Acidifying Garden Soil Naturally

Gardenias, azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, blueberries, spruce, pine, maple, oak – the list goes on and on of plants that grow best in acidic soil. If you love acid loving plants and the ph of your soil is below 7, you won the acid soil lottery.  Plant away! But what if your soil is alkaline and you have a love for acid loving plants?  There are many synthetic means available to acidify your soil but there are also ways to do it organically.  By adding specific amendments to the soil, you can lower the ph naturally.

Tip:  Creating an acid soil situation where there wasn’t one before may injure alkaline-loving plants nearby.  If you choose to acidify your garden soil, use care  so you don’t  damage nearby plant life.

Amending The Soil

If you have plants that prefer acidic soil or you would like to add plants to your garden that prefer acidic soil, you can amend the soil to lower the ph if necessary.  Plants prefer acidic or alkaline soil because the chemistry of the soil determines which types of nutrients in the soil are amending the soilavailable to your plants. For example, alkaline soil chemically binds up the  iron that is already in the soil.  This makes most of the iron in the soil unavailable for plant use.  Because acid loving plants require a good deal of iron to thrive, this situation results in iron deficiency.  A lack of iron results in a condition, called chlorosis.  It is generally identified by a yellowing of the leaves on the plant.  When the soil is amended to create a more acidic soil condition, the iron that is already present in the soil is chemically released and becomes available for use by the plant.

Tip:  Changing a soil’s ph level is generally a slow process that may take several applications and a lot of time before it takes effect, even with chemical treatments.  Have patience my friends!

Sphagnum Peat and Peat Moss (Best Option)

Sphagnum peat and peat moss, which are highly acidic, are the best means of lowering the ph of your soil naturally. (Hint:  It also adds organic matter to the soil which improves soil structure!)  These materials lower the ph of your soil while they break down.  Adding peat or peat moss along with compost to your acid loving plants every year will make your acid-loving plants very happy and it will  improve you soil structure as well.  Also, in my opinion, this is the safest and easiest way to acidify your soil naturally.

bag of peat moss

The soil in my area is quite alkaline.  I planted an azalea with a soil mixture of  50% soil and 50% sphagnum peat moss.   Then every year after that, I added a hardy layer of sphagnum peat moss around the azalea and it grew quite nicely.

Mulching with Pine Needles

There are current ongoing arguments over the idea of whether or not pine needles will acidify the soil.  Scientists are saying that while pine needles are acidic while they are on the tree, they lose that acidity fairly quickly once they fall to the ground and by the time they are decomposed their ph is at a neutral level.  But, life-long gardeners swear by using pine needles as a natural mulch to acidify the soil.  In this debate, you will have to choose a side but my advice to you is this:  if you have pine needles readily available, use them as a mulch around your acid loving plants.  It won’t hurt.  Even if pine needles don’t acidify the soil, they will improve the soil structure as they break down into compost.

The arguments concerning pine needles are the same with oak leaves. Again, it never hurts to mulch with them or add them to your compost!

Vinegar

While conducting research for this article, I read numerous articles and watched a multitude of videos about watering plants with a water/vinegar solution to acidify soil. Personally, I wouldn’t try this. Vinegar is a natural herbicide (i.e. plant killer).   It would be far too easy to burn or kill your beloved plants. And from what I read, it only acidifies the soil slightly and the results are short-lived which would require the process to be repeated frequently. My suggestion – don’t do it.

For more information on acidifying garden soil,  check out the Iowa State University Extension website.

Globe Blue Spruce
Globe Blue Spruce photo by Wanette Lenling

My best advice to you  is to grow plants that like alkaline soil if you have alkaline soil and acid loving plants if you have acid soil.  If you really love a plant that likes acid soil and you have alkaline soil, grow the plant in a pot with potting mix for acid loving plants and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!

Happy Gardening my friends!

Quote of the Day

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian

 

 

 

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Growing The Nearly Indestructible Daylily

For new gardeners, the vast sea of flower choices for a new perennial garden can be overwhelming.  Hemerocallis, or the daylily as they are more commonly known, is a great place to start.   Not only are daylilies easy to grow and hard to kill, but they also come in a rainbow of colors and many sizes.

Fun Fact:  The common name “daylily” comes from the fact that each individual bloom on the hemerocallis plant lasts only 1 day.

Origins of the Daylily

Hemerocallis or common daylily
Hemerocallis: photo by Wanette Lenling

Daylilies are perennial plants that have been grown in Asia for thousands of years.  These plants were relished not only for their beauty but because they are also edible and used for medicinal purposes.  Daylilies are thought to have been introduced to Europe around 400 years ago and then were imported into the United States by early Europeans.

Fun Fact:  There are now more than 80,000 registered cultivars of hemerocallis.

Plant Description

Daylilies are fast growing easy care perennials that come in a wide variety of colors and sizes.

double daylily bloom
Peach double daylily bloom: Photo by http://www.alldaylilies.com

Foliage

Daylilies grow in a vase-shaped arching clump of dark green grass-like foliage with blades that are 1-2 feet long and up to 1 inch wide. Daylilies can grow anywhere from 12 to 36 inches or more in height and between 12 to 24 inches wide.

Hemerocallis 'Swirling Waters'
Hemerocallis ‘Swirling Waters’: Photo by Wanette Lenling

Blooms

Hemerocallis blooms generally have six petals centered around a tube-shaped throat, however some recent cultivars have double blooms meaning they have more than 6

Hemerocallis 'Seal of Approval'
Tri-colored bloom from Hemerocallis ‘Seal of Approval’: Photo from Bluestone Perennials

petals (see peach double bloom daylily pictured above). Daylilies  come in shades of nearly white, yellow, blue, red, pink, orange, purple, and black. Many cultivars have blooms with dual or triple color combinations as well.

Petals on more recent cultivars have also been bred to exhibit a ruffled appearance. The tri-colored cultivar ‘Seal of Approval’ (right) exhibits such ruffled petals whereas the ‘Swirling Waters’ cultivar (above) has the more traditional smooth petals.

How to Grow a Daylily

Daylilies are extremely easy to grow and generally take care of themselves. Daylilies naturalize well in open areas but they don’t compete well with trees and shrubs.   The plants are adapted to grow in zones 3-9.  Plant in average well-drained loamy soil.  For best results, grow in full sun to partial sun.  Dead-head spent flowers and remove old flower stalks to keep a tidy appearance and to encourage re-bloomers to continue blooming.  Water established plants deeply only once or twice per week unless there are drought conditions, extreme heat, or sandy soil, in which case plants may need watering for frequently.

Fun Fact: Some newer cultivars are referred to as “re-bloomers” which means that they  will bloom more than once or continuously throughout the summer.

Trouble Shooting:

  • Few to no blooms:
    • Over-fertilization can reduce the number of blooms. Add compost in the spring around your hemerocallis or a small amount of general all-purpose slow release fertilizer to feed your daylily all summer long. High nitrogen fertilizer will reduce the number of blooms.
    • Low light can reduce the number of blooms.  Move the plant to a full sun location if the plant fails produce abundant blooms.
  • Over-watering:
    • Over-watering can lead to many issues including fungal disease and root rot. In general,  water deeply only once or twice per week.
  • Diseases:
    • Leaf streak fungus: This fungus is not normally deadly to the plant but causes cosmetic issues. Remove infected leaves.  Water and fertilize the plant to encourage new growth.  Water with
      daylily leaf streak fungus
      Daylily leaf streak fungus infestation. Photo by University of Wisconsin Extension

      soaker hose or drip irrigation which puts the water directly on the ground to stop the spread of the fungus.  Apply fungicides containing chlorothalonil, mancozeb or thiophanate-methyl  during wet weather to prevent the disease.

  • Insect trouble:
    • Aphids and thrips may take up residence in your hemerocallis.  Remove dead foliage and treat with a soap and water mixture or a commercial insecticide.

Daylilies are a fantastic addition to any sunny garden. They can be used in a formal as well as informal garden and require little care for the beauty they produce.

Happy Gardening!

 

Quote of the Day

“A cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition.”

-William Arthur Ward, American writer

How to Safely Maintain a Mixed Landscape

Mixing edibles into the landscape with ornamentals creates a beautiful and interesting landscape that is also productive.  However, common synthetic landscape chemicals are not always recommended for use on edibles.  Plants absorb the chemicals we put on them through the roots and leaves.  The presence of these chemicals in and around the edible plant may make the plant and its produce unsafe for you and your family to eat.  So how do you maintain a healthy productive mixed landscape without the use of synthetic chemicals? By using safe organic alternatives to maintain your plants, it is possible to create a beautiful mixed landscape of  ornamentals and edibles without introducing unsafe toxins.

Fertilizers

Organic fertilizers are very popular now and can be found at most local garden stores or online sites.  These fertilizers come in liquid, granular, and pellet forms. Use the fertilizer that is right for your landscape.  Some plants, like roses and blueberries, have special nutritional needs. These nutritional needs can be met by simply using specialized organic fertilizers.  Generally however a simple all purpose slow release fertilizer spread over your lawn and landscape twice a year is all it takes to keep your plants healthy and productive all summer long.

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Compost

Compost is always recommended to improve the texture of the soil but it also adds nutritional value and trace elements to the soil that are necessary for proper plant growth and food production.  Compost can be purchased at most local garden stores but for those gardeners that wish to create their own compost or for more information about the nutritional value of compost in your landscape, please refer to my article on compost that will explain the ins and outs of compost and compost production.   Compost. What’s The Big Deal?

*Hint: In home-made compost, use only yard and grass clippings that have not been treated with synthetic chemicals, especially herbicides.  Synthetic chemicals do not break down naturally and may remain in the compost. If herbicides are present in your compost, you could inadvertently kill your entire landscape when the compost is applied.

Herbicides (Weed Killers)

Weeds are the bane of any garden.  Keeping up with the weeding takes a lot of time and energy. The CobraHead Garden Tool makes this job a lot easier.  See my review of the CobraHead at The CobraHead. An Amazing Garden Tool. But to reduce the time it takes to weed by hand, herbicides can be applied to help control the weed population in your garden and landscape. Although there are a great number of synthetic herbicides on the market, they can be dangerous to humans and animals.  Luckily there are a number of natural herbicides available to help control the weeds in your landscape.

CobraHead and Mini CobraHead
CobraHead and Mini CobraHead garden tools

Corn Gluten Meal:  Corn gluten meal is a byproduct of milling corn.  It is a natural fertilizer that also works as a pre-emergent herbicide.  A pre-emergent herbicide stops the plant from taking root once the seed begins to grow.  Be aware that corn gluten meal will stop all seeds from taking root, including garden and grass seeds.  Read the manufacturer’s directions before using this product if you intend to plant seeds in your garden or over-seed your lawn.

Vinegar Vinegar:  An easy and inexpensive herbicide that is common in most households is plain white vinegar.  Vinegar contains acetic acid which is deadly to plants.  Common household vinegar is safe for humans but manufactured vinegar herbicides may contain a stronger vinegar solution which can be hazardous to humans and pets.  If you choose to purchase a manufactured vinegar herbicide, read the manufacturer’s label for instructions prior to use.

Vinegar works as a herbicide by drying up the leaves of the plant.  It works best on young plants and annual weeds.  It does not kill the root of the plant so several applications may be necessary to kill larger plants or perennial weeds.  To use common household vinegar as a herbicide, simply pour full strength vinegar into a spray bottle and spray on the leaves of the undesired plant.  Vinegar will kill all plants indiscriminately so it may help to use a piece of cardboard to protect desirable plants while spraying.  This will keep them safe from the vinegar spray. Repeat as necessary until weeds are gone.

Fungicide

To prevent outbreaks of fungus in the garden or to treat fungus that is already present, there are several organic solutions.  If one of the following solutions does not work, modify the strength of the solution or try another solution as some fungus is more susceptible to certain treatments than others.

Cinnamon:  Cinnamon is a natural anti-fungal.  It works on many types of fungus but is especially good at preventing damping-off disease on seedlings.  To treat new seedlings growing in starter trays, try sprinkling cinnamon on the soil.  Cinnamon can also be made into a “tea” by steeping one tablespoon of cinnamon in a gallon of hot water.  Leave it overnight to cool.  When it has cooled, filter the “tea”, then pour it into a spray bottle.  Spray the “tea” directly on the plants and the soil.  Spray once a week to prevent an outbreak or to treat a current fungal infection.

013.jpg  Milk:  Milk is also naturally anti-fungal.  Milk works on current fungal infections but also works as a preventative as well. Mix milk (2% works best) and water in a ratio of 1:4 in a spray bottle.  Spray it on the affected plant once a week, making sure to spray the underside of the leaves as well.  Milk works best if it is sprayed on the plant in the early morning or in the evening as it needs to stay moist to kill the fungus. Repeat until the fungus is gone.

Cedar Oil:  Cedar oil, which can be purchased at most garden stores, has been shown to have both anti-fungal and insecticidal qualities.  Cedar oil as an insecticide is discussed below.  Cedar oil as an anti-fungal is applied by spraying the affected plant and works similar to the milk treatment.  Read the manufacturer’s label for proper mixture strength and application instructions.

Insecticides (Bug killers) and Deterrents

Insecticides kill bugs, while other products act as a deterrent.  Attempting to kill all the insects in your garden or landscape is not recommended as beneficial insects, like bees and lady bugs are just that, beneficial. They pollinate your vegetables and eat the destructive insects like aphids.  However, killing or deterring detrimental insects will help keep your landscape beautiful, productive, and comfortable to work in.

Dish soap  Dish SoapDish soap in an excellent insecticide.  It is safe and effective for use in the landscape and garden.  Insecticidal soaps may be purchased at most garden stores. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.  To use regular dish soap as an insecticide on your plants, mix one tablespoon dish soap with one tablespoon olive oil or liquid vegetable oil in a spray bottle and fill the bottle with water.  Spray down the affected plant being sure to wet the leaves on the top and bottom.  Do not spray plants in direct sunlight as this may cause a condition called sun scald (sun burn) on your plant.  Also, some plants may be sensitive to dish soap so if in doubt, test the dish soap mixture on a small portion of the plant first and wait a few days.  If the plant remains healthy, it is probably safe to spray down the entire plant.

Dish soap insecticide works on contact with the body of the insect and has no residual effects so a few hours after treating your plant, use a hose or spray bottle with clean water, to wash down your plant and remove any soap residue and dead insects.  Repeat this process every three days until all signs of infestation are gone.

Cedar Oil:  Cedar wood smells good and has been used for hundreds of years to deter insects.  Cedar oil, when sprayed on the lawn, will deter fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and many other pest insects. There is a caveat.  Cedar oil will also deter beneficial insects like bees and butterflies so do not use it on plants that are in need of pollination, including garden vegetables and fruit trees, and in butterfly gardens.

Cedar oil is not harmful to plants, animals, or humans. It can be purchased at most garden stores or online.  Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for proper application.

Diatomaceous Earth:  Diatomaceous earth has been used for many years as an effective insecticide.    It is silicon dioxide that comes from the fossilized remains of ancient algae that is mined from the ground.  It is non-toxic and safe for home and garden use.  Diatomaceous earth is generally sold as a powder and remains effective as long as it stays dry.  It can be used in the house any place insects hide or it can be used in the garden either on the ground or as a dust to protect plants from harmful insects.

The powder is comprised of sharp microscopic pieces that cut the insect’s underside causing damage leading to dehydration and death.  It works best on soft bodied insects like aphids and gastropods like slugs and snails. Even though diatomaceous earth is non-toxic, care should be taken not to breath in the dust or get it in your eyes due to the substance’s sharp microscopic texture.  Using gloves and a mask is recommended to apply this product and always read the package instructions for proper use.

Beer or copper for Slugs:  Slugs can be a problem for any gardener.  They chew holes in leaves and can devastate plants in a short amount of time.  As I have already covered this topic thoroughly in a previous post I will simply add the link here:   The Trouble With Slugs  Mixing edibles into the landscape with your existing ornamentals can be extremely appealing visually as well as a productive use of your landscape space. With careful  organic plant maintenance, your plantings will be safe, productive, and very beautiful!

Happy Gardening!

Quote of the Day

“You’ve got to out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.”

-Will Rogers, American Actor

Bonus Quote:

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”

-Moliere, French playwright and actor

 

 

 

Ew! Why Is the Bottom of My Tomato Rotten?

If the tomato is still on the vine and the bottom is black or brown and looks rotten,  it is likely a condition called blossom-end rot. Blossom-end rot is  a calcium deficiency in the plant.  This condition can affect tomatoes but it can also affect peppers, squash, eggplant, cucumber, and melons. Look for the tell-tale signs of black or brown rotten spots on the fruit or vegetable.  If you are experiencing this in your garden, don’t worry, you aren’t alone.  Most gardeners have had to deal with this issue at some point in time.

(Note. Affected fruits and vegetables should be not be consumed and should be discarded.)

What Causes Blossom-end rot?

Blossom-end rot is a condition in which there is a lack of calcium in the plant.  There are several possible causes for this issue to develop including the following:

  1.  The soil lacks calcium.
  2. The calcium in the soil  is plentiful but is chemically bound up and unavailable to your plant.
  3. Too much fertilizer, especially nitrogen derived from ammonia.
  4. Inconsistent moisture levels.

 What is the solution to Blossom-end rot?

Soil PH.  First check the soil ph. If the ph of the soil is wrong, adding more calcium to the soil won’t help.  Testing kits  that check soil ph can be purchased at most garden stores or online for under $10.00.  Follow the directions on the package to test your soil.  Ideally your soil should have a ph of 6.5 to 6.8.  If the ph is not within this range, certain nutrients, like calcium,  will be chemically bound up and unavailable for absorption. If your test shows a ph higher than 6.8, then your soil is alkaline and you will need to add sulfur to lower the ph.  If the ph is lower than 6.5, then you have acidic soil and you will need to add lime to raise the ph. Lime has the added benefit in that it actually contains calcium that your plants can use.

Lack of Calcium.  Second, if you tested the soil and the soil ph is not the problem, then the problem may be a lack of calcium in the soil. Even though as previously stated, lime contains calcium, if the soil ph is within the 6.5 to 6.8 range, then adding lime will throw off the ph.  In this case, add gypsum.  Gypsum adds calcium and it will not change the soil ph, however, it will add salt so follow the directions on the package.  Too much salt in the soil adds a whole new set of problems to the garden that you don’t want.

For a longer term solution to calcium deficiency in your soil, add bone meal or egg shells to the garden.  Both bone meal and eggs shells are comprised of calcium.  These organic forms of calcium need time to break down into a source that is usable by plants so it may take a year or more before results can be seen.

Fertilizer.  Third, the problem may lie with your fertilizer. Fertilizers with a lot of nitrogen, especially nitrogen derived from ammonia, cause the plant to grow too fast and the plant is not able to absorb enough calcium to keep up with its growth rate.  I always suggest organic fertilizers and compost.  These fertilizers come from natural sources and add nutrients and trace minerals slowly  and in amounts that your plants need for proper growth. Synthetic slow release fertilizers are also a good option as they are easy to apply and they slowly release the nutrients your plants need over the course of the growing season. Synthetic liquid fertilizers must be applied again and again over the growing season, they tend to add salt to the soil, and they also promote unnatural growth in plants so I don’t usually recommend them for in-ground gardens. (Container plants are the exception for synthetic liquid fertilizers.)

Watering.  Finally, make sure that you are keeping your garden consistently moist.  Alternating between wet conditions and then extreme dry conditions may interfere with your plant’s ability to absorb calcium.  This is especially true in potted plants. To keep your garden consistently moist it is important to water your garden adequately, regularly, and in the proper amounts.  Watering will depend on the weather and your soil.  Heavy clay soil tends to hold moisture and sandy soil tends to dry out too quickly by wicking water away. Both types of soils should be amended with generous amounts of compost to add organic matter, improve soil quality, and help maintain moisture levels for healthy vital garden plants.

To keep soil consistently moist, soaker hose works best and is easy to use.  Soaker hose is usually black in color and it’s porous.  The water in the hose slowly drips from the entire length of the hose.  Lay the soaker hose along the length of your plant row and turn the water on for about 20 minutes to slowly water your plants.   This time may need to be adjusted depending on your soil structure.  The ground should be wet several inches down but don’t allow standing water to form that doesn’t soak in within a short period of time.  That means there is too much water. Check the soil every few days.  If the soil looks dry on top and it’s dry if you stick your finger in the ground about 2 inches, then water again.

Sprinklers are commonly used to water gardens.  Sprinklers provide adequate water but they can cause problems with disease, especially fungal issues. If you use a sprinkler, always water your garden in the morning. This allows the plants to dry fully before the afternoon sun hits. Watering your garden in the hot afternoon sun  can cause burns (called sun scald) on your plants. Watering at night is also not recommended as it allows water to sit on the plants for a length of time which encourages disease and rot. Watering in the morning is best and can be made more convenient by the use of timers that can be purchased at garden stores or online.

Blossom-end rot is a condition that is easily controlled if you know why it happens and the step to take to cure it.  Every gardener will deal with this issue at some time.  If it happens to you, throw out the infected fruit, go through the steps to check the cause and apply the appropriate remedy.  In no time at all, you’ll have beautiful tomatoes growing in your garden ready to pick for that amazing evening dish!

Happy Gardening!

 

Quote of the Day

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.”  – Brian O’Driscoll