The garden is on the move again! Now the house is kind of under control and in the hands of a good builder, the time is right to focus on other things and in particular the garden. For the last 117 days I have bemoaning the fact the caravan and the container with all our worldly possessions contained within are smack bang square in the middle of where I want to put my garden. Well not for much longer!
Last week I made a bold call and phoned the shipping container company and asked them to take it away today. Then I told Hubby the Un-Gardener we needed to empty it and had a week to do it. It was a complete mission and we have had to sacrifice a room in the house, but we got there. I think a new shed is now high on Hubby the Un-Gardeners list of priorities! The caravan was also moved off my soon to be garden and is now tucked in beside the house, well out of the way.
The container was useful – not only in keeping all our stuff safe, but it was a great windbreak for my temporary garden. It has been so lovely to have a wee garden to tend to over the last few months, caring for plants, some of which were started well before this idea of moving had even occurred to us! Some crops have come and gone, like my peppers and others are hanging in there waiting to take their place in the new garden. There are also new crops, recently sown that may start their lives contained, but I fully intend to release them into the open soil of the new garden very soon.
There are also crops that enjoyed the wait with me, however they were not destined to be a part of the next stage and I dug them up before moving all of the other plants. The expectations for my kumara and yams was high, however the results were mixed. But heavy pots now lay empty and the latest move is made all the easier. One by one I gathered up all my plants and tucked them in to a safe little spot beside the house, where they will be out of the way for the next stage of the project. Although they can’t stay there. They are in the way of building repairs and renovations. I just hope the next move will be into the garden…. But I expect to move them at least once more before then.
You can check out the latest move here and join in the celebrations and commiserations over my most recent harvests. You can’t win them all, but there is always next year!
Come again soon – I expect things will happen quickly from now on – well parts of it anyway.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
In the final days before I can get stuck into the garden there was one more thing I wanted to know about this new place, so I can garden wisely. And that is the climate. We’ve only been here almost 4 months, but boy have we seen some weather! In the early days it was the height of summer and the heat seemed to radiate from the black sand these hills are built on. The valley I want to grow the vegetables in seems to hold the warmth captive with a three-sided secure border.
Having said that it was a very hot summer and the sea breeze was a bit of a luxury as there was a gentle movement in the air which dropped the temperatures a degree or two. It wasn’t until we made trips into town and felt the close, muggy heat that seemed so much hotter and more oppressive, did we realise the blessing we had with our natural fan from the ocean.
We have also experienced the worst of the wind. Everyone said “ohhh it’ll be windy out there” and I thought “how bad could it be?” Naively I thought it would be manageable. It was windy down on the swamp as it was very exposed, and I lay awake many a night worried about the greenhouse or the peas and tomatoes. There was always a windy storm just went the sweetcorn was at the point of the pollen dropping to the silks, no matter when I started them off! So, I already have wind proofing strategies.
But that storm was massive with it’s 213km per hour winds was a great example of worst case scenario. Everyone around here has said they haven’t seen anything like it in decades. So, if I set up my garden, then a normal winter storm will be a breeze to prepare for. Windbreaks around the garden will be essential, but not an everyday thing. I might create some systems I can rig up when the storms are forecast.
The other thing I have noticed since I’ve been here is the sea breezes aren’t the only threat. The winds that come down the valley are funnelled down the hill and pick up a fair bit of speed. These are more common in the summer and as this is when the garden is most vulnerable, I’ll need to take this into consideration in the garden design.
The best part of being on the wild west coast is it is great for things like surfing and next door is a paragliding site and the weather is very important for these activities so there is some very good, very local weather information.
The only thing I don’t really know about yet but will do by the spring is frost. The only historical information I can find that is close to us is at the Auckland airport. It isn’t that far away as the crow flies, but it is seaside facing, but in the inside of the Manukau harbour so it does offer it a degree of protection from the full influence of the open sea. But until I collect my own data, it will have to do.
The interesting thing, over the winter months for the last three years the lowest temperature was 1ᵒC in July. The June, July and August temperatures range between 1ᵒC and 4ᵒC with mostly 2s and 3s. The maximums are an encouraging 17ᵒC to 20ᵒC. However, I don’t think this takes wind chill into consideration. But I think gardening all winter should be bearable if I wrap up warm.
But I’m really not sure about the frost. Will we get any? From what I understand, coastal areas are less prone to frost because in winter the sea can be warmer than the land and any breeze from the ocean can protect against frost. Having said that, frosty air is heavy and rolls down a hill like a liquid. The house and the wind protection could work against me and trap the cold air in the garden. I guess there is only one way to find out and that is to go through a winter or two. You need more than one season to really know as in the swamp I remember one winter with no frost at all and another with so many I lost count. I would like to see a frost or two – not only is it pretty, but it is good for keeping the pest and disease populations in check and it can help to break up the soil, making it easier to work in the spring.
It is a good idea to have a vague idea of how it will be, so I can make sensible plans for the garden, have strategies for the worst conditions and make informed choices when deciding which varieties to grow. But to know for sure, I just have to carry on and learn as I go. So, we’ll have to wait and see.
Come again soon – all my behind the scenes garden prep is almost done.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Things are racing ahead now, just like the year is. How have we reached May so quickly? It doesn’t seem that long ago we were just embarking on this hair brained scheme. But it can’t have been that hair brained. I’m sitting here in a house, overlooking an amazing view. Ok, so the plumber is still plumbing and the electrician still has things to do, but there is a lot more elbow room in here during the day to get things done.
It has been over 100 days since we first moved into the caravan and we have seen the best and worst of things. The wonderful full heat of summer and a terrible, terrible storm. We have bonded as a family and no one was killed. I’m not sure many would want to be stuck in a small place with teenage boys. The smell of socks alone is a challenge.
Moving into the house in a proper fashion, through the front door (that needs to be repaired after the storm blew it off the hinges), opening the fridge and deciding what is for dinner, popping on a load of washing and then going to bed in a proper bed – with a mattress (we gave away our old one, as I know ourselves too well – if we moved it in, it would be a long time before we see a shiny new one!) is so close, so very close. And what follows that is I can start on the garden. After a good night sleep and a hot shower, this is the next important thing for me. I can hardly wait!
But while we wait, you can check out the terrifyingly exciting journey that is moving a house.
Come again soon – it is almost garden time!
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Aside from us coastal newbies, that is… It is always good for a gardener to know who will be sharing the land with you. I got off relatively easily at the last place in the swamp, as there weren’t all that many things trying to take advantage of my good efforts. There were slugs but not many snails. But these were easily taken care of with a judicious application of little blue pellets around the outside of the beds where they were lurking in the cracks. As my intention is to feed my family and not risk my crops on things that don’t work well, then I am happy to compromise here to ensure the end result.
There were bird pests, cheeky sparrows who would gobble up my seeds, pecked at my leaves and nipped the growing tips out of my peas. But with a bit of netting, this problem was easily fixed. And then there were the pukeko, swamp hens, who dug up all my seedlings out of curiosity and left them lying on the surface to dry out and die if I wasn’t vigilant. Plastic bags tied to bamboo stakes – while ugly, was sufficient to frighten them off. And we can’t forget the white cabbage butterfly, allowing it’s unattended offspring to shred my brassicas.
And that was about the extent of it. I think it fair to say it was mostly pest free. In hindsight I didn’t really appreciate just how blessed I was. I mean – there wasn’t a fence around the garden to keep critters out, because it wasn’t necessary. I did create a partial fence but that was purely for the aesthetic and so I could have something to wrap my compost heap around. I don’t even have much of a garden yet and I already know I will be creating a battlefield.
There are rabbits. I know this for a fact as Fennel the Cat bought one into the caravan last night at around 4am. Cats are such givers! I have also seen them bounding down the driveway trying to escape the approaching car. They have little sense – instead of just moving over to the side, they hippity hop all over the place, because disappearing over the nearest hill. I won’t be taking any chances – there will be rabbit proof fencing going up.
There are deer as well. However, in the 96 days since we moved here – I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them. Although I have a reliable source- the lovely house movers were telling me about how they saw them every morning on the way down the driveway. How come I haven’t seen them? – I’ve been up and down the drive at that time of morning taking kids to school and never noticed them. Maybe they were in a truck and so could see further. I think I’m going to have to get up at about 6:30am and go for a stealth walk and try and spot them. It depends on how determined I am to size up these potential garden eaters. The neighbours assure me it is a well established small herd that everyone loves to see about the place. So I have to take the word of others that they are there and build deer proof fencing around my garden.
Apparently, there are also a lot of frogs. These are friends of the garden and I’m happy they are here. Having said that I’ve never seen any either. Once again the lovely house movers drew my attention to these little fellas as they had to be rescued from the bottom of the 1.4 metre foundation holes before the posts went in. Maybe I should dig a hole and wait so I can meet them.
There are also plenty of mice. Aside from the cat gifting them to me in abundance, they are also inviting themselves in to be warm. The other day as I was getting ready for bed one shot across the mattress along the wall and disappeared down in to the workings of the caravan. This is important to know as I will need to make sure my seed supplies and my harvest are kept safe from this tiny fuzzball looking for a fast feast.
An inhabitant that took me by surprise was the snails. If you believe everything you see on the great big internet, you would think snails hate crawling over sand. But after the first major rainfall we had here, the ground was crawling with them. Goodness knows where they had been, but at least I now know they are lurking about the place unaware of the feast I’m inadvertently about to set before them.
There are also some interesting surprises. Ordinarily the only butterflies I see are Cabbage Whites (they’re here too!) and monarchs because I feed them. However there is such variety here. I haven’t managed to take any photos as I never have my camera at the right time. But I have seen a Common Copper which is like a tiny monarch and I’ve seen a much larger Yellow Admiral. Now I know there is such variety I will be on the lookout for more. Oh and the dragonflies are the size of real dragons – they are huge!
It is a real privilege to be a gardener as it gives the opportunity to notice or be on the lookout for wildlife that may or may not want to harm the garden. Creatures who would ordinarily go about their day to day lives unnoticed due to the busyness of ours.
Come again soon – I’ll see what else needs digging up.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Great news, the sun is shining, the builders are back, and things are happening. Although it was a little chilly this morning. It has just dawned on me that I’ll be building my new garden in the winter. Well, I always knew it, but from the balmy warmth of summer, all my imaginings were of nice days. There will be nice days, once any frosts melt, but there will be less than ideal days. When you have the luxury of an established garden, you can take the yucky days off! But if you are on a timeline, then every day is a work day come rain or shine. I think I may need to harden up. If I thought today was a chilly start, then I’m in for a bit of a shock! I see a shopping trip in my immediate future for good quality thermal clothing and wet weather gear. I am determined to make that spring deadline.
Once the builders do what they need to do with the house, we can move in and say goodbye to the caravan and the container and work on the garden can begin. This is now being counted in days (could be counted in 2-3 weeks but counting it in days sounds better) so my days of scratching about looking for things to do is rapidly drawing to a close. This time hasn’t been wasted. I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve made plans – and changed them several times, and done loads of research that will be beneficial for the long-term life of this garden. I am grateful for this last 90 days, because as the expression goes – ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ and I was keen to rush in!
A great example of this is how I am to treat this soil. I’ve already learnt a lot about soil and plant science, but now we are at the point that really matters to me. How is all of this relevant in my soil. The general advice for sandy soil is to add loads of organic material and she’ll be right. However, in my research I have discovered there this isn’t the case and there is much more to it! Let me explain.
The problem with sandy soil is its size. By definition a sandy soil has more than 85 percent of sand-sized particles and compared to the fine particle size of clay it is positively chunky. Depending on who you talk to the grains are supposed to be between .06 – 4.75mm. This makes it porous.
Unfortunately, this brings disadvantages. As we learnt earlier, plants need their nutrients to be on a molecular level and dissolved in water, so it can get into the root hair. But all of these lovely dissolved nutrients in water are more likely to woosh on passed and go right out of the garden and find its way into the nearest waterway. And all the plant can do is stand by and watch as the gravy train misses its station.
To compound this problem, the large particle size has less surface area than other soils. This is important because of the way nutrients are stored in the soil when not dissolved in the water. Now we need to delve back into the sciency stuff, because soil particles have a negative charge and most nutrients have a positive charge and so they cling together like magnets until they do that monkey bar thing and let go of the soil and jump into the water molecules. But with less surface area there are less rungs on the monkey bars so not everyone gets to play. And if their not holding on tight they get washed away and all the potential supplies lost.
The way to remedy this is to add the organic material and that combined with the poop created by the creatures of the soil, bind the sandy soil to create aggregates. These become the sponges that hold the water, the desirable homes for the creatures to upgrade into and also increased surface areas for the molecules to hang on to. These aggregates work together to form the structure of good soil.
So, it would seem organic material is the cure all so the more the merrier? Well not exactly. As sand is the foundational structure, it is always going to be more porous than other soils and good drainage is always going to be a feature.
Firstly – going back to the science, some of the key nutrients like chloride, nitrate, and sulphate have a negative charge and this makes it extremely difficult for them to stick around and they are more susceptible to leaching. By some act of magic – actually there is science to explain it, but we don’t need to go there, the pH can improve or decrease the availability of the nutrients – too acid and some aren’t available, but others don’t mind, too far the other way and it impacts the availability of other nutrients.
And just to compound things, sometimes having too much of one thing can affect the availability of another – sort of like an overbearing kid attention seeking so the quiet sibling gets overlooked. Look at me, look at me! Temperature also comes into play and if it is too cold or too hot the availability of certain nutrients is affected. There is more going in the soil than the office politics in a government department.
Taking a couple of things into consideration – the porous nature of sandy soil, and the great work of the soil dwellers to make the nutrients available, and pH, the fine balance between too much and not enough, the electric relationship of the molecules, and the need for plant food to be soluble in water and the fact it can rain in quantities greater than the needs of the plant, it appears just adding loads of organic matter might not be the right answer.
Yes, it is needed, but adding it in great quantities at the beginning of the growing season and then maybe again at the end may be a bit hit and miss. It would create a boom and bust situation where all of a sudden there is too much of a good thing, and everything would get out of balance. Populations would flourish – excess nutrients (not a good thing) would flood the soil, the rains would come and they’d all be washed away. Then the populations would starve and be in poor health and aggregates would crumble and the poor plants would come off worse than ever.
Yes, adding organic material is the answer, but little and often, so there is a continual supply of material that can be continuously broken down in a seamless supply. A good quality mulch would be a great idea not only retain moisture but give the soil creatures a raw material. As the season wears on the mulch wears out – refreshing it often will be a good idea. A little side dressing around the plants with some compost and well-rotted manure and feeding them with a slow release fertiliser will delay the inevitable leaching. Regular soil testing wouldn’t go a miss in the early days to make sure things are doing what you want them to do.
When working with less than ideal soil you have to farm the soil. Treat it like one of the crops. I guess the expression cultivate the soil means so much more when you have sandy soil. There is more to gardening than just the plants.
And that wraps up my understanding of my sandy soil – I need to nurture and support it like a good parent does with a kid, and it will grow up and make me proud.
Come again soon – things will be a lot less sciency now.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
With the trauma of the recent storm behind us and any bad weather ahead of us already firmly blamed on the fact it is the school holidays because it always happens that way. The moment they go back in a couple of weeks the sun will be shining and it will be the best conditions we will have seen in a long time. The house has stood up to the conditions admirably and gives us such confidence going forward that it will be a safe home for our family well into the future. I can let out a sigh of relief and return to delving into the wonderful world of dirt. There isn’t much time left before I can get out there and get my hands dirty, so I’d better get a wriggle on, understanding how to use it well.
Last time we explored they way plants like to receive their food, cut up into teeny tiny portions of a molecular size. However, this is a far cry from the way we deliver it to them. We lob barrow loads of compost at the soil, bucketful’s of well-rotted manure and handfuls of fertiliser and clumsily mix it all in with a garden fork. Compared to the fine dining going on in the soil, our contribution is rather rustic and about as far from refined as could possibly be.
So, the question to be asked this time is how does it get from chunky to tiny? The common phrases we hear are it is broken down, nutrients are released into the soil and plants absorb them – as if by magic. Now we know about the absorbing bit, so what is involved with the breaking down and releasing? If we start by looking at the common things chucked into the garden to ‘enrich’ the soil, we can get an idea of what we are starting with.
Gardeners are strange folk. There aren’t many people that would delight in a trailer old of animal poop delivered to their door. But this stuff would be similar to receiving a trailer load of gold dust to the right person. But there are conditions. It must be the poop of a vegetarian animal that grazed upon lands not recently sprayed with a systemic herbicide – some of these things can pass right through! And it needs to be well rotted before adding it to the soil in the presence of plants. Fresh poop still makes a great delivery, but you have to wait before using it and the best way is to pop it in a covered pile far away from any source of complaint and wait until it is no longer recognisable as what it once was. Fresh poop can do more harm than good. Once it is ready it should smell it a woodland floor and be nice and crumbly.
This is also a great addition to the garden to introduce organic material. It can end up being a wonderful closed cycle in a well-run garden. The spent crops are gathered up and put on the compost pile, the breaking down and releasing happens and what was once plant is now plant food and on the way to becoming plant again.
These are made up of ‘natural’ ingredients but more often than not, processed in some way, like blood and bone comes in a powder not in chunks of dead cow, rock dust is mined so it is a fine powder. Fish emulsion doesn’t come with visible bits of fish. It is to make it convenient for the gardener and also speeds up the process of making the nutrients accessible to plants.
These are purely man made to meet specific needs of the plant. The nutrients are often non-plant based and sourced from mineral deposits and processed in a factory. Sometimes seen as the bad guys in terms of delivering a healthy diet to the plant. But the advantages are they can be pretty specific with the contents analysis, where the more natural products are down to the vagaries of what the animal ate or the quality of the soil the now rotted plant grew in. These guys are often slandered as the fast food of plant world and not substantial enough for sustained growth. But as we learnt previously – the plants don’t even notice where it came from as they absorb molecules far removed from how they started out and a magnesium molecule recycled though a chicken could be taken into the root hair immediately after one from a packet! The plant isn’t fussy.
So, we now know what the food is predominately made up of, but how does it get small. How is it broken down? Well there is a fabulous process called mineralisation. This is just a fancy way to say decomposition, but if you look at both words de-composite is undoing structure and mineralisation is making something into minerals. But not wanting to over simplify things it is a complex process using a wide variety of soil creatures from the micro organisms that get to work once something dies, and start to break down tissue for their own needs, to the earthworms, bugs, beetles and other creatures that love to eat dead things. In doing so the dead material gets broken up into smaller pieces so the bacteria and fungi can access a greater surface area.
It is like a medieval banquet where the room is filled with all sorts of people for the occasion. The king cherry picks the good stuff and the quality of the servings diminish depending on the status, right down to the dog running off with a bare boar bone. At the end of the day there isn’t much left, however, the meal does reappear in a day or so in a different format and it doesn’t really matter if it came from a lavish throne or a humble origin it is one step closer to being mineralised.
This happens when the micro-organisms release enzymes that oxidise what is left from the ‘breakdown experience’ finally turning the chunky into tiny in a form plants can use. There are other factors at play here, like synthetic doesn’t need as much help from the micro organisms in the mineralisation process but gets there all the same. But there it is in a nutshell – it is all a bit of a giant feeding frenzy and a whole lot of poop broken down into every decreasing sizes.
So, adding loads of organic material and fertiliser should sort out my sandy soil…. Or does it?
Come again soon – we are almost at the point of knowing what makes my soil tick.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
A few weeks I asked this question in jest in response to the winter weather conditions. I now know exactly how bad it could be. We have just been through a terrible storm and it would seem it isn’t called the ‘wild west coast’ for nothing! Now I’m not naïve and I knew there would be strong winds, I just thought I’d have at least a couple more months to investigate the situation before winter conditions showed their hand. It is very important when moving to a new location to find out as much about, not only the soil, but the climatic conditions and that was next on my list.
But this week we have had a huge weather event, that seems to have even taken the boffins by surprise as there was little warning. Either that or it wasn’t a slow new week, so their warnings were drowned out by the noise from other worldly events. Somehow an Antarctic blast coming from the south became entangled in the lingering warmth of an exceptional late summer and got all excited. There was thunder and lightning and heavy rain – although at least it wasn’t floody. Most of the high places in the country were dusted with snow and for the rest of us, the temperatures plunged dramatically. But what did the most harm was the wind. My goodness it was wild. Three days later it is still making its presence felt, but on Tuesday night it can only be described as terrifying. Especially when you live in a caravan!
What makes it all the more terrifying is when your home-to-be is sitting up on thin metal jacks about 2 metres in air – facing the full brunt of the storm. The highest gusts were recorded about 30 km up the coast from us at Manukau heads with a whopping 213 km per hour. These were apparently only 10 km shy of the record for the highest winds we’ve ever had (well – since records began) So now we know – just how bad it can be.
The good news is, the house stood still and is a tribute to the Total Relocation Limited team. They have worked so hard and tirelessly on the job. But with our full support, work on the house has been put on hold until good weather returns. It is very frustrating for us, as we are so close to the end. But there are some things that just can’t be helped, and I would much rather have the team be safe and well than complain about our inconvenience. What‘s a few more weeks in the caravan really, in the grand scheme of things?
But what it has brought to light is the worse case scenario, before we even begin to create anything. This is a good thing. As all the farmer neighbours have said in all their years they haven’t seen anything like it, I think it is safe to use this as a benchmark for any of my projects to ensure they are built to last. I am rethinking the kind of greenhouse I will have as it clear an ‘off the shelf’ model just won’t do. This turn of events makes the greenhouse project even more exciting and I am really looking forward to exploring options that will keep my seedlings safe in the spring. But it isn’t just the greenhouse that needs careful consideration, the fruit cage, the orchard, even the washing line will need to be able to stand up to the conditions.
The general rule of thumb when moving to a new place is to wait a year before doing something in the garden to see what it is really like and to see what surprises pop up. The surprises normally refer to the possibility of a magnificent display of spring bulbs, and not intending to mean devastating winds. But I’m impatient and am glad I know now. I am also extremely glad no real harm came to our home, our family and our team during such a terrible storm.
Come again soon – things will improve soon enough.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
When you think about human health, what we need to keep us going seems simple in some respects: carbohydrates, proteins, fats, water, vitamins, and minerals. But these can come from varied sources and our diets are a wonderful combination of so many things, so we get what we need. I remember from my school days being taught that if all else fails, a boiled egg with wholemeal toast and a glass of orange juice would give you something of everything you need to start the day. It was one of the few things from that class that stuck.
But if you break it all down – carbohydrates are carbons, hydrogens and oxygens; minerals are naturally occurring chemical compounds like phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and magnesium. So, while a grand buffet at a fancy restaurant may seem like a great way to satisfy all our needs – we aren’t that different from plants and what we actually need is food that is on a molecular level, so our cells can utilise it best. But the beauty of it all is we can eat a wide variety of delicious things, so we can satisfy our tastes as well as our needs.
Plants on the other hand aren’t so lucky and need just a few things on a molecular level. The plants that give us wonderful things to eat are stuck with a very bland diet for themselves. Plants only need a handful of ingredients from the soil.
The ones that get talked about the most are the NPK combo. Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (we mentioned him earlier in the sciency stuff – he’s the K, just to confuse the already bewildered) These are the ones that get headline billing on bags of fertiliser, in the hope that the keen gardener will be able to work out which product is best for the plant. But then you need to know what your plant needs and what state your soil is in before making an informed choice, otherwise you are just taking a stab in the dark and could be wasting your money and stuffing up your soil. Over fertilisation can be a bigger problem than under fertilisation. This is why we need to know about these things.
Nitrogen (N) generally originates from organic material and is what makes strong shoots and leaves and makes healthy foliage. Although, depending on what you are growing, too much can come at the expense of flowers and fruit.
Phosphorus (P) is mineral from inorganic sources and helps the plant grow strong roots and we have already learnt the importance of strong, healthy roots.
Potassium (K) is also a mineral and plays a big part in plant reproduction – flowers, fruits and seeds. You really don’t want to lack this in the veggie garden or the harvest wouldn’t be all that great.
There are three other important ones that make up a huge part of the plant, Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H) and Oxygen (O) but the plant has no trouble getting hold of these, usually from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis, that they are hardly even counted as the essential nutrients for plants.
But the plant diet is a little more varied than just these top six. There are others. The secondary elements, the plant needs them, but not in great quantities. However, they are essential for plant function and if they are lacking – for whatever reason, remember it doesn’t necessarily need to be absent from the soil, but just being too cold, or some other excuse, for the plant to take it up, the plant has ways of letting the gardener know. Nutrient deficiencies show up in the leaves like some kind of code – from yellowing leaves with green veins, to purple leaves, to patchy leaves to stunted and munted leaves. Each deficiency represents in different ways. It is a bit like a pregnant woman screaming out “I want ice cream and I want it now!” And if you know what is best, you go and find ice cream straight away!
So, these secondary elements are Calcium (Ca) and this is important for making strong cell walls. Sulphur (S) is involved in making chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green, so it is kind of important as most plants are green! Magnesium (Mg) has an important job in the photosynthesis process so you really wouldn’t want your plant not to have access to this. But of an interesting note too much chicken manure in your soil can interfere with the availability on Magnesium. Which is another reason it is important to know all of this stuff. It is so easy to take handfuls of ‘good for the soil’ things and lob them about like it is some kind of lolly scramble, without realising you aren’t actually helping.
Then there are the Trace Elements. Plants need them but in minute quantities. The plant will let you know in its leaves if they are lacking, but absolute care must be taken when adding them to soil. You can’t unmake the sea salty.
Boron (B) has a key role in plant growth, so it is pretty important. Without it you can end up with stunted growth. Iron (Fe) and Manganese (Mn), like Sulphur are gainfully employed in the production of chlorophyll. Copper (Cu) and Zinc (Zn) work closely with enzymes to make things happen. Molybdenum (Mo) is a little-known nutrient that helps the plant convert nitrogen into more plant friendly forms and so the smallest nutrient is essential for the use of the largest.
There are a few other teeny tiny ones that are hardly worth mentioning and from what I can understand aren’t all that problematic or they would be higher up the list.
So if you look at it like a high school social structure – you have the popular kids, N, P and K – everyone knows about them and think they are important. They get talked about a lot! Then there are the kids everyone seems to like and get on with, but at the same time they are just average and ordinary and no one notices them. The poor C, H and O’s. Lost in their ease and abundance. The sporty ones – the secondary elements – they make the school look great – or not if they don’t do well and everyone notices them when they win or when they lose. The rest of the time no one really thinks about them, out there in the field, doing their thing and practicing all the time.
The trace elements have to be the geeks and the nerds. Their importance is barely noticed but without them there would be no school newsletters, no librarians, and no one to do all those volunteer jobs everyone else loves to hate. I have to confess back in the heady days of school I was a trace element and found there were certain privileges being in the science club that the more popular kids had completely overlooked – like being inside at lunchtime on a rainy day, for one! And ironically Nitrogen can’t be without Molybdenum doing its homework!
And that is what a plant needs in it’s daily diet to stay healthy. But we are still looking at things in a tiny molecular level and it is still a far cry from shovelling barrow loads of compost onto new season soil. So, the next question is, who chops up the plant food into bite sized chunks?
Come again soon – we’re almost there in this journey and then I can start digging.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Over the last week we got a bit side tracked from the study of the soil, what with Easter and April Fools – I think my 24 carrot gold seeds were a bit too subtle… maybe I should have spray painted 24 carrots gold! Anyway…. The other exciting distraction over the last week is the house has arrived, but I’ll share more of that with you later, because I really need to press on with this soil science stuff. The arrival of the house has tightened the timeline, because as soon as they have finished sticking it all back together and council signs it off, then we can move in. That will mean the caravan and the container can go, and I can start my garden. So, I’d better know as much as I can about the soil before I get started. So where were we…
In order to understand my new sandy soil, I have been trying to understand how the plant works and how the soil works so I can make sense of it all and be a better gardener in less than ideal conditions. Last time was like the bit in a scary movie, where they are crossing a dangerous rope bridge and the hero wants to go fast to get across as quickly as they can, but needs to go slow and examine each tread so they don’t fall through. I feel like we have made it passed the horrible bits and are now safe of solid ground.
So, we know water is a great carrier of nutrients up into the plant, through the xylem, and the root cells have good systems for managing the nutrients once they get in. And we now know the nutrients need to be tiny – on a molecular level to get in. But the question remains: how do they get in? They don’t have arms and they’re not a sponge and don’t go about sucking up everything arbitrarily. It turns out the plant is very particular as to who and what it invites inside.
There are a couple of ways this happens down deep in the soil. One method is passive, and the other is active. The passive process occurs through a process called osmosis which is a kind of popularity contest for ions (the molecules with the electrical charge). Basically, they want to be at the exclusive party and all mill about outside the cell in high numbers, being absorbed through the semi-permeable cell wall into the cell where there are low numbers. The numbers are kept low as once inside the ions that are needed are escorted off into the heart of the root, across the cortex and beyond the casparian strip, and are locked into the plant and able to be used where needed.
However, the water is trying to control this movement and prefers things to be balanced on both sides so won’t let everyone in. If too many ions get in, it becomes too concentrated and the process reverses and the ions leave the cell like it is yesterday’s news. So, there can be a lot of coming and going in the root hair cell.
This is all very well if there are large concentrations of the ions needed lingering in the soil the roots are sitting in. But not all of the ions are there in large enough numbers to just drift in and have to be delivered into the cell like a VIP in an active system. The cool thing about plants is they have a process for everything they need and even create their own energy currency ATP (adenosine triphosphate for those who want to know). It is made in the respiration process up in the leaves.
Apparently, it is not known exactly how this works, but the cell walls of the root hairs have different carrier molecules embedded in them that recognise specific nutrients. Sort of like secret entrance ways and the energy from the ATP is used to bring in these nutrients against the concentration flow so the plant can get what it needs specifically.
I sort of see it like the DJ and the magician turn up to the party and is stuck in among all the party goers out the front. The party goers are having their tickets checked and allowed in so long as the party isn’t overcrowded on the inside. But the DJ and the magician are special and need priority treatment to get in and with the assistance of some currency to grease the wheels (ATP) they are whisked in through their own separate entrances.
However, this system has its limitations. If the temperature isn’t right and it is too cold or too hot, then the doors don’t open, so the DJ and the Musician have to wait outside for it to warm up. Meanwhile the party goes on without the talent. This can be seen in many common plant problems – if it is too cold phosphorus can’t get in and without it the plant turns purple. Or blossom end rot in tomatoes – it is due to a calcium deficiency and in most circumstances, it isn’t because it isn’t in the soil, but it is too cold to get into the plant and so the nasty rot problem occurs. This is why it is more common earlier in the season, when it is still a little cool and then comes right.
But even the passive system has something to teach us… if there aren’t enough nutrients in the soil, the ones already in the root hair cells have no choice but to leave, so they can hang out with their friends until the numbers become more concentrated that they can flow back in the other direction back into the cell. It would seem balance is the key to ensure the plant stays consistently well fed, not yo-yoing between feast and famine.
And that seems like enough to take on today. It would seem information uptake into my head is also limited by concentration levels.
Come again soon – I think we need to find out more about these all important nutrients.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
I am always up for a challenge and when I saw these fancy carrot seeds I just had to have them. They weren’t cheap, but I think it will be worth the investment in the long run. Germination can be a little tricky but so long as you don’t sow them too thickly it should be ok. I’ve used 24 seeds and I’m hoping for the very best!
This April is all set to be an awesome month, and we are starting it off with half a house and will end it with so much more.
Come again soon – there is so much going on, I’m not sure where to start.
Sarah the Gardener : o)