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This is one of my favorite meals, not just because it tastes great, warms you up on a cold winter day, and is healthy, but because, except for the salt and pepper, I can grow each and every ingredient myself.

Fry up 1/2 onion and all of the tough stalk of 4 large leaves of collard greens chopped into little pieces. Add 3 large carrots and the white of 1 leek, 1 celery stalk, the collard leaves, all chopped up, and 7-8 Brussels sprouts. Braise 30 minutes, until carrots are half done. Add 5 medium potatoes, cubed, and enough homemade chicken broth to just cover everything. Simmer till potatoes are done. Add salt and pepper to taste – pepper I could grow, but how to make salt?

I watched Food, Inc. yesterday – a bit late, I know – and was blown away and even cried quite a bit. Disgusting, that “cleaned” hamburger meat!

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O, that egg again!

We’ve arrived at Part 6 if this extraordinary saga of how calcium arrives and behaves in the soil (if I’ve occasionally typed “soul” instead of “soil”,  is it really a typo?). Click to catch up on part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 and part 5.

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6. Soil base saturation and soil pH

The term “soil acidity” expresses the quantity (expressed in meq/100g) of the acidic cations (cf. part 3) that the soil can hold on to. The percent base saturation – another important term on your soil test results – is the percentage of the soil’s cation exchange capacity (CEC) occupied by the basic cations.

This is from our soil test:

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This means that calcium occupies 50.6% of the total exchange sites. In other words, in 100g of my soil, 15.6 meq can hold on to cations, both basic and acidic. Of that, 7.9 meq is occupied, or saturated, by calcium, 1.65 meq by magnesium, 0.64 meq by potassium. So, as far as I can learn from the test results (*), 10.19 meq/100g of soil, or 65.3% of the CEC, is saturated by bases. That leaves 35.3% of the CEC (*) for the acidic cations (hydrogen and aluminum).

(*) Sodium (also a base cation) is not listed on my test results, which means its levels are low, so I don’t have a sodic soil (cf. part 5).

Not surprisingly, the greater the percent base saturation, the higher the soil pH. Because calcium is normally the major cation, by virtue of its abundance taking up about half the CEC (as in our soil), we can say that there is less calcium in acid soils and more in alkaline soils.

But if the soil is very alkaline (pH > 7.0), the high levels of calcium may have negative effects. For one, more calcium taking up the CEC very simply means that there is less room on the colloid for everything else. Secondly, an excess of calcium can no longer be adsorbed onto the colloid. This “free” or unadsorbed calcium begins to accumulate in the soil water and goes on to react with what other nutrients are present.

For instance, the free calcium will readily attract soluble boron (B-), which is an an-ion (a negatively charged ion), and form a nearly insoluble compound with it, thus making the boron less available to plants.

Excess calcium will also tie up, or immobilize into insoluble compounds, cations like iron (Fe++), phosphorus (P+++) aluminum (Al+++), zinc (Zn2+), copper (Cu2+), cobalt (Co2+), and manganese (Mn2+), as well as magnesium (Mg ++) and potassium (K+).

Lastly, calcium also increases the pore space in the soil by flocculation, which, as we saw in part 5, is desirable. But when pore space exceeds 50% of the total soil volume, the soil can dry out much easier, like sand.

In short, too much calcium in your soil and many nutrients become insoluble and thus unavailable to plant roots, and the soil structure is damaged to boot.

But, on the other hand, if the soil is very acidic, and thus if there is not enough calcium, many of the other cations can become excessive and thus toxic. Then calcium applications with limestone are called for. The aim when attempting to adjust soil acidity is never so much to neutralize the pH as to replace lost cation nutrients, particularly calcium.

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Next time, in Part 7, I promise, we’ll finally meet the plants, and discover by what magical means they get the calcium out of the soul soil. 

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It’s scary out there. First it snowed: big, heavy, sticky snow. I went out every two hours to clear the hoop house with the big broom. The bare trees are loaded with snow, the branches that have leaves or needles on them droop precipitously. Then it stopped snowing, the clouds blew away, and all that white fluff flash froze to a crunch. Then, wind. Loud too, like jets suddenly flying over low, and the rumble of large objects hitting and rolling around on the roof.

I went out one last time – it was already dark – and the tiny flying ice scratched up my face. I had to put large boulders on the two ends of the hoop house where the plastic had been jerked loose. I couldn’t go into the house to pull them into place because the two clips holding the door flap closed were frozen stuck.

Tomorrow and the day after it will be sunny and bitter cold: wind chill as low as -10, and gusts of wind as high as 41 mph.

If after those days the hoop house still stands, and no tree has fallen on our house or our electricity lines, I’ll be very grateful!

Brrrr, looks so cold with that new banner!

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The hoop house beds get an airing

Inspired by Rob of One Straw, I went out into the cold, bright air yesterday  – gloves, woolen cap – to move the compost. The idea was to transfer it from Earth Machine no.1 behind our house, which receives our daily kitchen scraps, to the Earth Machine no.2 in the hoop house.

Right before our warm spell, when it was below freezing, I measured a balmy maximum of 64F in the hoop house. So, 64F inside while outside it was 30F! The observed inside minimum, however, was 20F – the outside minimum was 7.

The low nighttime minimum is explained by the lack of a heat sink. The only mass is the beds, covered with white row covers. Earth Machine no.2 is black, but it was empty, so not much there to retain the daytime heat.

Now no.2 is full, almost to the brim, with food scraps from the past weeks, fresh straw (as insulator, aerator and carbon) and actual compost – complete with worms!

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What a surprise! I had expected some of the mass in no.1 to have barely started decomposing several months ago, and most of it not to have had a chance at all. And surely it had been too cold for worms. But no, the top half was teeming with the Red Wigglers that I had observed in my compost last Fall, before the cold set in. The quarter below that was almost finished compost. The bottom quarter had decomposed  somewhat, but it had ice crystals in it, so I left that in no.1.

All the rest I transferred to no.2 in the hoop house, where it will temper the indoor climate at night and where it might just get ready to go on the beds in early Spring.

These are veggies I hope to keep a little warmer:

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An assortment of lettuces

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Last year’s parsley, still very yummy

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A whole bed full of greens and tiny broccoli, growing slowly but surely

This is the scene outside. We’re supposed to get new snow today.

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(On a side note: Firefox seems to be having problems with the Flickr badges: it keeps on loading them. If this taxes your connection, press the X – stop loading this page – button. I hope they solve it soon…)


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This is part 5 of a series on how nutrients, mainly calcium, get into our soil and vegetables (click for part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4). It is the longest and most difficult part of my expose, and the least “popular” one, judging by the fact that the issues discussed will not show up on the average soil test. Still, I include it because it gives us something to think about when we irrigate our garden and – I admit it – because it introduces that most enchanting of words in soil science. Flocculation. Come on, say it, out loud, taste it! Now you have to find out what it means.

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5. Soil structure, flocculation, salinity and sodicity

As we saw, it’s good to have some amount of clay, as clay particles are negatively charged and thus able to attract and hold on to nutrients, which are positively charged. Now clay particles can either be unattached and dispersed, or clumped together, “flocculated” into aggregates (flocs = flakes).

Flocculation happens because opposites attract and like repels like. Thus one negatively charged clay particle will repel another negatively charged clay particle. But the positively charged cations create bonds between them, shaping them into clumps or flakes.

Because of their varying charge, certain cations are good flocculants, like calcium (Ca++) and magnesium (Mg++), whereas others are poor flocculants, like sodium (Na+) and potassium (K+). Add water in the mix, and the cations’ flocculating power diminishes, because the cations will also spend some of their positive charge on attracting the hydrogen ions (H-).

Flocculation is a good thing. Unattached, dispersed single particles sit together in a dense cement that allows no air pockets, called pores. Clumpy aggregates, on the other hand, will not fit together so perfectly and create pores. It is in these pockets that the rapid exchange of air, water and colloidal cations with plant roots can take place. It is also in and through these spaces that roots grow.

But in such a lively realm as soil, flocculation is a transitory thing. It is best if the aggregates are stable, which stability depends on (1) the amount of soluble salts in the soil, and (2) the balance between calcium and magnesium (the more powerful flocculators) and sodium (the weak one).

As for (1), had I known about it, I would have shelled out the extra $5 for a soluble salt test to be done on my sample. Soluble salts are any dissolved ions, be it calcium, sodium or potassium. Ions in solution conduct electricity. The extra test would have given me the electrical conductivity (EC) of my soil, which would have given me another indicator of its nutrient richness.

As for (2), that extra test would have enlightened me about the balance between calcium and magnesium on the one hand, and sodium on the other, as it would have given me the Sodium Adsorption Radius (SAR):

[Na+]
————–
[Ca++] + [Mg++]

How do EC and SAR matter?

Well, flocculation or aggregate stability occurs (1) if the amount of soluble salts (calcium, magnesium as well as sodium) in the soil is increased: more positive ions means more electrical conductivity (EC), which means more binding of clay particles into clumps. Conversely, soil particle dispersion occurs when the amount of soluble soils and thus the EC is decreased.

Soil particles also flocculate (2) when concentrations of Ca and Mg are increased relative to the concentration of Na ions (that is, when the SAR is decreased), because Ca and Mg are much stronger flocculants. Conversely, soil particles will disperse when the SAR is increased. (I recommend this powerpoint presentation for a more visual explanation of these interactions.)

As we saw, hydrogen anions (H-) diminish the soil’s cations’ flocculating power, so irrigating with “pure” water – water that has low amounts of soluble salts and is thus a very poor conductor of electric current (EC) – can destabilize soil aggregates.

If you irrigate with so-called saline water – water with a high EC, or high amount of soluble salts – then that soil will have a good structure.  However, as can be expected, if there is an excess of salts in the root zone, it will hinder plant roots from withdrawing water from the soil (this will be further explained in part 7).

Another word of caution: if you have sodic irrigation water, that is, if it contains a high amount of sodium (Na), it could damage your soil structure, making life difficult for plant roots and causing problems with irrigation.

That is because Na ions are larger than Ca and Mg ions. When too many large sodium ions (with their low flocculating values) come in between the clay particles, they act like wedges, separating the particles, breaking up their aggregation. This soil dispersion causes the clay particles to plug the soil pores and create cement.

If you soil cracks when it is dried up, you have a sodic soil. One of the solutions is to decrease the SAR by introducing calcium (mostly in the form of gypsum), which will compete with the same spaces on the colloids as the sodium, and flush them out.

Something to think about, when we water our garden!

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I really did enjoy that – no kidding. I used to study metaphysics in grad school and this reminds me of it, a bit. Let me know what it did for you!

 

Undaunted, let’s move on to Part 6.

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The flower garden (to be). Yes, all the way down there.

I ordered more seeds, for those plants that were on back order in my previous order, and lots of everlasting and perennial flowers, many of them beneficials.

2068RO-Atomic Red Carrot OG (A=1g) 1 x $1.80= $1.80
2512LY-Olympia Spinach (A=1/4oz) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
3228MZ-Early Mizuna (A=1/16oz) 1 x $1.10= $1.10
3624VT-Ventura Celery ECO (A=0.1g) 1 x $2.20= $2.20
4517RO-Caribe Cilantro OG (A=1g) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
4592LV-Lovage (A=0.5g) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
4592LV-Lovage (A=0.5g) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
4644SO-Stinging Nettle OG (A=0.2g) 1 x $1.20= $1.20
4687GT-German Thyme (A=0.2g) 1 x $1.10= $1.10
4699WY-White Yarrow (A=0.1g) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
5215CP-Crystal Palace Blue Lobelia (A=0.2g) 1 x $1.20= $1.20
5234QS-Queen Sophia French Dwarf Double Marigold (A=0.7g) 1 x $2.00= $2.00
5705PL-The Pearl Achillea (A=0.05g) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
5799PE-Pearly Everlasting (A=0.1g) 1 x $1.40= $1.40
6008CQ-Cerise Queen Achillea (A=0.1g) 1 x $1.20= $1.20
6013RS-September Ruby New England Aster (A=0.03g) 1 x $1.40= $1.40
6028BC-Blue Clips Bellflower (A=0.05g) 1 x $1.40= $1.40
6068ES-Early Sunrise Coreopsis (A=0.1g) 1 x $1.40= $1.40
6204MC-Maltese Cross (A=0.4g) 1 x $1.00= $1.00
6272SD-Alaska Strain Shasta Daisy (A=0.5g) 1 x $0.90= $0.90
6333BM-Beneficials Mix (B=7g) 1 x $7.50= $7.50

I need to source more flowers and beneficials to ensure there is something in bloom from early Spring to late Fall. A beneficial that I would like to grow in my flower garden paths is either Dutch white clover or New Zealand white clover. Buying them online, in bulk, doesn’t make sense, shipping-cost-wise. I’d like to find them more locally.

I’ll order the strawberries, (lowbush) blueberries, hardy kiwi, elderberry bushes and hazelnut shrubs as soon as I’m assured that we’ll have spot ready for them when they arrive (in Early April).

I also need to investigate and source plants that will grow in very wet spots and in and around the pond. Any ideas?

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Oh, and “for a laugh,” you could read this, from The Onion. How true! A friend of mine said there must be so many Massachusetts-ers out there kicking themselves for not voting last week. I said I doubt it, for the very same reasons.

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Our back garden, house and veg garden are on a little hill. The slope (in red) is quite steep, and we terraced the part where the soil had been disturbed and was eroding. We put beds on either side (only the two lowest ones shown in brown) and a path of grass in the middle. This path leads down to the “front garden,” the large stretch of land at the bottom of the hill.

This piece of land has issues.

  1. It is home to the large septic leach field, so we shouldn’t put deep-rooted plants there, or any heavy stuff, like an asphalt parking lot for our truck (kidding).
  2. It is the lowest part of this part of our street, so it catches all the rainwater runoff from all sides. Luckily  most of it is from our own roof and hilltop, which we plan to divert (blue line) to a small pond and wetland at the lowest spot.
  3. It was badly disturbed by the installation of the septic (by the previous owner). In direct violation of one of the first rules of permaculture (never leave disturbed soil undisturbed!), we paid no attention to it for almost 2 years now and it is overgrown with weeds and brambles. And the soil is, of course, still bed: light brown, full of rocks, waterlogged.
  4. That soil is also very fungal, so it’s a challenge to grow and maintain grass on it. To put it simply, greens like bacterial soil, woodies like fungal soil.
  5. It borders on the street, with in between a strip of land that belongs to the town (where a lot of snow gets dumped, so we won’t be investing in any expensive bushes over there. I don’t even know what we could do there, it not being ours.
  6. We never go down there. In the past it was understandable: it was not inviting, and until last Fall (when we put the grass in), there wasn’t even a path that led to it.  But I know that, if we don’t make it absolutely gorgeous, it will be still be a neglected area: it is so out of the way of all our traffic.

Of all these issues, no.5 seemed to me the most challenging. What good is a fancy garden down there if we would never visit it? So I kept hesitating, pushing it out of my mind. Then Amie catalyzed an insight.

She kept insisting on lots of flowers. “I want to grow lots of flowers, Mama!” Yes, why not. And we do have a beehive in mind, so we’ll need them. And flowers are beautiful, and down there they will be the first thing people will see. And if we put a bench there, visible and accessible from the street: community!

So. Strip the weeds, lay out beds in curves and organic shapes with the large stones that are native to our property. Fill those with good soil and put in perennial shade-loving flowers. Plant deep-rooted flowers and bushes (elderberry!) to the east, clear of the leach field. Make these plantings transition into the wet area. There plant reeds, put in the pond with fish, a little boardwalk. In the middle have a small patch of lawn. There put a bench. Lay a gravel path to it from the street. Sit down. Enjoy the colors and scents, the sounds of water and of the breeze in the reeds around the pond. And invite the neighbors!