Organic methods : A meal for the garden

Paul Bonine- Xera Plant Inc.                           6.13.18
Heather Havens – Concentrates Inc.

I sat down with my best friend Heather Havens co-owner of Concentrates one Sunday afternoon to talk about organic fertilizers & amendments (seed/plant/animal meals, rock dusts, composts/manures), soils, and how the weather factors in. I felt like I was in need of an update on my soils and methods with the most up to date information dispensed by the most, phenomenal mind I know on the subject, Heather’s.

Heather deals with a vast clientele who are dependent on her knowledge and precision of the science to achieve real, superior outcomes: to make money. Not only an OSU Ag graduate, she’s one of the leaders in the industry as a supplier of amendments through Concentrates wholesale. She’s a frequent and excellent speaker- on all related subjects with a vast 20+ year compendium of experience. I highly recommend her for ALL garden groups, and skills. What she has you need to know. I’ll put her contact information at the end of the blog.

Paul: Where should a gardener begin?

Heather: (answered instantly) A soil test, it will not only save money in the long term you will avoid common and expensive mistakes i.e. unnecessary over fertilization – and the common laundry list that follows, disease, less cold hardiness, soil toxicity, rank growth etc., A soil test pays for itself.

Paul: Many years of talking to customers has me agreeing with Heather wholeheartedly. Especially if it is a new garden – any kind of garden, .

Heather: A & L Labs has years of experience and are remarkably consistent. They provide a full graphical analysis with recommendations, which Concentrates can help you interpret. When filling out the form you can specify exactly what you are growing and the agronomist will know how to tailor those recommendations. Visit their website first. A test is ~ $36.00 and with shipping it rounds out to about $47 (http://www.al-labs-west.com/fee-schedule.php?section=Soil%20Analysis ). Soil tests for A & L Labs may also be returned to Concentrates and they will send the sample on.

Paul: What time of the year is preferred.

Heather: My personal favorite time for soil testing is late summer. By then the soils have done everything they are going to do in a season- you’ll get the best readings.

Paul: We frequently see gardens experiencing problems on new construction sites. This is not surprising. Construction scrapes off at least two horizons of soil. Good bye topsoil and organic matter. To compound the problem (heh) compaction by heavy equipment renders even well drained soils an impermeable hydrophobic pan. I have specific customers that could have saved a lot of acrimony, money, and time if they had initiated with a soil test immediately.

Heather: Ideally you want to do tests for two to three years in a row, at the same time each year, this paints a more accurate picture and it shows you what you are doing to the soil.

Paul: What is the most common edaphic (soil) malady that you see?

Heather: (not even hesitating) Over fertilization. Its rampant.

Paul: And I agree, the whole industry is predicated on gardening as a bunch of problems to be solved. And there are endless ways they will sell you what is for the most part unnecessary wasteful, expensive excess. We are encouraged to FEED plants- pretty much at all costs and to achieve outlandish results- promised by any kind of chemical concoction. The methods that I’ve learned (from Heather) and years in the nursery and garden making industry follows simple golden rules: Do only as much as you have to, respect the soil, do no harm, incorporate methods that optimize plant culture though balance, siting, and proper irrigation. Too much fertilizer residue is polluting our systems with grave consequences. We should rely on the natural adaptation of plants as well.

Heather: For the most part I don’t advocate fertilizing most established woody plants at all, I only fertilize them at time of planting, and then only minimally, and as needed by that particular variety of plant. It can be emphasized that overly enriched soils not only lead to a glut of nutrients, it throws the plant out of balance, causing overly quick and excessive growth, and many plants will avoid or skip dormancy in winter leaving them perilously exposed to hard freezes. This also causes unwanted consequences such as a build-up of elements like Potassium & Magnesium. Over use of all-purpose fertilizer blends and manures can also lead to dangerous build ups of both phosphorus and potassium. Our soils are replete already in Magnesium and Potassium, and adding more can result in toxic consequences with no easy fix. A better addition to the soil could be a beneficial fungal/mycorrhizae product, or top-dressing, or kelp extract drench or foliar application, all of which will work in concert with elements already present and release them over time.

Paul: Why are these methods superior?

Heather: Organic gardening is your chance to get it right the first time. And here we are speaking broadly from amendments to manures, but people think less often to do some of the most successful (and inexpensive) methods such as cover crops. When using organic/natural amendments, you are basically making microorganisms digest them and make their nutrients plant available. And they naturally have lower & slower release NPK. They also require warmth and moisture to become active.

Paul: It should be said that chemical fertilizers have their function and their pitfalls. Unlike organic amendments they are made soluble by bonding with salts which makes them immediately available to plants- almost regardless of the temperature.

Heather: The bottom line is chemical fertilizers are cheap and they deliver results but at the expense of the environment. They are usually recommended at rates many, many times more than is evenly remotely needed. Chemical fertilizer basically force-feeds the plant – organic methods actually work with a balanced, healthy environment. You are not forcing a plant to take up what they do not need. And over fertilization is a danger to the environment. For example, gluts of unused phosphoric acid have drained from the agricultural Midwest eventually finding its way to the ocean. There the overabundance of nutrients forces large unnatural algal blooms that rob the water of oxygen and forming permanent dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. This excessive release of nutrients is degrading the environment, and inexorably leaching into our water supply. A very expensive result we will pay for in the future. Probably the most concerning to gardeners is that the salts they use to make the fertilizer soluble eventually build up in the soils and kill beneficial microorganisms, as well as do nothing to feed them, so if they do not succumb to those toxic levels they will starve to death. It is, however, fairly easy to reinstate life in your soil. Though it takes at least a year, the combination of organic matter, heat, and water can repair the damage. Time and time again I’m pleasantly surprised by organic results- the benefits are exponential and balance returns.

Paul: NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) are the elements available in most fertilizers /amendments, Can you give a brief overview of how this breaks down for plants?

Heather: The number of each element represents the percentage available of that component. For instance, if the first number is 10, that means 10% nitrogen is available.
Nitrogen the first number is responsible for green leafy growth, Phosphorus, the second percentage focuses on flowering, cell development and root growth. And the third K or Potassium is involved in reproduction, root formation, and reinforces cell walls leading to strong wood, stem development. There can be a fourth number/component which indicate various trace minerals. Trace minerals are especially important in food crops- they can increase plant flavor, fragrance, and color.

Common amendment meals:

Soybean meal- Nice all-purpose slow release nitrogen source.
Cottonseed meal- Traditional fave for acid loving broadleafed evergreens
Feather meal- High but steady nitrogen source.
Linseed meal- Good substitute for Cottonseed meal
Alfalfa meal- A special bond with roses, all plants seem to like
Bone / Fish-bone meal- Classic source of phosphorus, with some Nitrogen

Heather: Organic amendments are eaten by microorganisms, who in turn make nutrients available to the plants. They also increase the amount of beneficial soil fungi- an important component in healthy decomposition. They have more specific requirements to decompose than chemical fertilizers. Organic amendments are actual carbon based material. To break down in the most efficient way they require a healthy amount of organic matter in the soil. Compost is ideal and in combination maintains soil moisture, and spurs microorganisms to consume this carbon. The resulting processed nutrients both enriches the soil and increases further bioactivity in a kind of loop. You need three elements for this process to evolve. Moisture, heat, carbon. They tend to reach their apex of effectiveness in the warmth of mid-summer, as long as adequate moisture and organic matter is present. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain irrigation steadily through our dry season. Unirrigated soils in Western Oregon will quickly go summer dormant- drying out and significantly inhibiting bioactivity.

Paul: Is it possible to RE-activate soils that have gone summer/dry/dormant?

Heather: It can be done. As I mentioned earlier the combination of compost, moisture, and heat if diligently applied can reactivate dormant soils. It requires consistency and time, to be successful.

Paul: In the countryside where I gardened the soils would quickly go dormant by late May. I gardened on heavy, silica rich clay it would seize up to the consistency of concrete. Hydration was almost a joke. Water simply beaded up and rolled along the surface. There was even a kind of top crust that formed on the soil that further repelled water penetration. I relied heavily on compost, bark mulches, and seed amendments to enhance both water percolation and add oxygen and carbon. My perennial beds were somewhat easy to maintain activity but anywhere beyond consistent irrigation was a virtual, hard packed desert. The line of delineation can be stark.

Heather: One of the great advantages of seed meals as organic fertilizer is that they have relatively specific NPK numbers and each meal can vary surprisingly. For a source of Nitrogen soybean meal is a strong performer, being 9% N. Microorganisms steadily decompose this and it releases over a long and fairly even curve. Its ideal for everything from leafy vegetables, to ornamental perennials such as Hosta and Japanese Forest Grass (Hakenochloa). Two other meals for nitrogen are Linseed Meal and Cottonseed meal. Cotton seed meal is the preferred fertilizer for acid loving plants. Linseed meal is a great, inexpensive, and often organically sourced consistent amendment. Seed meals are only applied once during the season and their decomposition process will extend for all the warm months.
Think of them not as direct food but as an annual recharge to the system gaining efficiency with time. They are easier on the environment too. Because these elements are first broken down and then absorbed by plants runoff of excessive nutrients is low to almost non-existent- also, in the use of specific meals you can avoid the build-up of elements that can prove toxic which is a hazard with all-purpose blends and even manure.

Trace minerals are the final and important category of beneficial elements for plants. They are supplied through such amendments as Kelp meal, or liquid kelp, or the much more slower inclusion of glacial rock dust or (a few other branded rock powders). Trace minerals are at the root of the metabolic processes that create scent, flavor, and color. If you provide the soil and microbes and all of the trace minerals the plant needs, it will live up to its greatest potential, including enhanced scents as well as flavors, and be as healthy as it possibly can be. These rock powder, such as Glacial Rock Dust, contain large amounts of silica as well. This vital component has varied but important benefits, from increasing pest resistance, to strengthening cell walls which in turn improves cold hardiness and resistance to drought stress.

Paul: I used to think of my amended soils as a kind of sandwich. I’d amend the soil deeply with organic matter (compost) double dug to 18” deep and then apply a nice even layer of a seed meal and then top it with (more) compost. These layers fostered interaction and in short order there would be bioturbation by organisms and soon to follow the metabolized nutrients would be become available. The compost/carbon holds both moisture and oxygen at the same time. And consistent irrigation (made more efficient by the mulch) motivates this process with the arrival of truly warm weather.

Heather: Soil amendments can have specific uses beyond just the three main elements. For poorly draining clay soils you can employ Gypsum – Calcium sulphate. Its known for its ability to “break up” these poorly oxygenated and stubbornly dry soils. It basically realigns the bonds of the soil. Instead of being stacked in layers these reorganized bonds set at a different angle congeal into discrete particles more easily and develops a looser texture. An incorporation of compost at the same time doubles the impact you’ll achieve on these difficult to work as well as irrigate soil conditions. In the winter, air parcels between re-aligned particles add valuable drainage- air that can be crucial for plants adapted to dry winter climates and significantly improves cold hardiness. Additionally, calcium sulphate supplies those two crucial elements that certain plants crave and must have (Calcium and Sulphur). Onions, brassicas, beets, radishes, gain impressive pungency when gypsum is supplied.

Paul: When most people think about soil amendments one goes directly to Lime. Just what is the skinny on lime? Good lime or bad lime as well as soil pH.

Heather: Oh, yes. Calcium distribution. Basically, there are two kinds of lime used in gardening, Calcium Carbonate lime, and Dolomite Lime, To sweeten the soil – raise the pH and add calcium. If soil is too acidic the plant can’t take up certain good nutrients, but it becomes possible for the plant to also absorb too much unhealthy nutrients, including toxic minerals. If you have sufficient organic matter and microorganisms these also add buffering capacity, which allows flexibility of pH.

Commonly used and popular dolomite lime (Calcium carbonate & magnesium carbonate) is not the kind of lime I recommend. Not only is it slower to act, it contributes (usually not needed) magnesium. Elevated levels of magnesium can tie up other elements making them inaccessible to plants. And we already know that it is very easy and potentially harmful if applied in excess. Dolomite is usually more expensive that Calcium Carbonate lime, also.

Paul: Amazing to see people adding dolomite lime year after year. That’s kind of begging for problems. What is the appropriate lime to use?

Heather: Calcium Carbonate lime (aka Ag Lime or Garden Lime). Its benefits are obvious. It contains no magnesium, its less expensive, faster, doesn’t tie anything up, and is available in powdered or pelleted. The brand we sell and most often recommend is Microna Lawn & Garden Lime powder.

Paul: Heather thank you so much. This was fun, and I learned a boatload as usual. I appreciate your easy to understand, no- nonsense approach.

Heather: You are welcome, it is so wonderful to work with you again! More info can be found on our website: www.concentratesnw.com . Your readers are welcome to visit our showroom, or order our products online, or buy our products at their favorite garden store, nursery, or farm store.

Paul: This is but a small taste of the brilliance in Heather’s head. If you are interested in having her speak for your group. Heather Havens : heather@concentratesnw.com

Heather: Love you.
Paul: Love you too.

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