The #1 reason that plants fail is due to poor soil conditions.

Organic Material – Does it Matter?
 
 When it comes to healthy soil, the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!”
 
Organic matter is the decomposed organic material that is added to soil – leaves, plant parts and composted manure – basically, plant and animal remains.
Organic matter is an important component of healthy soil because it improves overall soil structure, increases nutrient levels, improves water-holding capability, helps stabilize pH levels and aids in soil erosion reduction. Organic matter is also the food source for the many microorganisms and earthworms that work away at decomposing the added soil amendments. All of this, in turn, provides the optimum environment for both healthy plants and healthy microbes. Regularly adding organic matter throughout the season will help ensure the soil remains healthy and has the power to keep your garden glowing.
 
Plant roots also play an important role in organic matter contribution. Dead roots feed the soil microorganisms and live ones release carbon dioxide, oxygen and organic elements that aid in nutrient development and its availability to the plants.
 
The organic matter in soil provides most of the needed nitrogen for plant growth and the relationship between what lives in the soil and organic matter decomposition is closely intertwined – one cannot function without the other. If that interaction failed to exist the needed nutrients would not be available for the plant life and the soil structure would decline, resulting in an unproductive (and unattractive) garden bed.
 
There are a number of factors that influence the activity of the microbial community and, therefore, the rate of decomposition of the organic matter and should be considered when adding amendments to the soil. Microorganisms are most effective, and the rate of decomposition more rapid, when temperatures are between 0°C to 45°C. Above or below will slow, or stop, the decomposition process.
 
Determine your soil’s pH (acid/alkaline).  The soil pH directly affects the type of microbe that lives there, which in turn, impacts the level of decomposition activity. The rate of decomposition is greater in neutral soils – pH of 7, so if need be, adjust the pH level to welcome the right microorganisms and improve their ability to do the job quickly and efficiently.
 
Adequate soil moisture is key for the proper decomposition of organic matter.  Most microbes prefer a damper home. However, excessive water will lead to reduced microbe activity due to reduced aeration – the soil pores are filled with water instead of oxygen, a much-needed component for faster and complete decomposition. Waterlogged areas will decompose slowly. 
 
So, keep composting those carrot tops. Shred the late season leaves and dig them into your beds and borders! And don’t consider adding soil amendments as just spring or summer chores. Give your vegetable beds a nutrition boost, reduce winter erosion and keep weeds at bay by planting cover crops (aka “green manure”) such as hairy vetch or winter rye when the cool fall weather arrives. As the summer heat hits once again, your tomatoes and peppers will thank you.
 
 
 
 

When Compost Goes BAD

(or - How to Fix Common Compost Problems)

Compost is wet and smelly - Compost should smell like a walk in the woods - a sort of fresh, earthy scent. A high amonia smell may indicate too much nitrogen - if you're adding grass cuttings, which are high in nitrogen, add some leaves, which are carbon based - it will balance the compost out and fix the smell. A rotten egg smell means it's probably overly compacted and not getting enough air - and it's too wet. Compost should be damp. You shouldn’t be able to squeeze out any moisture from a handful of compost, nor should it be dry. Turn the pile to create air pockets and dry it out. Add some bark chips to help increase air space.
 
The compost pile isn't heating up - The microorganisms that decompose the organic material need heat to do their job - the warmer the pile, the harder they work - and provide you with garden-ready compost quicker. If the compost isn't hot enough, they stop working. Your pile may be too dry, the most common reason for lack of heat. Turn the pile and while turning, add water.  Let it sit for a few hours and give it the squeeze test. Turning it will also improve aeration - another cause of cool compost. There may be a lack of nitrogen - add some food scraps or grass clippings. However, your compost may also be finished and it won't heat up any longer. If that's the case, it will be brown and crumbly - like a good chocolate cake mix!
 
Critters think it's a buffet - When you add kitchen scraps, bury them a few inches below high-carbon items like leaves or wood chips. They may just be munching on your leftovers. Avoid meats, bones, oils and dairy - these will not compost and will cause a mess (and critters). Don't include weeds that have gone to seed either, they might be attracted to some of those.
 
It's got bugs - It should. Most of them will help decompose the organic material. But watch for problem bugs like earwigs and ants - an indication that the pile isn't hot enough to destroy new insect eggs.

  

What do those 3 numbers on fertilizer bags mean?

N - Nitrogen - Responsible for green growth - leaves and stems

P - Phosphorous - Reponsible for root growth and fruit development

K - Potassium - Reponsible for the plants overall health

The numbers indicate the percentage of each nutrient in the mix.

A 20-5-10 bag will have 20% nitrogen, 5% phosphate, and 10% potassium.
The rest of the bag contains a filler that helps ensure even application.

Nitrogen Release
 
Nitrogen, the first number listed in any fertilizer mix is the most important of the three nutrients when it comes to plant growth, and the type of nitrogen in the mix is essential to a healthy lawn and garden. The fertilizer bag will state whether the nitrogen is fast-released or controlled-released and a good lawn fertilizer has a balance of each. The fast-release component will provide a punch of quick color, and the controlled-release will feed the lawn over time without burning, something a fully fast-release fertilizer may do.
 
Fertilizer Effects on Vegetables
 
While nitrogen is important to plant growth, high-nitrogen fertilizer applied on tomatoes, or vine-growing vegetables like squash or cucumbers may promote excessive vine growth with very little fruit or vegetable production. With root vegetables like carrots or parsnips, excessive nitrogen may promote leaf growth and stunt the root development. Test the soil in vegetable gardens for nutrient content prior to the application of any fertilizer. If not tested, apply small amounts of fertilizer throughout the growing season; adding too much at once may slow or damage the plant growth.
 
Fertilizer Application
 
Fertilize trees and shrubs in the spring before new growth begins. Fall fertilization should occur one month after the first heavy frost. Spread the fertilizer evenly around the entire root area, as dumping in spots may cause roots to burn and die off. Lawns are best fertilized early spring or late fall at a rate of 1 lb per 1,000 square feet of lawn area. Avoid late summer fertilizing as it may promote plant growth that will not slow down before the frost hits.

Simple Lawn Care Methods

 
 
 
 
 
 
Creating a healthy lawn doesn’t have to eat up your time or leave you worn out. Simple, straight-forward and well-timed lawn care methods exist that will not only help you have a nice, green lawn, but give you more time to enjoy it.

Watering the Lawn

If Mother Nature were to cooperate, the lawn would receive its needed 1 ½ to 2 inches of rain every week. More often than not, however, she doesn’t. So what is right - watering regularly or letting the lawn turn brown? Grass naturally goes dormant to conserve nutrients when water levels are low. Watering less frequently saves time and money. Rather than watering in short bursts during dry spells, wait until footprints are visible in the lawn, the first sign of stress, and then water deeply for at least 30 minutes. Deep, infrequent watering will promote a healthy and strong root system that also helps deter weeds.

Removing Thatch from the Lawn

Thatch is the layer of dead and living organic matter that rests between the grass and the soil. When thatch becomes more than 1/2-inch thick, it becomes a welcome mat for lawn pests and disease, and leaves an unhealthy environment for the lawn. Excessive thatch also prevents fertilizers, lawn seed and control products from penetrating into the soil where they are needed most. Dethatching in the spring will make lawn maintenance easier throughout the growing season. Light power raking or the use of a dethatcher will loosen and remove the thatch and improve the lawn’s health. Ongoing, be careful not to over water or add more fertilizer than is needed; both tend to increase the development of thatch.

Fertilizing the Lawn

At most, two applications of fertilizer are needed to add the required nutrients into the soil. A spring treatment of a slow-release fertilizer adds nitrogen at a healthy pace to promote good root growth as the season begins. Fast-release products may cause the lawn to burn; read the package instructions for the correct application. Fall fertilizers contain higher levels of potassium, a needed element to help repair any summer lawn stress and put the lawn in good condition to over-winter.

Mowing the Lawn

As summer arrives and mowing becomes a regular chore, let the grass grow to 5 inches in height and set the mower cutting height to 3 inches. Longer grass helps with good root development and shades out weeds such as crabgrass that thrive in bright sunlight. Save additional time and add nutrients back into the lawn by mulching the clippings instead of bagging or composting. The clippings will decompose quickly, adding nitrogen back into the soil, which ultimately may reduce the need for further spring fertilizer applications.