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by Brian Zimmerman, owner of Four Season Nursery
My wife and I raised a family on the west side of Traverse City a stone’s throw from where I grew up as a kid. I walked my children to grade school through the same forest I walked as a child. It is a maple – beech – hemlock forest and I showed them how to identify a tree by the type of bark. We would talk of where all the leaves seem to go between autumn drop, when we would kick through deep piles, and spring when the path was dirt again. I would tell them of “little creatures” hard at work in the ground that used the leaves for food. I explained how worms would get cold in the winter, how they pull leaves down to wrap themselves in a leafy sleeping bag. Yes, this is a stretch of the imagination, but the kids were young and giving them a visual was meant to help them understand that there is life below our feet.
It does seem that year after year the forest should be choked with leaves. Instead, as if by magic, the fallen leaves “disappear” and are turned into soil.
The process is an amazing one. Leaves work all summer pulling CO2 and water from the atmosphere, sucking up nutrients from the roots, making carbohydrates, fats and proteins to build new plant parts and fruit. Some of what the leaves manufacture is kept in reserve. Come autumn the leaves fall to the ground with their package of carbon. There are billions of bacteria and fungi, many thousands of protozoa, nematodes, worms, and other creatures living in the soils of the forest floor. These “little creatures” – some microscopic, some visible to the human eye – love to eat and their favorite food is carbon. As the tree goes dormant in the winter the microbes continue eating, multiplying and re-cycling the forest litter into nutrients that the tree will use the next summer.
While today most of us don’t live in a forest, we still grow plants that cycle through the seasons much like they do in a forest. Whether they are the trees on our property, the lawns we mow, or all the dead plant parts from our gardens, it’s all mostly carbon and food to the microbes. If we left all this potential food where it fell in the autumn, the cycle of life and death would make compost and a healthy soil/plant environment would continue.
But we just can’t leave it. We rake up our leafy litter and garden waste. We keep our grass cut short and remove clippings after mowing because we like it tidy. We remove the thatch that builds up and rototill our gardens every spring because it really does look nice. However, in the process of doing all this we are killing many microbes we desperately need. Our gardens, trees and lawns are creating the carbon to feed the soil microbes … but we remove it. Then, in an attempt to return this lost food back to the soils, we apply organic fertilizers, compost and wood mulch. These are not bad things. All three feed the microbes in the soil, which in turn release nutrients to the plants. But, could we accept a less tidy garden space and let nature take its own natural course?
Nitrogen is also a critical part of the soil and plant cycle; it’s the building block for making proteins. The atmosphere is 79% nitrogen. But unlike carbon that is taken in by the leaves during the summer, atmospheric nitrogen is not available. This nitrogen can only become available after entering the soil and, as you may have guessed by now, microbes are front and center in this process as well. Atmospheric nitrogen enters the soil, is re-combined with other elements and is consumed by microbes. Microbes use most of the nitrogen for their own metabolism; the remainder is excreted as waste, making it available for roots to take up.
So now we have a picture of carbon coming into the soil as fallen leaves and lawn waste, and nitrogen coming into the soil from the atmosphere, where both are consumed by the microbes making their waste available as plant nutrients. This explains why so much life in the soil happens around the root zone. Plant roots can’t move around the soil searching for food so they secrete exudates (plant waste excreted through the roots) to attract microbes. Most of the exudate is carbon-based sugars and microbes love carbon. There are more species of bacteria, fungi, and others microbes than we can count and many yet still undiscovered. Most are beneficial and live right around the root zone: some even grow into the roots. This allows for a bartering between roots and microbes
Think of a root as a long dinner table with many chairs and all microbes are guest who bring a dish to pass. The root wants all the chairs filled with friendly guests sharing the feast, leaving no room for unfriendly guests (non-beneficial microbes & pathogens). When we add good compost to soils we ensure the table is filled with friendly guests. Organic fertilizer ensures there is enough food to go around and mulch serves as central heating – cooling in the summer and insulation in the winter.
I have mentioned using organic fertilizers. The key ingredient in organic fertilizers is carbon – the very food the microbes love. The nutrients need to be consumed by microbes before the roots can take them in. There are many other more popular fertilizer on the market that are called synthetic fertilizers, which are salt based. The reason for their popularity is two-fold: they are water soluble and less expensive. When the fertilizer pellets come in contact with water they immediately go into solution and the nutrients are available to the plants. Any excess leaches away. The nutrients fed to the plants are not bad but the salts are. With repeated use the salts kill the microbes and most of the worms and other larger soil animals. Without soil life the ground becomes compacted, causing further depletion of the oxygen necessary to feed the remaining good microbes. This allows for the multiplying of anaerobic microbes and pathogens (these microbes don’t need oxygen and cause plant diseases). Remember the table filled with friendly guests? Now the only guests are bad. Plants become dependent on synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, bacteria and fungicides, and this chemical dependency destroys the balance nature put in place.
How do we bring the right guests to the table in our own gardens? Be generous with compost as a top dressing. If your lawn is in poor shape, a light compost top dress over the lawn will work wonders. If you have a sick tree or shrub in the lawn, remove the grass growing around the base and use 1”-2” of compost. The suggestion that compost can fix everything does seem overly simplified. In reality, soil science is very complicated with much going on between roots, soil and the little creatures. It is very rare that something that complicated can be boiled down to a simple message. That said, well-made compost delivers to your plants literally billions of beneficial microbes per handful and that is exactly what the roots of all plants want. Once your garden soil reaches a balance it will need less water and additional nutrients, your plants will thrive, your vegetables will taste better, making gardening more enjoyable.
For many millions of years,’ plants, soils and the “little creatures” below our feet have been composting together and it works. When we compost we are giving back to our soil so it will, in turn, give back to us healthy plants.
A footnote: This article takes on many subjects; soil science, plant science, fertilizer technology, composting, and attempts to synthesize all into a simple message. If this subject is of interest to you following are a few books that I have read, and re-read.
- Secrets of the Soil, New Solutions for Restoring our Planet, Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird
- Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
- Building Soils Naturally, Innovative Methods of Organic Gardeners, Phil Nauta
- Dirt, The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, William Bryant Logan
by Bethany Thies, Master Gardener
Starting seeds indoors is an efficient way to save money and get a jump on the summer growing season. The requirements are pretty simple. All you need are seeds…check. Pots or trays and planting medium…check and check. And, of course, water and light.
Well, here in Northern Michigan, we have an abundant supply of fresh water so that isn’t a problem. But light, that wonderful element that actually makes plants grow, that is something that can be a little harder to come by Up North.
Michigan, it seems, doesn’t get a lot of sun.
According to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information’s website (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ghcn/comparative-climatic-data), Northern Michigan ranks only a little better than Seattle, Washington and Nome, Alaska, in the average percentage of possible sunshine per year. This percentage is calculated by looking at the total time sunshine reaches the ground in a certain city over the course of a year as compared to how many hours of sunshine are possible from sunrise to sunset.
Grand Rapids, the closest city to Traverse City on the list, has sunshine only an average of 46% of the time during daylight hours. Alpena, the next closest city, only sees the sun 48% of the time. Seattle and Nome, both known for their grey weather, are at 43% and 42% respectively. And while the Midwest isn’t the sunniest of regions, other cities in the area still see the sun more than Northern Michigan: Chicago and Green Bay at 54%, Minneapolis-St. Paul at 58% and Fort Wayne, IN, at 59%. (In case you were wondering, the sunniest spot in the United States is Yuma, AZ, with an average of 90% sunshine!)
So while many books and websites may talk about placing freshly planted seeds next to a sunny window, in all honesty, in Northern Michigan that probably isn’t going to get you the best results. Most vegetable and annual flower seedlings need 14 to 18 hours of light a day to really do their best. Our Michigan winter-to-spring sun just can’t provide that kind of light. You will get plants from setting seed trays in a windowsill here, but they will probably be thin and leggy rather than the preferred strong and compact plants that make good transplants.
The solution? Set up a grow light system. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you want to go. The goal is to give your seedlings the best type and amount of light possible in a way that best suits your space and pocketbook.
Here are some of the key terms you should know before buying:
- Lumens — Don’t look at the wattage of a bulb; look at its lumens. Wattage measures how much electricity a light source uses. Lumens, on the other hand, indicate how much light is being produced by the bulb. This is usually listed on the bulb’s packaging. When it comes to grow lights, the higher the lumens, the better. This is because seedlings need a lot of light to produce the energy needed to grow more leaves. (Note: Ordinary incandescent and halogen bulbs emit high heat along with lumens They simply put off too much heat for the amount of lumens provided. And this heat can scorch delicate seedlings).
- Light spectrum — You also need to look at the light color or spectrum being produced by the bulb. Obviously, plants need light for photosynthesis, the process where they create the energy they need to survive. However, the light color needed changes from plant to plant and from developmental stage to developmental stage. For example, foliage is usually produced by blue shades of light, while the red and orange end of the spectrum helps spur fruit and flower production. In nature, sunlight provides a full spectrum of colors, from infrared (red) to ultraviolet (blue), so a plant’s needs are always covered. Ordinary household bulbs, on the other hand, give off more yellow and orange light which can actually starve leafy plants.
- Kelvins – The numerical value of the color emitted by a light source is typically measured in degrees of Kelvin (K) or Kelvins for short. Like wattage and lumens, a light bulb’s Kelvin value is also listed on its packaging. Colors above 5000K are considered cool colors in the blue end of the spectrum and most closely resemble natural sunlight. Colors below 3,000K are in the red end of the spectrum and are considered to be a warm light. Again, this measurement is important because each spectrum triggers different responses from a plant—blue light induces vegetative growth while red light promotes flowering.
So what’s the best light to use for starting seeds? While there are several options available if you are a commercial grower (including high intensity discharge or HID lights), the two main grow lights for the home gardener are LED (light emitting diodes) or fluorescent bulbs. Both LEDs and fluorescent bulbs are offered in sunlight-mimicking full spectrum light or in isolated red or blue color ranges, depending on your plant needs.
Most experts consider fluorescent bulbs, however, to be the winner for now. That’s partly because LEDs tend to be more expensive to purchase. Fluorescent lights, whether the long T-5 shop light-type bulb or a compact florescent bulb, are inexpensive and readily available, emit very little heat so you can hang them close to plants and have a very long life expectancy.
For examples on how to set up your own grow light stand for starting seedlings, head over to Mother Earth News (http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/gardening-techniques/starting-seeds-indoors-zm0z12djzsor) or The Petite Farmstead (http://petitefarmstead.com/2013/04/diy-grow-light-for-seedlings/).
And get glowing and growing!
by Cheryl Gross, Advanced Master Gardener, Vice President MGANM
Several years ago I read about square-foot gardens and built a couple for my husband’s vegetable gardening. When we moved from Frankfort to Traverse City, we found some under the snow in the back too; a pleasant surprise! A square-foot garden allows access to plants for planting, weeding and harvesting without requiring any compaction of the soil. It is a method to raise food crops densely yielding greater volume at harvest in a small space. We have had great success with tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrots, and green beans in our square-foot gardens. I like their tidiness too. Check out the following site for Square-foot gardening. http://www.squarefootgardening.com.
Last year, we removed a significant part of our front lawn. I am a serious less-lawn proponent. The new beds are landscaped with Michigan native plants to promote pollinators and wildlife habitat. In the process of transforming a lot of lawn, one bed was thinly planted with young tree and shrub specimens. This bed left us with a large, open chipped bed.
Wanting to use the space temporarily for growing ‘attractive’ food gardens, and because our good sun was limited elsewhere, my husband planted squash mounds and I assembled a pallet garden for lettuces and chard. The process is very straightforward.
- Locate a free clean pallet and drag it home.
- Cut a piece of landscape cloth to wrap around the bottom and sides of the pallet and staple into place.
- Move your pallet into your desired location. If in front of your home, stand back and examine the pallet placement for aesthetics. Once set in location…
- Fill the lower portion (about half) with good top soil. Fill the remainder with compost or a blend of other nutritious growing medium.
- Then, plant spinach, lettuce, chard, herbs or other seeds in the rows. Remember to stagger seeding to allow for harvesting through-out the season. Water the pallet garden regularly for germination. Because of the landscape cloth, the moisture will stay in place a bit longer.
Throughout the growing season, I could harvest fresh lettuce that arrived in the kitchen pretty clean. By fall, the pumpkins were orange, the acorn squash deep green and the butternut squash nicely tanned. We heard no complaints from neighbors as the big-leafed squash plants filled the open chipped bed with a lovely, green ground cover. I believe the neighbor children delighted at the bright orange pumpkins in our yard in October waiting for carving.