Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring's Curmudgeon

Spring break is an opportunity to tackle too much that is undone. Yesterday's tasks, under warmer temperatures and gentler breezes, was to pick the trash out of the apartment's garden, pay the Fed for this year's plots, and spread some fertilizers at the beach farm because, after all, there is only two months between today and the beginning of garlic harvest. Well, I do expect to harvest later than usual this year, barring an insanely rapid rise in temperature (which I feel is rather unlikely), but still the organic fertilizers need time to activate and there's little reason for delay.

I've come over the last three years of growing a quantity and variety of garlic to expect disappointment. Serious food farmers are not interested in disappointment, it is a waste of time and money, and accordingly tend to grow the hardiest of garlic. I, with my interest in variety and shelf-life, the slightest shifts in flavor and heat, have to get comfortable with failure. And failure comes, like clockwork, each spring.

Today, I pulled out almost all of the Asiatic strain 'Japanese' (sometimes called 'Sakura') and a good amount of the Turban strain 'Xian' due to rot. Although there was consistent snow cover, and therefore moisture, our beach farm soil is exceptionally drained. I detected no insect, such as the corn seed maggot, saw no apparent mold, just stunted, browning growth and leaves easily separated from the rotting clove below. My guess is botrytis that came with the seed garlic, but I cannot be sure. So, what can I do? Simply dig out the offending plants and hope that the others hold out.

One of the difficulties of gardening in New York City is getting nutrient-specific fertilizers. There is no point in trying out the box stores (I know this because I do anyway). It doesn't help that the clerks at our city's garden centers appear to know little beyond fertilizer basics. Why is it so easy to confound them by asking for K, potassium, or potash (all names for the same thing)? After all, K is one of the big three, like Ford, GM, and um, what's the other one...? So N-P-K, you know nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, should roll off the tongue of a garden clerk like Ford, GM, and Chrysler rolls off the tongue of the UAW. 

So I need K, potassium, and the problem is that I want to stick to best organic practice, it should be OMRI listed at the least. Okay, good enough, there are several naturally derived substances with K (kelp and fish meals, for instance) but, according to my soil tests, I need between 50 and 100 lbs of K per acre for each of my three plots, which means that I need a lot of kelp meal. Kelp typically comes with a K rating of 2, which means I would need over 50 lbs of Kelp Meal ($99.99 + shipping at for my 600 square feet. Clearly I need a source with a higher K rating than Kelp. Fortunately I can order Langbeinite (sometimes called SulPoMag), a mined salt that carries a K rating of 22, requiring just under 5 pounds ($8.99+ shipping Groworganic) for my 600 square feet.

At the risk of getting whiny, I prefer not to buy these organic fertilizers from California (or Maine, etc.) and have them shipped, often doubling the price. I would love to walk into a gardening supply store in NYC, where the clerk knows what I'm looking for, and walk out carrying organic supplements. Instead, what I find are myriad synthetics, some Espoma products (I do use these), toxic-sounding Hi Yield, random liquid fish and bat guano. It is much easier to find organic nitrogen and phosphorous, both covered well by Espoma. The K, however, is muriate of potash (also known as potassium chloride or KCl) with a K rating 0-0-60 and not desirable under organic standards because of the chlorine it adds to the soil.

I know that space is a problem in our small city garden centers, so they can't carry everything. Still, there are none that fully cater to an organic gardening customer (hydroponic stores offer some solutions). Part of the problem is the customer. They want flowers, they want vegetables, but they don't have time for soil science and soil tests. And when they do get their soil tested, the results are hard to understand. So when they go to buy fertilizers, they do it in an uninformed way, and go for the all-in-one solution. For most people, the numbers on the bag communicate more or less N-P-K, but that's about it.

If gardeners think of fertilizer as only food for plants, then what harm is there in putting down more than is required? The plants will either grow bigger or simply won't "eat" what they don't need, right? This dumbing down isn't helpful at all. If you want to properly fertilize, you need to understand a little chemistry, because that is really what it is -so much more than hungry plants. In the meantime, before you earn that degree in chemistry, just get a soil test and see what the people who understand that stuff say about your soil. Certain labs (I use the UMass Extension Center For Agriculture because the instructions are simple and the cost affordable) will give you pounds per acre recommendations on N-P-K which you can then put into this exceptional calculator to derive how much commercially available fertilizer you will need for each nutrient. A soil test and N-P-K calculator takes the guess work (and the math) out of your fertilizer problem, helping us become knowledgeable customers and gardening stores better supplied.

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