Here at Gardenopolis Cleveland we are huge advocates for soil — you may remember that one of our early book reviews was on Kristen Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us – and as true believers, we’re all working on making our own soils more productive without the use of chemical fertilizers or tilling. And we know we are not alone in our belief in the importance of healthy soil.
Recently two of us dropped in on Rust Belt Riders, a small composting business located in a warehouse just east of downtown. Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival shares warehouse space here, storing many colorful props that we had to wind our way around, which made for a strong contrast with Rust Belt Riders, who are basically three guys (all philosophy majors) doing experiments indoors (a tilapia raising tank and filtration tanks to clean the water) while cooking several large piles of compost outdoors.
As gardeners, most of the compost available to us commercially is based on the decomposition of leaves and yard waste, through the process we call composting. It is a large scale production undertaken by our local cities. Most people still, we suspect, send a lot of their ordinary food waste down the food disposal or into the trash, where it ends up — encased in lasts-for-millennia black plastic — in the dump. A smaller number of us home ‘compost’ (raise your hands, please).
But most of us ‘compost’ rather loosely (I know I do). We throw organic plant material from our yards and our plates onto a pile stashed somewhere we can’t actually see it (we call this the backyard feeding station), throw a few leaves or grass clippings on top, and expect that in time it will decay into something we can use on our gardens. And hey, in time, it will. But the Rust Belt Riders approach is way more scientific and controlled. They have studied the soil food web ecosystem, that sustainable system by which microscopic organisms in the soil exist in beneficial symbiosis with plants; that system that perpetually renews soil and plant health—-in contrast to the life-eradicating damage done by tillage or chemical fertilizers.
Their stated mission is to Feed People. Not Landfills. Their goal is to restore the soil food web, not destroy it. Don’t you want to get in on that good work? — Putting the carbon back in the soil.
What is their process…? Rust Belt Riders collect organic food waste from grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses (50 in all) mix it with other organic ingredients in measured amounts, and ‘cook’ it to specific temperatures for specific periods of time. The key is those other organic ingredients—mainly old wood chips that only fungi are equipped to decompose and that comprise close to 60% of the total compost pile. The end result is compost that is alive with the fungi,bacteria, and other micro- and macrofauna like nematodes that, in combination, take plant health to a higher level. (Biologically active soil also requires less watering!)
In addition to selling the compost, Rust Belt Riders also offers soil consultations, zero waste events, and workshops. But perhaps the most useful way to make use of Rust Belt Riders would be their collection service. Currently they collect from various sources like restaurants and grocery stores. But it seems to Gardenopolis Cleveland that an opportunity exists for communities of various scales (from a street, for example, to an incorporated entity like a city) to get in on the collection end by having a central collection area where ordinary individuals could bring their household organic waste (no meat), and a regular collection date. That would take things to a whole different level.
(This is the inaugural installment of what we at Gardenopolis Cleveland hope will become an ongoing series. Have you read something in a gardening book or blog or article that made you want to try something new? How did it work out for you? We’re looking for short, pithy articles not only from editors, but from you, the reader.)
Garden Experiment #1: Sorghum-Sudan Grass
One of the garden “stars” in Michael Phillips’ book Mycorrhizal Planet is Sorghum-Sudan grass (sorghum sudanese). This annual grows up to 12 feet tall very rapidly, especially in hot weather, thus creating lots of compostable biomass. But it has two other special virtues: 1) Its roots can provide habitat for up to 50 species of mycorrhizal fungi. And 2) when mowed, the plant responds by expanding its root mass, sometimes by a factor of two. That means lots of carbon for microflora to feast on during the next growing season.
If ever soil needed more carbon, it was the garden plot I inherited at the Oxford Community Garden in Cleveland Heights. Light tan in color, it was clearly more dirt than soil. Weeds like thistle (that thrive in calcium-and phosphorous-deficient soil) loved it. Although I reserved one strip of my plot for an attempt at tomatoes (aided by some calcium sulfate and worm castings), I seeded the rest in July with sorghum-sudan grass along with a multi-species, mycorrhizal-based fertilizer with the brand name of Dr. Earth. I bought the latter at Home Depot, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago before mycorrhizal additives started to go mainstream.
The seed (5 lbs. that I bought online at seedranch.com for just $15) was easy to sow, though it required coverage from bird-proof netting. (Flocks of birds flew away as I approached the garden after my initial broadcast planting!) The seed germinated right away and quickly dominated the plot.
Then, in early October, I trimmed the grass with hedge clippers. The cut grass should be no less than six inches high, Phillips says, for the best post-trimming root expansion. Next spring is when I’ll take a mulching mower to the process. Then I plan to plant right into the plant-stubbled soil. I’ll let you know what results.
This idea comes from the far corners of the Web, where hairy counterculturists congregate. (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7TJwh5nu9Y and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD4kDo0Z7Y4). These videos drew me in because stinging nettle has become one of my favorite garden vegetables. It’s great with garlic and eggs for breakfast and in evening meal main courses such as stinging nettle lasagna. And, as permaculturists know, stinging nettle offers twice the nutritional value of even vitamin-and-mineral-rich mainstream vegetables such as spinach. (I tell my permaculture classes that nettles have developed a sting for the same reason that banks install alarms: to protect valuables stored inside! Fortunately, deer don’t wear gloves or know how to steam the leaves to neutralize the formic acid sting, so stinging nettle offers the added benefit of being herbivore-free!)
Stinging nettle seed is just as rich in nutrients as the leaves. This year, with regular rains extending into July, my stinging nettle seed crop was exceptionally robust. How much effort, I asked myself, would it take to collect the seed and was it worth the effort?
I was feeling pressed for time, so, as a test, I just cut the six longest stalks and dumped them top first into a refuse bag. There they sat drying (until I remembered them!) for almost two months. Then I cut off the little bunches of seed pods and pressed them into a colander. Voila! Tiny black seeds emerged on the other side. We then roasted them with a little salt and oil. The result: nutty and crunchy.
Critically, the roasted nettle seeds pass the all-important “wife test.” They added a nice crunchy texture to the rice and veggie lunch we prepared. We thought, however, they might stand out best on simpler dishes such as scrambled eggs or plain rice.
In terms of future garden productivity, the newly-discovered edibility of stinging nettle seed extends the harvest season of what has become, for us, a staple crop. The leaves are at their best from May through June, but become less digestible when plants start to flower in July. (One of the visual pleasures of a breezy July day is to watch wind-borne clouds of nettle pollen drift past their neighbors.) Now we can harvest seed in quantity, roast it, and enjoy it during the winter months.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mycorrhizal Planet, a new book by Michael Phillips, is a true breakthrough book, one that will provide new, valuable information for every serious organic gardener.The book describes how mycorrhizal fungi work with plant partners and gives detailed, practical information on how to maximize the power of fungi in all sorts of gardens—from backyard tomato patches to full-fledged agroforests.
The book combines a distillation of extensive scientific literature with decades of the author’s hands-on experience growing fruit and other crops. [As chance would have it, I just completed an Ohio State mycology course last fall and wrote my class paper on Maxmizing Positive Fungal Power in the Food Forest. So I know a little of the difficult scientific terrain Phillips had to traverse.]You would expect such a book to be densely packed, and it is. But it is also logical, good-humored, and down-to-earth, which should be more than enough to lead the committed gardener down a productive path toward a new set of best practices.
We need them.
The 20th Century produced some of the most brutal wars in history, but none so little noticed or comprehended as its War on Soil.Some background and at least a partial explanation of why the War on Soil was so unwitting:
Soil, understood as something orders of magnitude different than mere dirt, consists of minerals, dead organic matter, and multiple living organisms that are often measured, breathtakingly, in billions per teaspoon.Of these organisms, mycorrhizal fungi form the connective tissue on binds most plants. Their hyphae—microscopic filaments—exude chemicals that dissolve potential food—from minerals to wood to dead insects—and then capture it by forming the equivalent of a new stomach wall around it.See the graphic below where the red represents all the fungus’s external chemical activity. As its “stomach wall” expands, the fungus burrows its way tens of meters from its point of origin, all in the search for more food.
Much of the food it seeks, however, is not for itself, but for its plant partners.In return for the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements our fungus gathers, it trades them in for plant sugars.These provide the fungus energy to expand and capture still more plant nutrients. Put simply, mycorrhizal fungi extend the reach of plant roots by factors of 10 or more—costing the plant far less energy than if they had to expand their root system to cover the same territory.
Fungally-derived nutrients are so important to plants that they may devote one-third of all the sugars they produce to feeding fungi. It is no exaggeration to say that this trading system forms the core of life on earth.It has been in place since both plants and fungi crawled their way out of prehistoric seas. The relationship is so tight that mycorrhizae and plants have evolved to cooperate at the cellular level with the most prevalent mycorrhizal type—arbuscular mycorrhizae—actually penetrating the cell walls of a given plant root.
But that’s only the beginning.Individual fungi merge with other members of their own species to further increase their reach.The resulting network forms microscopic highways for beneficial bacteria to travel the landscape. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnsYh6511Ic And fungi emit a soil protein called glomalin which binds soil minerals and organic matter loosely together in a way that allows the overall soil complex to both breathe and retain water.We call the resulting aggregation soil “tilth” —-the exact opposite of that gardening curse: soil compaction.
Surprisingly, much of this knowledge has only emerged recently.Glomalin, for example, was identified by a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture scientist in 1996!
It is this tightly-woven mineral/fungal/plant interrelationship that 20th Century agriculture and horticulture ripped apart.Tillage and plowing chopped up all those fungal hyphae. Artificial fertilizers fooled plants into happily dropping their partnership with living food providers (sort of like satisfying children with a perpetual diet of macaroni and cheese!).Disconnection from fungal partners, however, limited the availability of trace elements that fungi help scavenge.These trace elements—molybdenum, boron, etc.–are essential to full plant health. Fungally-trapped soil carbon also disappeared.All together, the negative cascade of disappearing nutrients left a void that growers filled with ever more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.The ultimate result: ever less nutrition for both plants and their human consumers.
Phillips explains our downward agricultural slide in nuanced detail. But his greater emphasis is not on what went wrong, but how to make one’s own garden right. The three chapters (“Provisioning the Mycorrhizosphere,” “Fungal Accrual,” and “Practical Nondisturbance Techniques”) that make up the bulk of the book tell how to energize and expand fungal networks.
The committed gardener will find numerous possibilities for fungal enhancement of soil, ones that will require rereading and also rethinking of one’s approach to gardening.Out of dozens and dozens ideas the book offers, here are a few that I’m either implementing now or plan to in the near future.
Ramial wood chips.These are wood chips made from fresh twigs and branches, the ones where a tree’s most recent growth has occurred. As one might expect, such high growth portions of the tree carry the highest concentration of nutrients—calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.Fortunately, these young branches are often the ones professional arborists insert into their chipping machines and which they often have to pay to dispose of as landfill.So it’s easy to persuade neighborhood tree cutters to dump a truck load.I’ve done that and the chips have made my soil darker and richer and my plants happier.
Direct feeding of mycorrhizae by air-knifing holes in the soil under a tree’s drip line, then injecting (often proprietary) fungal food.I had this done last fall to reinvigorate what my arborist diagnosed as oxygen-deprived oak trees.The result: more vigorous-appearing oaks, but also a tripling (!) of fruit production of my pawpaw and peach trees planted under the oak’s drip line.
Planting of what Phillips calls “bridge trees.”These are trees planted specifically to connect more of the separate fungal pathways of a given orchard or food forest and thus, as fungal networks tend to do, share nutrients to those plants which need them most.Fruit trees typically work with arbuscular mycorrhizal partners, while oaks, maple and hickory work with ectomycorrhizal partners. Typically those two groups of fungi don’t “talk.” But a few tree species—willows, poplars, alders—partner happily bridge with both fungal communication gap. Within a broader landscape, they and their fungal partners open the possibility of tapping a much wider nutrient pool.So I’ve begun to encourage alders—already self-seeding to some extent in my food forest—by planting more in strategic locations.
As readers can now gather, Phillips goes into considerable detail.Yet what makes the appearance of this book especially exciting is how readablethe author is able to make it.
A typical passage will begin close to the “duh” level of simplicity; e.g. “Mycorrhizal fungi are the principal means plants have for obtaining phosphorus…the middle letter in NPK as represented by those three omnipresent numbers on a bag of fertilizer.”But then Phillips escalates quickly into a discussion of slow- vs. fast-release phosphorus and the relative “cost” to the plant of exuding organic acids to feed phosphorous-gathering fungi.Similarly, when Phillips must dip into scientific language—like “anastomosis,” the merging of separate fungi—he always defines it in understandable terms.
So, readable, yes, but also dense and complex.
Did I mention that this book is for gardening nerds?
In a recent post, Evelyn Hadden shared some very useful tips on how fall’s leaves can be used in the garden. As a perennial enthusiast, I’d like to add a couple of caveats – a mulch of autumn leaves can be fatal to certain kinds of perennials.
A mulch of freshly fallen leaves applied an inch or two thick, or even just a heavy leaf fall from nearby trees, tends to keep the ground beneath it damp, especially if the leaves are large and you don’t shred them before applying them (I always recommend shredding leaves with a dedicated leaf shredder or a lawn mower when using them as mulch).
Because they keep the ground damp, leaf mulches of any kind, shredded or otherwise, are not beneficial for silvery, woolly-leaved plants such as lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) or lavenders (Lavandula spp.). These plants are adapted to dry sites — their silver hue and hairy surface are adaptions to protect them against dehydration and drought – and they will rot if kept consistently damp.
Gray, hairy plants like this lamb’s ear won’t tolerate leaf mulches
Other perennials that won’t tolerate prolonged dampness include many culinary herbs such as thyme, oregano, and sage, all of which are native to the dry, rocky soils found around the Mediterranean. In fact, Mediterranean plants as a whole generally do not flourish when swaddled with leaves.
Succulents likewise will rot if kept damp; keep leaf mulches away from your sedums. Alpine plants are also vulnerable to damp, especially in wintertime – do not use leaf mulches in the rock garden (a gravel mulch is far better there).
Finally, as Dale Hendricks emphasized in a recent email, leaf mulches are also problematic for herbaceous evergreens such as heucheras and hellebores. If the mulch is applied simply by raking or blowing leaves onto the garden bed, then it is likely to bury the perennials’ foliage and interfere with their wintertime photosynthesis (a heavy leaf fall from nearby trees can achieve the same thing if left undisturbed). When used around evergreens, I recommend shredding the leaves thoroughly and then tucking the mulch in by hand so as not to bury the foliage.
Care must be used in mulching evergreens like these coral bells
News from the trenches: GARDENOPOLIS Cleveland proposes planting Pollinator Pockets around the city!
The need to establish habitats for pollinating insects has been much in the news lately. Many homeowners have been inspired to do their part and we are inspired to help them to do so. Our grand goal is to facilitate the planting of a series of carefully curated 5’x5’ pollinator pockets throughout the Cleveland urban area. According to a number of sources these small plots are enough habitat to nurture and sustain a variety of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths and other needed insects.
We think this is a great idea—a manageableand incremental way for each of us to do our part. And, just think how beautiful it would be if each block had a series of such plantings!
Right now we are preparing the soil of 7 sample plots around Shaker and Cleveland Heights using the lasagna mulching technique (layers of newspaper, straw, leaves, manure, compost and wood chips.)
In the spring we will installpollinator plants for all-season bloom and deer-resistance. We will provide participating homeowners with an instruction manual for the maintenance of the chosen plants. You will be able to identify our Pollinator Pockets by the yard signs posted near the pollinator pockets. Sound appealing? Next year you may yearn for one of your own. We will keep you posted as to pollinator plot progress and how you may sign-up.
“You Will Regret It.” I have said that at times to my more willful landscape clients – and even on occasion to myself — when they or I have succumbed to an ill-advised plant-lust. Live and learn, with the emphasis on the latter.
We have written in Gardenopolis about akebia, the vine that’s willing to take over the world of your back yard and your neighbor’s too; …and we have also heard a rebuttal argument that through the practice — the firm hand — of good husbandry, akebia can be made to behave appropriately and thus be enjoyed. Good husbandry in this context means being a responsible gardener, which means understanding any potential negative long term consequences of planting specific invasive plants, and either undertaking the maintenance needed to contain them, as with akebia, or deciding that perhaps it would be better not to plant it at all: after all, you may control your akebia, but should you move, will the next owner of your house?
Some other plants that also fall into this category are most barberries, multiflora rose, and many non-native honeysuckles (lonicera). The problem with these plants is that their fruits are eaten by birds, the seeds are ingested, and then released elsewhere, perhaps miles away. So, for example, barberry can now be found deep in the pristine woodlands of Holden Arboretum, or closer to home, in our secret jewel, Forest Hill Park, where multiflora rose has volunteered itself, as well as the barberry. When I go to visit my son in Connecticut I sometimes walk a power-line nature trail near his house that is completely overrun with multiflora rose. No one planted them.
In some states the nursery trade is discouraged from stocking certain barberry, while a few other barberries, such as ‘Crimson Pigmy’ or ‘Helmond Pillar’ are allowed as they are considered less invasive.I have a ‘Helmond Pillar’ in my own yard and I watch it closely. This year it is loaded with berries (most years berries are sparse). My own theory for why it may not be invasive is that because of its very tight, upright growth habit birds just don’t use it; I never see birds landing on or roosting in this plant.
For years I had an ordinary green barberry that grew right under a window. It came with the house when I bought it. I kept it for its deterrent value, but cut it back hard several times each year (well gauntleted). The birds loved this barberry and roosted in it all year, but especially in winter, with a nice layer of snow on top.This year I ripped it out.I will plant something else for the birds– maybe next week. I’d like to get something in before the snow flies; my cats like to sit on a cushion in the window and watch the birds. Since they are indoor cats I allow them this indulgence.
This ecstatically blue and gold November day, with temperatures in the 70s and honeybees buzzing happily in the purple aster blossoms, gives ample support to my passionate assertion: “The season’s not over, everybody!”
I resist with every fibre of my being the common idea that gardening in Cleveland begins on Memorial Day and whimpers to a close around Labor Day. End the calendar’s tyranny! Don’t go inside before the snow flies! Everywhere you look there’s evidence of abiding life. It’s in the late blooming asters, monkshood and mistflower. Witness the fresh blossoms of borage, calendula, allysum and roses that spring forth with new vigor now the nights are cooler and the rains more abundant.
My zucchini and summer squash are putting out new fruits.
Fresh rosettes of tasty foliage emerge at the base of all my herbs: parsley, mint, oregano and lemon balm – just in time for me to cut and dry for the onset of winter. One of my favorite salad greens, mache (aka corn salad, and Rapunzel salad) scattered its seeds in May, to lie dormant all summer. Look at it popping up through the straw everywhere!
This is a tender little rosette like miniature Boston lettuce, which can be harvested from now through March from under a covering of straw and snow. Kale, collards, chard and tatsoi are other cold-hardy greens that won’t quit for just a few frosts.
All this and more tell me there’s always plenty going on both above and below ground (where the growing never really stops.) I may retreat indoors for a month or two. But come January there’s “winter sowing” of hardy perennials and cold-loving annuals (more on that in a future post), branches to cut and force indoors, and the flowers of witchhazel, Lenten rose and snowdrops to call me back outside.
I just read Tovah Martin’s “The Indestructible Houseplant” and I am happy to announce that I have discovered a new outlet for my Plant Gluttony. She endorses full-green-immersion-indoors, and that sounds like a good goal to me!
I have always kept my houseplants to a minimum, because I like to leave my plants to do their thing without too much fussing on my part (Garden Sloth Method.) Most of my experiments with houseplants have not fared well due to that approach. Now, I have discovered (and I hope, you will, too) a host of houseplants that can take a fair amount of neglect, yet provide much pleasure to the eye and soul. Winter is taking on a whole new cast! She encourages us and shows us how to have gardens, forests even, in the house. Inside could reflect the outside. Think of the beauty, clean air, and sense of relaxation! I can’t wait. Recommended.
Extra tip: Watch how she combines plants with containers. That’s the magic.
I recently attended a talk by Linda Walker-Scott, an Associate Professor and Extension Horticulturist at Washington State University (see her blog theinformedgardener.com) Her talk about mulch and sustainable landscape provides the backbone for my comments.
Organic mulches are by far my own choice. I use many kinds of mulches, including straw (left to sprout its seeds for a few months before using),
compost from my husband’s heap,
bark chips, wood chips(aged, free from the city),
(By the way,let wood chips age before using them if you are concerned about disease. Add compost underneath the chips if you are concerned about nutrient deficiencies. Dr. Walker-Scott pointed out that well aged wood chips do not drain soil of nitrogen. Myth exploded.)
compost and manure,
and closely grouped living plant material.
Why Mulch? Beside providing nutrients to the soil, organic mulches are helpful to beneficial microbes, enhance biodiversity of “macrofauna”, help trees and shrubs get established, and improve soil structure, lessening compaction and allowing soil aggregates to form. (Tilling and digging can destroy the colonies of microbes, mycorrhizae, other important soil components.)
When to mulch:before annual weeds become established—fall or spring.Remove perennial weeds in early spring (easiest to pull or dig), then apply mulch. Better than pulling or digging is mowing or cutting to the ground.Remove everything to a brown bag away from your garden
Deep mulch decreases weed germination by limiting the amount of light that reaches seeds.Weed seeds can remain for years in the soil until—voila—exposure to light and moisture encourages them to get growing.Coarse mulch can help retain and increase the amount of water getting to the soil beneath. Weeds and plants that grow through the mulch are easier to pull. Meanwhile the mulch is preventing erosion.
Thick layers of mulch, 8-12 inches, are excellent for restoration sites and control of invasive weeds like ivy. She recommends heavy layers (4 to 6 inches) around ornamentals for a low-maintenance landscape. I was taught that no more than 4 inches of mulch should be applied to the soil around shrubs and trees. This is definitely a different take on depth of mulching.
Deeper mulch, and courser mulch, gives the most benefit and the fewest drawbacks.
Mulching No-No’s: Keeping mulch away from trunks of trees and shrubs is necessary to prevent rodents, insects and diseases from being given a free ride. Never pile mulch on perennials, only around them. “Volcano” mulching, where the ignorant landscaper piles mulch up against the trunks of trees, making it look like a volcano, is definitely a no-no. The question is: when you see this on the street—do you stop your car, go over to them and say, “what the hell are you doing?” Or, do you give them a sheet printed with the proper way to mulch. Or do you stop door to door to let your neighbors know that they are damaging their trees and shrubs by doing this?
I have been sorely tempted. Considering that you are investing in the hopefully long life of your tree, why treat the trunk this way?