Recent posts

Nitrogen guilds
31 Oct

Cover cropSome plants do better in groups, “guilds” – especially legumes sharing nitrogen with their neighbors.

I have since read in ‘The Nature and Properties of Soils” that legumes can and do share some of their nitrogen with their growing neighbors.

Green manure mixtures often contain grains as well as legumes, and the grains grow better in the company of legumes than they otherwise would.

Mycorrhizae do act as “messengers” transferring some amounts of nitrogen. However, most of the transferred nitrogen is the result of sloughing off cells from the legume’s growing root tip.

Most of the nitrogen in legumes goes into making their seeds. So, if you want to grow your own nitrogen, you need to incorporate the plant into the soil well before it sets seeds.

In a related passage, the authors listed the nitrogen fixing rates of different legumes. The garden bean is pretty much at the low end of the list, providing only half of it’s own nitrogen requirement (30-50 lbs N/ac/year. Alfalfa is at the high end of the list, providing 150-250 lbs/ac/yr.

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29 Oct

If you’ve been following our biochar experiment, you know that we’re trying out several different methods of activation of the char. A couple of weeks ago I introduced some worms from my bin into the biochar bins. My worm bins are simply stacked nursery flat holders, held inside a recycled picnic cooler from Goodwill. I gave each biochar bin a worm flat, loaded up with their favorite food, a mix of dead leaves and kitchen scraps. The worms were free to stay in the worm bin or move into the char.




A couple of weeks later and the worms have multiplied and moved into the char. I’ve fed them a bit of corn gluten meal (about 1 cup each bin) and we’ve gone through a mold episode. The worms are out and about foraging on their own now.
I’ve got them inside in a room off the garage — my old office to be exact (always did seem more conducive to compost than work). I think they could be doing better so I’m going to see if I can’t find a source of their favorite food, bacteria and fungi. Stay tuned…

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15 Oct

Biochar experiment
So we have had this bag of biochar for a little while now and are considering the best thing to do with it. We know that it will need to be charged with microbes and mineral nutrients — the question is what is the best way to do that? Our guide is a recent article in the July 2013 issue of Acres magazine by David Yarrow.  He recommends a 4 step process of charging:

1) Moisten the char.  Get it wet but not soggy.  (This takes more water than you might think it should!  The stuff is very absorbent!)
2) Micronize the char.  A mix of dust and rice size bits is best.  Your char might need crushing but ours was just right already.
3) Mineralize the soil.  The char is like a battery waiting to be charged.  If you don’t add minerals at this step it may rob your soil of needed nutrients and thereby also rob your plants.  We are doing 3 different trials to see which method of mineralization works the best.
4) Microbial innoculation.  We mixed our char with equal parts of semi-composted spent mushroom bedding and a few shakes of mycorrhizal inoculant.  But the compost is really just food for the worms that we added to each bin.  The plan is to let the worms work over the winter, eating the char, minerals and compost.

Wet Biochar
For step 3, we have 3 different mineralization trials going.

1) Mineralized with the OrganiCalc recommendation for our native soil, assuming we’ll spread the mix ½” thick and work it in to the top 6” of soil.
2) Mineralized with MiracleGro plus the OrganiCalc recommendation for gypsum (there is no calcium or sulfur in MiracleGro and our soil is quite low in both).  The amount of MircaleGro was enough to about match the N supplied by the OrganiCalc recommendation, about 5x the single application rate on the label.  Why MiracleGro?  It is a (sort of) balanced source of soluble nutrients and should not have trouble migrating into the char pores.  There is no organic OMRI approved substitute that we know of.
3) No mineralization. We will probably add the minerals later during incorporation of the biochar into the soil.

The plan is to put half on “new” unamended garden and the other half on the existing garden, so 6 trial plots in all.

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10 Sep
Dry Biochar

On a trip to Oregon we stopped in Philomath to speak with John Miedema, one of the founders of the Pacific Northwest Biochar Initiative. John operates an experimental biochar cooker on the site of a log storage yard in Philomath, using the chopped up bits of wood and bark leftovers that would have previously been considered waste to be burned or buried. The result is a light, dry, charcoal type material with a black pigment which I immediately spread onto my nose. We picked up a double bagged 30 gallon bag full to try out as a soil amendment.

It’s not the nutrients in biochar that we are after. We’re hoping instead to use its amazing propensity to hold onto nutrients and create habitat for microbes and beneficial fungi. The process of making biochar, using higher temperatures and a lower oxygen environment than a normal wood fire is capable of, results in a material with amazing properties. Tiny pores are opened in the burnt wood, creating a massive surface area in a very small volume. This surface area will be perfect for holding the cations and anions necessary for plant growth. Also, the char is structured into tiny tubes which catch and hold water and provide the perfect homes for microbes and fungi.
Biochar micrograph courtesy of Ithaka Journal
Our soil is quite sandy and low in nutrient holding capacity, plus being in central California near the coast we experience long dry summers, bright sunlight and breezy afternoons. It is not a natural environment for mycorrhizae; wood left on the ground tends to dry out and be eaten by insects with little to no sign or rot, unlike our western Oregon garden soil which ate anything and everything. If biochar could help us hold and spread out soil moisture, plus create a home for microbes, it may be a profound improvement. Our part of California is prone to late summer wildfires of enormous proportions which litter the ground with the charred remains of chaparral. The result of the fires is nothing short of amazing — the wildflowers go nuts the next few years. Perhaps we can emulate that in our garden.Poppies

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Tres Fine Frisee Endive
25 Feb

This good looking green was a new trial here at Rancho Reinheimer last year and we really liked it.  

Sweet, crisp with just a hint of bitter.  And it did well in early winter despite it not being cold.  It was all eaten up by Christmas.

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25 Feb

In our own garden we have seen improvements in taste and vigor track
with the changes in Logan’s soil test results, as the soil becomes more
balanced toward Albrecht’s ratios and the pH drops. This is the bottom
line for believing Logan’s numbers.
Also, and quite importantly, targets using Logan’s test results have
been published by Astera, McKibben, and Solomon & Reinheimer, so we have
an idea what to try for.

The test results from Spectrum are roughly 2/3 higher than Logan’s. In
some cases they are double and even triple.
There is a huge lesson here – you cannot compare the results from
different labs without qualification.


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22 Feb

I’ve just uploaded the new version of OrganiCalc for Spectrum Analytic Mehlich 3 soil test results.  Use the new one if you are using Spectrum!!  We did a side by side comparison of 6 soil sets, sending the same sample to each lab, in order to statistically determine the difference between the two labs test results.  And there is a difference! 

Since we have had such good results in our own garden using the algorithm for a Logan Labs soil test, we took the view that we would normalize the Spectrum Analytic test results to Logan values before applying the algorithm.  This means that if you send the same soil to Logan and/or to Spectrum, you can expect similar amendment recommendations from OrganiCalc, using the appropriate version.  This won’t be the case if you plug Spectrum results into the Logan Labs version of OrganiCalc!

It is coming on spring here and this year’s peppers are just coming up.  Happy gardening everyone!


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29 Dec

OrganiCalc is now live at version 1.0A!  Thank you to all of our beta testers! 

We’ve added one new feature…

  • Although it is recommended that you consult a soil analyst if your soil sample depth is not 6″, this may now be overridden by use of the Override check box.  OrganiCalc will then convert the entered values to those for a 6″ depth, but will report the recommended amendments for the soil sample depth.

We’ve also updated the General Mineralization Recommendations.  Use them!  They are key to success!

We caught a few bugs in the last update

  • Zn application limit is now being reported
  • Very rarely rock phosphate recommendations were not being reported properly

OrganiCalc still does not produce a beautiful printed report.  We’re working with SpreadsheetConverters to get this sorted out.

Happy Growing!  –Alice

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Fiesta Broccoli
07 Dec

This is the result of an unintended test.  Both plants were grown in mineralized soil (but without much N added) which had just yielded a very nice crop of tomatoes. The one on the left received feathermeal at about a 200 lbs/ac N rate, a dusting of gypsum for sulfur, and borax at a 2 lbs/ac Boron rate.  The one on the right, grown just 6 feet away, didn’t receive any of these amendments between crops, as there was still a tomato plant growing there.  I think this illustrates two points; first that proper mineralization can produce outstanding heads of broccoli.  Second, that all the minerals need to be in place for this sort of result.  Everything else can be in the soil, but a good dose of nitrogen with a bit of sulfur and boron can make a huge difference. My guess is that without all the other good gardening practices like composting, expert watering, mulching, and weeding neither plant would have succeeded. Big little brocolli

This is the largest head of Brocolli I have ever grown. These seeds are from Fedco seeds in Maine.  We bought the seeds because it produces unprecedented side shoots, so the whole story may not yet be told.

The description is here:

You can see how mineralization helps cheer up the gardener…

Big brocolli

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05 Nov

Soil Sampling:

  • Clean a shovel with water only.

1) Scrape away the top layer of organic material until you see mineral soil. This is usually less than 2” down.

2) Dig a hole 6” deep. This is the default depth for a soil sample, and is where most of the roots of flowers and vegetables live.

3) Slice a thin layer of soil from the side of the hole, from the top of the hole to the bottom of the hole.

4) Put this soil slice into a clean glass bowl. Stir it up with a clean stainless steel spoon.

  • Repeat steps 1-4 until you have a representative sampling. This is 6 to 15 holes, depending on the size of the area.


  • Take 8 oz (1 cup) of this mixture, and put it in a plastic baggie. If it is really really wet, let it air dry.

  • Fill out the Logan Labs Soil Sample Worksheet.

  • Mail the soil sample, worksheet and a check for $20 to Logan Labs. The least expensive way to mail it is using the smallest pre-paid Priority Mail box that the Post Office has. Box and postage are $5.40. Send the sample to: 

    Logan Labs

    PO Box 326

    Lakeview, OH 43331

    We use Logan Labs because their results are compatible with the work of Dr. William Albrecht, and we base our recommendations on his model of balanced soil fertility. There are many soil tests available, used for different purposes. Logan Labs standard test is a pH 2.5 Mehlich3 soil test, which measures all the major and minor mineral reserves in your soil ever likely to become available.

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