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Feed your garden beds now so they’ll be ready for spring

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: August 21, 2019
  • Published August 21, 2019

When it comes to growing your own vegetables, there is only one way to go, and that is organic. Frankly, the same applies to growing flowers and everything else. Using only organic inputs is the only justifiable system.

One of the big complaints, however, which is sometimes even used as an excuse to be non-organic, is that it takes longer for organic fertilizers to work — much longer in most cases. You cannot just pour most organics onto a garden bed and get immediate results, as you can with non-organic chemicals.

I’ve spent so much of my life explaining the reason why this is so to Outside audiences, the Permanent Fund people question if I am actually living here. Organics work because the soil food web, and ultimately the microbes plants attract to their roots, eat these organics and hold the nutrients in them. When they die, these are released and become available to plants.

Herein is the problem. It takes time for the soil’s food web to break the organic material down and incorporate it. It also presents the solution: Put organics into your system now, so that by the time spring comes along there will be plenty of goodies for your plants.

Yes, there is microbial activity all winter long. And you will get a bit of a head start on winter by doing the work now. There isn’t much work either, as you don’t have to mix these organics into the root zone. Just lay them down on the surface. The soil food web does the work and will bring it down to where it is ultimately used by plants.

This is where I tell you that you should get your soils tested. No one does, so I don’t know how I can possibly tell you what organic material your soils need. And, I wrote a whole book on the subject, anyhow (but of course, you have already read “Teaming With Nutrients: The Organic Growers Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrients”).

Organic materials used as fertilizer all have NPK numbers on their labels or listed on the internet. These are low numbers, almost always under 10 and usually under 5. There are all manner of charts out there listing these numbers. So, cotton seed meal, for example, is high in nitrogen at 6-1-1, as is soybean meal, which comes in at 7-2-0. Rock phosphate is 0-5-0 and earth worm castings are 2-1-1.

In addition to the all important NPK information, the really useful charts or labels include a time factor — usually “fast” or “slow” — that gives a general idea how long it takes for the material to be broken down so nutrients are plant-available. You will find liquid formulations — usually smelly — and granular formulations. The liquids almost always act faster and usually are applied in the very early spring.

Without knowing your specific situation, compost is the best organic plant food, mostly because it is already reduced organic material that contains ample microbes and serves as both a feed store and condominium for them. It is usually something like 2-1.5-1.5 NPK, which is pretty balanced. It also buffers the soil’s pH, keeping it in the right range. I always like to incorporate it into any program.

Blood meal is very high in nitrogen — 12-1.5-0.5 — and can burn plants. I don’t recommend it for anything but fall use. Bone meal has lots of phosphorous, 4-20-0. Since you should be using mycorrhizal fungi, this is too much phosphorous, so I don’t suggest you use it either.

I like bat guano — 10-10-2 — as a fast-acting and relatively gentle source of nitrogen. Seabird guano is also 10-10-2 and full of micronutrients as well as good amounts of NPK. This makes it an ideal organic fertilizer.

At a very minimum, between now and next month mulch your vegetable and annual beds with a green mulch or a finely ground brown one or brown mulch that has been partially composted. Perennial beds, under trees and shrubs should be covered with a few inches of brown mulch.

In short: We are organic gardeners. We feed our soil food web members now so they will feed our plants next spring.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar for the week of Aug. 23

Harvest: Winter will arrive one of these days. What are you waiting for?