Archive for fertility

COMPOSTING YOUR WAY TO A BETTER GARDEN

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COMPOSTING YOUR WAY TO A BETTER GARDEN

By:  Emily Shirley, Advanced Master Gardener

Soil is the most precious resource in your garden.  Some have well-tended soil (from previous owners), while others, particularly those moving into new homes, inherit a rubble-filled mass.  However, any soil can be improved through time and effort.  For example, when the Master Gardeners began gardening in the Demonstration Garden a few years back, we were given use of the property that was formerly an old rodeo arena.  It was very compacted, and after just a few inches we hit red clay that had been hauled in for years and driven over with tractors.  By the time we finished amending the soil we were growing beautiful plants – vegetables and ornamentals.

If you have been around the gardening world very long, you have heard the terms “black gold”.  What we are referring to is composted material that is very precious in terms of gardening use – or compost.  Composting is the natural process that turns raw organic ingredients into humus – that earthy, dark crumbly, fully decomposed end product.  If you regard your soil as a living entity, you will see that essential plant nutrients are cycled by a microscopic army of inhabitants and larger worms, insects and grubs.  All these creatures need air, moisture and food.  Using manure, garden compost and other sources of organic matter is the key to sustaining this soil life and keeping the soil healthy.

It is always good to start by working with what you have – compost what your yard produces first, and import materials only when they are convenient and of special value to your composting.  Compostable materials from your kitchen, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, plus garden materials can easily be reused to cycle their nutrient value, carbon and nitrogen back into the soil to grow more food or plants.

To avoid waste from what you do not use in the kitchen, don’t throw it in the garbage, compost it!  Once you start saving your food scraps from the kitchen two things will happen.  You will simply be amazed at how much you have been throwing in the garbage that could have been used for composting.  And, you will never go back to throwing these things in the garbage again because you will soon realize how valuable these materials are for your gardening.  Most landscapes produce plenty of fallen leaves, grass clippings, and withered plants to toss in there.

This is a very simple process.  You need something for collecting your kitchen food waste to get started.  You can spend a lot of money for products that are sold for this purpose, or you can make it simple by having a simple five-gallon bucket with a lid, just outside your kitchen.  As you prepare food or clean out the refrigerator, just toss things into a small container and each evening empty that container into your larger bucket just outside the kitchen door.  Once you have enough in the outside container to throw out, you take the contents from your food scrap container to a compost pile.  You can even get creative and even make it even easier by having some trenches dug outdoors in an area you plan on gardening in at a later date and bury your food scraps in those.  Now, just let things sit in your compost pile a while and decompose and when it is ready, start using it.

So how do you know when your compost is ready to use for planting projects?

To evaluate your compost to determine if it is ready you can get very complicated, (that science thing again) or you can just use what you have – your eyes, nose and hands – to determine if it’s ready.  Visual inspection will reveal even color and consistency with a sprinkling of still-identifiable, undecomposed items, such as a peach pit or chunks of corn cob.  Your nose will detect an inoffensive, earthy smell with no sharp or sour odors.  To the touch, your finished compost will feel cool (no apparent heating), moist, and crumbly.  Once your compost meets these standards, let a few lettuce (or other) seeds pass final judgement.  Combine compost with an equal amount of potting soil and plant seeds in the mixture.  Sow the same kind of seeds in plain potting soil at the same time, and compare the progress of each planting.  If the seeds grow equally well in both, your compost is ready to roll; slower growth in the compost mixture means your compost needs more time to mature before you use it in planting projects.

Hints:

  •  Composting is not fast – you have to be patient and give it time. Slow compost is good compost.
  • Place a thick layer of newspaper (not the slick colored sheets) at the base of a curing compost pile to deter invasive tree roots.
  • Inadequate moisture is one of the most common reasons for compost to fail to make good progress.  Compost microorganisms need moisture.  You have to give your pile some moisture during these Louisiana hot days.  It is important to moisten ingredients as you add them to your pile, and to replenish moisture as you turn or aerate compost.
  • In an open heap, you don’t have to aerate, because the heap has plenty of exposed surface area, and will make its own air pockets as the materials shrink and turn into compost.  (Note:  I have a very large compost pile and I just use the tractor front-end loader to move it around occasionally.)
  • After a year or two of using compost In the garden every chance you get, you will discover a new pleasure in gardening.  You will notice that you can pull weeds more easily.
  • It is a good idea to only use your composting pail for just composting.  Don’t contaminate it with other things, for example, using your bucket to pick up behind the dog in the yard.

So how do you then actually use this compost once it is decomposed and ready?

  •  Treat every plant you grow to some form of compost.
  • Blanket beds as you renovate them between plantings.
  • Amend planting holes, or mix your best batches into homemade potting soil.
  • Use rough-textured, partially decomposed compost as mulch.
  • You can use it as a soil conditioner for all type of plants.
  • You can use your compose to mix with potting mix that you already have.
  • You can use it as a slow release fertilizer, gradually feeding plants over a long period of time.
  • You can use it for mulch for pots and gardens to protect plant roots from the sun and wind and to prevent erosion and reduce soil diseases.
  • (composting – continued)
  • You can use compost as a top dressing for lawns, to add nutrients and fill in gaps to encourage healthier grass roots and thatch.
  • Use it as an amendment to prove sandy and clay soil structure by binding soil particles together – helping aerate, retain moisture and nutrients.
  • Make a liquid “compost tea” fertilizer.
  • Compost mixed into the soil between plantings is the best way to keep the soil from becoming exhausted.
  • When you are ready to plant, mix in the compost along with organic fertilizer sufficient to meet the needs of the crop, and you are good to go.

 

 

 

 

 

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George’s Soil Recipe

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George’s Soil Recipe:

by George Giltner, Advanced Louisiana Master Gardener

Ingredients:

  • Compost (homemade or purchased)
  • Garden soil (Not “potting soil”) Note: Your own top soil or soil from the garden is recommended.
  • Expanded Shale
  • Zeolite

WHEN USING THIS SOIL MIXTURE FOR CONTAINER PLANTING:

If you have several containers you will want to mix up a batch of soil mixture and then fill your containers.  In the bottom of your container(s), add about 2 inches of volcanic rock.  This is called “Red Lava Rock” at most stores or garden centers.  This rock allows for drainage and keeps the soil from coming out of the bottom of the pot, and it allows for oxygen.

The next thing you are going to do is mix up a batch of the soil mixture:

Use a wheelbarrow or other type large container and combine the following:

  1.  Compost — Use a five-gallon bucket and put in 1 ½ buckets of compost in your mixing container. You can use your own compost or purchase some. (And you know we are going to tell you that your own homemade compost is best.)Garden Soil (Any will do, but your own is best.) (Use Five-Gallon Bucket and put in 1 ½ buckets).

 

  1. Garden Soil (Any will do, but your own is best.) (Use Five-Gallon Bucket and put in 1 ½ buckets).
  2. Expanded Shale (Use Five-Gallon Bucket and put in 1 ½ buckets).
  3. Zeolite (This is called “Horse Stall Refresher at Tractor Supply) (Use approximately 1 cup – it doesn’t take much of this.)

(Note:  If you just want to use the mixture in one planter and not mix up a batch, you could just put in red lave rock, use a container such as a five-gallon bucket and add 1/3 expanded shale, 1/3 compost and 1/3 potting soil to fill the five-gallon bucket.  Toss in a small handful of zeolite and mix this up.  Use the mixture to fill your planting container.)

When you are ready to plant, fill your planting container(s) almost to the top with your mixture, allowing room to plant and to water.  Add your plants and water in.  The organics in the pot will have to be replenished as they break down over time.
WHEN USING EXPANDED SHALE SOIL MIXTURE FOR IN-GROUND GARDENING:

Obviously you will not be able to mix up large enough batch for in-ground planting.  In this case you will just add a couple of inches of fresh compost, spread about two inches of expanded shale on the top, then sprinkle a light coat of Zeolite on top, then rototill in.

Explanation of why this Works:

  1. Compost is your nutrient source for plant fertility.
  2. Garden soil provides life (microbes to insects), nutrients, humus, minerals, etc. much like the compost.
  3. Expanded shale provides a large porous structure for air and water exchange, and it contains charge sites for nutrient retention (improves CEC).  Roots need oxygen and a stable supply of water that expanded shale provides this.
  4. Zeolite is a group of minerals consisting of hydrated aluminosilicates of sodium, potassium, calcium, and barium. They can be readily dehydrated and rehydrated, and are used as cation exchangers and molecular sieves.  Zeolite acts as a good binder for dry soil (for example soil that has too much organic matter and as a result it dries out).  Zeolite will bind the soil and keeps it from drying out.  Zeolite is much like expanded shale on steroids in a micro-sized granular form.  It encourages bacterial life in rhizosphere of the root zone.  Therefore your containers will have to be watered less, plants will grow healthier, and less nutrient amendments will be needed.  Once the expanded shale and zeolite has been added, it does not break down like many other soil conditioners.  These two soil conditioners have proven themselves in NASA Space Station experiments, and in down-to-earth gardens like the Dallas Arboretum.

 

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PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE

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By: Emily Shirley, President, Beauregard Master Gardeners Assoc.

Happy June!  If you live in the South, you know what we do in June and it does not necessarily have anything to do with gardening.  We prepare for hurricane season.  This month’s newsletter will toss in a little reminder of things to do for this season.  As with all our newsletters, we publish with the new gardener in mind, while also reminding seasoned gardeners of things they already know. 

 

This month we give you articles on composting and even share that now not-so-secret “Master Gardener soil recipe” developed by Advanced Master Gardener, George Giltner.  And you say, what else is there to learn about composting?  It really is science and I am one of those people that have to let science soak in.  Composting really is such an important topic not only for the home gardener, but for everyone involved in tending the earth and growing crops, whether you live on thousands of acres or on a tiny plot. If you are going to garden, “it all starts with the soil.” 

Soil must be replenished. And adding compost, (organic matter), is how soil is replenished. There is no substitute for adding back organic matter to your soil.  If you are gardening and you aren’t composting, make it a resolution to start a compost pile, or two or three, somewhere in your garden area. You’ll be a better gardener and have better soil too.

 

The AgCenter has been getting calls about these “tiny worms” that are coming inside the home so we are also sharing information on these “Millipedes”.  And, oh the confusion between the leaf-footed bug and the milkweed assassin –we will try to clear that up for you too. Probably the last thing a gardener would want to do is kill off a beneficial insect, like the Milkweed Assassin Bug, that is controlling pests (flies, mosquitoes, caterpillars, cucumber beetles, the Asian citrus psyllid, aphids, army worms, and other prey 6x their size). 

 

We know that next to tomatoes and peppers, the next vegetable that most gardeners always grow is squash.  But growing squash means there are many questions to ask about what is going on when you do have issues.  The article “Six Reasons Squash Fails and What to Do About It” will hopefully help you with all your squash issues. 

Emily

 

 

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Why Keeping a Garden Journal is so Important and, How to Keep it Simple

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Why Keeping a Garden Journal is so Important and,     How to Keep it Simple

By: Emily Shirley, Adv. Master Gardener

We have mentioned the idea of keeping a garden journal and all the advantages of doing so, but we continue to get comments on why people don’t seem to be able to do this, as well as questions about how to organize. Some say they have good intentions and they start, but for several reasons, they don’t keep it up.   It is a good conversation to have, so here we go.

Let’s start with the basics. What is a garden journal? It is a written record of your garden and your garden-related activities. And by “written” we mean hand-written, typed on a computer, and maybe includes things you may want to attach, such as attaching receipts from the store or copies of your seed packets. You can keep your garden journal contents in any notebook, on note cards organized into a file or a combination of a folder with attachments and information entered into a computer journal. A ring binder works best because it allows you to insert sheets of graph paper, calendar pages, pockets for your seed packets and plant tags, and pages for your photographs. Keeping a garden journal gives you a written record of your garden plans, successes and failures.

Sometimes future “plans” become dreams that have to “bake” in my head until at some point they become a reality. The garden journal is a place for me to jot down what I think I may want to do at some point in the future with some small plot for a new garden area. I can continue to think about this area and change things around until I feel that it is ready to be done. (My Garden Journal has a section for “New Plans” and we can talk about that more as we talk about how to set up and divide your journal.)

For vegetable gardeners, an important function of the journal is keeping track of crop rotation. I name the different garden areas on my property so I know what I am referring to when I make note of what is planted where at various times.   We know that planting the same crop in the same location each time you plant depletes the soil and encourages pests and diseases. Many vegetables should be planted on a 3- to 5-year rotation schedule. This is where the sketch of your garden areas, with the names of each area, comes in handy.

A Gardener Rabbit Hole

So let’s get off subject just a minute and go down a gardeners “rabbit hole”. Because crop rotation is so important and is one of the most important reasons you will want to keep a garden journal, let’s talk about crop rotation and the different plant families just a bit more before moving on to the subject at hand.

Different vegetables belong to different families, and different botanical families have different nutritional needs and have different issues.

We learned in our Master Gardener classes about these different plant families:

Solanaceae – The nightshade family is the most commonly represented group in most home gardens. These include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes (not sweet potatoes). There are common fungi that build in the soil when nightshades are planted in the same spot year after year.

Cucurbitaceae – Vining plants produce their fruit on a long vine with seeds running through the center of the fruit and most are protected by a hard rind. Cucumbers, zucchini, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, melons and gourds are included in this family.

Fabaceae – This is the large family of legumes. These are our nitrogen fixers. Peas, beans, peanuts and cowpeas are common vegetables in the legume family.   Gardeners who use clover or alfalfa as cover crops in the winter need to rotate them along with other members of the Fabaceae family, since they are also legumes and susceptible to the same diseases.

Brassicacae – Also known as the cole crops are members of the mustard family and are used by many gardeners to extend their growing season. Frost sometimes improves the flavor of these crops. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips and collard greens are mustards grown in home gardens.

Liliaceae – Members of the onion family require rotation just like other families. These include onions, garlic, chives, shallots or asparagus. Asparagus must be life in place for several years.   Also, when selecting a site for your asparagus bed, make sure that no other family members have been grown nearby for several years.

Lamiaceae – These are not really vegetables but are members of the mint family. These include mints, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage. These are sometimes inter-planted with vegetables to deter pests.

We are still talking about crop rotation here so stick with me for a minute. When you grow plants from the same family in the same place year after year, they leach away specific nutrients that they need. Eventually, the area will be depleted of the nutrients that particular family of plants need.

Vegetables in the same botanical family will also be susceptible to the same pets and diseases. If you plant the same families in the same spot year after year it is like hanging a sign up for certain pests and diseases. You want to keep them on the run and confused. You will do that with crop rotation.

Some will say, “Wait a minute – this is all too confusing and complicated. I thought gardening was simple.” Well, yes it is simple. All you really have to do is make sure that plants from the same family do not get planted in the same spot for more than three years in a row. If there is a particular pest or disease in one area of the garden, don’t plant the affected botanical families there for at least two years. For example, if you had problems with your tomatoes last year, do not plant tomatoes, peppers or eggplant in that area for at least two years. It is simple but you do have to remember a few things.   This is where the Garden Journal comes in handy.

Every year, before you plant your garden, refer to your journal and make a note of where plants were planted last year and how they performed. If they performed poorly, rotate that family to a different area of the garden.     This will greatly increase the yield of your crop.

Okay, that is the end of the gardeners “rabbit hole” so let’s get back to focusing on the Garden Journal.

There are not a lot of complicated rules that someone else has made up that you need to follow when it comes to keeping a Garden Journal. Keep it simple and try to find time to record something every day or so, and record the important things as soon as possible so you do not forget. Make it your own and make it something that is useful to you.

At a minimum you may want to include:

  • An initial sketch of your garden layout.   (Again, name each different garden area for reference.)
  • Pictures of your garden areas
  • A list of plants you know you will plant each year because these are the plants you know you and your family like. You will want to note plant times for each of these.   You can also make notes to remind you of things. For example: “I plant my Irish potatoes by Valentine’s Day each year.”
  • Any research papers on these plants. (This will be a one-page “cheat-sheet” where you have looked up things about this particular plant such as plant times, fertilizer requirements, watering requirements, etc.
  • A list of plants you would like to try and your research about these plants. (Their growing requirements, when you would plant them, etc.)
  • Resources. (Including favorite seed catalogs, web sites that you typically refer to, etc.) This is a good place to list local businesses that carry the things you typically need each growing season. (For example: “O’Neal Feeder Supply carries the onions I plant each year. I get my strawberry plants and sweet potato slips from Country Gardens.”)
  • Reminders. (For example. “Remember to call Country Gardens around May 15th and tell them how many sweet potato slips I need this year.”
  • Expenses and receipts.
  • Calendar (It is handy to just purchase a refill of the type calendar that fits into a ring binder so you can just make entries each day.
  • Dates to remember. Keep a list of these and then at the beginning of the year, go to your daily calendar and note a reminder to yourself – such as when to divide perennials.

Description of an ideal Garden Journal:

  • A three-ring binder that is three inches thick
    • Sheet protectors
    • Large envelopes with holes punched in order to put in the binder
    • A three-ring calendar refill to make daily entries
  • A designated “In-Box” to drop things into until you have time to put them in the binder.
    • A set of dividers with tabs.   Tabs will include:
    • Calendar (goes as the first thing in the journal because you will open up to it almost daily.)
    • Garden Layout – layout of your garden areas (with the names of each area noted.)
    • My plants – list of plants you typically plant each year, with a note of when you typically plant each of these.
    • Plant Research – file your research paper here.
    • Resources – Behind this tab is a sheet that lists all your resources, including people and telephone numbers. Sometimes you need to call others for help. You can include a “Reminders” page in the resource section.
    • Dates to remember
    • Future Plants – list of plants you will try at some future date.
    • Garden Design Ideas – Put sheet protectors behind this tab to hold pictures of design ideas that you cut out from magazines, etc.
    • Expenses & Receipts (put a sheet protector or envelope behind this tab to hold things in as you get them.)
    • Pictures – you may need sheet protectors to hold pictures if you do not just print them out on regular paper.
    • Equipment — If you have a lot of gardening equipment, you may want to include a tab on garden equipment, or make a separate binder for information on your equipment. (For example: I have three tractors, a weed-eater and a mower.) I need to keep up with when everything is serviced and making a note in my garden journal, and then transferring that to a permanent “equipment’ journal is easy since I am making entries in the garden journal daily.)

 

Keeping a garden journal is fun and fulfilling.   It is something “garden related” that gives you something to do on those rainy days when you cannot get out in the garden. Start by having a designated gardening “in-box” where you drop things such as receipts, articles, research papers, seed packets and plant tags. Keeping a Garden Journal is THE way to learn from your successes and mistakes and improve your gardening skills. And, you don’t have to remember a thing – it is all there in your Garden Journal (binder)!

 

 
Each of us has an opportunity to support a healthier, sustainable food system through the choices we make every day.
 
 

 

Basil helps tomatoes to overcome insects and disease, also improving growth and flavor. Since it is a small plant, one to two feet tall, grow it parallel to tomatoes rather than among them. It repels mosquitoes and flies, and when laid over tomatoes in a serving bowl will deter fruit flies.

 

 

 

 

 

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Is your Garden Soil Safe for Vegetable Gardening?

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Is your Garden Soil Safe for Vegetable Gardening?

By George Giltner, Adv. MG, Biology MS

Most of our gardens are safe and natural ecosystems, which grow wholesome, nutrient dense foods.  We work and handle the soil, enjoy the rich earth aroma, and appreciate the vital processes of living organisms that recycle nutrients, filter water, and produce our crops.

However, soils can be polluted just like water and air.  Lead, arsenic, and cadmium  are toxic heavy metals that are of concern.  Once these heavy metals are introduced into soil, they persist a very long time.  Knowing the history of the garden location can help to identify areas that are contaminated.  Examples of contamination from the past include arsenic treated lumber residues, some fertilizers, old orchard sites where lead arsenate pesticides were used, a gun range, lead bearing paint residues, and  even soil near roads in the time of leaded gasoline.

DSCF2499

Here are watermelons at the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden where George has various project. Photo by Jimmy Earl Cooley, MG’er.

Most common fertilizers are not a significant source of heavy metals.  Nitrogen and potassium fertilizers are generally free of toxic metal content, but phosphate fertilizers often contain cadmium depending on the mining site.  Excess phosphorus typically is “tied-up” with insoluble compounds like calcium phosphate, therefore it lingers in the soil for years.  Use soil tests to determine if additional phosphate amendments are needed.  Thus, avoiding unnecessary phosphorus fertilizer applications may prevent the undesirable cadmium additions, too.

Micronutrient fertilizers have been and are still being produced from recycled toxic materials.  “Ironite” has contained as much as 3600 ppm arsenic and 2900 ppm lead.  No federal standards for heavy metals in fertilizers exist.  Composition of fertilizers is in the control of the states.  However, Washington State does require testing for 9 heavy metals with results on the web.  Gardeners from other states use their postings to look up heavy metal concentrations in commercial fertilizers.

What are the negative effects of heavy metals on human health?  Children bear the greatest risk as the developing brain and IQ are especially vulnerable to lead.  Even the lowest detectable quantities are considered toxic to children.  Children’s behavior as “Rug Rats” with mouthing and crawling on floors, exposes them to greater quantities of dirt and dust. Chromosome damage, nerve damage, cancer, etc. are among other toxic effects of heavy metals on all of us.

Vegetables are not all equal in their ability to uptake heavy metals.  Some are concentrators and others are not.  Leafy greens like lettuce, and root crops like carrots will have more than fruits like tomatoes.  Some plants like water hyacinths are super concentrators that may have thousands of ppm of mercury from water sources.  Therefore it should not be used as compost material for soil.

How do you get your soil tested?  The LSU AgCenter Soil Lab can do an optional lab test for heavy metals for an additional $5.  Another reliable lab is TP&S Lab (956-383-0739) which will cost around $100.  Interpretation of results can be done with on-line research.  Common sense guidelines – “Less is better”.

Please note the first paragraph of this article, “Most gardens are safe-“.  This article is for awareness of heavy metals.  It is not meant to scare or deter in any manner from the joys of gardening.

 

 

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Dinosaur Period Expanded Shale – for Gardens

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Dinosaur Period Expanded Shale – for Gardens

By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener, MS Biology

                 2014 expanded shale    2014 expanded shale 2

A garden soil recipe for success is to add a soil conditioner that originated from the Late Cretaceous Period, when the most famous mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred, 65 million years ago.  In this time period, Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus roamed, and flowering plants began to flourish.  Fine grained sedimentary rocks from mud of clay and silt were laid down to form the Texas Midway Shale formation which is 10 -15 ft. underground in a pattern from Corsicana to Texarkana south to Laredo.

When shale from the above area is mined and exposed to 2000 deg C for 40 minutes, 65% of the silica makeup changes chemically as gases escape to form a porous lightweight rock, Expanded Shale.  It can absorb 38% of its weight in water for a water-wise soil amendment.  Also it will conservatively last for decades, unlike deteriorating vermiculite and decomposing peat moss.  Expanded shale is mostly an alumino-silicate that will not change the soil pH, is non-toxic and inert, and environmentally friendly.  It enhances plant growth and performance.  Applications include raised beds, window boxes, gardens, large container boxes, and in landscaping.

The porous structure of expanded shale absorbs water, therefore any fertilizer components dissolved in the water will also be absorbed onto the aggregate, porous-rock surfaces.  Extension researchers from Texas and Florida, J. Sloan, P. Ampim, R. Cabrera, W. Mackay, and S. George (Moisture and Nutrient Storage Capacity of Calcined Expanded Shale), have tested the bioavailability of nutrients loaded onto expanded shale by using Romaine lettuce.  Results demonstrated significant increases in the size and the mass of yield.  Shoot mass increased linearly from 0.1 grams with no fertilizer on expanded shale to 1.9 grams/pot with 100% fertilizer-treated expanded shale.  No additional fertilizer was needed for the 45 day crop rotation.

Dr. Steve George, Texas Agrilife Extension Service horticultural researcher in Dallas, recommends this expanded shale to “open up and aerate clay soils faster than any other product tested”.  His shale research work is extensive with two years of study and 6 years of field trials.  Expanded shale increased soil porosity (for drainage and aeration), reduced compaction (for healthier root systems), and insulated roots from temperature extremes.

Jim L. Turner, director of horticulture research at the Dallas Arboretum, praises its use for solving watering issues as overwatering causes more plant deaths than any other cause.  Expanded Shale is used extensively throughout the many beautiful gardens in the Dallas Arboretum to optimize water usage and conservation.

In your own gardens, utilize expanded shale by adding 3 inches of compost and 3 inches of expanded shale, then till to 8 inches deep.  Add top mulch to the mixed soil with a layer 3 inches deep. Continue mulch additions spring and fall.  Soil tests may reveal that additional commercial fertilizer is not needed due to decomposition additions from nutrient balanced mulch.

For containers, fill the bottom quarter with expanded shale, then add a mixture of 1/3 of each – expanded shale, compost, and garden soil.  Also add mulch to the top of the container. Due to our very hot summers and intense tropical solar light, use wood or other insulating material to reduce the temperatures on the surface of the container when the heat comes.  Always use a water meter to confirm moisture levels of your container soil.  Rain water is recommended due high sodium values (>100 ppm) in some of our local tap water supplies.

By late Spring 2014, an application-test demo plot will trial expanded shale and zeolite amendments to grow various garden vegetables in the Beauregard Demonstration Garden in DeRidder, La.  The initial soil was basic kaolinite clay subsoil with little nutrient value and low ability to retain nutrients.  In early November, compost and varying additions of zeolite were added to specific rows.  LSU AgCenter soil tests have indicated high nutrient values 6 weeks later in mid-December.  Identical mass of expanded shale will be added to ½ of each row.  Then in mid-March various vegetables will be planted.  Practical observations like yield, water meter readings, soil nutrient tests, soil bulk density, and plant health will be observed.  This Master Gardener application test is not meant to be a scientific experiment as the scope, time, and expense would be beyond volunteer resources.

Dinosaur dirt (Texas expanded shale) and porous volcanic rock (zeolite) soil conditioners have demonstrated their value in nutrient and water conservation by numerous scientific tests from NASA to University Extension Service experiments.  The nutrient cost-savings and environmental benefits of these products can be employed in cropping, forests, and in small-space gardening.  Experiments have proven that soil beneficial microbes are enhanced with greater moisture control, nutrient retention, and soil porosity, which should increase yields and Ag success.  “Let’s give it a try!”

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Soil Science from the International Space Station Comes Down to Earth – In your Garden!

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Soil Science from the International Space Station Comes Down to Earth – In your Garden!

By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener, MS Biology

NASA has been developing artificial soils for several decades for use on long duration space flights.  These trials have proved that numerous crop species have growth and development similar to plants grown in ground controls.

2014 zeolite images

The advantages of the “Zeoponic Soil Systems” is that only water is needed for activation, and yields are substantially higher than those obtained from the field.  The objective is to have a soil substrate for plant growth that can be used in a regenerative life-support system ( a sealed sustainable living space).  Data from the Lada greenhouse in the space station has helped advance Earth-based greenhouses and controlled environment Ag systems.  This information is also used by researchers and farmers to produce better, healthier crops in small spaces with optimum amounts of water and nutrients.

Commercial products have been on the market for some time.  Examples are “Zeo-Pro” which is used as a slow release fertilizer on golf courses.  Another product “Miracle Mountain Zeolite” sells zeolite as a garden amendment.  For gardening purposes, be sure the zeolite is without a sodium load, examine the heavy metal report, and assure the product is oriented for Ag purposes. Many other products and expanded use of zeolites are expected as advantages are learned.  It is definitely a 21st century product.  Applications include odor control products (Horse Stall Refresher), Fish hatchery water treatment, a Portland Cement substitute, Kitty Litter, and higher yields in crops and pastures.

What are the benefits of using zeolite in horticulture applications?  1) The CEC (cation exchange capacity – value of available nutrients) is increased.  2) Soil porosity and water holding properties are improved which results in decreases in water run-off and ponding 3) Zeolite increases nitrogen retention by reducing ammonia volatilization, therefore reducing nitrogen pollution. 4) It improves the fertilizer efficiency by capturing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other trace nutrients for utilization by plants. 5) Zeolite can be used as an inorganic substitute for peat moss in mixes.  6) It helps to open compacted soils.  7) biological activity is increased by supporting nitrifying soil bacteria.

A most important use of zeolite is its role in developing controllable and renewable fertilization plans to provide plant growth nutrients.  It can be used to mitigate the adverse effects water contamination due to highly soluble and concentrated fertilizers.

Zeolite is a crystalline, porous alumino-silicate with a unique interconnecting, honeycomb lattice structure.  This structure of channels of negatively charged alumina, with neutral silica tetrahedral building blocks, can effectively capture positively charged nutrient ions.  Because of zeolite’s molecular composition, it has incredible absorbent and adsorbent properties.

In nature, zeolites are naturally formed microporous, alumino-silicates that are found where volcanic rocks and ash layers react with alkaline groundwater.  The mineral is also known as clinoptilolite.  Check bags of “Kitty Litter” and “Horse Stall Refresher” for clinoptilolite as the effective ingredient. Obnoxious odors and gasses are trapped in the mineral honeycomb structure of these commercial products like fertilizer nutrients are captured in soil-use zeolites.

Most of our local acidic soils are classified as Ultisols composed of kaolinite which has a very low ability (low CEC number) to retain plant nutrients.  Therefore most of the commercial fertilizer is lost through leaching with rains and irrigation water.  Typically the top 3 to 6” of topsoil contains nearly all of the nutrient value.  Additional nutrient depletion occurs when crops are harvested, and when the soil is left barren, and oxidized by tillage.  However this soil can be frequently amended with organic matter and humus to increase the pH to a more neutral value, and to increase the CEC to a higher fertility value.  This usually requires much labor and effort.

A better system may be to utilize zeolites, organic matter, and inorganic minerals.  This approach uses the advantages of each.  The zeolite adds a long term substrate to improve the CEC, porosity, nutrient and water retention, and microbial life.  The organic matter with cellulose gives life to the soil, water retention, porosity, structure and acts as a slow release fertilizer upon decomposition.  Inorganic minerals can be added to supplement deficiencies as indicated by testing or visual symptoms.  The overall effect is that leachate pollution is minimized, and fertilization, water, and labor cost are also reduced, while yields are high.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge (Aug 2013, Peter Leggo) has shown that even marginal land like deserts can grow fruits and vegetables using a zeolite mix with chicken manure.  Control experiments have shown that dew water can be held on zeolite until the hottest part of the day, which increases overall soil moisture content for plant growth. Dr. Peter Leggo of the Department of Earth Sciences says, “Previously, you’d douse crops with chemicals, and it caused a huge reduction in soil microbial diversity.  The material we’ve developed takes less energy to produce, improves soil structure, and enables you to grow crops on almost any type of soil”.  Plans are to commercialize the product for world markets.

You may wish to experiment in your own gardens with zeolite soil conditioners and fertilizers.  Let us know about your experiences and procedures to share with others in the 21st century.

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