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Test Your Soil

Test Your SoilKnowing the basics behind organic gardening can put you on the right path to creating your own Eden. All you need is patience, a willingness to get muddy, and this quick tip.

Before planting anything, first determine the measure of acidity or alkalinity (known as pH) of your soil with a home testing kit.

For most vegetables, the magic number is 6.5. Too acidic (on the low end of the 0-to-14 scale) or too alkaline (on the high end) and your plants won’t be able to access the soil’s nutrients. Boost your pH with a line spread, found at garden stores, or lower it with powdered sulfur. Seedlings can then be planted straight in the ground.

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Water-Saving Ideas For Your Garden

Simple xeriscaping techniques have a big impact.

Nature usually knows best. When it comes to designing our backyards, we can all emulate nature by using xeriscape techniques, a term coined to describe creative landscaping practices that minimize the use of water. Many assume that xeriscaping means growing only cacti and yuccas, or covering the soil with gravel, but nothing could be further from the truth. Lauren Springer, in her book, The Undaunted Garden, refers to her xeriscape as a “lush, dry garden.” Plants classified as xerophytic require less water, or have better methods of obtaining water (for example, a long taproot system) or retaining it (for example, waxy leaves that slow transpiration). Xeriscaping doesn’t mean avoiding water-guzzlers, such as astilbes or ligularias, altogether. It is simply a matter of organization – grouping plants together according to their water requirements.

Xeriscaping has become a way of life in areas where water is scarce. Since the 1995 drought and severe water restrictions in England, signage saying “drought tolerant” has been seen at all British nurseries. In Colorado, many homeowners leave a buffer zone between their lawns and the street, so that runoff water from lawn sprinklers doesn’t run down the gutters. In some cases, this is simply a mulched area planted with low-growing junipers and large rocks, or it may be a flower garden that needs only the lawn’s excess water. In Europe, the formerly pristine lawns at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Tuileries Gardens are now low-growing, flowery meadows. City parks in Germany also feature low-maintenance perennial and annual plantings that never need watering.

Xeriscaping is also becoming popular in Canada. To educate consumers about water-wise gardening practices, Ontario’s Durham Region decided to develop a demonstration Water Efficient Garden in the town of Whitby. The beauty of this garden, watered only by Mother Nature, has educated and amazed many of its visitors.

Besides the desire to conserve water, there are several other reasons to consider xeriscaping. Your property may have sandy soil, steep slopes or a garden that you can only tend to on weekends. You might find the cost of irrigation equipment and water prohibitive, or simply hate hauling hoses around. Whatever your reasons may be, follow some basic steps to create a beautiful xeriscape:

1. Planning and design

Limit your manicured lawn to a flat, easily irrigated shape (no long, narrow strips of grass), and convert large grass areas to natural meadows with mown pathways. Plant slopes with xerophytic plants, or terrace them for better water retention. Group plants according to their moisture requirements – place the ones needing the most moisture near the water source.

2. Soil structure

Add organic matter to the soil to improve water retention and increase fertility.

3. Plant selection

Select drought-tolerant plants. Good choices are native plants or naturalized species from dry habitats; plants that have fuzzy, waxy or finely divided foliage; or plants that are dormant during summer’s heat.

4. Planting techniques

Planting techniques are important – dig a hole, fill it with water, and wait for the soil to absorb the moisture. Then open the plant’s soil ball, spreading the roots so they will quickly grow into the earth. Place the plant in the hole and fill with soil, then water again. Water regularly until established, then gradually reduce the frequency. The ideal time for installing a xeriscape is late summer to early autumn, which allows for maximum root development before the drought of the following summer.

5. Irrigate efficiently

Water turf and garden areas no more than once a week, but apply at least two inches of water at a time. This forces the plants to develop extensive root systems between waterings. Drip irrigation (with soaker hoses) cuts down on the amount of water lost to evaporation by sprinkler systems. Harvest the water from your roof using rain barrels – a quarter of an inch of rainfall on a 1,000-square-foot roof provides up to 150 gallons of water. Learn to measure weekly rainfall, and irrigate only when necessary.

6. Mulch

Mulching bare soil to a depth of two to four inches prevents water evaporation, maintains an even, cool soil temperature, and prevents the germination of weeds. Choose a mulch that is as natural in appearance as possible. The best time to apply mulch is in late spring, after the soil has warmed and before summer’s heat begins.

Xeriscaping is a fun and sustainable way to garden!

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Determining Your Garden’s Soil and Light

Clay or sand, sun or shade: these factors determine which plants will grow well and which will fail, so spend a little time getting to know your garden’s conditions.

Testing Your Soil

There are two main types of soil particles: sand and clay. Sand particles are relatively large and water drains freely through the spaces between them, while clay particles are tiny and trap moisture in the miniscule gaps. This explains why sandy soils are dry and clay soils are moisture-retentive. Most soils are a mixture of both, but tend toward one or the other, but the ideal is loam, which contains almost equal measures of sand and clay. Loam retains enough water for plant roots to use, but also drains away excess moisture to prevent waterlogging. Test your soil type by digging some up and rolling it between your fingers.

Sandy Soil

When rolled between the fingers, sandy soil feels gritty, and when you try to mold it into a ball or sausage shape, it falls apart. It is also generally pale in color. The benefits of sandy soils are that they are light and well drained, and easy to work. Mediterranean plants are happiest in sandy soil, because they never suffer from soggy roots. However, their poor water-holding capacity makes sandy soils prone to drought and lacking nutrients because nutrients are dissolved in water.

Clay Soil

Roll clay between your fingers and it feels smooth and dense, and retains its shape when molded into a ball. Soils very rich in clay will not crack even when rolled into a horseshoe shape. Sticky and impossible to dig when wet; solid, cracked and impenetrable when dry, clay soils are hard to work. But in return, when looked after correctly, they have excellent water-retaining properties, and are rich in nutrients. Greedy rose bushes and fruit trees love to sink their roots into them.

Smooth and Sticky

Like the material used for making pots, clay soils feel smooth and pliable. Roll them into a ball or sausage and they will retain their shape.

Top Tip: Testing Acidity

A simple pH test, available from the garden center, will tell you how acidic (lime-free) or alkaline (lime-rich) your soil is, and this will determine the range of plants you can grow. Add the supplied solution to a small sample of your soil in the tube provided. Wait until the solution changes color, then match the color to the chart.

Improving Your Soil

Whether you have a dry sandy soil or a sticky clay, the prescription is the same: lots and lots of organic matter, such as well-rotted manure, spent mushroom compost, and garden compost. These bind together sandy soils and loosen dense clay soils, so ladle them on.

Sun or Shade?

Some plants like a hot spot, and enjoy basking in the sun all day long, while others prefer cool shade. Find out what your garden has to offer before you buy or start planting. Stand with your back to each of your boundaries and use a compass to figure out the direction that they face. If there’s no canopy overhead, those facing south will be in the sun all day and hot, while those pointing north will be in shade most of the time and cooler. East-facing areas offer morning sun and evening shade, while the opposite applies to those facing west.

Check Your Plot

Patterns of sun and shade change throughout the day, and a garden that’s in full sun at midday may have dark pools of shade by late afternoon, so spend some time watching your garden on a sunny day and make a note of the way shadows move around the plot. You can then plan what to plant where and identify areas for seating. Remember, too, that the patterns change depending on the season. A garden can look very different in low-light winter conditions, and areas that are in full sun for half the day in summer may not get any at this time of the year.

(original article here)

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Organic Gardening Techniques Help Control Pests

There are many benefits and lessons to learn from organic gardening. Among them is how to control insects through plant diversity.

When insects like bees and leafhoppers can control their own populations, there’s no need for pesticides. Insects keep themselves in natural check because some of them are natural predators of each other, says organic expert Erica Renaud at Seeds of Change in El Guique, N.M. “But also they are competing for food sources, so when that happens they will monitor and manage their own population.”

To create what Renaud calls an “insectary,” pick the right plants. For example, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a native species that attracts butterflies and bees. “This is an example of both an insectary and cover crop, so plant this to attract insects and pollinators and to cover the soil and protect it from erosion,” she says.

Cover cropping is another organic technique where crops are planted for the sole purpose of conditioning the soil. Used to promote soil fertility, cover cropping also helps with water drainage and weed control. Buckwheat, fava beans and clover are great cover crops.

Compost plays a huge part in the organic growing process. At the Seeds of Change farm, composting is done on a large scale in formations called windrows. A windrow is usually about 8 feet wide and 5 feet tall in full form. The compost is a mixture of manure for nitrogen, twigs and leaves for carbon and vegetable matter for nutrients.

As a general rule, the more compost is turned, the faster it matures. The maturation process for one windrow is eight to nine months. At the end of the process, it should look just like soil – indicating a high humus count -and have no unpleasant aroma. “If your compost still has a bad anaerobic smell-it has too much oxygen and is still fermenting – then it’s not ready. It can actually be toxic to your plants,” Renaud says.

One of the objectives of the farm is to develop new organic varieties of crops that can grow in a range of climates. Onions are one such crop popular among growers all over the country. The ‘Rossa Di Milano’ onion has a globelike shape, keeps for a long time and has a sweet flavor.

Lime, lemon, cinnamon and Italian large-leaf basil are popular herbs. ‘Red Rubin’ is a favorite among growers for its striking purple foliage. It can be used as a culinary herb as well as an accent plant.

Genovese basil is particularly popular because it’s used in making pesto. Harvest by pinching just below the leaf nodes (where the leaves are attached to the stem). This helps to make the plant bush out, giving you more volume and more basil to harvest.

Some brightly colored flowers at the grocery store are synthetically dyed, but you don’t have to sacrifice flower color when you go organic. There are several cultivars of zinnia that come in a variety of colors and can be harvested all season long. But gardeners aren’t the only ones attracted to their brilliant colors. “Butterflies are really attracted to color,” says Renaud. “There are lots of pinks and oranges, and they are really attracted to that.”

(original source here)