Tips From the Potting Bench (Ah, Spring!)

By Rita Jacinto, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer

“I think that no matter how old or infirm I may become, I will always plant a large garden in the spring. Who can resist the feeling of hope and joy that one gets from participating in nature’s rebirth?”
~Edward Giobi

Ain’t that the truth? What a glorious time of year this is, made sweeter by the dark, grey days of rain. First the peach blossoms all alone in the chill and grey of March’s gloom burst forth and glowed in the dankness to be joined some weeks later by the daffodils and tulips. Now the whole orchard is blousy with blooms, and the rain continues to fall. Neither are the birds discouraged by the rain, their raucous chatter in the early morning is my wake up call.  As for the bees, well the bees are happy enough to sneak out on those days when the rain gives way to a bit of sun, making sure that that each and every flower gets the attention it calls for.

As for me, I take my cue from the bees, when they sneak out so do I. The onions and potatoes got planted in this past week’s little break. The carrots are coming up and the leafy greens, broccoli and cauliflower are looking good. The spinach got munched to oblivion by the birds and, as they do every year, the last 10 or 15 feet of peas too.

Meanwhile I am starting to think about tomatoes. Not planting them quite yet, rather what I need to do to get ready for planting them. It’s all in the preparation and it’s the soil that I will be focusing on. It is time to cut down the cover crop I planted last fall. It is a gorgeous stand 3 feet tall of a mix of cereal grasses and legumes.

The trick with cover crops or green manure crops as they are sometime referred to is knowing when to cut them down. The general rule is to cut them down three to four weeks before you will plant your main crop. This is a good rule of thumb though you will also want to pay attention to any flowering that your cover crop does. It’s a good idea to cut the crop before the seeds set or you will be doing a lot of weeding through out the season. I use a weed whacker to cut the cover crop down, someday I want to get a scythe and learn how to use it. Once it is down you could simply let it lie or you could mow over it to break it down further.

To till or not to till? There has been much research done these past 10 years or so on tilling versus not tilling with the results pointing toward not tilling. The indications are that tilling destroys the soil biology and that incorporating the cover crop in to the soil does not build soil as much as leaving it on the surface does.  I’ve tried no till and I tend to agree, though it is a bit more labor intensive. Either way you want the cover crop to be dry and brittle before you do anything with it.

If you haven’t cover cropped a great way to jump start your soil is to brew up some compost tea or fermented plant extract and spray your ground. This will inoculate the soil with thousands of beneficial microorganisms. We’ll talk more about compost tea next time. This week let’s talk about fermented plant extracts.

I love these because they are easy and free and the materials are growing all around us. Right now it’s all about nettles. These vitamin rich stinging plants are a powerhouse of beneficial goodness for your plants and soil and you own body. Nettles are extremely rich in minerals, especially nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, iron and other trace minerals and enzymes. They act as an immune stimulant in the plants boosting their resistance to pests and disease. Sprayed on the soil they are feed the microbiology.

Nettles are found in wet, swampy areas where the soil is rich. You will know if you found them because their leaves are covered in stiff hairs that glisten with a chemical that causes stinging when touched. So wear long sleeves and gloves while collecting! The sting is caused by the same thing that makes bee stings sting and is actually very therapeutic for arthritic joints.

Stuff a bucket with the nettles and fill to cover with non-chlorinated water then let it sit for one to three weeks for ferment. If the temperature is warm it will ferment quicker than if it is cooler. You will know fermentation is done when there are no more bubbles being produced. Stir the mixture, it’s going to be really stinky, then let it settle. If there are no bubbles then you are good to go, if you find bubbles then let if keep fermenting a while longer.

Next, strain off the plant material and bottle it for storage in a cool area. To use dilute 1 cup of tea with 10 cups of water to use a soil a drench. For foliar feeding you want to use1 cup of tea to 20 parts water. Other plants to ferment include comfrey and horsetail. You can also ferment plants that are especially robust to get those attributes. As always there is a wealth of information on line just Google fermented plant extracts.

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