Growing Watermelon in Your Houston Garden

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Fruits & Vegetables, Raised Garden Beds, Year Round Gardening | Posted on 14-03-2012

Growing watermelon in your Houston garden is similar to growing cantaloupe melons. This is one garden plant I am still learning to master. So if you’ve got tips to share, please do so.

Watermelon is a desert plant that comes from Africa. It does well in sandy soils (where taproots can grow deep to seek moisture) and dry climates. So, right off the bat, you know it is going to be a challenge to grow in Houston gardens with our clay soils, shallow water table and high humidity.

Two years ago, I selected an heirloom variety called Bush Sugar Baby. I wanted an “icebox” size melon and I wanted to be able to save the seeds from year to year rather than buy new seeds each year.

I planted one plant expecting it to fill one of my largest raised beds and I wasn’t sure how many fruits it would produce. Because its a “Bush” variety, the vine did not fill my garden bed; it grew to be about 42 inches in length is all. Without an abundance of bees working my garden, I only got one melon, but it was very tasty and the perfect size for my icebox and family of 2 (my husband and I are empty nesters now). Burpee sells this variety and claims each vine will produce two (12 pound) melons.

Last year I planted four plants at staggered intervals and was thrilled to see bees from our beehives pollinating the blossoms.

[Photo at right taken as the first two vines started to set fruit and, true to Burpee's description, each vine sported a couple of melons.]

 

 

 

Even though watermelon plants like it hot and dry, the drought of 2011 took its toll on my watermelon vines. My drip irrigation system, supplemented with hand watering, could not keep these vines alive.

Bob Randall (Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston) suggests Houston gardeners grow the icebox or mini watermelon varieties and let the farmers grow the monsters unless you have a great deal of room for the vines to sprawl. He recommends the Florida icebox varieties of Minilee and Mickylee as they have good resistance to the anthracnose fungus that wipes out watermelons in hot, humid June weather.

If you live in metro Houston, start seeds indoors on a heat mat (sprouting temperature range is 70° to 95° with 95° being ideal) early to mid March and plant outside mid April (be very careful not to disturb or damage roots when transplanting outside). Or, sew seed directly outdoors between March 15 and 31. If you live in Montgomery County, the AgriLife Extension planting calendar indicates you can sew seeds directly outdoors April 1 through July 31. Start early and stagger your plantings every 2 to 3 weeks to get a continuous harvest.

Like cantaloupe, watermelons will benefit from growing upright on trellises to increase air circulation around leaves and stems; tie up the melons with old pantyhose to provide support. Otherwise, give them plenty of room on the ground; rule of thumb is 3 plants per 50 square feet of garden area. And they need full sun all day long with no other plants around them. [Pay attention to the spacing requirements on your seed packet and plant accordingly.]

Vines will grow best when daytime temperatures are between 70° and 85° but will tolerate higher temperatures. They send their roots down deep and supposedly do well with little water. My experience during the drought was just the opposite. Fluctuations in soil moisture will cause fruit to split and crack open.

Watermelon roots like loose soil high in nitrogen and phosphorus or compost. When you plant, add at least double the fertilizer you would use on other plants like squash. Once the plants begin to vine, lay down wet newspaper (3 to 4 sheets thick) and cover with 3 to 4 inches mulch to control weeds and keep fruit up off of moist soil.

The Big Question: How can you tell when a watermelon is ripe?

  • Look at the skin. Unripe melons are shiny. As they ripen, their skin turns dull.
  • Check the underside of the melon. The belly of the melon will turn a light cream or yellow color as it continues to mature. The best time to pick a ripe melon is just before the belly starts to lighten up.
  • The tendril on the main stem nearest the attachment to the melon, as well as the next tendril out the stem, will die and turn brown. If it isn’t dead, the melon isn’t ripe yet. If it is dead, the melon MAY be ripe.
  • Count the days from seed. As your melon plant nears its days to maturity, start thumping the melon. The sound may change when it is ripe.
  • Your best bet is to look for the dead tendril, check the color of the belly, thump it and then wait a few days. When the melon is over mature, it will crack open.

Decide right now that the first time you plant a new variety, it is going to be a grand experiment. Watch and learn. Let your experience with the plant teach you how to take care of it and when to pick it.

 

 

Growing Cantaloupe in Your Houston Garden

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Fruits & Vegetables, Raised Garden Beds, Year Round Gardening | Posted on 14-03-2012

Growing Cantaloupe in your Houston garden is as easy as planting the right variety at the right time and following a few tips for harvesting lots of sweet melons. The first year I planted cantaloupe, I learned a lot about better ways to grow them and had much better success the second year. Here’s what I learned:

Planting Tip #1: Plant the right variety at the right time. Most melons are originally from low humidity desert areas where it is hot and dry. Bob Randall (“Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers For Metro Houston”) suggests that Ambrosia is the best Cantaloupe variety to grow in our hot, humid, and sometimes wet climate. I concur. I’ve tried other varieties and I’m going to stick with Ambrosia until something better comes along.

Ambrosia has been Burpee’s top-selling cantaloupe for over 20 years because of its “luscious, extra-sweet taste, juiciness and nectarous aroma.” The flesh is thick, firm, and delicious right down to the rind (picked when mature instead of on the”green” side). The 6″ (or larger) melons average 5 lbs. each. Vines yield bumper crops and are mildew-resistant. My experience: I got lots of big, beautiful, sweet melons.

The Right Time to Plant: In metro Houston, the ideal planting window is between March 22 and April 14. You could try planting seeds as early as March 15th and as late as April 21st depending on the weather. In Montgomery County, the ideal planting window is March 22 through July 7.

The ideal soil temperature for seed germination is 75° to 90°. Plants will grow poorly until soil temperatures get above 70°. You may want to plant seeds indoors on a heat mat for maximum, rapid germination and set plants out into the garden when they have two pairs of true leaves. Be VERY careful not to disturb or damage the roots when transplanting (rootbound plants from nurseries or garden centers will not do well).

Plants grow best when daytime temperatures are between 65° and 80° and nighttime temperatures are above 65°, but will tolerate daytime temperatures of 100°. Melons need 90 to 100 days of hot weather and the longest days of full sun to reach maturity so plant no later than June 1st to be on the safe side. Ambrosia takes 86 days to reach maturity.

Melons tend to ripen all at once on the same plant, so stagger your planting dates (every 7 to 14 days) to get a continuous harvest. Space plants 2 feet apart down the middle of your planting bed and give the vines plenty of room to sprawl. Once plants begin to vine, lay down wet newspapers (3-4 sheets) to block weed growth and top with 3 to 4 inches of mulch (I prefer fresh chipped tree mulch).

Tip #2: If you can, grow cantaloupes up onto a trellis. Too many melon plants in close proximity or weeds or other vegetables will probably cause plants to get a fungal disease and die. Increased air circulation around leaves and stems will help prevent fungal and bacterial diseases from developing.

Tip#3: Melons need plenty of moisture while fruits are growing. Once cantaloupes start “netting,” or get close to maturity (count the days), do not water unless VERY dry. Lots of water or rain at this time aborts the sugar creation process, and the melons will have little flavor.

I found this to be very tricky with several plants in the same bed that had staggered planting dates. It is near to impossible to keep the younger plants well watered when you want the maturing plants on the dry side. So Tip #4: If you have raised garden beds, plant one “hill” of vines (1-2 plants), every 7 to 14 days, in several different beds so you can better regulate the watering schedule.

Tip #5: Contrary to what you read or may think, those big, heavy melons will not break off the plant prematurely when grown up on trellises and do not need slings made from old pantyhose for support. When the melons are ready to “slip” from the vine, the weight of the melon will let it “slip.” Bring the melons into the house and set them on your kitchen counter for a few days to finish softening and sweetening up.

If not trellised, keep developing fruits up off the soil or moist mulch by placing them on overturned saucers. The week before melons reach full maturity, check to see if they are ready to “slip” by pressing the neck of the vine away from the fruit. Don’t force it, but when it slips readily, take it into the house and set it on the counter for a few days as indicated previously.

 

 

 

Growing Bush Snap Beans in Your Houston Garden

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Year Round Gardening | Posted on 01-03-2012

Growing Bush Snap Beans in your Houston garden is a snap…if you know a few tricks of the trade. I tried Pole Beans my first year of gardening and the plants topped their six foot support trellis and kept on going.

But I was disappointed that they did not produce many green beans and it got to be hard to find the beans in the tangled mass at the top of the support trellis in order to harvest them.

Bob Randall (“Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston”) seems to favor pole beans but does suggest that they are not as productive as bush varieties. So I switched to Bush Beans the next year and I’ve never gone back to the Pole variety.

My variety recommendation: Provider Snap (50-55 days to maturity) Productive, early, round 5 to 8 inch bean; a favorite because of its upright growth, virus resistance and high productivity in a variety of climates. Can also be eaten as a dry soup bean.

I found this variety was such a gorgeous, slender, long, tasty green bean that I’ve planted it year after year in my garden both in the spring and in the fall. I get my seeds from Seeds of Change.

The first year I planted pole bean seeds, I had lots of leafless shoots emerge. At first I wondered if something had eaten my little seedlings before they sprouted. But I learned that if the top of the soil dries out and gets even a little “crusty,” it will scrape off the two little cotyledons as the stem of the plant raises its head from beneath the soil. Without a growing tip, no plant develops.

Seed starting tip #1: Dig a shallow trench in your planting bed about 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep and fill it with Vermiculite (I get it in huge bags from Plants for All Seasons); water it in.

Space seeds 6 to 8 inches apart down the row(s) planting them 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep. When the seedlings germinate, they will have no problem raising their heads through the lightweight, soft Vermiculite.

Seed starting tip #2: Beans are legumes that like to be planted in soil where other legumes have been grown previously. But you can plant them in a new bed (new to beans) if you add an inoculant when you plant them. I have found that I get better germination when I use an inoculant and pre-soak my beans for a couple of hours before planting them. (Soaking them overnight is too much soaking; it decreased the germination rate for me).

Beans and other legumes don’t need a lot of fertilizer because their root systems are colonized by nitrogen fixing bacteria. Inoculants are loaded with the right kinds of bacteria that colonize legume root systems and contribute to their growth and development. Spray them with kelp/seaweed fertilizer or compost tea once per month.

Best soil temperature for starting seeds: 60° to 85° (ideal temp of 80°).

Best growing temperature: 60° to 85° (daytime)

Planting Tip #1: There is some evidence that beans do better in rows rather than with equidistant, intensive spacing (like Square Foot Gardening) because the sun hits their stems.

Planting Tip #2: Once the seedlings are 5 to 6 inches tall, carefully add a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch over the bed to keep leaves dry and the soil moist.

Harvest every other day like clockwork. There will be no strings if you don’t let them get too big. Plants will die if you let them go to seed.

March Fruits and Vegetables in the Houston Garden

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds | Posted on 01-03-2012

March fruits and vegetables in the Houston garden include a long list of candidates. Spring has sprung here in the greater Houston area. The winter crops are in full production, as you can see. We love salads with fresh garden greens.

Spring crops are growing rapidly. Its time to start planting some of the summer fruits and vegetables.

Here’s the planting list for March fruits and vegetables in the Houston garden indicating whether to plant seeds or set out transplants. Ideal planting dates are marked by an *; marginal planting dates are enclosed in parentheses. Plant the right varieties at the right, or ideal, time for best growth and maximum harvest yields.

  • Arugula: plant seeds March (1-31)
  • Beans, Bush Snap: plant seeds March (1-14), *15-31
  • Beans, Lima or Butter: plant seeds March (15-31)
  • Beans, Pole Snap: plant seeds March (1-14), *15-31
  • Cantaloupe: plant seeds March (15-21), *22-31
  • Chile Peppers:  set out transplants March *15-31
  • Cucumbers: plant seeds March (15-31)
  • Endive: plant seeds March *1-14, (15-31)
  • Garlic Chives: plant sets March *1-31
  • Horseradish: plant roots March (1-31)
  • Lettuces: plant seeds March *1-31
  • Mustard: plant seeds under protective row covers March *1-31
  • Multiplying Onions (Green Onions): plant sets March (1-14)
  • Sweet Bell Peppers: set out transplants March *15-31)
  • Squash: plant seeds March *15-31
  • Sunflowers: plant seeds March *1-31
  • Sweet Potatoes: plant slips inside March (1-31)
  • Tomatoes: set out transplants under row covers March *1-7, (8-14)
  • Watermelon: plant seeds March *15-31

That’s quite a list. I won’t be planting everything on the list in my garden, but I’ll share what I’ve learned about the varieties that have worked well for me.

Tomatoes and Sweet Peppers, pictured at right, were set out mid-February under plastic row covers. I open the row covers on sunny days when temperatures are above 75° and there’s little wind. I close them up at night to trap the warmth in the soil.

About the time these plants get too big for the row covers, daytime and nighttime temperatures will be perfect for optimal growth. I’ll remove the row covers and cage the plants.

Please share what you’ve learned from what has worked well for you in your garden.

 

 

Soil Analysis Testing for Houston Soils

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Organic Matter, Soil | Posted on 27-02-2012

Soil analysis testing for Houston soils accomplishes a couple of things. First, the results will give you a soil pH reading that tells you what nutrients are available for use by your plants. Most soils rich in organic matter, from a variety of sources, are going to have most of the nutrients your plants need to be big, healthy and productive.

But if the pH is a bit too high or too low, some of those nutrients are going to be “bound up” in the soil so that your plants cannot access them. I’m not going to pretend to understand the chemistry of all that, but I understand that my plants will not get the nutrients they need if the soil pH is too low or too high. So knowing what my soil pH is and what it ought to be, tells me what I need to do, if anything.

Second, the Routine Analysis test will determine the soil pH, salinity, nitrates and levels of the primary and secondary nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulfur). It will also provide you with a fertilizer recommendation for selected crops. The Routine Analysis test will meet most home gardener’s needs.

The Lab can test for micronutrient levels if you’re interested in that information and there are several other tests available as well.

If your soil is very low in a particular nutrient, you could probably increase production if that nutrient is added. It is a good horticultural practice to fertilize properly, meaning to only add those nutrients to the soil that are missing or in short supply.

To add nutrients your soil does not need is a waste of well earned money. And if those nutrients are in the form of a chemical fertilizer, the excess that leaches away into the environment is not a good thing either.

So far, all of my blog posts have focused on building great soil either by improving what you already have, over time, or replacing what you have. The next step is understanding what you have and that requires a soil analysis test by a lab. There are 3 easy steps on your part for getting your soil tested:

Get Soil Sample Bags and a Submittal Form

You can go to the nearest AgriLife Extension Service office and pick up the sample bags and instructions. (The link above takes you to the website for Montgomery County. If you’re in a different county, Google the AgriLife Extension Service for your county)

OR

You can use a heavy duty, quart sized ziplock type bag from the kitchen for your soil sample and get a Submittal Form online.

Collect a Composite Soil Sample

The objective of creating a composite soil sample is to collect small portions of soil from a number of locations within the area you want tested. When you mix the soil together from each different location, you get a “composite” soil sample that represents the whole area.

Instructions for collecting a composite soil sample are included on the back of the Submittal Form.

Complete the Submittal Form and Mail it to the Lab

Complete the information sheet as thoroughly as you can and  indicate the tests you want done. Then mail everything, including payment, to the address indicated on the Submittal Form.

Next: Houston Soil Drainage Problems

Compost vs Humus in Houston Soils

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Organic Matter, Soil | Posted on 26-02-2012

Compost vs Humus in Houston soils…soil vs dirt…Are we mincing words or playing with semantics? During my very first Master Gardener class lecture, a Master Gardener made it very clear to us “Interns” that soil is the foundation of gardening…dirt is something you track into your house. We all got a chuckle out of that.

Compost is humus, but humus is not compost. Or, rather, humus is not just compost. In nature, humus is constantly introduced into the soil as plant debris, dead animals, and other organic materials (for example, animal manures) that decompose on the ground.Through the chemistry of bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes, organic material is reduced by degrees to its soft, spongy essence, called humus.

Humus permeates the top few inches of the soil through rains and the activity of earthworms as well as other macro-organisms, where it continually revitalizes the soil around plant roots.

This natural cycle is repeated over the seasons out in the wild, sustaining the great forests and other natural areas. Where there is lots of vegetation to decay and enrich the soil, such as in woodland areas, the soil is rich in humus and very fertile.

Where there is little or no vegetation to provide the organic debris, such as at the seashore or in the desert, the soil has little or no humus and is lean; infertile. Makes me wonder how the wooded hunting preserve that stood here for decades before it became the housing development I now live in could have left behind such infertile soil?

Commercial as well as residential development disrupts the natural decay cycle. Landscape maintenance crews routinely remove leaves, dried plant parts, prunings, weeds and other garden debris from our yards before it can recycle into the soil. Intensively planted landscape beds and turf grasses deplete soils of its humus content before it can be replenished. No wonder we have to fertilize everything to death to sustain it all.

Bare soil in planting beds is exposed to the harsh effects of sun, wind and hard rains, which further reduce its humus content and destroy its structure and fertility. To grow healthy plants and crops, gardeners must mimic nature’s recycling system and constantly replenish soils with humus.

The “soil” recipe advocated by the Square Foot Gardening method for filling your grow boxes combines peat moss, vermiculite and compost in equal proportions. But it also advocates using a blend of five different types of compost for the compost portion of that soil blend. I think there is wisdom in doing so.

Whether you opt to work with your existing soil to improve its texture, drainage and fertility or replace your existing soil with a soil blend, you ought to incorporate several different forms of humus if you truly seek to mimic mother nature.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it; no combination of manures and composts that works better than another. After all, mother nature takes what she gets season by season and works her magic with it. You can do the same and work magic in your Houston garden soil.

Next: Houston Garden Soil Conditioners

Leaf Mold Composting to Improve Houston Soils

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Soil | Posted on 26-02-2012

Leaf Mold Composting is a simple way to improve Houston soils. After my first year of gardening here in Texas, my grand experiment that failed big time, I filled my raised garden beds with leaf mold compost. My plants loved it! They outgrew the spacing I gave them and produced prolifically. We had an abundant harvest my second year of gardening here in Texas.

You can buy leaf mold compost by the truckload at Nature’s Way Resources ($50.00/cubic yard) or bagged leaf mold compost for about $10/bag either at their soil yard at a variety of local nurseries.

You could also try Handcrafted Humus Compost from The Ground Up for$49.00 / cubic yard or $8/bag. If I lived close to their soil yard, I wouldn’t hesitate to use their products. Both composts come from local landscapes. But, take my advice and borrow a truck if you need to. Its worth it to buy it by the truckload rather than by the bag.

Leaf mold compost by itself is a great growing medium. But I found myself buying it by the truckload and hauling it into my garden beds a couple times a year to replace what was getting eaten up by the soil microbes and absorbed by my garden plants. It became expensive and a labor intensive endeavor to keep my beds full of leaf mold compost.

Thus, at the end of my second year of gardening in Texas, I went looking for a soil blend that would provide a good foundation for my raised beds. Leaf mold composts, mushroom composts, garden waste composts…top dressing with any of these composts maintains good soil texture and provides excellent nutrition for the soil microbes and my plants.

A Master Garden class presenter recently shared the idea of filling the walkways between your garden beds with leaf mulch. As it gets walked on and compacted, add more. Then, in 6 to 12 months, you can pull back the upper leaf mulch layers and transfer the lower, composted leaf mold into your adjacent garden beds. I like that idea a lot!

Shredding the leaves before adding them to your garden walkways will speed up the composting process considerably. I’ve heard that using a lawnmower to shred them works well.

Mushroom Composts

Mushroom compost is a waste product from the mushroom growing industry. I’ve heard wondrous things about adding mushroom compost to your garden. But I’ve also heard that it may come with additional ingredients; whatever else was used in the mushroom growing process. If that means it also comes with chicken litter, that’s okay. It will be good for your garden, too.

But if it also comes with pesticide residues or chemical fertilizer residues that you wouldn’t use in your own garden, then that’s not okay. When buying mushroom composts, do your homework. Find out where they come from and what cultural practices the grower used.

Next: Compost vs Humus in Houston Soils

Garden Waste Options for Houston Soils

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds, Soil | Posted on 26-02-2012

Adding garden wastes to Houston soils is a good way of incorporating organic matter to improve soil texture, drainage and fertility. After reading my last post, do you think its possible that using compost and growing green manures could also counter the effects of global warming?

I leave you to decide for yourself what you believe.

Passive Composting vs. Traditional Composting

Author/Gardener, Ruth Stout’s no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both your vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, add more.

The labor-saving part of her system is that you never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. She used just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and you don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.

How many of you have bought a fancy composting bin or compost maker only to discover it was a lot of work, didn’t produce any compost and was a total waste of well earned money?

From the first lecture in the Master Gardening certification course I recently completed, I learned that the problem with the fancy composters on the market today is most of them are not big enough to generate the heat required to compost organic garden wastes. Additionally, unless you live on a large piece of property, you cannot create enough compost from the garden wastes on your property to meet your gardening needs.

If you want to compost, you like to compost, and you’re willing to do the work of composting properly, you’ll need to forage for garden wastes. That’s easy enough to do. The next time you drive down the street in your neighborhood, stop and pick up the bagged garden wastes your neighbors are sending to the local landfill and take them home.

If you want the benefits of compost, don’t like to compost, are not willing to do the work of composting, or don’t want to resort to the expense of having to buy local or bagged compost, you might consider reading more about Ruth Stout’s no-work method of passive composting. Start a Google search or begin with the link below.

Click here for more information.

Another, similar method of passive composting I highly recommend you look into is called the Back to Eden approach. After watching the film in the link below, my husband converted the back half of the back yard into a Back to Eden garden and I adopted the principle of “the covering” into my raised vegetable garden beds as well as my flower beds.

Click here to learn more about Back to Eden gardening.

After just four months of having my garden beds covered with the tree mulch “covering,” I can’t believe how soft, black, rich and moist my soil is. Though we’ve had more rain in the last two months than we had all of last year, the soil is perfectly moist, light and airy.

When I planted my late winter-early spring garden plants a week ago, there was no need to loosen up the soil. The tree mulch has prevented it from the compacting effects of the torrential rains we’ve had.

Its color and texture suggests that it is rich with nutrients. The tree mulch has absorbed most of the water from the rainfall and releases it into the soil as the soil needs it. Thus, nutrients are held in the soil rather than leached away.

Trying this Back to Eden gardening approach has been our latest grand experiment in the garden and so far, I’m astonished at the results.

Click here to watch my husband’s video on our Back to Eden garden project.

Next: Leaf Mold Composting to Improve Houston Soils

Adding Garden Wastes to Houston Soils

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds | Posted on 26-02-2012

Adding garden wastes to Houston soils is another way of incorporating organic matter to improve soil texture, drainage and fertility. But what would you think if I also suggested that it could counter the effects of global warming?

If I were in your place, I’d probably chalk me up as another quack or lunatic at this point and “Google” another source of information. But

An article from Discover magazine (May 2011), if presented truthfully, got me to think twice:

“With proper stewardship…the agricultural soils of the world have the potential to soak up 13 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today – the equivalent of scrubbing every ounce of CO2 released into the atmosphere since 1980.”

Regenerative Agriculture

An agricultural approach aimed at boosting soil fertility and moisture retention by composting, keeping fields planted year-round, reducing tillage and increasing plant diversity.

Carbon-depleted soils tend to be dry and prone to erosion. Carbon-rich soils are dark, crumbly, fertile and moist. For millions of years there has been a natural partnership between plants and soil microbes that has helped to regulate carbon dioxide levels in the air.

Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into sugars and carbohydrates. Some of these carbon products are stored in plant tissues above ground and some are transferred down into the root systems below ground.

Below ground, some of those carbon products are transferred to fungi and soil microbes. Microbial and fungal activity transfers those products into the soil as humus. Plowing, tilling and turning the soil exposes the buried carbon to oxygen, creating carbon-dioxide and releasing it into the air.

When grasslands are overgrazed or fields are left fallow for part of the year, photosynthesis stops and so does the storage of carbon in the soil. Soil scientist, Rattan Lal (Ohio State University), calculated:

“that land use changes such as these have stripped 70 billion to 100 billion tons of carbon from the world’s soils and pumped it into the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and lakes since the dawn of agriculture. Today agriculture and other land-use changes account for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Marin Carbon Project

Whendee Silver (University of California) and her students are testing the effects of compost created from city yard waste (such as leaves, branches, and lawn trimmings) and agricultural waste (including manure and cornstalks) on carbon storage on a 539-acre cattle ranch near Nicasio, California.

We already know that compost increases carbon in the soil. But the real question is whether real-world ranchers can use it effectively to enrich the soil on their rangelands. Two years after a single application of compost, soil carbon levels had increased significantly suggesting that 28 million acres of grazing land in California could absorb 42 million tons of carbon dioxide – about 40% of what California electrical power plants dump into the atmosphere per year.

Each of those 28 million acres would only need to absorb an additional 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide. Whendee Silver stated that’s doable.

Australia is testing another strategy to build up soil carbon by cultivating grasses that stay green year round. Both studies hope to demonstrate that the principles of composting and growing green manures can mitigate the effects of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Conclusion

The Discover magazine article concludes that changing long-standing habits will require a system that rewards land managers monetarily for the carbon they can build into their property as well as the corn or beef they can market.

Really? Do we really need to get paid money for taking care of the planet we live on?

Next: Garden Waste Options for Houston Soils

Adjusting Houston Soil pH

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Posted by Sparki | Posted in Raised Garden Beds | Posted on 26-02-2012

If your plants exhibit yellowing of the leaves or slow growth, and you are not under or over watering, your soil pH may be a bit low or high.

Solving most garden “problems” is a process of assessing the possibilities and eliminating them one by one until you figure out what to do. You don’t have to be a scholar to be a great gardener; just a good detective.

Before you start adjusting your Houston soil pH levels, you should understand what it is you are doing. Soil tests will tell you if your soil is acid, neutral, or alkaline based on a pH scale from 0 to 14.

7 is considered neutral. The lower the number, the more acidic your soil is. The higher the number, the more alkaline your soil is. Does it really matter?

At some point in time, Agronomists discovered that low pH soils produced poorly. This gave birth to the practice of adding lime to soils to bring them to 7; into the neutral zone.

The Benefits of Soil Acidity

But the truth is, nature puts acidity into the soil from plant roots so that the actions of these acids can liberate minerals locked up in rock particles found in the subsurface clay layers.

When you add agricultural lime to “sweeten” soil pH, or raise it, you are providing a calcium rock compound that reacts with the acid clay in your soil system. The acid in the clay works on the lime to break down the calcium and release carbonic acid while the calcium is absorbed by the clay. Absorbed by the clay, the calcium then becomes available for plant use and adjusts the pH in the colloidal domain where plant roots absorb nutrients.

What happens to the carbonic acid? It decomposes into water and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide escapes from the soil taking acidity with it and the pH factor of your soil changes.

The benefit of all of this has to do with trading calcium off for hydrogen; pH tests really measure active hydrogen concentrations in the soil. Hydrogen has no nutritional value to plants.

So adjusting the pH level in your soil has more to do with loading depleted nutrients back into your soil system rather than removing acidity. Acidity is not a bad thing. In fact, it would be a very bad thing to remove all of the acidity in your soil. Without soil acidity, your plants will suffer nutritionally; and so will you when you eat them.

If you are going to go to the trouble of adjusting soil acidity for one nutrient (Calcium), you should consider adjusting for shortages or imbalances of Magnesium, Sodium and Potassium as well. That means having a lab run a complex soil analysis test.

Click here for more information on soil analysis testing.

Next: Raising Soil pH in Your Houston Garden