Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fertilizer Failures

The garden has been a huge expense this year. First the tilling, then the fencing, then the seed re-buying, the sprout buying when the seeds failed, the tilling again, irrigation supplies, more fencing, the W.O.R.K. of getting it all together and now, nearly May and the garden is truly a pathetic 1500 square feet.

Which is really sad because soon the weather will get too hot. The green plants visibly wilting in the afternoon sun. Bugs will start coming in and slaughtering whatever fruit dares to even consider ripening. Other than the tomatoes and perhaps the underground roots and legumes, everything out there is visibly failing.

The forty-two cucumbers are only 6" tall at most after sprouting 8 weeks ago (and that height including the ones I bought from seedlings nearly that size already) and sport one tiny 1/2" long cucumber among the lot. The seventy seven pole beans are yellow and sickly looking, around the same size and though they're flowering, have yet to really take off after more than 2 months. The broccoli has produce only 2 small dollar coin sized heads before going to flower out of eighteen plants. Most of the over 100 corn stalks are yellowed and haven't grown since I transplanted them. Same with the 6 eggplants, 12 canteloupes, 30 zucchini, 15 yellow squashes, 6 strawberries etc. etc. you get the point.

Talking with my neighborhood plant guy, my problem is probably fertilization related. Meaning, I have none.

The earth up here in the wide open country is a layer cake of disaster; a half inch of white sandy soil covers a sandy-but-dark soil and six inches or so under that lies a thick redish orange clay. So much different than the rich, loamy ink black soil I had in the city. So ironic, really.

But I have ammended the soil with cured horse manure, epsom salts, coffee grounds and rabbit manure. Two weeks ago I bought a bottle of The Scotts Co. 100250 Miracle Gro Organic Choice Plant Food. The first "chemical" fertlizer that I've allowed myself to ever use. Today, I started the second round of feeding. It's a lot of work filling up a 2 gallon jug and hand watering by 20 square feet at a time. But gardens are work, growing food is work. It's par for the course in farming.

So, what do I do if this doesn't work? The first round didn't really seem to make an impact, I'm not sure what another dose will do. My lovely neighborhood farmer uses 16-4-8 and he gets fantastic results (he doesn't use herbicides, pesticides or fungicides, just the fertlizer in the ground.) And it's making me want to go out and buy a bag to try it.

For those of you that grow organic, what am I missing here? For those that know more about fertilizer than I do, what exactly is in this magic potion of a chemical mix that my garden is so desperate for?

I have always said I prefer local over organic but when it comes to dousing my own plants with unknowns I really am not feeling comfortable with this. Someone show me the way!


  1. Crystal, We have always grown organic over here. If you would like to stop by I am not too far from your place. I dont grow on such a scale as you do but I could tell you that broccoli usually does not grow well this time of year. It is a winter plant/cool weather. Call me. I will be her all day Friday. 454-8797 Stephanie

  2. I think it's a matter of timing as Stephanie has said, and compost. I will be bringing in truckloads of mushroom compost to start off with, after I let the chickens do their thing on the intended bed areas, and then tilling that into the soil and making raised rows.

    The other thing you might want to do is call the extension agent and find out how to go about doing a soil test. See what your specific soil actually needs, so you amend it with the right products.

    Stephanie - I'd like to take you up on our your offer too to see what you grow when because I'm used to being in zone 10b as opposed to 8b/9a. I know the planting schedule is moved back for the cooler zone and am a little bit panicked over when to do what. I'd love to be able to pick your brain as it were.


  3. As I learned last year the first year on new soil is all about learning. Last year I had a 5 acre learning experience. Do the best you can this year on it and then when things start to finish up plant green manuer crops like cow peas and mung beans. Did you get your soil tested by chance? that might take the mystery out of things for next year. Aged horse manuer is great but many of the nutrients are not avalable to the plants right away. Try foliar feeding with either a manuer or compost tea or a fish emultion. I did that last year and it did help. This year as soon as I harvest a row I'm planting in a cover. I have really poor soil, very sandy and acidic. Mushroom compost helped a lot. Need to get some organic matter and some life back into the soil. Good luck I know you'll get somthing out of it but prob not what you expected.

  4. I have had to grow in raised beds most of the places I have lived in Florida. I did live one place where the previous owner was also a gardener, and had put compost in the soil for years before I moved in, so it grew well. I would suggest raised beds for a couple of years while you work on the soil for larger in ground beds. I think it is especially important since you are hauling water. Sand will not hold the moisture. Good luck with this season's crop.

  5. I am also zone 8B. I did a soil test and found good amounts of all nutrients except NITROGEN in my soil. Instead of treating my who garden, a costly venture, I treat each plant as I plant it. I plant all plants (except beans) with 1 cup of my own compost and 1/2 cup of composted chicken manure down in the bottom of the hole (for the roots to feed on) and then water them in one week later with Fish Emulsion for a quick fix. When I see my leaves yellowing, I give them a dose of what old timers call night water, human urine. I mix one cup of urine to one gallon of water and then put only about 1 cup of the mix on each plant. I also heavily mulch with straw and leaves to keep veggies clean, moist and encourage worms and microbial growth.
    I do not work with raised beds as it is a rather large expense to buy all the dirt and supplies to build them, as well as limits your planting space. Good luck. The second year of organic gardening is always better. Don't give in to commercial fertilizers in your garden.

  6. I haven't read this until now, sorry for the slow posting. We've found it takes about a year to get soil up to a good standard, the standard where plants don't automatically die on us. We usually start with digging it (the only time, after that it's no-dig), then running the chooks over it and throwing all of our food scraps on it for a few weeks (compost in-situ), then planting a green manure and mulching. When the green manure is cut back, and we mulch it again (usually with chook bedding) THEN we plant into it. Tough crops only, as they still don't do very well. They get lots of worm wee and comfrey teas, and top-ups of chook mulch. After all of that, the next crop does MUCH better. Then we move house again, so I can't tell you much more about what happens after that first year. We've done this over clay, sand, even rock, and it works every time. Organic matter will cure just about everything.

    I'm in Queensland, Australia, in a subtropical climate, and we don't have much luck with 'standard' vegies here. Cassava, yacon and snake beans are all going crazy, while the potatoes die and the cukes rot. We have a rather English 'standard' diet here, which doesn't cope well with high humidity and heat. I'm not sure of where you are of what climate you have over there, but looking into some more suitable crops may help (after your mention of it soon being 'too hot'-people in equatorial climates grow food, it's possible!).

    Lastly, i'm a permaculture fanatic, but again, not sure if it's as well known over there as it is here. It's basically a system that aims to mimic and harness nature, rather than fight her. If you're into organic farming, it's definitely the way to go. I could go on about it forever, five years after discovering it and beginning to practice it i'm more in love with it than ever-if you want some links please let me know!

    Best of luck!