Book review: Practical Organic Gardening by Mark Highland.

Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally – Mark Highland (2017, Cool Springs Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group, Minnesota)

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Gardening is all about inputs (and, obviously, outputs): you need the water, nutrients, light, soil, seeds/cuttings/transplants, and a bunch of elbow grease and sweat and love and passion to reap the rewards.  I’m thinking that most gardeners have substantial overflowing reservoirs of passion and love for their plants, but I’d argue that one of the most important of the remaining inputs is soil.  Specifically, healthy soil.

Which brings me to one of my favourite aspects of Mark Highland’s new book Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally.  He talks a lot about soil (he does, after all, own a soil company in the United States).  More importantly, he stresses how to respect instead of work the soil – a statement which really aligns with my whole abject laziness when it comes to that elbow grease expenditure.  I can respect with the best of them!  Seriously, however, his discussion of the significance of the relationship between the microbial activity in the soil and organic gardening/no-till (or low-till) principles is one many gardeners may be interested in.  No matter if you garden organically or not, knowing something about the biological and physical properties of your soil will help you offer the very best for your plants. And understanding how to conserve your soil brings your garden closer to sustainability.

When he’s not presenting valuable tips about boosting soil health, Highland covers everything from irrigation and siting, to amendments and mulching, and using organic controls within Integrated Pest Management.  He talks about food forests and mushroom farming.  He offers solutions for container and raised bed gardening, and explores xeriscaping design.  He wades into the lawn/no lawn debate. Chapters explore planning your garden, seed starting, and vegetative propagation.

With its accessible layout, excellent photography, and straightforward, experienced voice, Practical Organic Gardening is comprehensive and highly informative; I can easily see this as a go-to manual for both novice and experienced organic gardeners.

*Quarto Publishing Group generously provided me with a copy of Mark Highland’s Practical Organic Gardening; as always, my opinions about the book are my own.

Alberta snapshot: Bebo Grove.

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Just a quick pic today…the past few days have been a whirlwind – both literally and figuratively.  It’s been insanely windy outside and of course everyone has decided it’s time to power rake the lawns and sweep the gravel out of the parking lots – it’s really best not to step outdoors if you have allergies!  I walked to the store today and I came back with sandblasted eyeglasses and a completely new hairdo.  😉  I’m super-swamped with all the happenings in our community gardening group, getting ready for our Annual Growers’ Meeting tomorrow night and rounding up soil amendments for the raised beds so the members can get sowing!  (We do make our own compost at the garden, but it’s a small operation and we used up all the produce last autumn).  I want very much to get out into my flowerbeds and trim down the old stalks of the perennials and do some clean up, but I’m not quite ready yet…the cast was finally removed from my wrist late last week but I need a bit of therapy and time to get things working again.  Maybe once the wind dies down, I’ll be up to it.  🙂

My hubby and I managed to get out on the weekend for a very short walk in Bebo Grove in Fish Creek Provincial Park in the southwest part of the city.  It was less walking than sitting by the river, actually, but there’s something to be said for a few moments of quiet and nothing to do except to watch the ducks and enjoy the warm sun.

Flowery Friday.

Tulips - get well bouquet - 6 March 2015

Lovely tulips from a beautiful basket I was gifted with.

Happy Friday!  

What are your plans for this weekend?  Tonight the community gardening group that I belong to is hosting a guest speaker for a presentation about soil health.  Should be very interesting!  I’ll try to take notes….

Soil talk.

I was going through my (eek! seriously disorganized) photo files yesterday and I came across these two pics that I took at the community garden this fall.   The light was absolutely amazing that day in October.

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Highbush cranberries

Mushroom in mulch

Although they look pretty, the mushrooms are symptomatic of a problem in the community garden.  Large chunks of wood mulch were used to dress the beds along the perimeter fence when the garden was built about five years ago (and by “large,” I mean HUGE – see Exhibit A, above).  It was all done mainly for aesthetics over any practical purpose and through the years, many of the chips have been dug under, creating a soil structure akin to cement.  Pore space is at a definite premium, and will eventually affect the way crops grow.  (I won’t get into the whole carbon-nitrogen imbalance thing here, but that’s an additional issue.  I recently read that bark chips can take at least a decade to decompose in soil).  To make matters worse, this year, the mushrooms turned up in full force.  LOTS of mushrooms.  Expected, sure, but definitely not welcome.  Although we made an attempt at damage control in the fall and removed some of the uppermost layers of the wood chip/soil clumps, we’ve got a long way to go to fix this mess.  Definitely a cautionary tale about using the right mulch for the job (and in this case, about not digging it in)!

Let’s talk soil and/or mulch – do you have any problem areas in your garden? 

Practical plantings.

Here in Calgary, we love our junipers.

Well, it seems like it, anyway.  Walk by nearly any commercial property in the city and there will be a juniper or, more likely, a long row of junipers in front of it.  Plenty of homeowners use them, too.  I’m not talking about the tall, upright varieties, either.  (I’d be positively THRILLED to see more of those – many people plant cedars instead.  Unfortunately, here in Chinook country, beautiful moisture-loving cedars often turn to brittle red sticks over a single winter).

No, I’m thinking about the spreading junipers, the ground covers.  They’re everywhere!  And while many people dismiss them as “unimaginative” and “boring,” there’s a reason why they’re so popular here.  They’re practical.  You can literally plant them and forget them – and I’m not just saying that.  The mass grouping of junipers  in front of my workplace is rarely watered other than by rainfall or snowmelt, and I doubt any of the shrubs has ever been pruned.  Junipers are drought tolerant (once established), they can withstand our wacky temperature extremes, and they don’t mind all the road salt and the urban pollution.   They like the sun but they can take a fair amount of shade as well.  And, as for soil, most varieties don’t really care how fertile it is.   Some prostrate types cling to the sides of mountains!  They’re largely resistant to diseases – although you do have to watch out for various rusts.  Deer and hares and most other pests won’t eat them, which is a bonus.   You can get a wide range of varieties and colours from deep blue to golden yellow to bright green, which also means that you aren’t restricted to planting them en masse – they make great specimen plants as well!   I’m extremely fond of the three ‘Blue Chip’ junipers (J. horizontalis) in my garden – their blue-green needles are beautifully textured, and they have a fabulous mounding habit.  They perform like a dream, and I do absolutely nothing to encourage them.   Yes, they’re certainly practical – and that’s a very, very good thing in my book!

Plus, spreading junipers look great – or, at least, I think they do!  Especially with a nice, fluffy layer of snow to decorate them.  (Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have taken these photos a month or two ago – we received another sprinkling of the white stuff yesterday and I shot these images this morning.  To my delight, warm winds moved in this afternoon and ate most of the new snow).

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I’m going to tentatively ID this collection of junipers as Juniperus sabina ‘Scandia’ – they are too tall to be ‘Calgary Carpet’ or ‘Buffalo’.   If you have any other ideas of what they might be, I welcome them!  🙂

What types of  ubiquitous “practical” plantings are popular where you live?  Do you grow any of them yourself? 

Pest to watch (out for): Artillery fungus.

Hopefully no one out there is currently plagued with this pest – if you are, you’re in for some additional spring cleaning duties.  It’s a messy one!

Also called shotgun fungus, these members of the genus Sphaerobolus are usually spotted (yes, I’m making bad puns again) covering the sidings of houses or the exteriors of vehicles.  Artillery fungus colonizes wood, so if you’re laying down wood mulch, you may be encouraging its growth.  The peridioles (spore packets) of Sphaerobolus are interesting:  they rest above cup-shaped cells that gradually fill with water.  Eventually, the cells invert, which causes the peridioles to burst, exploding outward in a distance up to 6 metres (almost 20 feet).  The spores immediately adhere to any surface situated in the blast zone…which most often happens to be cars and houses.

Just to make things more delightful, artillery fungus is really, REALLY difficult to remove.  Part of the problem is that you don’t want to use harsh chemicals or scrapers on the surfaces that the fungus sticks to.  This website has a few potentially workable suggestions, the most notable of which is employing a combination of Mr. Clean Magic Erasers and a bit of mouthwash.  Bleach and hot water and plenty of elbow grease apparently works as well.  Definitely test a small area of before you start your cleaning project, as you don’t want to ruin any painted surfaces.

As for prevention of further attacks, it should be noted that there isn’t really an effective fungicide on the market to deal with artillery fungus.  (I’m not particularly fond of chemicals, so I probably wouldn’t recommend one even if such a thing was available). The best option is to consider whether or not you really need wood mulch, especially near the foundation of the house or alongside the driveway.  Replacing the wood mulch with gravel or another desireable product may be a simple solution to a labour-intensive problem.  As well, bear in mind that the wood chunks found in potting soil might also be a haven for the fungus.  (Don’t get me started on the LOGS I keep finding in commercial brands of potting soil mixes – it’s a pet peeve of mine.  I’m currently on a seemingly unending quest to find a good quality brand of potting soil – I thought it would be a matter of “you get what you’ve paid for,” but I’m actually still searching.  It really builds a strong case for creating your own potting mixes).

I tracked down a video that gives you an idea of how artillery fungus grows and disperses, and the mess it can make:

I’m so glad that artillery fungus hasn’t been an issue (so far) in my garden!  I hope you haven’t been pestered by it- but if you have, what did you do to get rid of it?

Water retaining crystals – yay or nay?

I have a confession to make.

Really, I should be ashamed of myself.  It’s time I got it out in the open, however:

I’m not very good at remembering to water my houseplants.  It’s not that I mean to forget…it just sometimes happens.  I like to pretend it’s because I’m doing everything within my power to prevent mould and other nasty humidity-related issues, but really, it’s just because I’m always on the go and certain things get kind of shuffled to the wayside.

Yep, now I’ve admitted it.  Please don’t judge me too harshly!   😉

It’s a good thing I have mostly African violets, which like to dry out between waterings.  In an attempt to alleviate the pain and suffering of my poor beleaguered plants, I’ve occasionally used water retaining crystals (aka hydrogels) in my potting soil.  For the most part, though, I haven’t really had to significantly change my watering schedule for plants with water retaining crystals in the soil versus those without; the extension of time between waterings seems to be a couple of days, perhaps three or four if I’m lucky.  I’ve never tried out the crystals in my outdoor containers, so I’m not sure if they would make a difference in hanging baskets or planters.  I’ve also never used commercial premixed potting soil that contains hydrogels.

Here’s the thing:  it seems that there is a bit of a controversy regarding water retaining crystals.  Many garden experts do not recommend their use, calling them gimmicks and citing their ineffectiveness.  (Plus, potting mixes containing the crystals are more expensive than those without!).  And, even more damaging:   I came across an article this past week which suggests that the common type of crystals made from polyacrylamide may actually be carcinogenic!  Oh boy, that’s not what I want in the soil for my houseplants…and definitely not in the potting mixes I’m growing food crops in.

There are alternatives to the polyacrylamide crystals (besides actually watering on a regular basis!).   The ones made of starch may actually be better at retaining water, and they are considerably safer.  I’m not certain how many studies have been done about all of this, and there is bound to be some continued debate.

Weigh in!  Have you ever used water retaining crystals – or would you ever use them – in your potting soil?