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A Few Thoughts on Organic Gardening

Table of Contents

1: Soil Care Basics2: Increasing Humus3: Maximizing Use of Cover Crops4: Avoid Bare Ground, Minimize Tillage5: Plant Care6: Beneficial Insects7: Habitat Plantings8: Other Strategies for Insects9: Yet More Insect Strategies10: Gardening Through All Four Seasons11: Eating Fresh

5. Plant Care

Transplants

When you transplant, you harvest almost every plant you put in. If I can grow a crop as a transplant, I do. Some crops must be direct-seeded, of course, but I prefer to start transplants if I can. Onions, for example, take a long time to germinate; are extremely slender and vulnerable after emergence; and are completely overwhelmed with the onset of any serious weed growth. It is much better to start them in a flat, grow them until the size of a scallion, growing rapidly, and plant them into freshly prepared, weed-free ground. I germinate the seeds in flats covered with plastic sheeting in the house, then grow under lights on a table in the basement.

Soil improvement is the key to successful transplanting. Most soils in Virginia have a good deal of clay. Transplanting into unimproved clay is an exercise in frustration. My goal has been above all to mellow that clay with the addition of organic matter and lime. In good friable soil, it takes mere seconds to put in a transplant.

Direct sowing

Of course, many crops—especially the small-seeded ones that take a long time to germinate—have to be direct sown because they cannot take transplanting. Most root crops will not tolerate the insult to their roots of being moved. (A notable exception is beets, which for me are even more successful if started as a transplant.)

When direct sowing, monitor closely, moistening as often as necessary to ensure the top quarter inch or so of the soil does not dry out. If your soil is still heavy on clay and light on humus, it will crust over and inhibit the emergence of the more fragile seedlings. In such cases, cover the seeds with a little seedling starting mix, compost, moist peat moss, or other fine organic material that will remain loose and retain moisture.

I will describe the way I start carrots as an example of starting the more difficult direct-sown crops. A spring carrot crop is generally not especially difficult, since soi temperature is cool and there is adequate moisture. In the hot, dry soil more typical of early to mid-July (the time to start carrots for the fall crop), however, carrot seeds will not germinate. I sow my carrot seeds in five rows down the length of one of my 42-inch wide beds, and cover with a little seedling starting mix. I water thoroughly, then cover the beds with large pieces of scrap cardboard. Shaded by the cardboard, the soil of the beds remains many degrees cooler than the rest of the garden, and moist. Each day I check the moisture, and water lightly when needed.

Any gardening manual will tell you that carrots take about three weeks to germinate. In the ideal conditions created by the setup I’ve described, however, I have found they take about eleven days. It is essential to monitor closely, and remove the cover as soon as you see the first carrot seedlings! If you see even a few seedlings, that means the other seeds, though covered and out if sight, have also broken dormancy. The emerging seedlings must not remain deprived of light under the cover, or they will get “leggy” and grow into plants that are weak and do not thrive. Water regularly until the seedlings begin growing more rapidly, thin, and mulch well. After that, you are almost certain to have a sound fall/winter crop if you water during the driest weather.

Using row cover

Spun-bonded fabrics are available which can be used to assist germination and protect fragile seedlings. Such row covers let in light, rain, and air, while excluding insects and keeping the germination zone moist and cool. They can be used to “baby” a new planting along until ready to take on the tougher challenges.

Reading Brix

Wouldn’t it be nice if plants could tell us what their needs are if they are to grow optimally and thrive? Perhaps there is.

It stands to reason that a strong, healthy, vigorous plant whose nutrient needs are being fully met will simply have more “stuff” in its sap—more sugars, amino acids, oils, proteins, flavonoids, minerals, etc.—than a weak, struggling plant on deficient soil. If we can “read” or measure the relative amount of such “stuff” in the sap, we get an idea about the health of the plant—how well it is growing, and whether it needs an extra nutrient boost. “Brix” is a scale against which we measure the relative amount of “stuff” in the sap.

To test Brix, one squeezes a few drops of sap from leaves, stem, or fruit onto the prism of a special optical instrument called a Brix refractometer. When light is directed through the sap on the prism, it bends (as light through a glass of water holding a pencil makes the pencil look bent) in proportion to sap density. The degree of bending is read on a calibrated scale.

I recently bought a Brix refractometer. During the coming season, I will be monitoring many of my crops to see how they are progressing and if their growth requires an additional boost.

Foliar feeding

If a Brix assessment indicates a need for a boost in the plants’ nutrient uptake for optimum performance, an excellent way to achieve that effect is a foliar spray. Foliar sprays are taken directly through the plants’ stomata (leaf pores) rather than through the roots. A good choice for foliar feeding is a diluted mix of fish emulsion and seaweed extract.

It should be understood that foliar feeding is an assistance to optimum production. It is not a substitute for a long-term soil improvement program.