Dog Days of Summer: Midsummer Harvest 2016

dog-daysIt is early August, summer is officially half over. In my zone (6B) the dog days are almost gone, there will be a few hot and humid days remaining, but generally not an entire month like July. We had roughly one inch of rain the entire month, but that’s still better than some parts of the country, I guess I shouldn’t complain.

This is the time of year where you sit back and start to take advantage of all the hard work that you put into your garden for the last 12 months. Peas have been picked and beets have been pickled. Actually I’m a little late in getting the fall peas in the beds, I’ll give it a go this weekend and see what happens.

We have been picking and pickling cucumbers for about a month now, and they are great, bread and butter are my favorite.

Onions are almost done and I have quite a few picked for storage. I even tried to pickle some homegrown carrots, we’ll see how this goes, I’m not holding my breath on this one.

We started picking tomatoes, banana peppers and even took an eggplant so far. Amish paste and Marglobe are the tomato varieties I like to grow. The Marglobes are an old heirloom variety my grandfather would grow in the 1930’s. They are great for fresh eating, and when added to the Amish Paste, this makes fantastic great tomato sauce. Bell peppers are plump, but I like to wait for them to turn color, that’s when they are the sweetest, green is just boring.

Two crates of potatoes are harvested and in the basement for storage. These Yukon Golds are the best in my opinion. They store really well, and taste better than any other potato I have ever had, especially when you grow them yourself.

I’m especially happy with these sunflowers this year.  I have no idea the variety or even producer, they were free samples from somewhere and I planted them as a “we’ll see what happens” theory.

The bees certainly like them, if you look close enough you can see their saddle bags are full of pollen.

I’ll leave you with a picture of the view from my front porch. Doesn’t get any better than this.

This is a past post from an old blog I have closed when coming to this venue. It is a little old, but the intent is still the same.

Growing Soil (Part 6)

Cover crops

A general overview of cover crops would suggest that they serve multiple functions in protecting and improving garden soils. Cover crops are an excellent adjunct to compost and manures, and are even more important when these resources are not available or in limited supply. Cover crops, AKA green manures, limit soil erosion, especially over the winter months, add organic material, improve soil tilth and ease compacting, as well as add valuable nutrients.

Cover crops are generally a small grain species that are planted in late summer or mid to late fall (oats, rye, wheat, legumes) depending on your USDA zone. They can and should also be planted anytime a bed will be unplanted with crop for an extended period of time. The important thing to remember is that cover crops that are intended to go dormant, should have enough time to germinate and start some growth before the first hard frost. Cover crops that are killed by frost (buckwheat) need time to have substantial growth to maximize their effect before the frost kill. Generally speaking I like to use buckwheat and white clover that are planted in the spring to cover and optimize bare soil.

Cover crops work via their deep root systems, pulling up nutrients from deep soil that may otherwise not be available to garden plants or leach out of the soil through erosion.  Legumes (clover, vetch, alfalfa), to name a few, are most important in nitrogen fixation. As you can see in the images below, atmospheric nitrogen is captured by the legume plant and stored as nodules in the plan root to be made available during a time of need, in our case, to be tilled under and serve as a nitrogen reservoir for future crops in the garden. Cover crops are an important part of your long term soil management whether you are planting into the ground or in raised beds, the theory and applications are the same.

Common cover crops and their usefulness:

Alfalfa: (Legume)  Sow 1/2 oz. per 100 sq feet in the spring or late summer.  Turn under in the fall or spring. (The real alfalfa)

Barley: Sow 4 oz.. per 100 sq. feet in the spring or late summer/fall.  Turn over in the spring.

Buckwheat: Sow 2 1/2 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the spring or summer and turn over in the fall. This is by far one of my favorite cover crops as it is fantastic for soil tilth. It must be turned before seed heads develop (roughly 4-6 weeks or so) or it will reseed and can become a weed. It will die off quickly with the first threat of frost.

Cowpea (Legume): Sow 4 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the early to late summer for for turnover when it starts to flower. An inoculate will increase effectiveness. Winter kills.

Crimson Clover or White Dutch Clover: (Legume) Sow 3 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the spring or late summer/fall for a fall or spring turnover. Crimson clover is beautiful when it blooms in the spring.

Forage Radish (Tillage radish): Sow 4 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the late summer or fall, at least 3 weeks before the first frost. It will usually kill with three nights in the teens. May be turned under in the spring, but grown in heavier rates, the deep tap root can “self till” the soil. They have a large white taproot that digs deep into soil and rots over the winter/spring. The above soil vegetation that is left can be planted around in the spring for a living (now dead) mulch.

Spring Oats:  Sow 4 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the spring or late summer/early fall for a summer or spring turn. Will winter kill and usually tolerate a low soil pH.

Winter Rye: Sow 4 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the late summer or fall. Turn over in the spring. It is very winter hardy and in my zone 6b can be planted through late September.

Hairy Vetch: (Legume).  Sow 3 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the late summer or fall for a spring turn. Should be inoculated with the appropriate Rhizobium for optimal growth. Should be tilled under at bloom to prevent from becoming a weed problem.

Winter Wheat: Sow 4 oz. per 100 sq. feet in the late summer or fall for a spring turnover. It can be planted later than most cover crops if needed as it is very winter hardy.

A few more “tips” when cover cropping and what do I do?

1. Soil must be prepared as you would for planting crops. Scattered seed must make soil contact in order to germinate and has best germination rates when lightly raked in.

2. Mulch can be pulled back to plant around vegetables and should not interfere with vegetable growth.

3. The clover family makes a fantastic living mulch for vegetable crops and will not negatively affect the intended crop.

4. I try to time the cover crop planting a day (or less) before a good rain. This will help set the seed as well as give it a head start in the growth cycle, otherwise it may sit there ungerminated until the next rain, leaving it susceptible to birds and other critters. (Especially my chickens).

5. Try to combine legumes and non legumes when possible, this combination makes a really nice mix and a noticeable improvement in your soil.

6. What do I do?

a. I love buckwheat for a short cover or planted in the fall to rot for spring planting. It is super easy to pull/process and really improves soil tilth. If I want to save seed for next sowing, the seed heads are very easy to process and save. If you do not want to save seed and/or eliminate the threat of  any reseeding, cut it down after blooming and the first seed heads appear.

b. Clovers are my legume of choice as they are easy to find in my area at a reasonable price. I would prefer Crimson over White Dutch, simply for the red blooms in the spring, but I’ll take what I can get. One other word about the clovers, do not get impatient by their late germination. For whatever reason, I tend to get frustrated by this in the spring, and when I am ready to give up and start over, BOOM, the clover almost appears overnight. It will germinate like clockwork, but we all know what happens when you watch a clock. Tick…..tock…

c. I have also used winter rye in the past, especially when I am late to setting the fall cover crop as it has the latest plant date of the non legumes and is winter hardy.

d. My general mix in the fall is buckwheat, winter rye and a clover species, sometimes white and red.

e. I have tried hairy vetch in the past and it can be complicated. There is an extra step (with some added expense) in the inoculate, and the plants themselves can be a bear to hand process in the raised beds. Tilling; no issue. My understanding is that the vetch sp. fix a significant amount of nitrogen though, so if this is an issue for you, you may want to explore this option.

f. Forage radish:  I am becoming increasingly curious about this product. It is too late for me to experiment with this for the 2016 season, but it is on my radar for next fall. I think I will try this in a test bed to see how it handles over the winter and see just how much tilling I can eliminate. Diakon radish is the species that I have found to be best grown in my area (6b) and readily available at a reasonable price.

For a little different perspective on cover cropping see this excellent Mother Earth Article.

So that’s all she wrote on this series of Growing Soil, well not really. I’m sure I missed something or will realize that I want to cover something in a little more detail later, but that will give me an opportunity for a few supplemental postings.  Stay tuned……



Sources other than embedded into links in the blog body:

Pennsylvania State Extension

The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (Seymour)

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible (Smith)

The Truth about Garden Remedies (Gilman)

What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

Growing Soil (Part 5)


Micronutrients (trace elements) are identified nutrients essential for plant life and health, but are found in significantly less supply than the macronutrients. Micronutrient deficiencies are more common than you may think, and are often associated with pH abnormalities.

I have found a very good resource  discussing NPK, as well as the micronutrients, defeciency symptoms and some basic definitions and functions.  However, it is a little out of date naming sodium as a micronutrient as well as omitting nickel and vanadium.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I have summarized a few of the key components of this website below as well as adding a few of my comments and suggestions at the end. I know, it’s a cop out, but hey, this information has been repeated ad nauseum all over the web, as the original research has been completed long before I ever came into this world. Besides, I don’t think my one subscriber would mind a quick blog post, thanks again Mom.

Boron (B):

Stimulates cell division, flower formation and pollination.

Chlorine (Cl):

Important in photosynthesis, stimulates root growth and aid in water transport.

Copper (Cu):

Stimulated stem development and pigment formation

Iron (Fe):

Stimulates formation of chlorophyll and helps oxidize sugars for energy.  Necessary for legume nitrogen fixation and regulates cellular respiration.

Manganese (Mn):

Important in chlorophyll formation.

Molybdenum (Mo):

Nitrogen fixation and use in the plant.

Nickel (Ni):

The newest micronutrient to be recognized as an essential nutrient. Required for conversion of urease to urea, releasing ammonia for plant nitrogen use. Also required for iron absorption, seed production and germination.

Zinc (Zn):

Stimulates stem growth and flower bud formation.

Non-essential Micronutrients (although beneficial)

Vanadium (V):

Partially replaces Molybdenum’s function in plants.

Cobolt (Co):

Improves plant growth, water circulation and photosynthesis.

Silicon (Si):

Strengthens the cell wall and important in seed production.

It is my opinion, based on strong research, that all micronutrient and most macronutrient amendments can be satisfied by the addition of an inch or two of good, quality compost every year. I do, however, appreciate that sometimes there is a need for other amendments based on soil quality and specific nutritional needs of the plants.  I have listed below general balanced organic amendments that should cover most, if not all micro and macronutrients for the average gardener.

1. Compost

2. Worm castings

3. Fish emulsion

4. Kelp meal

5. Rock Dust

How do I use amendments?

In the fall I start making most of my compost for the spring tilling and raised beds from manures and leaf mulch. I have a supply of horse manure and this is the primary source that I use, along with the manures from my chickens and turkeys. I would love to use a more ruminated manure such as cow, but that stuff is literally like gold in my area, and the Amish just wont give that stuff up. I do supplement with what chicken manure I save, but with only 10-30 birds at any given time, it certainly isn’t enough as I plant roughly 1/4 acre of garden each year, not including multiple fruit shrubs and about a dozen fruit trees. I do have future plans of raising rabbits, pigs and maybe a cow or goats, but that is not in the near future, at least not in 2016-17, so I make due with what I have, and more importantly, whats free.


In the spring I start my seeds in a self made mix of peat moss, worm castings and crushed egg shells. This gives my seedlings a jump start on the season with the only amendment better than compost (worm castings), calcium to prevent blossom end rot (I plant 75 – 100 tomatoes plants and 25 – 50 peppers), and the peat moss to make it all a fluffy mix on the acidic side, for which most plants like. I will also add a 1-2 inch layer of compost in my raised beds, or 20-30 gallons per 100 square feet in my ground beds.

During the growing season I may spray my plants about every two weeks with a mix of fish emulsion, seaweed emulsion and epsom salts.   This really gives them a boost and finishes off any nutritional needs they may have.

At the end of the growing season, or when any of the beds are not planted with crop, I will incorporate a cover crop. Depending on the time of year, the crop previously planted and future considerations, I generally choose between a legume (clover is my favorite), buckwheat, winter rye, or a general mix if leaving the bed rest for any length of time.

As this “Growing Soil” series wraps up, I will add one final session, Part 6, Cover Crops.



Sources other than embedded into links in the blog body:

Pennsylvania State Extension

The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (Seymour)

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible (Smith)

The Truth about Garden Remedies (Gilman)

What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

Growing Soil (Part 4)

We know that there are 17 recognized nutrients that are considered essential for plant growth with three of them being carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. These three elements are acquired from the air, leaving 14 elements remaining. Of these remaining 14 elements, six are considered macronutrients, and the other eight are considered micronutrients. There are three primary macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) and three secondary macronutrients (calcium, magnesium and sulfur). Generally speaking the primary macronutrients are typically applied to soil as fertilizer as they are usually in heavy demand by plants.


Most fertilizers will be labeled in a way to show N-P-K values (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) as the principal ingredients unless they are specific for other macro/micro ingredients, such as Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), etc.  The N-P-K is represented by a percentage value by volume. For example an amendment such as cotton seed meal with a N-P-K value of 6-3-2 will be 6% nitrogen, 3% phosphorus and 2% potassium. A one pound application of this product to your soil will add ((1.0 lb x 6% (0.06)) 0.06 pounds of nitrogen.

Nitrogen (N): Nitrogen exists in multiple forms but can only be used by plants in three specific forms (nitrate, ammonium/urea, and amino acids). Nitrogen is used by plants to form amino acids and proteins and is essential in forming structural and metabolic compounds.

Symptoms of nitrogen deficiency include yellowing and chlorosis of mature leaves and slower plant growth.

Nitrogen along with phosphorus is a major contributor to contamination of surface and groundwater.

Organic nitrogen amendments include: COMPOST!, Blood meal, alfalfa meal , animal manures, cottonseed meal, feather meal, fish emulsion, soybean meal, and green manures (legumes), and coffee grounds.

Phosphorus (P): Phosphorus is usually bound with another substance in our soil and is generally dependent upon soil pH. In soil with a pH above 7, phosphorus is generally bound to calcium, and in soils below 5.5 the binding agent is usually iron and aluminum. When the soil pH is between 5.5 and 7 the phosphorus “bind” isn’t as strong and becomes more readily available for plant uptake.

Phosphorus is the primary energy carrier in the plant cell and is vital to maintaining the cell wall membrane. Phosphorus also assists to regulate many enzymatic activities.

Symptoms of phosphorus deficiency include abnormally dark green or purple leaves and stunted root growth as evidenced by an increased root:shoot ratio. Phosphorus toxicity can also interfere with the iron that is available to the plant as well as minimizing the uptake of copper and zinc. High phosphorus concentrations in soil will decrease the mycorrhizal (Fungi) growth, thus inhibiting the symbiotic relationship that creates healthy plants that produce more fruit.

Organic amendments of phosphorus include COMPOST!, animal manures (cow, horse, chicken, rabbit, goat), bone meal, and mushroom compost.

Phosphorus is more likely to be bound to soil elements than nitrogen as it is not as freely exchanged through the atmosphere.  Because of this, phosphorus is likely more of a contributor to water contamination and algae blooms due to soil runoff into our streams and lakes, and ultimately larger bodies of water such as the Chesapeake Bay.

Potassium: Potassium is highly bound to soil elements unlike nitrogen. Plants take up more potassium comparatively speaking, than other nutrients, other than nitrogen. Plant tissue generally shows a ratio of N:K as 1:1. Vital functions of potassium include plant metabolic activity via regulating water status and the opening and closing of the stoma. Potassium is also important in plant carbohydrate production as well as cellulose formation.

Symptoms of potassium deficiency are rare due to the high mobility in the plant itself. Some signs of low potassium would include yellowing of leaf edges and eventual necrosis called scorch.

Generally speaking there is no potassium toxicity to plants, however overabundance of potassium can lead to reduction in the availability of magnesium and calcium.

Organic sources of potassium include: COMPOST!, greensand, kelp, wood ash, tobacco stem, and soybean meal.

Sulfur: Sulfur is found mostly in organic form, rather than mineral. Sulfur is utilized by the plant in amino acids, protein, vitamins, and other compounds specific to giving distinct vegetable flavor i.e. onions and mustards.

Symptoms of sulfur deficiency are similar to nitrogen (yellowing of leaves, although sulfur will be apparent on younger leaves while nitrogen typically presents on older leaves). Generally speaking there is no sulfur toxicity in plants as it is immobile once incorporated into plant tissue.

Sulfur is not commonly added to soil as an amendment outside of incidental additions via compost, etc., however elemental sulfur is a key organic amendment when lowering soil pH. Sulfur takes several months to reach the desired effect on lowering soil pH, so it must be used several months in advance of planting.

Organic sources of sulfur include: COMPOST!, gypsum or elemental sulfur.

Magnesium: Magnesium is often found in abundance in soils, but is not generally associated with organic matter as it is typically in mineral form. Eventually it is weathered and made available to plants and is taken up by plant roots.

Magnesium is an important component of the chlorophyll process.  Magnesium deficiency typically presents as interveinal chlorosis, or a yellowing of the space between the veins of the leaf, while the veins remain green.  Generally there is no magnesium toxicity.

Organic sources of magnesium include: COMPOST!, epsom salts, and in trace amounts found in fish meal, green sand and dolomitic limestone.

Calcium: Calcium comes from calcium containing minerals such as apatites, gypsum, and carbonates.  It is important in cell wall integrity and membrane stability.

Early signs of calcium deficiency may be noted as small distorted young leaves with curled tips as well as stunting of shoots and roots. Calcium deficiencies noted as late signs generally present in the nightshade family specifically in peppers, tomatoes and watermelon, causing blossom end rot. Calcium toxicity in the plant interferes with magnesium and potassium uptake, mimicking Mg and K deficiencies. Calcium overuse in soil can interfere with phosphorus, manganese, boron, zinc uptake as well as increasing soil pH.

Organic sources of calcium include: COMPOST!, crushed eggshells, gypsum, and dolomite lime.

So that is an overview of the macronutrients important in growing healthy soils, and ultimately happy plants. Again, my opinion is that compost should be considered an essential amendment that should be added to your garden each year, specific supplements should be added only when needed as observed by symptoms, soil testing or planting of know heavy feeders of a particular nutrient.

It has been my observation over many years of growing, that simply adding compost every year to your garden, should be all you need to have fantastic production from your garden.

Up next: Micronutrients



Sources other than embedded into links in the blog body:

Pennsylvania State Extension

The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (Seymour)

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible (Smith)

The Truth about Garden Remedies (Gilman)

What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

Growing Soil (Part 3)

Soil Testing Basics

As I mentioned in the previous post growing soil should be done in a responsible way.  The very first step in adding any amendment, is knowing what you need, not what you think you need. This process starts with a soil test. A proper soil test will be able to confirm or deny your suspicions regarding your soil health. It will test for pH, macronutrients, micronutrients, electrical conductivity potential, salt contents, etc. Knowing what you need before you add it will save you time, effort and money as well as being environmentally responsible.

Time and effort: Adding just what your soils needs saves time in multiple applications of amendments you do not need.

Money: If your soil is at optimal N-P-K levels, why would you spend the money to add more, when your vegetation can only utilize so much.

Environmentally responsibility: See Previous Post

I am a huge proponent of utilizing your state extension office services for research and advice concerning anything that grows. Your state Master Gardeners are a wealth of knowledge and are generally eager to help answer any questions that you may have. Having said that I am very disappointed in my states soil test reporting.  The basic information is available, but it does little to explain these results to the average person and how it applies to their scenario. This report is not intuitive and in my opinion can be difficult to understand for new gardeners or experienced gardeners who are new to soil testing. To me this lack of intuitive reporting may actually be a deterrent to gardeners to have their soil tested, if they have to struggle to understand the results. The best resource I have located to date, explaining the components of spoil testing can be found at The University of Massachusetts.

Soil test basics

1. Tests should be completed on a yearly basis for basic testing, i.e., N-P-K, Ca, Mg,  pH, CEC and organic matter. If you utilize large amounts of fresh or composted manure, salt testing may be beneficial, as this can compound with annual use.

2. Soil tests give information regarding a measurement of plant available nutrients, relative nutrient status, and nutrient recommendations.

3. Once a soil test program is chosen, your should utilize the same testing center every year as the testing procedures may differ significantly between sites and may alter your impressions of the test.

4. Follow the recommendations of the soil test to bring your soil into optimal levels.

5. Some testing centers offer standard fertility testing and a number of specific additional elements may be at an additional cost. Make sure you understand what your particular sample will be tested for prior to sending it off.

6. Many extension offices offer manure and composting testing as well.  This may be a valuable tool to understand the value of the inputs you are using to predict any future nutrient deficit or abundance.

Next up: Organic Soil Amendments


Pennsylvania State Extension

The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (Seymour)

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible (Smith)

The Truth about Garden Remedies (Gilman)

What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

Growing Soil (Part 2)

Soils and Fertilizers

In part one we defined soil, soil texture as well as structure and the components thereof. We dipped briefly into pH and its affect on soil organisms as well as the importance of  nutrient uptake. We outlined a simply approach to healthy soil by utilizing adequate water, organic material and aeration. The next logical step would appear to describe the basics of soil amendments (fertilizers) and organic matter. However, I think we need to discuss this in a different light before we move on.  Lets take a look at what we do wrong, before we review what we can do right

Soils as Hydrologic Buffers.

As you can see from this graphic, this is the cycle of water and soils potential to buffer it. Realistically there is no end or starting pointgroundwater, but to simplify things, lets start with precipitation. During a rain event, plants uptake water to meet their needs, surface runoff leads to the water table, ground water and surface water filling and eventually leads to aquifer recharging over time. Plants contribute to condensation (cloud formation) through transpiration. Water hitting the ground leads to infiltration then percolation through the soil. In almost every step of this process evaporation is occurring as well, recharging the sky in the form of condensation and the process is continuously recharging and filtering.

Soils as Biochemical Reactors

Nitrogen Cycle

The best example of biological reactors I can think of is the
nitrogen cycle, unfortunately it is also one of the most complex. In a much more complicated process than hydrologic buffering, nitrogen goes through a similar process where one form in the atmosphere is taken into the ground by animal and atmospheric fixation and deposition. Basically plants like clover and other legumes fix nitrogen through their root structure and animals well…..again doing what animals do…  In a multi-conversional process nitrogen is broken down into ammonium and nitrates for plants to be able to utilize and uptake through their root system. Crops and vegetation are harvested and plant residuals release nitrogen back into the atmosphere, and we start all over again.

There is a problem with this given the fact that this is not a closed system. There is loss of nitrogen through ground water runoff and leaching. This often ends up in our water supply and eventually into our lakes, streams and oceans. Inappropriate use of nitrogen fertilizers and manures contribute significantly to this nitrogen excess and is considered a pollutant in high volume areas. Before assigning blame to the farmers and growers in rural areas, we should understand that data has shown that per acre, there are more pollutants in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides from homeowners, golf courses, and public places utilizing high content fertilizers and ignoring the potential actual repercussions of these choices. There has been significant damage to the ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay and its subsidiaries due to nitrogen, phosphorus, and pesticide runoff. Nitrogen pollution has affected all wildlife in the surrounding areas as seen by significantly decreasing numbers of aquatic life over the last several years.

Algae Bloom

Soils have variable effect as a filter especially for overused fertilizers, organic or synthetic. Soils are not effective filters for negatively charged particles (anions) such as nitrates, chlorides, bromides and fluorides.  These anions have a weak negative charge and are repelled in the soil by stronger negatively charged particles in clay and significantly contribute to runoff. Think of this as two magnets approaching each other with each of them leading via their southern pole. One magnet is significantly stronger than the other and like poles will repel each other with the stronger magnet pushing the other away. This is not the case however for soils and positively charged particles (cations). Soils are effective at holding cations like calcium and magnesium and some stronger anions such as phosphates. In a perfect world (nature), there is a delicate balance of inputs and outputs but again the issue here is over use of these elements, especially nitrogen and phosphates. The soil simply gets saturated and cannot hold onto these elements that are used in excess and are leeched out and eventually lost into the water systems causing significant issues as described previously as well as large algae blooms that have a significant impact on the river and lake ecosystems as seen in this photo.


So how can we mitigate this response?  Responsible amendments.

soil-testThe first place to start is a soil test. A basic soil test can be completed through your state extension program, for usually under $10. If you are considering amending any type of soil, a soil test can give you exact specifications as to what elements you actually need, otherwise you are guessing. Unfortunately, we are often guessing more wrong than right with indiscriminate fertilizer applications. Routinely spreading 10-10-10 on your garden or 48-0-0 on your lawn is simply irresponsible. This significantly contributes to watershed issues as well as damaging the soil structure. Eventually the “little bit” of synthetic (salt based) fertilizer that gets spread on your garden, grass, etc., doesn’t work like it used to, or worse, if a little works well a lot will be better, right?  So we end up using more fertilizers not realizing that it’s not necessarily an issue with a lack in soil nutrition, but the damage to the soil from poor soil management that is inhibiting growth. Eventually the soil microbes and invertebrates will decrease in numbers die off and contribute even more to poor soil conditions through poor soil management.

There are less intrusive, more responsible ways to manage vegetation around your home. Did you know that not raking up your lawn clippings and leaving them lay will return almost 50% of the nutritional feedings needed in a year?  There are also other ways to finish amending a lawn such as corn gluten meal or compost, just to name a few. If applied in the spring just as the forsythia starts to turn yellow, you may likely eliminate weed sprouts from germinating as well as feeding your lawn.

The next step, as hinted in the previous paragraph is using responsible organic amendments. Corn gluten meal, replacing grass clippings, composting, oyster shell and eggshells for calcium, fixing nitrogen through legumes, not synthetic fertilizer, are just a few examples.

Synthetic fertilizers are like fast food to plants.  They may work in the short term and satisfy a need, but think what happens long term. Try eating a Big Mac and fries every day for a year and see what happens, I think you get the point.

Summary:  A common sense approach to growing soil can have tremendous effects on your vegetation as well as protecting our waterways and surrounding wildlife. Know what you are putting down (organic hopefully) only after you know how much you need through soil testing. These simple steps can go a long way in reversing the damage that has been done as well as building fantastic soil life.

NEXT UP: Soil Test Basics


Pennsylvania State Extension

The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (Seymour)

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible (Smith)

The Truth about Garden Remedies (Gilman)

What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

Growing Soil (Part 1)

There is an old adage that poor gardeners grow weeds, good gardeners grow vegetables and great gardeners grow soil. I’d like to talk about growing great soil with the byproducts being healthy plants. This will be a multi part series covering the very basics of growing healthy soil.

It would seem the most logical place to start would be defining soil. Soil is compromised of three basic components, solids, liquids and gasses.  Solids may be a combination of organic materials or mineral deposits, liquids are typically soil solutions comprised of water and dissolved particles, while soil gasses (soil air) is generally comprised of atmospheric gasses trapped under the soil line. There are three major zones of soil, Topsoil, subsoil, and rock/sediment. Today we will be primarily concerned with topsoil, or the O and A horizon which contains most of the plant needed nutrients for plants to survive.


As previously stated, soil solids are mostly organic materials and minerals.  These solids form the porous catacombs that allow the liquids and gasses to live and perform their vital functions. Yes, I did say live, more on this later.

The major mineral classes in soil are made up of sands, silts and clays. No need to get into the particulars of these particles as their mineral sizes range from less than 0.002 mm (clays) to 0.05 – 2 mm (sands), with silt being somewhere in between (0.002 – 0.5 mm). These components form the soil texture, which by the way are recognized by twelve (12) textural classes (See below) according to the USDA, based upon their particular mix and proportions of sand, silt and clay. Strangely enough, organic material has no relevance in the classifications of soil texture, but it is vital in the role of soil structure, as it is the glue that holds the mineral particles together. Soil structure is the arrangements of soil particles into aggregates, or clumps, and can be improved or diminished based on the result of (good or poor) soil management.

Organic materials are comprised of biomass, residues and by-products as well as humus. Organic materials typically make up only 2 to 5 percent of most solid material in soil, but is vital to productivity of vegetation and soil life. Soils that have acceptable levels of organic material give the soil increased ability to hold water and nutrients as well as oxygen resources to be made available for plant absorption. Some of the very best soils that I have ever seen have organic material in the 10% or more range. In a nutshell, the more organic materials in the soil, the more nutrient rich the environment is for plant absorption. This nest statement could literally be the most important aspect of growing soil. If you increase the organic material in soil, you increase the soil fertility, thus growing great soil with the byproduct being healthy and productive pants. The most effective way you can add organic materials?  Compost! Compost! Compost!


Soil solutions are the products of water and dissolved materials. They are essential for providing hydration and nutrients to plant materials. Soils solutions are in a constant state of ebb and flow based on the availability of rain/irrigation, and nutrient content (organic materials) based on the soil health and structure. Generally speaking most healthy soils thrive on one inch of water per week, based on normal conditions, normal for me being in zone 6B. Those of you in more extreme climates would obviously require an adjustment to this criteria. Sandy soils will require more water, while heavy clay may require less.

An important aspect of nutrient availability to plant material and soils is often overlooked, the pH. pH (percent hydrogen) is a logarithmic scale indicating the acidity (pH below 7) or the alkalinity (pH above 7) of soil from a range of 0 – 14, with 7 being neutral. Plants can be very fickle in regards to pH; if it is not within their specific desired range, they simply cannot take up nutrients, no matter what your soils health status is. The soil pH is important to plant growth in several ways by affecting: (1) soil bacteria, (2) nutrient leaching, (3) nutrient availability (4) toxic elements and (5) soil structure. An example of this would be the blueberry and the beet. I love them both but wouldn’t think of growing them in the same space as blueberries generally like a soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5, and beets thrive is soil closer to neutral (7) or even 8. Reverse the soils surrounding these plants and you may have some limited growth, but no where near the production that you would in a more appropriate soil.

The graph shown here may be a little difficult to conceptualize initially, but it does paint a great picture of pH and plant absorption of nutrients. The elements are listed in the colored bands.  The numbers on the bottom correspond to soil pHsoil-ph.  The thicker the band, the more available the nutrient. For example, take phosphorus (P), it is readily available to plants when the pH is between 6 and 8, as well as above 9. For this post, disregard the pH near or above 9, as this is not compatible with life for most plants, if not all plants and is only relevant in academia. Notice how the line thins between 8 and 9 and below 6? This means the element (P) is not as available under these conditions as it would be with a more appropriate pH level. Remember, this is not describing the amount of element in your soil, but the soils ability to use this particular element based on the specific pH. Take note that most of these elements are readily available between a pH of 6-8.  We can conclude from this, that generally speaking if you pH is between 6 and 8, your plants should do fine.


Soil air is generally similar to that of the surrounding atmosphere but is slightly higher in carbon dioxide and lower in oxygen. Soil air is generally comprised of the following elements: Nitrogen (79%), Oxygen (20.9%, Carbon Dioxide (0.035%) and traces of other atmospheric gasses. The major issue affecting soil health in regards to soil air are compacted soils (less air) that create an anaerobic (lack of oxygen) environment thus decreasing the oxygen availability to the plants, diminishing the available oxygen for healthy microbes (aerobic) and creating an environment more suitable for pathogens (typically anaerobes). There are also the issues of diminished root growth and poor drainage in compacted soils.

Summary: Growing soil is multifaceted and can be as complex as you want it to be. It can also be a simple as you want it to be by understanding the basics of healthy soils and following a common sense approach: adequate water, aeration and organic matter.

Next Up: Soils and Fertilizers



Pennsylvania State Extension

The Maryland Master Gardener Handbook

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (Seymour)

The Vegetable Gardeners Bible (Smith)

The Truth about Garden Remedies (Gilman)

What’s Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden? (Deardorff & Wadsworth)

An Introduction to Compost

I have made a concerted effort to increase my composting this fall in order to try to be as free of amendments (always organic) in the next growing season as I possibly can. I have read many studies that continue to say that a one to two inch cover of compost may be all you really need for healthy soil, and ultimately healthy plants. Multiple research studies also show that the very best compost is made from fall leaves, and that’s it. For some crops with a higher nitrogen requirements, additional amendments with manures or organic amendments may be helpful. For most gardens, fall cover crops will enhance your garden as well.

I previously posted several ways that I make compost, but in order to make as much as possible, I will be using the most efficient way I know how, dump it and flip it. I have added horse manure to fall leaves to create an “immediate heat” for my soil next year with my major goal of growing sweet corn. I have tried growing sweet corn in the past with mixed results. The very first year, I had great results, but there has been a significant decrease ever since. The first year was in virgin ground with years, and years of natural nitrogen fixing from clover, etc., and manure as this was an accessory field for our horses. It soon became nitrogen depleted no matter how many cover crops I grew and organic amendments I applied. This garden was fine for other vegetables, even heavy feeders such as pumpkins and potatoes, but just didn’t fit the bill for sweet corn.

The following is a summary from Abigail Maynard’s research (The Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station in New Haven) COMPOST: The Process and Research:

“Using compost in the garden has many benefits. For most vegetables and cut flowers, recent research at The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has shown that fertilizer can often be eliminated when the soil is amended annually with 1 inch of leaf compost. However, optimum yields are obtained when leaf compost and some inorganic fertilizer are used, usually half the normal rate, and after 2 or 3 years of consecutive compost amendments. Optimum yields can also be achieved using compost and organic fertilizers but they are generally less effective, especially on sandy soils. For vegetables that demand higher amounts of nitrogen, a cover crop incorporated into the soil in addition to the leaf compost amendment may be necessary for optimum yields. Compost is most effective when applied in the spring before planting. For optimum results, leaf compost may be applied every year, especially in sandy soils, and can also be safely applied at higher rates if compost is available.”

Admittedly, some of this research is old, greater than 25 years in some cases, but it is still applicable today considering it is specifically concentrating on leaf compost, manures and organic amendments. There is some mention of inorganic amendments as well and referring to their use as gaining “optimum yields.” but again, this research is old in this regard as it has been proven time and time again in multiple studies, that the same or better “optimum yields” can be achieved with an organic approach. As far as I know, trees still drop their leaves, animals still….. well you know, and organic amendments have remained relatively unchanged over the last several years. Maynard’s research is a short read, but really packed full of good information regarding composting.  Enjoy.

Personal Finance: Get Out of Debt

I have a rather long commute (45 -60 minutes) to work everyday and have a few favorite podcasts that I listen to routinely and Dave Ramsey has been one of them. I have heard of Dave’s work, vaguely, over the last few years, but thought he was just another financial guy telling us all how to get rich quick by selling us books, CD’s/DVD’s, seminars, etc. After all, this is a guy that went bankrupt, lost almost everything he had, and started selling plans to everyone telling them how to get out of debt. I was born during the day, but it wasn’t yesterday. I decided to give him a try, if nothing else to simply confirm my thoughts that this guy must be some kind of crackpot.

When I stumbled across his podcast, I became a fan almost immediately. His show is a daily three hour podcast/radio broadcast for call in listeners to ask him financial questions. At first I was a bit perplexed because everyone that called in seemed to comprehend his baby step method for financial freedom, and referred to it often, and I was lost. After a few sessions I caught on and his philosophies really started to resonate with me. To be honest most of what Dave speaks about are concepts my wife and I started incorporating into our financial lives some time ago, simply because it just seemed like common sense. Dave was able to incorporate scripture into his plan so that it is personal to my needs and family situation.

Dave has a funny way of describing almost anything in such a way that makes you want to slap yourself in the forehead and say, “that’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that?” And if you don’t do it, he may very well reach over and slap you himself. Dave is able to reinforce his basic baby step concepts in such a way that seems so simple through repetition with callers, but not make it repetitive. Each callers situation is unique and gives just us a little different perspective on his philosophies. I have been listening for about 2 months now and can find myself answering the callers question in my mind before Dave has a chance to speak.

Dave will tell you that the baby step method is simple, but it is not easy, you need to have conviction to see it through, and you will be rewarded. “Live like no one else so that you can live like no one else” is his motto. This guys has been doing this for 20+ years and has helped thousands of people become debt free. Dave has several books out, and I highly suggest picking one of them up at your local library and giving it a try. Even before you do that, give his podcast a try, if that doesn’t motivate you to living a life of debt freedom, I don’t know what will. I just finished Dave’s book “Total Money Makeover” and have almost finished with a book he wrote with his daughter regarding teaching your children to be financially responsible from a very early age. They were all very easy reads and shouldn’t take more than a few hours to finish any of them and are also a wealth of information.

I’m going to share an oversimplified version of Dave Ramsey’s baby step process here simply to illustrate what I mean by simplicity. I feel comfortable sharing this and am not concerned about proprietary material simply because Dave repeats these concepts over and over during his free podcast. It is important that these steps proceed in order, Dave has given countless examples how these processes work and the importance of staying focused on the step you are currently on.

Before the baby step course is initiated, there is one thing to keep in mind during the entire process: Tithing or seriously working toward tithing is a must. Any money we have is not ours to spend, we are simply the caretakers of Gods money to use it appropriately.

1. Emergency fund of $1000.

This is a crucial first step. Without an emergency fund Murphy’s law can be a killer in future steps when you can’t pay for a broken water heater, or the car that broke down. This is a fund that is kept liquid, in cash, and only used for true emergencies, according to Dave. OPINION: Admittedly, I do not adhere to this philosophy, as I keep my emergency fund in a relatively save investment vehicle, otherwise I lose money to depreciation every year.

2. Debt snowball

These are steps to rid you of debt, other than your primary residence. Basically start with the lowest debt, and make minimum payments on all other debt, focusing all of your extra funds on paying the smallest debt off. When your smallest debt is paid off, you focus on the next smallest, using funds from the recently paid off debt to attack the next one in line. Complete these steps until you are debt free, with the exception of your home. OPINION: Again, I like what Dave is saying here, but I don’t always think this is the best method for everyone, I am opposed to cookie cutter plans for the most part, but this is a viable means of reducing debt.

3. Finish your emergency fund

Step one was only the initial step of emergency funding. You complete your emergency funds when you have enough cash saved to cover 3-6 months of expenses. Without debt (after recently completing step 2) all of your extra funds should go to ward this goal. These funds should also be liquid and are not investable. OPINION: See #1 above.

4. Maximize Retirement Investing

Dave suggests placing 15% of your income into investments starting with a 401k type vehicle that has an employer match. Once this match is met, maximize Roth IRA’s (Roth). If you have completed both of these plans and you have additional funds leading to the 15% minimum, then these funds can be placed in a mutual fund IRA (can be 401k) until 15% is reached. Employer match does not count toward your personal 15% minimum. OPINION: I have no issue with this plan with the exception of Dave’s staunch opinion of 4 types of growth based mutual funds for which I disagree. Again think cookie cutter. With a little work, I believe anyone can take control of their investment strategy and beat the market averages.

5. Children’s college fund

Dave suggests some of the tax free sponsored funds for college funds, but basically investing in any stable vehicle is appropriate for this. OPINION: I am not a fan of these college fund vehicles generally, as they must be used for furthering education via college, for the most part. There are exceptions to this, but basically you are making financial college decisions for your newborn, that may not even need to go to college.

6. Pay off the mortgage

Without debt, a properly funded retirement and college fund as well as 3-6 month emergency fund means it’s time to attack the home. All additional funds are geared toward paying off this debt. The goal is mortgage free in 15 years, either through a 15 year mortgage or paying off your 30 year loan in 15 years with additional payments and/or refinance options for 15 year mortgages. No home equity loans!! OPINION: Again, this is a cookie cutter plan that I am not fond of. My opinion is that no one should retire with a mortgage, but paying off a mortgage may not always be the best idea since mortgage rates are so cheap right now. If I have a loan for 3.25%, why would I pay more on principal, to save 3.25% when I can invest that same money and make 8% or more in returns? As long as the mortgage is payed off prior to retirement and you are investing accordingly, this is fantastic.

Having said that, as interest rates rise, I would feel mush differently about paying off a mortgage early if my interest rate is 6% or more. At this point, maybe paying the mortgage down is a better idea.

7. Build wealth like crazy

With no debt, and steps 1-6 completed or in progress, all additional funds should be invested appropriately. Dave suggests mutual funds in 4 categories: Growth, Aggressive Growth, Overseas, and Income related funds. This is where I differ in opinion, but his suggestions are sound and will grow wealth, especially for the investor who does not care to be as involved with their investments or who does not manage money well.

8. Live and give like no one else

This is the final step in the process and should be the easiest to perform. Without debt and proper investments you can finally live the life you tried to live previously but without debt jeopardy. Dave encourages you to travel, buy that car you always wanted and to freely give to those that need it. Charity, children, it doesn’t matter. Use you wealth to make a difference in others lives. OPINION: Isn’t this what got you in trouble in the first place? I’m all for living well, but don’t give back everything you worked so hard to achieve.
Granted this is an oversimplified summary of the Baby Step Process, but you should be able to recognize how simple the concepts are.

Ready to get started? I like Dave’s concepts for the most part, but I think you can do better.Use his philosophies in conjunction with your own studies and formulate a plan for financial freedom. Remember Dave Ramsey went bankrupt and pulled himself out of it, but not necessarily by using these methods, he made his money selling debt freedom vehicles.



Personal Finance: Leasing a Car

Dave Ramsey, says that leasing (or fleecing as he calls it) is the worst possible way to acquire a vehicle. Dave goes on to tell that the Federal Trade Commission requires a truth in lending statement when you purchase a car or mortgage, but when you lease a vehicle (AKA rent to own) they are not required to share this information with you in full. Most data points suggest that 25% – 30% of vehicles sold today are via lease, and this is a problem for people’s finances.buying-lease

Have you ever leased a vehicle?  Hopefully not, but if you have, are you aware of the money factor? wrote an article in 2005, that sadly still holds true in most cases, describing some of the pitfalls of leasing a vehicle. The money factor is a figure used to calculate the interest expense associated with leasing the vehicle. This number can be expressed as a decimal or a percentage. Lets use the example from the article of .0026 multiplied by the constant (2400) equals 6.24. If the money factor is expressed as a percentage (.26%) the you would use the constant (24) to determine the amount of interest paid by you. What this is actually saying is you will end up paying an interest rate of 6.24% for this vehicle if the money factor is .0026 (.26%). At the time of this article, 6.24% may have been the going rate, but I have seen interest rates on leased vehicles as high as 14% – 17%, when you look deeply into the fine print.  auto-decline

Lets look at an example of a lease option. I did a quick GOOGLE search of lease options locally. The first option that pops up is an ad for a Honda Odyssey 6 speed automatic LX with “special lease option.” For $259 per month and $2,499 down you can drive this vehicle away on a 36 month lease. This price does not include “Taxes, tags, other dealer fees or documentary service fees (whatever that is).” The MSRP for this vehicle is $30,300, again not including all of the miscellaneous fees and taxes. The option to purchase the vehicle at the end of the lease is $16,968 (basically the blue book value of the vehicle in three years).

The fine print also goes on to state that there is a wear and tear charge of 15 cents per mile for any mileage over 12,000 yearly for vehicles under MSRP of $30,000 and 20 cents per mile for vehicles with a MSRP over $30,000. Remember, this particular vehicle has a MSRP of $30,300 so it looks like you just bumped up to the higher rate of 20 cents per mile because of an extra 300 bucks. The Federal Highway Administration reports that as of February 2015, the average number of miles driven per year by males is 16,550 and 10,142 for females, let’s split the difference and call it 13,500. See any red flags as of yet? The dealer is already undercutting your mileage use by 1,500 (minimum) miles per year for average use. This is equivalent to $300 dollars a year for driving the average number of miles per year in America. Don’t forget, this is per year (you have a 3 year lease), which means that when you turn this vehicle in you will owe them $900 in mileage penalties alone if you simply drive the average number of miles as everyone else annually. Beware though, in my opinion, 13,500 miles is a very modest figure.

So let’s get back to the arithmetic. After three years you will be required to turn in your leased vehicle after paying $2,499 down and $259 a month ($11,823). This does not include taxes, tags, etc. Taxes will be based on the MSRP minus the expected value at trade in ($30,300 – $16,968) leaving you with a value of $13,332. PA state tax is 6% therefore adding an additional fee of $799 due at signing. Let’s be fair and call other misc fees $250 due at signing, again being very conservative here. Add the mileage penalty of $900 (or more in most cases) and we’re done. So where does this put us at the end of the lease?  In three years you would have paid, or be expected to pay, $13,772 with the option of walking away with nothing or leasing another vehicle.  burnoing-money

What does this all mean at the end of the day?  $13,772 divided by 36 (months) is equivalent to a monthly payment of $382.55 over the last three years. What happened to $259 a month? You still have nothing to show for it unless you want to purchase this vehicle for another $16,968, leaving you with a total cost of $30,740.

Wait, MSRP was $30,300 and my cost is only $30,740 with leased payments maybe this is a great deal? Ummm, no. When have you ever heard of a vehicle going for the MSRP? I personally have never even heard of anyone paying MSRP for a vehicle. Take this deal, and you have likely overpaid for the vehicle. Remember when I mentioned that this was a special lease option? Translation, this is as good as it gets, so without this special option, you will pay even more.

So why is leasing a bad deal?

  1. You end up paying for depreciation on the first three years of this vehicle for someone else to benefit from for this car that is now for sale on the lot as a “low mileage used vehicle.”
  2. You are penalized heavily for mileage that is considered below the national average.
  3. A promised $259 monthly payment turns into $382 a month.
  4. You are either paying a hefty mileage penalty when you turn this vehicle in, or it sits in your driveway for the last 6 months of the lease to limit your miles. I have actually seen people do this!
  5. Oh and to finish this exercise up (and the part that frustrates me the most), I’m sure you will hear something like….”Well, if you were to roll your excess mileage fees into another leased vehicle, you won’t owe that $900 today.  We can get you into another vehicle for just $295 a month!”
  6. One more thing I almost forgot to add. The lease is for “qualified applicants, not everyone will qualify for these savings.” I would suspect that this is the deal that they give the people with 800+ credit scores. If you are in the 700’s or worse, I would expect to pay a lot more for this lease.
  7. This graphic is interesting, it is basically saying drive 2 1/2 new cars from a lease vs buying and driving one new car every five years. I say, pay depreciation on 2 1/2 cars by leasing during the same amount of time it takes to finance!!

vague-leaseTo be fair, my calculations may be off a bit, but they are reasonably close. There can be some wheeling and dealing (as I am a big fan of “negotiating”), but I think it is quite clear that leasing a vehicle is by far worse than financing it. Let’s be honest with ourselves here, most people that lease will be more than willing rob Peter to pay Paul in the long run so they can drive a car that they really can’t afford.

So again I say, make the payments to yourself by saving your money and pay cash for your next vehicle.  If you can’t afford to pay for this vehicle upfront, how does paying more for it via financing/or leasing it help you get out of debt?
So, you think I am inflating numbers and/or am extremely biased (which I fully admit) check out this blogger and take a look at what he has to say about auto financing and leasing. Check out his previous posts part 1 and 2 regarding this as well, very insightful. Happy hunting!