Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I Can Do Soil Science, Me!

I've never really done such a thing before but I figured a soil test wouldn't hurt. For one, it might shed light on why my garden hasn't been living up to my expectations. It also just gives me something garden-y to do while it's still too early to really do much planting. So I watched a few YouTube videos and picked up a test kit at the home improvement store.

First step was to gather some soil (chosen from the center of the bed and about 4 inches below mulch level) to soak in a jar with filtered water overnight.

As per the kit's instructions, this was for the NPK test but it also gave me an opportunity to check the soil texture ratio while it was in the jar. The ruler shows that my soil had (roughly and from bottom to top) 15 mm of sand, 3 mm of silt, 2 mm of clay, and floating at the top 10 mm of peat. So mostly sand, which is no surprise given my geography, even though the bed was filled with 100% municipal "compost".

 Here are those measurements, charted out to easily visualize ratios and then plotted on a soil texture triangle. Solidly in the "Sandy Loam" category but at least there's some loam!

The next step was drawing the liquid from the jar and using it to test for nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium levels. Those 3 tubes on the right should be bright magenta, deep blue, and a rusty orange. The orange, at least, is clearly present. Plenty of potash. The blue, indicating potassium, is there, if faintly. Nitrogen is very much lacking, as you can see from the sickly pink. Are these tests highly accurate? Probably not but it gives me a ballpark.

Last, with a bit of soil reserved from the jar, I tested the PH balance. The result, a rather rich blue-green, looks pretty alkaline. There is limestone in the area so this is possible. Or it could be a procedural error on my part. The jar I collected into had been full of sauerkraut. Fearing that residual vinegar would give me a false acidic result, I used a fair bit of baking soda when I washed it out. I tried to rinse it thoroughly but there's still some doubt. Clearly I should to run a few more tests.

However, assuming my results were more or less accurate, where does that leave me? Sandy, alkaline soil that's lacking in nitrogen and phosphorous. I my sandy soil is usable, it just won't hold on onto nutrients as well as might be hoped. If the alkalinity is due to limestone, I could adjust it with sulfur but it would swing back eventually, requiring continual amendment. Nitrogen and phosphorous levels can be fixed with fertilizer but, due to the sand content, would need constant re application. Or I just accept my soil for what it s and plant things that prefer alkaline sand.

Or I continue laying on as much good compost as I can make with a lot of chicken manure. Which is what I would have done anyway if I had never done the tests. My garden will probably never be the best ever but over the years the soil will improve. Maybe I'll try a ground cover that is a nitrogen fixer, like clover. I kinda wanted to do that anyway.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

False Spring is Still Spring, More or Less

Every year Albuquerque has a false spring. Right around Valentine's Day it gets really nice and warm. Everyone yearns to go outside. Plants everywhere bloom and I get hit by the first wave of allergies for the year.

The past two weeks have been sunny, in the 70s, and beautiful. I was sneezing my head off. Then, yesterday and today, it snowed. There goes this years false spring.

The best thing about the false spring is that it reminds me that it's time to plant peas. It's actually a little early for Albuquerque but mid-February is definitely pea planting time down in Las Cruces, where I picked up the habit. Sometimes you can get away with it in Abq. The first planting of the year. The beginning of the gardening season. I love it.

So this afternoon Little Digger and I went out and planted a row of Sugar Snap Peas along the back of the apple bed. Hopefully, they'll sprout and wind their way up the chainlink wall of the chicken pen that presses up against the bed. If the chickens don't peck them to pieces first, we'll have fresh, sweet peas in a few months.

While I was out there, I noticed that a few plants in my garden were fooled by the false spring. Day lilies are peeking their heads through the mulch in a few places, as are the Hollyhocks we planted last year. Maybe they'll actually produce a few flowers this time around! The herbs all seem to have overwintered pretty well. We even have a couple strawberry plants that seem to have survived!

I am so excited for this year.

Monday, February 13, 2017

This Year Will Be Better

Things have been rough. Here's a summary of a pretty pathetic year of gardening and a promise to myself that this year will be better.

The biggest addition to my garden last year was fauna, rather than flora. We got a couple of chickens! Me and Mrs. Digger had been considering it for a while when a chicken coop showed up on Craigslist for $20. It had been purchased by a family living in the mountains and, immediately after putting chickens in it, a bear knocked it over and devoured it's contents. I bought it, fixed it up, and put a couple chickens of my own in it. They're Dominique hens, which have the distinction of being America's oldest chicken breed. They were selected for being hardy, decent layers who tend to be quiet and friendly.
Now, chickens came with some problems. First, I'd heard that chickens dig but I hadn't expected them to really DIG. They are worse than the dog ever was. They killed off most of the day lilies and asparagus before I managed to erect a fence around my little garden bed to keep them out. I feared for the survival of the apple trees. They also poop. A lot. Especially on the porch, where they like to hang out. It was manageable if I swept every day but that got old fast. Without even realizing it, it got to the point where I was simply avoiding going outside because it was so gross.

Now, there are some great things about having chickens in the yard too. Primarily, I got fresh eggs on a regular basis (until they started hopping the wall and hiding them in neighbors' yards). Second, they love grubs as much as I hate them. Any time I'm digging in the yard, they are right there with me, waiting for a chance to snap up a juicy grub. They turn those grubs (and a lot of other stuff) into excellent fertilizer. Lastly, they're sweet, easy creatures. I think their temperament is similar to that of cats. They're independent enough to exist alone quite happily as long as I keep their food and water filled but when I'm out there they ask to be petted or held. That's the kind of pet I like.
Mostly because of the chickens, but also due to some other life issues, my garden was pretty sad in 2016. The total harvest from my yard (ignoring the eggs) was 2 tomatoes, which weren't ripe until November and 1 strawberry. I did pull up and sift all the rocks in the front yard, laying down fresh weed barrier. During that project I planted a row of spineless prickly pears, which are coming in nicely. Photos of the cacti later.
Looking forward, this will be a good year. Little Digger is old enough to help me in the garden now. The chickens, rather than running rampant through the yard, are now mostly contained in a large pen. The dog passed away so he can no longer dig things up. The neighbors moved away, taking their dogs with them, so I can garden without being barked at. I am pretty excited.

This year will be good. I will dig. Plants will grow.

I can't wait to get out there.