New Life For Old Potting Soil

Refreshing weary soil (or medium) benefits plants indoors and out

Waking Up Worn Out Soil

As autumn arrives, many of us clear out planters and containers, tossing dead or aging plants on the compost heap or into the green waste bin. Some people also toss out the spent soil every year or even every season, but unless the plants were actively diseased, that’s not necessary. Indeed, many green waste collection services specifically limit or ban used soil. In part, that’s because dirt is very heavy, and even just adding lighter-weight potting soil (especially in large quantity) can make the carts difficult or impossible to empty. Also, some shredding equipment can get clogged or damaged by an excess of soil; the amount clinging to a plant’s roots isn’t a problem but adding the whole planting container’s soil might be. If you have a compost heap or system already in place, tired out potting soil can be layered in a few inches at a time, along with the usual layers of brown/green plant materials. As the compost matures, the potting soil will add body to the compost and gain new life and nutrients from its biotic companions in the composting process.

Where there’s no room for a compost heap, old soil can still be reinoculated with healthy soil biota by mixing it half and half with compost and layering it on dormant vegetable beds. Sow a cover crop like fava beans, field peas, or annual clover and by late winter, you can chop up the cover crop and let it rot in place. Scatter on some granulated humic acid, then top off the bed with more compost before setting out spring starts. You can also layer old potting soil at the back of beds, or anywhere you plan to build up soil for new beds. It’s also a good base layer for areas where you’ve removed turf and want to start a pollinator patch come spring.

Refreshing Soil & Cleaning Pots

In really tiny yards like mine, you can use a wheelbarrow or even a huge tree pot as a mixing bowl for renovating old potting soil. If the pot that’s being emptied is very deep, the upper half of the used soil can be blended with a mixture using a third by volume of old soil, a third of compost and another third of fresh potting soil. Wet it thoroughly, which may take quite a while. Especially if most of your pots are on the smaller side, the necessarily frequent watering schedule has probably stripped out nearly all the nutrients in the soil. Once the re-mix is evenly moist, blend in some slow release dry fertilizer such as Dr. Earth All Purpose before using the mixture to refill cleaned or new pots.

When plants have died for mysterious reasons, and/or when pots have crusty mineral deposits, especially on the inside, cleaning is in order. For really suspect pots, recycling is the best option. To restore good ones that are just grungy, soak them overnight, then remove the crusts and stains with a stiff wire brush. Now soak and rinse them once more before refilling and planting. If you have a large number of nursery plastic plant containers, this is a good time to prep them for re-use by you or local growers. Knock out any dirt, spiders, old leaves, etc., the sort them by size and color/type. I can always give away quarts, gallons, and even 4-inch pots that are clean and sorted, and some local growers who sell starts at the farmers market will even accept clean 6-packs or pony packs.

Aerating The Airless

The soil at the very bottom of large/deep pots tends to be compressed and airless, and may even get smelly, in which case it should be spread on a tarp and wetted down before doing anything else with it. Once it’s aerated, add it to your compost system or put a few gallons at a time in the green waste bin. To keep the soil in very large containers sweeter, add a cup of activated charcoal (the kind used in fish tank filters) to every gallon of potting soil. You can also use a 1-2 inch layer of activated charcoal on the bottom of large containers before adding the base soil. Fill the upper portion of the container with fresh potting soil mixed half and half with compost, then mix in some fertilizer as described above.

Houseplants also need periodic repotting, which is best done before the plants start to struggle or fail. Repotting is harder on a plant that’s in bloom so it’s also best to do it when a plant is finished blooming. Potbound plants are often super dry as well, so put the potted plant into a bucket of water and let it soak until it doesn’t bubble anymore. While it soaks, prepare a pot at least a few inches wider and deeper than the one the plant is already in, keeping the drainage holes clean of soil with a few bits of broken pots or washed rocks. Put in a few inches of moistened soil mix, gently tamped down, set the plant in the new pot and gently tamp fresh potting soil along the sides. Put a little fresh potting soil on top (like about half an inch) and set the pot in a deep saucer. Pour on water until it seeps out into the saucer. Let it stand for 15-20 minutes, empty the saucer and add a little liquid fertilizer. Within a surprisingly short time, your plant will rebound with new vigor. What’s not to love about that?

Posted in Care & Feeding, composting, Health & Wellbeing, Houseplants, Planting & Transplanting, Recycling Nursery Plastics, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Capturing The Essence of Tomatoes

Slow or fast, red or green, roasting captures those essential flavors

Saving Summer To Savor In Winter

After such a long summery stretch of dry heat, it’s startling how quickly autumn arrives. Though the days are still warm, the nights are already dipping into the 40s and since the air quality has improved enough to open the windows at night, it’s fun to snuggle under blankets again. This morning I sorted through my summer clothes and started bringing out the sweaters and even a woolly hat or two. In the garden, even as I pull out the last of the faltering elders, eager young starts are building quickly into productive plants. This year, we’ll be enjoying several kinds of cole cousins, including my favorite Purple Sprouting Broccoli and red Brussels sprouts, colorful kin that taste great and can really brighten up a salad or veggie plate. Of course there are lots of kales, from Dazzling Blue to Black Magic and Lacinato. The most heavily textured kales seem especially inhospitable to Cabbage White butterflies, especially the really frilly types, but the butterflies finally disappear in fall so we can enjoy the tenderest smooth types too.

As summer wanes, the late tomatoes are finally ripening and we’re eating the cherry types by the bowlful, knowing they’re the last of the sun ripened ones we’ll taste until next year. Though some plants are still going strong, those cold nights are already nipping the leaves of some of my tomato plants as well as the outdoor basil. Along with the big reds, I’m harvesting green tomatoes of all sizes as well as the semi-ripe ones from the saddest looking plants. All are heading to a glorious future as roasted remnants of that pure summer flavor. Once roasted, they go into 1-cup freezer containers to await their higher destiny. Some get initially frozen in a dedicated ice cube tray that has a heavy cover flap to keep out funky freezer flavors (the same tray I use for freezing pesto without garlic, as garlic doesn’t improve with freezing). Once solid, you can pop out the cubes and pack them into longer term containers, then add one or two to add depth and richness to winter soups, sauces, and stews and give off season salsas a livelier homemade quality.

Slow Down And Savor The Subtleties

I don’t can big batches of pasta sauces anymore, but any decent store bought sauce can be juiced up nicely with the addition of sauteed onions, peppers, etc. to boost the usually bland, rather heavy flavor. (For a big umami boost, add quartered Kalamata olives to the onions and peppers while sauteeing.) However, adding a few cubes or even a cup of thawed roasted peppers, whole or pureed, can transform a dull bottled sauce into a rich one that doesn’t tasting stale or stodgy. I don’t bother to remove seeds or skins when cooking tomatoes down for sauce or soup because they bring a lot of flavor to the party. If anyone objects to the textures, a quick buzz of a stick blender will take care of that. If tomatoes will be cooked, whether for canning or roasting, I just quarter tomatoes, removing the stem ends if the scar is tough, and pureed or not, the results are better than anything you can buy.

Roasting is definitely the simplest way to deal with a lot of tomatoes. When it’s still too summery to hang over a hot stove, roasting is the easiest way to deal with the bounty without getting heat stroke. You can mix reds and greens or roast them together, but while ripe ones can benefit from faster roasting at higher temperatures, green tomatoes taste far more delicious when roasted low and slow. The idea is to allow them to caramelize a bit without drying out or burning, so low temps are important. And here’s a hot tip: if you line the baking sheet with parchment paper, cleanup will be much easier(!).

Low-Slow Roasted Green Tomatoes

8 cups green tomatoes, halved or quartered
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1/4 teaspoon basil salt or kosher salt
1-2 teaspoons rosemary sprigs (optional)

Preheat oven to 225 degrees F. Lightly rub each tomato, (skin side only) with oil, then place them cut-side-up in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with salt and rosemary if using. Bake at 225 degrees F until soft and edges are lightly caramelized (2-4 hours or more, depending on size and ripeness). Pack in freezer containers as-is or puree first. Makes about 5-6 cups.

Posted in preserving food, Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes, Vegan Recipes | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Little Known Positive Side Of Smoke

Smoke & dust bring some surprising benefits

Smoke, Ash, Dust & Plant Health

This weekend, my band played maritime music at the venerable Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. We were hoping that the breezy seaside location would mean less smoky air than we’ve been experiencing at home, and to some extent it did. Even so, I found myself coughing funky gunge for hours afterwards, not too surprising when you learn that Seattle had the worst air quality on the planet that day. We’ve held that dubious honor before, since regional winds all too often carry smoke and even ash from far too many wildfires. When the West burns, even coastal areas can get the fallout.

Harmful as smoky air is for people, it can have some surprisingly positive effects on plants and even soil. While most research has looked at the damage smoke can do to plants, a few studies have noted additional beneficial results. After the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, it was noticed that while plants died in badly hit areas, where ash was distributed less deeply, apple and wheat crops were increased by about 25%, an effect that persisted for some years. Researchers also noted that thinner coats of ash and even ashy crusts actively help dry soils retain more water and add minerals and other nutrients to the soils. That said, it’s still true that when particulate counts are high, the little bitty bits can cling to foliage, clogging up the little window-like structures (stoma) on foliage that allow plants and air to freely exchange water and oxygen. Dust and debris can similarly reduce free gas and water exchange, so it’s still important to hose down plants during and after smoky periods.

New News Is Good News

Even so, it has long been assumed that the net result of extended smoke exposure was as bad for plants as for people and critters. A report in the January 2020 Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences confirmed that wildfire smoke may actually increase plant productivity. During the summer of 2018, researchers tracked the ecological effects of wildfire smoke in California’s Central Valley and correlated their findings with a number of other recent smoke studies. It turned out that smoke generally only blocks about 4% of sunlight (less than previously supposed), and that the way smoke diffuses sunlight lets light penetrate more deeply into dense tree canopies, increasing the photosynthesis efficiency of canopy foliage and increasing overall plant productivity.

What’s more, in some situations, the scattered light of smoky conditions measurably improved plant health and productivity in restored wetlands and natural bog environments. Who knew? There are very complicated biochemical reasons for all this, but it seems likely that, given the frequency of naturally caused fires and volcanic activities over the millennia, many plants have adapted to take whatever advantage may be possible from the resulting conditions. So what about our gardens? There, too, we may find more resiliency than expected, especially if we stay vigilant abut watering on hot, smoky days, as plants with dry roots are susceptible to more damage of all kinds than well watered ones.

An Unexpected Benefit Of Dust

This has been a good year for Cabbage White butterflies and thus a tough year for cabbage, kale and other greens. After a frustrating spring, I was delighted to notice that the Cabbage Whites had retreated from my Pea Patch garden bed, even though they were still very active in my tiny home garden. The difference was that the Pea Patch community garden abuts an active construction site where a wonderful playground is being built, relying heavily on natural materials. Many yards of soil, wood chips and gravel have been dumped and moved about all summer, causing clouds of dust to settle on nearby beds. As it turns out, mine is one of the lucky ones, as the heavily dusted kale in mine soon produced new, unblemished and un-nibbled foliage.

Where neighboring gardeners were regularly hosing off foliage, the caterpillar damage continued unabated. Since my Pea Patch garden is largely a pollinator patch and doesn’t need frequent watering, I’ve largely let it be for the bees (if not to everyone’s delight). Apparently, that dusty coat on my kale caused any Cabbage White eggs to be smothered and the adults must have grown discouraged, which is fine by me. Now, as I’m planting fresh kale and greens, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I’m experimenting with deliberately dusting the young foliage on some of the plants. It will be interesting to see if dirtying the leaves helps keep them clean of caterpillar damage! Onward, right?

Posted in Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, pests and pesticides, Planting & Transplanting, Pollination Gardens, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Garden Retreat Or Garden Advance

Our newest neighbors enjoy gardening together

Gardens That Welcome and Include

After way too many hot dry days, the garden is finally starting to perk up, thanks more to heavy dews than actual rain. After each rinsing, grateful birds flock eagerly to drink and prink and the dusty plants breathe freely again. At last the garden feels like a haven again. September 1 is supposed to usher in autumn, though the equinox isn’t until the 22nd this year, but despite still-hot days, autumn is clearly coming. Cooler nights and crisper air hint at rain on the way, and it will certainly be welcome. I’ve been thinking about welcome lately as I visited several gardens that felt far from welcoming. Two were described as garden retreats and another as a haven, but all shared a combination of stark public-facing areas and high hedges that offered not even a glimpse of the goodies inside.

Though a sense of enclosure can make a garden feel comfortably sheltered, high, dense hedges (or walls or fences) can feel fortress-like, walling out passersby as well as any neighbors. I get that feeling overlooked by neighbors can be uncomfortable; I always prefer to live where curtains aren’t needed because nobody is in a position to see into the house. However, what would it hurt to provide some sense of abundance in the front yards, instead of pairing tightly mown lawn with sternly sheared blobs of barberry or spirea or dwarf laurel and calling it good? Not only does that look rather barren and bleak, such highly manicured landscapes don’t offer food or shelter to anyone or anything (except I suppose in that the landscapers get a wage to keep that iron hand of control so much in evidence). The actual gardens have retreated behind the tall hedges, and whatever they may be, these public-side plantings are not welcoming and definitely not gardens.

Little Gardens Everywhere

With so much concern for pollinators in the news these days, I’d love to see a national movement to turn all such unused lawn-scapes into pollinator patches. There could still be those towering privacy hedges, guarding more personal gardens from unwelcome eyes, but at least the useless turf, unvisited except by weekly mowers, could be doing some good in this weary world. Coming away from my little tour, I found myself even more appreciative than ever of my own neighborhood in a rather charming (and garden-rich) mobile home park. In terms of privacy, I hadn’t expected much when we moved in, yet I’ve been very pleasantly surprised to find that our small home feels fully as private as the physically isolated places I’ve lived. I’m impressed at the forethought that has each unit placed so that few if any neighboring windows are directly aligned. Some unwanted views are blocked by a fence, carport or shed, but most are screened by evergreen plants, which makes a stroll in the mobile home park feel like, well, a stroll in a PARK park.

Because the lots are mostly very small, the gardens tend to spill out into the street, generously sharing blossoms and assorted garden decorations with passersby. Even before I lived here, the park reminded me of those lovely paintings of English cottage gardens, which always seemed to be both billowing with bloom and packed with produce. Many of these little gardens are similarly dual-duty spaces, with raspberries trellised up to save space above a ruffle of bright annuals, and a sprawl of strawberries sharing a bed with tall, fragrant lilies. Where elderly (and hello, totally inappropriate) trees devour planting beds with questing, hungry roots, several people have created raised box beds filled with kale and calendulas, squash and salvias, roses and rutabagas. One enterprising neighbor lines a cement carport floor with potatoes in big grow-bags and for the delectation of the neighborhood plants the street edge with spectacular bushes of Brugmansia, with enormous, swirling flowers amid airy puffs of Nicotiana mutabilis that scent the air from evening into the night. Across the narrow street, a splendid Datura opens deep purple blossoms with dramatic white linings, and both plants are keeping local bees busy zooming back and forth to savor the bounty.

Welcoming and Inclusive

When you walk around this little neighborhood in high summer, the sound of happy bees is almost as loud as the birdsong. These friendly, welcoming little gardens are always lively, providing a haven indeed for a multitude of tiny critters. Most of the homes also offer a little seating area, some tucked behind a sheltering tree, others snugged down a necessarily short path with garden beds on both sides, and a few set out in full view of the street. Narrow and overhung with bushes, the shared street is really more like a long, winding driveway, with gardens spill into it to soften any hard lines. Since most passersby are neighbors, there’s less focus on shutting people out and more on inviting them in for a cup of tea and a comfortable chat. After decades of living at the end of long driveways with no neighbors in sight, it’s refreshing to be part of a genuine neighborhood, where kids play in the street and people walking their little dogs stop to chat (and get totally tangled in leashes as the dogs have a little sniff-fest).

Our newest neighbors arrived a few weeks ago, a lovely young family with two pre-teen boys. Originally from Venezuela, they first sought political asylum in Florida, then moved here at the invitation of a neighbor who was an old friend. Now they’re all sharing an older but renovated mobile home, the owner having moved into a smaller home-share part of the unit and the family living in the main area. The whole family spends time outside, kids playing with lots of laughter and joking, adults chatting cheerfully with passersby. What’s more, the whole family is enjoying bringing some tired, weedy garden beds back into vibrant life. Soon this neglected patch will be another abundant little garden, welcoming and friendly. Onward, right?

Posted in Birds In The Garden, Garden Design, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | 2 Comments