.  You can always add MORE, but it is hard to take away what you have already mixed in.   
  • Depending on where you live and what type of soil you have available, 10%-20% of the total amount can be ordinary garden soil.  This assures that the planting mix is not sterile.

Other additives that can be beneficial are composted granite (this could take the place of the sand), and gypsum (calcium sulfate) which provides the all important calcium for the plants and doesn’t change the pH of the soil.  If your potting soil doesn’t contain fertilizer (I don’t recommend those that do) vermicompost is about the best, unless you have access to poultry fertilizer such as Cockadoodle Doo or MightyGrow.

MightyGrow has trace minerals and is a biologically active fertilizer, which makes it superior to any other organic fertilizer available. But, with just a little effort you can find several additional sources of organic fertilizer.  Craig’s List, if you are not familiar with it, can be found here, (search for the city nearest you) and is a great source for all kinds of gardening related items.  I have looked under the heading Farm & Garden and found all kinds of things I could use.  People will sell plastic barrels, bricks (for raised beds), and horse manure and just about anything else you can imagine.  BTW, CL has a “Free” section that often contains posts from people that just want someone to come clean out a horse stall for the manure.  Not a bad trade, an afternoon of mucking out a stall for a truck load of fertilizer.

Before you fill your containers, choose a location.  While the “ideal” esthetic location may be the outskirts of your backyard, you may want to consider locating your containers closure to your house.  Hopefully these containers are going to be bursting with vibrant, tasty veggies, so why hide them where no one can see them?  Also, from a practical standpoint, the closer they are to “where you live” the more attention you will pay to your plants and the better they will perform.

I will make one more comment about container gardening.  Remember that your plants are – hopefully – going to GROW!  Don’t plant too many in one container or put the containers sp close together that they crowd each other.  Plants are solar collectors, so arrange them accordingly.  If you are tempted to plant too many plants in the containers or find that you have run out of room for containers, then I must say to you: CONGRATULATIONS! You have been bitten by the gardening bug and should be spending your spare time scouting out a nice clear acre or two for the day when messing around with containers no longer gives you the fix you need!.

After reading this you may still not feel comfortable with planting your containers.  Remember, we discussed that you have to be willing to make a mistake or two along the way to learning how to garden.  Don’t worry about it.  All you have at risk are a few seeds or plants and some of your time. Start out small and take your time.  You really don’t have to plant the entire season’s crop all in one afternoon.  Remember that some plants grow well in the spring, while others need more heat to prosper.  Even herbs grow at different times of the year.  BTW, this begs the question: how did the Mexicans ever figure out how to make salsa, when tomatoes get ready in late summer, while onions are pretty much done by early spring and cilantro is finished by late spring?  How did they ever get all the parts together at the same time…but I digress.

Let me give you a pointer or two on plant selection. Transplants are sometimes easier than seeds, especially for things like tomatoes and herbs.  Why not try planting a few green onions around the base of a tomato plant?  Basil is THE easiest herb to grow, but contrary to popular belief, it can get HUGE! So it should really be planted in its own container.  My basil last year was well over 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide.  FYI, ONE basil plant will supply a good sized neighborhood.  The same is true of many plants that come “six to a package.”  I mean how many habanera plants do you really NEED?  I could say the same thing about eggplants, but the answer to the question, “How many eggplants do you need?” is NONE!  😉

One way to handle this predicament is to share some of your plants with a fellow gardener.  That way you can buy a six pack of basil and they can buy peppers.  Then you swap around for what you want.  The same practice works well with seeds.  Do you know that there are around 75 tomato seeds in one package?  Enough to send my wife running for the hills!

Now there is NO way I can give you all the info you need in one blog.  I have been studying gardening my whole life, even before I knew I loved it.  And I will admit it—I have made my share of mistakes.  Truth be told, I made my share and probably a good portion of YOUR share as well!  If you have specific questions, please ask away.  My email address is: or you can leave comments at the end of this blog.

The next post will deal with getting a raised bed garden started.  The word of the day will be “permaculture” and the emphasis will be on growing food with the LEAST amount of work for the MOST amount of food.  If you like the sound of that, then tune back in later this week.

Until then, remember, I’m just a man “out standing in his field.”