Saturday, April 28, 2007

the feel of rich soil

It was one of those Minnesota spring days, blue nearly cloudless skies, high temperature around 70, but with a gentle to moderate breeze. It being a Saturday, you can guess where I spent part of my day.
I had just received my order of onion sets from Territorial Seeds. In previous years I have grown onions from those dry little bulbs purchased at a garden center, but I never had much luck with producing big onions from them. Territorial offered bunches of mini onion plants, which I thought were much more alive and would give an advantage over dry, dormant bulbs. I ordered a package which contained a red, a yellow, and Walla Walla sweet onions. My uncle (mom's brother) lived in Walla Walla, Washington for a number of years before recently moving back to my grandparents' lake home. He always brought a big sack of onions when he and the family came for a midsummer visit. They're not good keepers, but they have a wonderful mild onion taste. I wonder how much of it comes from the variety, and how much from the soil. I'll find out, I guess.

Onions, I've heard, are heavy feeders and need a rich soil, so I went around to each of my raised beds, digging up a little soil, before I finally settled on the bed pictured above. This bed, I think, was one of the original raised beds we placed in this garden plot in 2004. My garden record keeping isn't all that great, but judging by the quality of the soil it is one of the older beds. Last year I had peas and Swiss chard (or was it kohlrabi? Basil? Bad garden record-keeper!), so the peas should have enriched the soil with nitrogen.

The dirt had a wonderfully dark, crumbly, rich feel to it, and I dug up a couple earthworms and grubs, which was a good sign. There is life in the soil. Most of it is not as obvious as an earthworm, but nonetheless important. It's intuitive to me: we should nurture and build up the soil, not blast it with chemicals that kill.

The picture above shows the "shovel test" I did to see how deeply the layer of workable topsoil went. The shovel blade is probably ten inches long, so you get the picture. The workable, living soil extends down below the raised bed itself. Three years ago there was nothing but crusty rocky sandy loam, reddish in color. Other, newer beds have a very different, more shallow profile.

Here's the bed after I finished planting; after this photo I topped it off with some old hay mulch from the potato beds. I finished planting potatoes today also; the bed I found frost in last week had warmed up considerably. I still have a lot of onion sets left over, including all the Walla Wallas; I'll figure out a place for them tomorrow.

My salad greens are up after planting two (three? Bad record keeper!) weeks ago. They grow under hoops covered with a floating row cover material I'm trying out this year. It's supposed to be permeable to rain, but I'm finding out it may be not that permeable. I water them regularly.

It's still a month away from planting time for most crops, like tomatoes and beans and peppers. I'm having a terrible time with starting tomato and pepper seeds this year. They germinate, grow for a week, then suddenly the leaves, and the plants, just disappear. I'm thinking it's a fungal disease, called "damping off", which irritates me because the seed starting soil mix I ordered specifically stated that it prevents damping off. I'm going to give a final try to starting some seeds tonight or tomorrow, but I may have to resort to buying plants. Sigh. So many varieties I know I won't be able to find at the local garden center!

UPDATE- It wasn't damping off. It was mice! They annihilated the last of my tomato seedlings last night and nibbled the leaves off the new pepper plants. There were holes dug in the soil in one of the flats. Now that's a new garden pest problem to me! So I dug deep in my pockets and ordered transplants from Seed Savers Exchange for some of the tomato and pepper varieties. Pricey, but I need my Brandywine and Stupice and Amish Paste heirloom tomatoes!

I could have done a lot more in the garden, but I didn't want to be out in the midday sun too long, this being one of my first sun exposures of the year. I was wearing shorts and a tank top, and parts of my body are a light shade of pink right now, but I got my Vitamin D!

In other news, I saw a male evening grosbeak today. I had seen a few late last fall, and none throughout the winter, when I usually see them at the feeder. Evening grosbeaks are a boreal forest species, preferring to spend their time even more Up North than where I live. But there he was in all his yellowness. Maybe I'm more Up North than I think.


elise said...

I LOVE to garden but lets just say my successes are hard won, meaning I don't have a naturally green thumb, but I'm very tenacious. Our dirt here is FILLED with rocks and is mostly clay. Sometimes digging out the rocks leaves a gaping hole. I'm not sure why, but our topsoil is only a a few inches deep - wondering if they cleared cut the area many years ago and it eroded away. I have found that cow manure and other organic matter makes for the best success. I know that feeling of seeing crummy dirt turn into lucious looking garden dirt!
Happy gardening!

Larry said...

Did you ever grow Habanero peppers?-Those little bushes are prolific producers.

Floridacracker said...

Sounds like a good dirt day. I like those sweet onions here, but down here it's the town of Vidalia,GA that claims sweetest onions.
They do make super onion rings.

Aren't your cats supposed to demouse the place? Do they know this?

greg said...

Nice post Deb. I love how you took the time to really describe the soil in so many different ways. What a gorgeous weekend in Minnesota, eh?

Deb said...

elise- our topsoil, except perhaps for this bed, comes from horse manure. They're good for something! This bed may contain some cow manure I purchased the year I got this bed started. Like I said, bad record keeping!

Larry- They're a little too long season for here, although if I grow them under cover, I just might get some to produce. I had some a few years ago when I lived 70 miles south of here. I love their flavor, even through the hotness!

FC- I think I posted a comment on your blog recently about these lazy freeloaders. Apparently, if they don't kill birds, they don't kill mice either.

Greg- As always, I appreciate your writer's perspective. And, it was a gorgeous weekend, although a bit windy on Sunday. I didn't feel like gardening then.