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Good Soil Biology – The Perfect Recipe For Plants

December 19, 2017sm-171119-big-nema-400x-worm-bin-tc_7

It’s time to honor our important volunteers who live in the soil – the nematodes, protozoa, microarthropods, fungi and bacteria. All these fellows work tirelessly underground, decomposing organic matter and pooping out the nutrients in the form that plants can use.

In fact, organic matter is the only food we have supplied for the orchard trees and shrubs over the last six years. And, now that we are using the thermal compost process (see Nov. 2017 blog), we will be regularly cooking up tasty treats our plants enjoy.

rc-plant-succession-slide-elaine-ingham-life-in-the-soil-oxford-keynote-2014Plants put out sugars in their root zones to attract the critters they most desire. Early succession plants, like weeds, desire soil with more bacteria (see Ingham slide). Late succession plants, such as deciduous and conifer trees, prefer fungal dominated soils.

When we make our compost, the types of inputs we use will determine whether the compost will also be bacterial or fungal dominated.

How do we test the characteristics of our compost? We can put the finished product under the microscope and actually count how many bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes we have and then convert the counts to biomass.

Sun, Dec 31, 2-4, Roof Work Party
Sun, Jan 21, 2-4, Work Party
Sat, Feb 17, 1-3, Pruning Class

Dr Elaine Ingham offers very accessible online classes in soil biology, making compost, compost tea the-soil-food-web-nrcs142p2_049822and using microscopes to test soil life. She discounts classes at various times of the year. If you take these classes, you will learn how to be a good land steward (see Ingham’s soil food web slide).

You won’t remember but, when seed plants arrived over 360 million years ago, good soil biology was already in place. Plants know what they need from the soil and how to get it. We can all play a part to improve soil quality by minimizing soil compaction and avoiding use of inorganic fertilizers. The importance of soil is the subject of this recent article from the New York Times.


A Nod For Natives

October 16, 2017

These days I hang out with volunteers of the Washington Native Plant Society (WNPS). I don’t tend to say much. I know my place (right field).

These are pleasant knowledgeable folks and I am learning a lot. One member coaxed me to sign sm-greenhouse-wp_20171014_012up for a native plant propagation class at Oxbox Farm last Saturday. It was fantastic. Bridget McNassar is a trained teacher and has been working in their nursery for five years. The nursery is pristine. I asked if I needed to take my shoes off. Check out those hanging hoses.

She covered seed collecting, cleaning and sm-oregon-sunshine-seeds-wp_20171014_005storage and showed us when a seed head is ready for collection. In the photo she collects seeds from the flowering Oregon Sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum).

We reviewed germination, including the issue of dormancy, and Bridget graciously provided us with Swordfern spores to take home. In the photo, she is patching out. She takes a fern that has emerged and sm-patching-wp_20171014_008plucks it out and pushes it into a bare area of the same medium (bark and compost).

Sun, Nov 19, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Dec 17, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Jan 21, 2-4, Work Party

She offered several types of seeds for us to take and gave us the link to the website Native Plant Propagation Protocol Database so we could look up how many days we had to keep some of our seeds in the refrigerator (cold stratification) before we tried to sow them. Salal needs 42-100 cold days so I will put the seeds in the refrigerator in mid-winter for spring planting.

The class size was small so questions were answered, either by Bridget or by a high school boy scout quite familiar with the Latin names of plants!

Tips from Bridget:

A seed is not mature if you can dent it with your fingernail
Consider a food processor with a plastic dull “blade” to separate pulp from seed for fleshy fruit
A good way to scarify seeds is to rub them between two sanding blocks
Simple cotton bags work well to dry seeds
Make sure seeds are dry and cold for storage
The 6 mil plastic zip lock bags don’t let gases through in the refrigerator
Be patient! Trillium can take three years

There are still two sessions left of this class – Saturday October 21 and October 28

You can use your phone to start your native wildflower education. Those hard-working people at the Burke Museum have a smartphone app at

Help is with our own native plant area at the south end of the orchard at the next work party. We just acquired a Scouler’s Willow (Salix scouleriana), the most drought tolerant of the natives.


New Watering System Is On Tap

October 1, 2017

It’s fascinating how one mulberry or one thornless blackberry can sustain me while I work in the sm-persimmon-wp_20171001_002orchard. Just that brief sweet juicy explosion can satisfy, nourish and make me smile. These two fruits are new to the orchard and they have proved their worth.

It will be several weeks before we know whether the new persimmons will mature or not but otherwise, we are nearly finished with the harvest.

We have donated an estimated 244 pounds to the food bank. Now, however, the sun weakens and plant production is slowing.

sm-reseeded-lettuce-wp_20170928_001The transition to fall plants such as radish, lettuce, cilantro, mustards, arugula and various cover crops has begun. Check out that germination rate of lettuce that Sue let go to seed! It looks like carpet. Thinning could be a challenge.

We ended up with tasty samples of all apple and pear varieties, even though the winter moth larvae took out many of the blossoms last spring. The good ole Liberty was the best performer and we have enough Liberty to reward the Cider Fest volunteers this coming Saturday.

The dry summer taxed every plant. Our aim is to water just enough to keep the fruit and nut trees in good health. I believe that they got enough water but next year’s crop will tell the tale. We do think the berries and grapes were under watered.

Sat, Oct 7, 2-5, Cider Fest!
Apple contributions are welcome! We have science exhibits for the kids. Cider and pie slices.
Sun, Oct 15, 2-4, Work Party

Sun, Nov 19, 2-4, Work Party
Sun, Dec 17, 2-4, Work Party

In the interest of saving water, saving time watering, and allowing watering to be physically easy, we have applied for another Seattle Dept of Neighborhood matching grant. It’s a small grant, about $10,000, but should be enough to buy a manual pump, ollas, some vertical perforated pipe and low-pressure, gravity fed drip irrigation materials. We also are beneficiaries of a used 1,000-gallon cistern, which could be enough assistance to free us from using city water.

We are in need of a mechanical or civil engineer to help us with choice of pump to carry water from shows-hose-in-and-hose-out-treadle-pump-1the cisterns out to the beds. Choosing the right pump will be critical to the efficacy of the whole irrigation system to the food bank beds. Contact us if that engineer is you or your friend!

Please join us for our annual celebration next Saturday between 2-5pm, rain or shine.