Growing Dahlias Like a Pro

Growing Dahlias Like a Pro

Love Dahlias As Much As We Do? Here's How To Grow Them With Success

Dahlias are available in an almost dizzying selection of colours, sizes, and flower shapes. 

Here's our step-by-step guide on how to grow dahlias like a pro:

Step 1: Choose a Site

Dahlias need full sun to thrive, so choose a site that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. The soil should be well-draining and rich in organic matter. Dahlias also prefer a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.

Step 2: Prepare the Soil

Before planting your dahlias, prepare the soil by digging in compost or well-rotted manure. This will help improve soil fertility and drainage. You can also add a slow-release fertilizer to the soil to provide nutrients throughout the growing season.

Step 3: Plant the Tubers

Dahlias are typically grown from tubers, which can be planted in the ground in late spring after the danger of frost has passed. Dig a hole that is twice the width of the tuber and about 6 inches deep. Place the tuber in the hole with the “eyes” facing up, and cover it with soil. Space the tubers about 18-24 inches apart.

Step 4: Water and Mulch

Water the dahlias immediately after planting, and then water regularly throughout the growing season. Dahlias need about 1 inch of water per week, either from rainfall or irrigation. To help retain moisture in the soil, add a layer of mulch around the plants.

Step 5: Provide Support

As dahlias grow, they will need support to prevent them from falling over. You can use stakes or cages to provide support for the plants. Insert the stakes or cages into the ground at planting time to avoid damaging the roots later.

Step 6: Pinch and Deadhead

To encourage bushier growth and more blooms, pinch off the top of the plant when it reaches about 12-18 inches tall. This will encourage the plant to produce more branches and flowers. To prolong the blooming period, deadhead the flowers as they fade.

Step 7: Overwintering

In areas with cold winters, dahlias will need to be dug up and stored indoors for the winter. After the first frost, cut back the foliage to about 6 inches and carefully dig up the tubers. Brush off any excess soil and let the tubers dry for a few days. Store the tubers in a cool, dry place such as a basement or garage.

With these simple steps, you can successfully grow beautiful dahlias in your garden. With their stunning colours and variety of shapes and sizes, dahlias are sure to add a splash of beauty to any garden.

Nadine

Soil Testing

Soil Testing

Soil Testing - What is it? And why should you do it?

As a Master Gardener I am often asked questions regarding suspected nutrient deficiencies of plants. People will ask how much fertilizer they should add at planting time. Or what to add to fix a plant with yellowing leaves. My answer is usually an unexpected one because my answer is always “I don’t know.” Followed by, “What does your soil test say?” 

The truth is that no matter how much a lifelong gardener may suspect that a plant is deficient in X, without a soil test, there is no true way to know. A soil test is undeniably the best way to get a snapshot of your soil in time and to get the exact recommendations for what needs to be amended and by how much. 

Many assume that a balanced fertilizer should be added to the lawn or garden every year but that is probably a waste of both time and money and could potentially be damaging the environment.

Let’s start with the basic fundamentals.

 

NPK

You may be familiar with these three letters as they are on every bag of fertilizer or soil amendment you have ever seen.

N = Nitrogen

P = Phosphorus

K = Potassium

A bag of fertilizer that is listed as 10-10-10 will have equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (10% each). This is a very common fertilizer. A “balanced” fertilizer. Many people will use this on their lawns and gardens thinking that because it is balanced, nothing will be getting too much. Unfortunately, this is not true. Nitrogen is the only nutrient that is rapidly used by plants. Phosphorus and potassium are needed in smaller amounts and excess will wash away through the soil into rivers and streams. Excess phosphorus is responsible for algae blooms in natural waterways. Excess potassium is responsible for contributing to soil salts. 

Plants also require small amounts of calcium,  magnesium and other nutrients like boron, manganese, iron, copper, and zinc. These nutrients, known as micronutrients, are required by every plant but only in very tiny amounts. There are many fertilizers and soil amendments on the market today that advertise these micronutrients but these fertilizers and soil amendments are usually quite expensive. This is a standard case of “more is not better”. More nutrients available to plants does not make a healthier plant if there are already sufficient nutrients in the soil. More will definitely be a waste of money and could also damage the plants, the environment, or both. 

The recommendation to lime your soil every year is common but is intended for soils that are naturally acidic. Here in the Okanagan, where we have naturally alkaline soil, adding lime without recommendations from a soil test can lead to phosphorus and iron deficiencies in your plants. 

So how do you determine what is actually required and wade through the vast area of fertilizers and soil amendments on the market?

A soil test.

Soil tests are the only accurate way to determine what is in your soil and what nutrients, if any, are lacking. 

In Canada, soil tests can be done at private labs. They are easy to do and inexpensive. On a commercial basis, I would recommend getting a soil test every year but for the home gardener every 3-5 years is fine.

Regular soil tests are also a baseline with which to measure your soil in years to come. They let you know how your soil has changed and adapted over the years so that you can definitively measure the difference that compost application, for example, has made.

Each lab will have a slightly different method of testing so to maintain continuity, use the same lab for your future soil tests.

Although there are many DIY soil test kits on the market, I would highly recommend getting a professional soil test. The DIY tests seem easy to use but they are difficult to understand the results. They also don’t provide any information on what needs to be added in order to achieve the desired amount of a missing nutrient. Different plants also require different nutrients so when you are sending off a professional soil test, you are able to indicate what plant(s) you are growing in this area and the lab will send back specific instructions for these particular plants. 

I’d love to hear about your experience with soil tests. Pop your questions and experiences into the comments section. 

Nadine

Dried Flowers Have Made a Comeback!

Dried Flowers Have Made a Comeback!

These Are Not Your Grandmother's Dried Flowers

Dried flowers have been making a comeback in recent years, with many people rediscovering the beauty and charm of these timeless arrangements.

Here at Blumen Fields, we love dried flowers and are happy to see them get the resurgence that they deserve. We hang thousands of stems of flowers each season into our drying barn for use throughout the year. 

Whether you’re looking to decorate your home or create a unique gift, dried flowers can add a touch of rustic elegance to any space. Here’s a guide to some of the best flowers for drying and how to keep them looking great:

Best Flowers for Drying

  1. Lavender: Lavender is a popular choice for dried flowers because it retains its scent and color well. To dry lavender, simply tie a bunch of stems together and hang them upside down in a dry, dark place.
  2. Roses: Roses can be dried by hanging them upside down or by using silica gel to speed up the drying process. Dried roses can last for years and make beautiful additions to wreaths, arrangements, or potpourri.
  3. Baby’s Breath: Baby’s breath dries well and can be used to add texture and color to dried flower arrangements.
  4. Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus leaves and branches dry well and add a rustic touch to any arrangement.
  5. Statice: Statice flowers come in a range of colors and dry beautifully. They can be used in wreaths, arrangements, or on their own.
  6. Strawflowers: Strawflowers retain their bright colors when dried and can be used in a variety of dried flower arrangements.

When harvesting flowers for drying, select only those flowers that are at their peak of freshness and fullness. Imperfect flowers look even worse when dried. 

Tips for Keeping Dried Flowers Looking Great

  1. Keep them dry: Dried flowers should be kept in a dry environment, away from moisture or humidity. This will prevent them from becoming moldy or losing their color.
  2. Keep them out of direct sunlight: Direct sunlight can fade the colors of dried flowers, so it’s best to display them in a shaded area.
  3. Dust them regularly: Dried flowers can accumulate dust over time, so it’s important to dust them regularly with a soft brush or cloth.
  4. Store them carefully: To protect your dried flowers from damage, store them in a container that is free of dust and moisture. You can also wrap them in tissue paper or newspaper to help protect them.
  5. Refresh the scent: If you want to refresh the scent of your dried flowers, you can add a drop of essential oil to the petals or place them in a sealed container with a few drops of oil for a few hours.

Dried flowers are a beautiful and timeless way to decorate your home, add a touch of charm to any space, or create a unique gift for someone special. With the right flowers and care, your dried flower arrangements can last for years to come.

Nadine

The Origin Story of Plants

The Origin Story of Plants

The Plant Origin Story - Why It's Important to Know Where a Plant is Native To.

Plants are diverse and come from many different parts of the world, each with unique growing conditions, soil types, and climatic patterns. A plant’s native environment can provide important clues about its preferred growing conditions, including soil type, water requirements, temperature range, and sunlight exposure. Therefore, it’s important to understand where a plant is native to in order to determine how to care for it properly.

Here are a few reasons why you should check where a plant is native to in order to determine how to care for it:

 

1. Adaptation to Climate and Soil

Plants are adapted to the specific climate and soil conditions of their native habitats. Understanding where a plant is native to can help you to provide similar growing conditions in your garden, which can promote healthy growth and minimize stress.

2. Understanding Pests and Diseases

Plants that are native to different parts of the world may have different pest and disease issues. By researching a plant’s native environment, you can identify any potential pests or diseases that may affect the plant in your garden and take steps to prevent or treat them.

3. Watering and Fertilizing Needs

Plants from different regions have different water and nutrient requirements. Understanding a plant’s native environment can help you to determine the right watering and fertilizing schedule to keep the plant healthy.

4. Conservation and Ecology

Understanding where a plant is native to can also provide important insights into conservation and ecology. Plants that are native to a specific region may play an important role in the local ecosystem, and planting them in your garden can help to support biodiversity and promote ecological health.

5. Legal Restrictions

In some cases, certain plants may be restricted or prohibited in certain areas due to concerns about invasive species. Checking where a plant is native to can help you to determine whether it is legal to plant in your area.

Rose
Ranunculus
Peony

Checking where a plant is native to can provide important information about how to care for it. Ranunculus, peony, and roses are often confused in bouquets because they can look similar but trying to treat them the same when growing is a sure step towards disappointment. 

By understanding a plant’s native environment, you can provide similar growing conditions, identify potential pests and diseases, determine the right watering and fertilizing schedule, support conservation and ecology, and comply with legal restrictions. So, before planting a new species, make sure to do your research on its native range and requirements.

Nadine

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation

Drip Irrigation - Why You Should Ditch the Sprinkler

Drip irrigation is a method of watering plants where water is slowly delivered to the roots of plants through a network of tubes or emitters. This method of watering is preferred over overhead watering for a number of reasons.

While overhead irrigation from sprinklers is less expensive to set up, one of the main advantages of drip irrigation is that it is much more efficient than overhead watering. Because the water is delivered directly to the roots of the plants, very little water is lost to evaporation or runoff. This means that less water is needed to properly hydrate the plants, which is especially important in areas where water is scarce or where water restrictions are in place.

Overhead irrigation is an incredible source of wasted water. If we are watering in the hot sun, as much as 50% of this water will be lost to evaporation.

Source https://okwaterwise.ca/waterwise-in-the-yard.html

Another advantage of drip irrigation is that it can help to prevent plant diseases. When plants are watered from above, the leaves, flowers, and stems of the plants become wet, which provides an ideal environment for the growth of fungi and other plant diseases. Here on the flower farm, it is also important for us to keep the plants dry because water can cause petals to discolour, thereby ruining the flower. When water droplets land from overhead irrigation and hit the soil, they cause soil to bounce back up at the plants. This not only makes the plants dirty but it also causes soil borne fungus to hit the plants. By delivering water directly to the roots, drip irrigation helps to keep the leaves and stems of plants dry, which reduces the risk of disease.

At this point you might be thinking, “Wait. Rain comes from the sky, so wouldn’t overhead irrigation be considered natural?” 

Yes, rain is indeed overhead irrigation. However, rain causes all of the above problems and areas with consistent rain (coastal weather) have to continuously deal with all of the above issues. A rain once a week isn’t too much of a cause for concern for diseases, but when the sun doesn’t come out in between to dry up the rain on the plants or dry the soil surface, then the issues start to add up and become more prominent. 

Overhead irrigation every day or every couple of days exacerbates these problems. Keeping the foliage and flowers dry on plants is critical for plant health.

Drip irrigation can also be more convenient for gardeners than overhead watering. Because the water is delivered directly to the plants, there is no need to move a hose or watering can around the garden. This can save time and effort, and make it easier for gardeners to keep their plants properly hydrated.

In addition to its efficiency and convenience, drip irrigation can also help to improve the overall health and appearance of plants. Because the water is delivered directly to the roots, plants are able to absorb more nutrients from the soil. This can lead to healthier, more vigorous plants that are better able to withstand drought, pests, and other challenges.

Overall, drip irrigation is a superior method of watering plants compared to overhead watering. It is more efficient, convenient, and beneficial for the health of plants, making it the preferred method for many gardeners and farmers, ourselves included. We have 30,000′ of drip line irrigation in our flower field!

Nadine

12 Garden Tasks to Complete in April

12 Garden Tasks to Complete in April

12 Garden Tasks to Tackle in April

Depending on the year, April can either be the first view that we have of spring, or it can already be in full swing and be quite dry. Here in the Okanagan, we need to be prepared for both scenarios. While some of the items on this list could have been completed in March, they will definitely be able to be completed in April. 

1.  Once the garden soil dries a bit, you can transplant out the cool weather seedlings that you started in February and March. Vegetable seedlings like broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, onions, and leek are all able to be planted out as soon as the soil is workable. Flower seedlings that are good candidates for an early start are snapdragons, sweet peas, and stock. 

2.  Direct sow peas, radishes, and leafy greens. Stagger your harvest by transplanting cool season greens and direct sowing. 

3.  Divide any flowering perennials that haven’t been divided in 3-5 years to maintain their vitality. Daylilies, Hostas, Delphiniums, and Irises will all bloom with renewed vigour if regularly divided. 

4.  Plant any new perennials of asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, berry bushes, and flowering perennials.

5.  April is also a great month to get those seed potatoes in the ground. Just ensure that the soil has dried out a little so that they won’t rot prior to sprouting. 

6.  Apply mulch around perennials, trees, and shrubs now, before the hot weather arrives, to maintain moisture in the soil. 

7.  Heavy snow and ice can cause branches on trees and shrubs to break over the winter. Prune out any damaged, broken, or dead wood. 

8.  It’s the last chance to plant any bare root trees and shrubs that you may have ordered. Ensure that they get planted while they are still dormant.

9.  Keep your new transplants well-watered. April can be deceptively dry and those transplants don’t have root systems that can handle any drought yet. 

10.  If you are wanting to have more flowers blooming from snow melt right through to peonies, take some time to walk through garden centres, city parks, and neighbourhoods to see what is currently blooming and take notes/pictures of what you want to plant in the future. 

11.  Deadhead daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths once the blooms fade but leave all of the foliage to die back naturally. Doing so ensures that the plant isn’t putting energy towards making seed and allows the leaves to gather as much energy as possible for next year’s bloom. 

12.  Hopefully you left the dead foliage on your perennials over the winter to protect both the plants and the beneficial bugs that shelter within the dead material. If you did, now is the time to  finally cut that dead foliage down. Consider using the chop-and-drop method to create easy mulch or move the material to the compost pile. 

May all your transplants thrive, and may your spring flowers not be eaten by your spring lambs.

Nadine

Planting Bare Root Roses

Planting Bare Root Roses

Plant a Bare-Root Rose in 12 Easy Steps.

While it might seem counterintuitive to purchase a rose that isn’t potted in soil, purchasing a bare-root rose is a great option and my preferred method here on the flower farm. Purchasing bare-root provides many advantages to container-grown roses, the least of which is cost. A bare-root rose can cost 30-50% less than container-grown roses of the same size because there is no labour required for potting them up. They also weigh significantly less and therefore don’t cost as much to ship. All savings that get passed along to the customer. 

Other advantages include ease of handling (again, because of the weight) and better growth performance. 

It is very easy for one person to plant a bare-root rose that might normally require a second person to help lift and remove the container of a container-grown plant of the same size. 

Bare-root roses generally have an easier time getting quickly established in their new home as opposed to their container-grown counterparts. The bare-root roses will not have to transition from the soil that is in the container to the native soil in your yard. They are only available in the winter/early spring which allows them to be planted while they are still dormant. This means that a bare-root rose gains weeks of root growth that a container-grown plant will lack. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a bare-root rose ensures that you will be able to see the roots and correct any issues before properly planting into the prepared hole. Container-grown roses lack this option unless you take the time to do a thorough root-washing to remove all of the soil prior to planting (always a good idea but more on that in another post).  

So without further adieu, here is a how-to for planting bare-root roses.

1.  Un-package the roses and hydrate as soon as they arrive. Hydration can occur in buckets or kiddie pools. Place the roses right-side up into the selected vessel and add water. Water height must completely cover the roots but can also cover the canes. Hydration can occur up to 1 day prior to planting but should occur for a minimum of 8 hours. 

2.  The tops of the rose canes were originally cut with a saw in the field prior to being dug up. It’s imperative that these ragged cuts are removed. Give each cane a fresh cut by making a 45 degree angled cut ½” above an outward-facing bud eye. Prune as high up on the cane as possible as a light pruning equals more blooms.

3.  Roots will often be broken in transit. Prune off any dead or damaged roots just above the damaged area.

4.  Dig holes for roses 18” wide by 18” deep.

5.  Form a cone shape (volcano) in the bottom center of the hole using the removed soil. Lay down a stick spanning across the hole and place the rose roots on top of the cone, splaying the roots around the cone. Judge the height of the cone to ensure that the crown of the rose is 2” higher than the ground using the stick as a measuring tool. Adjust the height of the soil cone as required to attain this desired planting height.

6.  Once again, ensure that the roots are spread out over the soil cone. Rotate the rose in the hole to ensure that all of the bud eyes and the bud union face towards the path of the sun (south). Doing so ensures maximum basal cane growth.

7.  Fill the hole with the native soil that you removed from the hole, firming gently to ensure roots have good soil contact. 

8.  Once hole is completely filled, make a basin around the rose for water retention.

9.  Pour a bucket of water into the basin to settle the soil. After the water has drained, add additional soil as required to fill in any settling that may have occurred. Maintain a basin around the rose for future water capture. 

10.  Lay dripline irrigation at base of rose. 

11.  Mulch up and around the rose canes to keep them hydrated until the first growth begins.

12.  Once first growth is seen on the canes, mulch should be swept off of the canes. Mulch should be placed over the soil surrounding the rose for water retention and weed suppression.

Yes, we shovelled snow off of these rows in order to plant one year!
The first bud!

Now step back and admire a well-planted rose that will provide you with years of beauty and fragrance!

Nadine

Growing Ranunculus from corm to bloom

Growing Ranunculus from corm to bloom

Growing Ranunculus - A How-To From Corm to Bloom

Ranunculus are the darling of any spring bouquet. Fluffy, romantic, rose-like blossoms made of tissue-thin petals that almost look too perfect to be real. They are well loved by floral designers because they come in a wide range of colours, and have the soft, romantic look of a rose but last much longer in a vase. 

Ranunculus are not often seen in home gardens because the corms are not often sold in garden centres but they make a great addition to a container or garden bed and are relatively easy to grow. 

Here’s how to grow ranunculus like a pro.

First things first. Ranunculus grow from corms.

A corm serves the same purpose as a tuber or a bulb in that it is a thick, solid underground mass that stores starch as food for the eventual plant. But unlike tubers, corms tend to be slightly round and flattened. And unlike bulbs, corms do not produce layers (like an onion bulb). 

A corm, a tuber, and a bulb walk into a bar...

Other plants that produce corms are anemones, gladiolus, liatris, and crocosmia.

The leaves and buds of the ranunculus will form from the top of the corm and the roots will form from the bottom. 

While corms of different plants can look more bulb-like, ranunculus corms look like baby octopuses. This makes it easy to identify and also really easy to plant because unlike some other corms that are difficult to tell which side is up, ranunculus have a clear top and bottom. 

Plant your ranunculus corm with the “fingers” pointing down. 

Dried corms prior to soaking

When you purchase ranunculus corms they will be small, dried, and hard. This is the hibernating form of the corm that would occur naturally in its native Mediterranean region over the hot, dry summer months. 

In order to wake these corms up it is essential to mimic the Mediterranean winter rainy season by either soaking the corms in buckets of water or planting them directly into the soil and keeping the soil very moist until the first sprouts are seen. Here on the flower farm, we choose to soak the corms in buckets of water and pre-sprout them into growing medium prior to planting them out. This allows us to get an earlier start on the blooms. This is an easy enough process for a home gardener to do but you can also plant the corms directly into the garden or a container and keep the soil moist (but not soggy because the corms and new roots will rot in excessive moisture). They will take a little longer to get started when planted directly but they will still successfully grow and bloom. 

If you decide to try soaking and pre-sprouting, soak the corms in a bucket of water for 2-4 hours. It is imperative that the water stay oxygenated so leave a trickle of water running from the tap into the bucket. The soaked corms can be planted directly into the garden or they can be pre-sprouted by layering them in a tray with 2.5cm (1in) of dampened soilless medium both on the bottom and top of the corms. The corms will form roots and small buds within approximately 10 days and should be planted out into their final location at this time. 

Before
After

Ranunculus before and after a 2 hour water soak. The “fingers” of the corm on the right are fully plumped and ready for planting.

.

As with all plants, if we can mimic the conditions of the native environment, our ranunculus will grow happy and healthy. Knowing that they will begin to sprout after a rainy, Mediterranean winter breaks the dry dormancy and that they will go dormant again when the soil gets hot and dry, we can predict that ranunculus prefer to grow in the cool days of spring. Thus, corms should be planted as early as possible in the spring into a sunny location. 

Plant the corms 15cm (6in) to 22cm (9in) apart and 2.5cm (1in) deep. The corms can easily be planted into a container as they have a very shallow root system and do not require much depth for growing.  

When finding the perfect planting location, try to avoid an area with overhead watering as ranunculus foliage is highly susceptible to powdery mildew. 

Approximately 90 days after planting, your ranunculus will begin blooming and its beautiful show will last for 4-6 weeks. The bloom time will be cut short if the temperatures start to soar so be prepared to provide a little shade if you want to extend the bloom. 

Once the blooms have finished and the summer is heating up, the ranunculus foliage will begin to yellow and die back, preparing for the dormancy of another hot summer. 

Corms are hardy to zone 8, so in the Okanagan they will either need to be dug out after they have gone dormant in the summer and stored dry, or they need to be planted into a container that can be stored dry in a heated garage for the winter. 

Now you’re all ready to try your hand at growing ranunculus in your own garden. Already tried these beauties? Drop us a line and let us know how the experience was for you. 

Nadine

Foraging for Holiday Greens

Foraging for Holiday Greens

Holiday Greens - Tips for Sustainable Foraging

While there is no arguing that fresh greenery adds an unmistakable festive air to holiday decorating, the way in which one forages for greenery can have negative impacts on the environment. Here are some tips to allow you to harvest in a sustainable way.

Whether you are harvesting mushrooms from the forest floor, berries for a delicious jam, or the aforementioned holiday greens, it is important to only take what you need and to leave enough for the plant to continue to thrive. The plant needs to have enough spores, seeds, leaves, flowers, etc. remaining after you have harvested to be able to continue to flourish and produce another generation. A general rule of thumb with berries and mushrooms is to only take up to 50% of what you see. Holiday greens are different, of course, because you are harvesting the stems and leaves of the plant, thereby reducing its ability to photosynthesize and produce food for itself. A sustainable way to harvest these branches is to only take a couple of branches from each tree. This is especially important on small shrubs or young evergreens that don’t have as many branches/leaves to sustain them.  

When harvesting branches, it is extremely important to make proper pruning cuts to avoid leaving ragged wounds that can leave the tree vunerable to disease.

Ensure that the pruners you take out with you are sharp and give them a good cleaning and a wipe with alcohol prior to going out forging. This cleanliness will ensure that you are not going to be importing any pathogens from your cultivated garden into the forest. 

A basic understanding of pruning cuts is necessary to ensure that you leave the plant in the best possible condition to continue to grow after your foraging expedition. Every cut should be made cleanly so that the plant is not torn or bruised. If a branch is accidentally broken or torn, make a new, clean cut further down the branch. Always cut on a diagonal at about 45 degrees to ensure that water cannot collect on the cut which encourages fungal rot. Cuts should always be made just above a bud, at a fork on a branch, or just outside of the branch collar. If you are unfamiliar with any of these locations, educate yourself prior to heading out to forage. 

Lastly, observe the area around you when foraging to avoid trampling sensitive areas or disturbing wildlife. Foragers not paying attention to their surroundings may accidentally damage delicate ecosystems. 

 

Foraging for greenery can be a truly enjoyable activity but it is important to do so responsibly in order to minimize the negative impacts on the environment.

When you deck your halls, please do so in a way that allows you to responsibly enjoy the bounty of the natural world.

Nadine

No-Till

No-Till

No-Till Soil

I grew up on a grain farm. Growing up surrounded by farming, you become innately aware that there is a season and a time for everything. Seeds get sown in the spring. Crops get tended in the summer. Crops are harvested in the fall. After the harvest, the fields are tilled and turned under to prepare them for next spring’s seeds. This made sense. 

It wasn’t until I became more of an avid outdoor adventurer in my twenties and thirties that I began looking at nature a little differently. The most lush environments that I ever found myself in were the ones when I was buried deep in a forest somewhere. The forest floor was abundant with life and the springy, hummus-y soil was incredible to walk on, to touch, and to dig my fingers into. It was on one of these forays when the idea first occurred to me that the forest floor grew lush and abundant without the annual tilling that I had accepted as a part of the growing process. The seed stuck (pun intended) and when I first started growing crops commercially I began to look into a method I had heard of called No-Till. 

I didn’t start with No-Till methods right away. The particular piece of land that I grow on was a hay field that hadn’t been touched in approximately 30 years and there were a LOT of perennial weeds. Because I hadn’t fully researched No-Till at that point and because I was under a timeline to get the ground prepared for planting as quickly as possible, we tilled the ground. I don’t regret doing that and given the situation, I would do the same thing if I had to repeat it. However, now that I am in a position to use No-Till methods, this is the system that we use to prepare a new patch of ground for planting. 

So what is No-Till?

Well, it is exactly that. No-Till is a practice in which the soil is not tilled so that the biology of the soil structure and the layers of the soil are completely retained. In the forest, the leaves that fall from the trees and the plants that die down every year are left to decompose on the surface of the soil. The earthworms, bacteria, and microbes begin their work digesting and breaking down these plants. As the years go by, every layer is broken down even further and a new layer is formed on top. Given a few years, the soil starts to become much richer in organic matter. It retains more water and is lighter and fluffier in texture. If you think of soil in the terms of a forest floor, you can start to see how soil develops layers. Each layer of soil from the surface down has a different purpose and attracts different life forms living in it. 

When soil is tilled, one of the things that happens is a disruption of the soil layers. This sounds like it might not be a big deal but imagine what happens when an earthquake effects a city. Imagine the buildings that are knocked down. The materials strewn across the city streets. The people that are homeless and possible casualties. All of the materials that once created that city are still in the city. But they are no longer in the same place, or providing the same function. It will take time for the residents of that city to clean up the debris, put everything back in order, and complete the building process again before the inhabitants of that city can carry on with life as it was before the earthquake. 

It turns out that tilling the soil has the same effect on the soil inhabitants as it does on our hypothetical city dwellers. The contents of the soil, the building blocks, all still exist after the plow has been through, but the structure has been destroyed and the inhabitants have a lot of clean up to do before they can get back to doing their jobs with any efficiency. Not to mention the loss of life that will have occurred from the mechanical process of the tilling (worms cut up, microbes drying up on the surface). Our hypothetical earthquake ravages our city dwellers every single time the plow or rototill passes through. Plowing multiple times within a season keeps our city dwellers in a constant state of emergency, not to mention the loss of life that occurs each time. 

Soil biology has been overlooked for years. It has only recently  begun to be researched and as such, there is so much that we still don’t know about soil. What we think of as an inert substance that is a medium to keep a plant in place on a windy day, is actually filled with an overwhelmingly large and diverse life force. Scientists have only recently started to identify the vastness of the life.

Bacteria, protozoans, arthropods, fungi, archaea, and nematodes! Oh my!

When you hold a handful of soil, you are in fact holding hundreds of thousands of life forms. These life forms are responsible for creating soil structure, breaking down organic matter into forms that plants can use as nutrients, and much, much more. Fungi, for instance, forms a symbiotic relationship with plant roots that allows both to function at a higher level than they ever could on their own. 

The functions that soil performs and the relationships between soil and the plants that live in it are just beginning to be researched. And there is so much more to learn. 

In the meantime, I wanted to share the process that we use here on the farm to prepare a new patch of ground for growing. 

There are a couple of methods that can be used for killing back an existing crop (weeds or a cover crop) but the one that we employ most often is called Occultation. 

Occultation is, very simply, the blocking out of the sun. If you have ever left a bucket or planter on the grass for a few days, you will notice that the grass beneath it is yellow when you pick it back up. If you were to leave that item on the grass long enough, the plants below will starve from lack of sunlight (sunlight=photosynthesis=energy for plants). After the plants have died, the soil life begins to decompose the dead plants. 

We use a large black tarp for occultation in the field. The black tarp traps heat and speeds up the entire process of decomposition. In the heat of the summer, a patch of field can go from grass/weeds to ready to plant in as little as 6 weeks time. When it is cooler outside, it can take as much as 6 months to complete the process (ie over winter). The tarp also traps moisture beneath it which forces any weed seeds on the surface of the soil to germinate. These germinated seeds will then die out due to lack of sunshine. This process helps to clear the top surface of the soil from unwanted weed seeds before we plant. 

Before Occultation. This fall rye cover crop has died back after it was cut down in the summer.
During Occultation. This large black tarp is weighed down with rocks, tires, and pallets.
After Occultation. 6 weeks time in the heat of the summer and the remnants of the cover crop have disappeared. This soil is ready for planting

Weed seeds can lay dormant within the soil for up to 50 years. As soon as they have the right conditions, moisture and light, they will germinate. Every time the soil is tilled, new weed seeds are brought to the surface from the seed bank below. These seeds are exposed to sunlight and moisture and BAM! they geminate. This is why using no-till methods can also help to knock down the amount of weeding to be done on our farm. Once the seeds in the top couple of centimetres of soil have germinated and been killed, as long as the soil isn’t being disturbed below that level, new weed seeds will not be brought to the surface to germinate. That is not to say that we don’t spend any time weeding. We do. But most of the weeds on our established beds are weeds that have been blown in from the wind or have been brought in with compost (more on that in another post). We spend a lot more time weeding our newer beds and every year that goes by, we are able to spend less and less time weeding our established beds. 

There is so much more to soil and to No-Till methods than I can fill one blog post with. If you are interested in knowing more, reach out to me and I can recommend some fantastic books on the subject.

Nadine