'Plant' All Of Your Gardening
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We must popularize green movement to save earth and ensure health for all...
Two New and Little Known Soil Amendments

I have been trying out two relatively new and cool soil amendments. These are different from, but go very well with compost. Their main difference from compost is that they do not break down with time, and the improvement they provide soil is much longer lived than compost. The two amendments are expanded shale and biochar.

Expanded shale is most useful for heavy clay soil, because it aerates and looses up heavy sticky soils. Expanded shale is a fired, kiln produced, mineral product somewhat like pottery nuggets or mineral popcorn, that have a very high porosity(like 60% air space), and are fused such that they virtually never break down. Plants that are sensitive to poor soil drainage, such a lavender, greatly benefit from having lots of expanded shale incorporated into their soil; amounts that would make the soil in their root zone 30 % shale. ( 3 inches deep, tilled into about 10 inches of soil). Studies here in Texas by Texas A&M Dallas have shown huge improvements in growth for drainage sensitive plants in level, heavy clay soil beds. It is produced in a process that is similar to cement production, so the potential to produce it should be nationwide. Here in Dallas it costs about $8 per 40 lbs(a little less than a cubic foot), or $100 per cubic yard bulk.

Biochar is just charcoal. It greatly enhances plant growth in poor acidic sandy soils, when used at the rates like the expanded shale. There is a very long history of biochar's use by the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, who created a rich black soil call Terra Preta that still is amazingly rich, nearly 500 years after the processes that created it were stopped. Biochar is a very practical method of carbon capture, and the way it is applied to crop waste residue, it very ecologically smart. The charcoal enriches soils by absorbing and holding nutrients much better than the sands and clays in the soil, plus it also has surface active properties that greatly enhance soil microbial life. It also acts as a slow release source of potassium and helps sweeten(reduce acidity) the soil. More about biochar is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar . Biochar's availability is pretty sketchy right now, but should build as demand grows. I've just use cheap charcoal brickets(about $5 per 18 lb -1 cubic foot bag at Walmart) bag. Wet them a few times and they'll easily crush up in your hands or garden tools. Charcoal brickets have extra lime and a little starch as a binder added to them, neither of which should be a problem in acidic soils. Again, like the ex. shale, for maximum benefit the soil needs to be about 20 to 30 percent amendment by total volume in the root zone, like the top foot of soil.
Although these new amendments are ideally for different soil types, they can both be used together, because Expanded shale benefits sandy soils, and Bio-char helps loosen up clay soils too. They are both great if you're lucky enough to have nice intermediate loamy soil. I'll talk about how to use them to make great container plant soils in another post on that topic.
Yes, great idea, the pine trees will love it too. I had some experience like that where at our other house, that was out in the country on some acreage, we had this old bonfire area where the previous owners had always burned all the branch fall and bush. I just let the branches that fell rot normally as a mulch, the way nature does it. After a few years, this burn area was still just an eyesore, and I needed some fill to extend a berm for some drainage modification. I just dug out this old ash and charcoal pile and used it along with some other dirt for this new berm. I planted some butterflyweed on the berm and they took off and grew like crazy, like I'd never seen any plant do before. I think it was mostly the charcoal, as the ash was probably mostly leached away. If you spread this kind of stuff around in your area, it will probably only improve things for a season or two, as far as the pH benefits, but if you put charcoal, 3 inches deep, and till it in, it will last a long time. This is the biochar benefit and the creation of terra preta, like the Amazon Basin Natives did for thousands of years, until the Christian missionaries came along and taught them "better" ways. This method and knowledge was forever lost, until now. Grrrr!

There is another possible answer. If you try to plant plants that are native to or like the acid soil, you could have a nice garden there. Some ferns, Japanese iris,and generally the azalea relatives like that sort of situation. Bog Rosemary, Low bush cranberry and blueberry, Mountain laurel, Barberry, lots of things like that are natural to that sort of soil. New plants will just need careful watering for a couple seasons in dry weather until they are well established.
Good news about acid loving plants, most of the heath(azalea) family plants are poisonous to animals. Also, they will become drought resistant about the end of their second full season in the ground.

You might want to try some sort of drip watering system, or if its too far away from a easy source, I have used just a gallon jug of water, with one tiny pin hole in the bottom corner and the lid put back on after refilling it. A pin hole in the bottom with the lid still on will slowly drip out in about a few days, maybe more if you find a very thin pin. Place the jug, and a stake to tie it to(so it doesn't blow away when it's empty) at the base of newly planted plants. Let the jug water your plants for a few days, then let them dry out for a few days, and refill. The gallon jug needs to be kept closed at the top, to create the suction that slows down the dripping. Without the top, a jug will drip out in about a day. This jug method also can work for potted plants when you're going to be gone for a few days longer than the plant will go without water.
Yes, even very drought resistant plants need to get established. Only exceptions are succulents and yucca like plants. Even down here, those can be planted and forgotten. Down here in Dallas, we have this very heavy alkaline clay soil. I would give my eye teeth to have nice soft acidic sand. You have so many more options. Its easy to fix sandy acid soil for acid disliking plants, just add limestone gravel. Our soil needs massive help, and azaleas can not be planted in the regular soil here, one must make a totally artificial peaty soil berm to grow them. You spend as much on the dirt as on the plants. The best things down here are the native plants, but they can be tricky to get established, because it's easy to over water them but you can't drastically under water them either.
Yes about the lighting. It changes from winter to summer with the trees leafing out, but the angle of the sun changes also. In the winter and fall and spring, the sun makes a low arch across the southern sky, rising in the southeast and setting in the southwest. In the peak of summer, the solstice June 20th, the sun rises in the northeast, rises up almost directly over head, and sets in the northwest. Once you understand how the sun behaves seasonally, and know your site's compass directions, it is possible to predict where sun and shade will be in the seasons.
Succulent hanging baskets – problems solved

Feeling your lifestyle cramped by needy plants? Succulents may be your answer. Succulents, for my purposes here are plants with thick fleshy leaves or stems, including cacti, but more emphasis on the leafy ones with the wild variety of forms, and often beautiful flowers. When lifted up into a lofty position, into the brighter light and great air circulation, succulents soar.

First a bit about their lifestyle and ecology, and why this makes succulents potential year-round outdoor hanging plants nearly anywhere. The sedums, echeverias, kalanchoes, and many other plants are sometimes collectively called hens and chicks, eluding to their fecund production of baby offsets. Most of these plants inhabit ecological niches with very little soil. These plants cling tenaciously to rock outcroppings or tree trunks, surviving on the bits of moss and the occasional bird dropping. The cool part is that these types of habits occur in nearly all climates of the world, from the alpine mountainous and arctic, to the plains, to forested hills, to the humid tropics, up on tree trunks. Some types of small, tight rosette growing plants are found in any these climates. These are all situations where rain may be sparse or abundant, but water never sticks around for long. They really need very fast soil drainage. More on the soil in a bit.

I recommend mixing the hardy plants that you leave hanging outside year round, and some of the more frost tender ones, that make nice indoor window plants in cold weather. The fun part about succulents is learning about and collecting the varieties. Sedum reflexum, shown above, is a great starting point. It is native to a wide area of North America; Mountains to Plains, and Canada to Mexico. This sedum reminds me of the burro tailed sedum, which is not frost hardy. There are literally hundreds of different varieties of hardy sedum that make nice and interesting basket plants. Sedums can be grouped in two broad groups; the evergreen trailing ground hugging types, and the bushy upright perennial ones that die back in winter. It is the first group that make the best plants for hanging pots. There are also many sedums that are not hardy from places like Mexico. They are generally bigger leaved with more drama. The sedum relatives like Echeveria and Graptopetalum also are very collectable. The frost hardiness of the Mexican sedum relatives is all over the map. Most are not very frost hardy, but a few, like the Graptopetalum Ghost Plant seem to be fully hardy in Dallas(Zone 8a to 15 deg F). Full sun to bright partial shade is best for these hardy succulents, but in very hot weather shade in the afternoon is appreciated.

Graptopetalum Ghost Plant foreground, and Sedum palmeri back.

Also fully hardy in zone 8a is the hardy iceplant, Delosperma cooperi, with very showy fuschia flowers.

Here is a very old Hindu Rope Hoya.

A number of succulent vines make special hanging plants, most notably the Hoya's. Unfortunately these are not frost hardy. These tropical plants also do not like much sun, but they still like to get a bit dry between watering. Hoyas have waxy star-like flowers.

Also a Hoya relative, the String of Hearts, Ceropegia woodii .

Succulents' long life and somewhat slow development effect the choices you make for containers. Above you can see where the pot, a glazed ceramic, was drilled to allow attachment of the hanging wires(galvanized 16 or 18 gauge). Ceramic pots, generally on the smaller size due to weight, make great long lasting pots that won't break down in the sun light. Unfortunately ceramic pots made with holes for hanging are rare, so grab them if you ever find them. Drilling is done with a special ceramic bit and a slow, steady, patient hand. Alternatively, if one owns several pairs of pliers and three hands, its possible to twist 16 gauge wire into a pot holder that works well, as below. Most plants are sold in plastic pots, which should be changed over to something like this before the plastic deteriorates in a couple years.

Sedum reflexum in a ceramic bowl, drilled with a drainage hole and a twisted wire holder.

Their long life also effects the choice for soil. Very good drainage is of course important, but the ideal soil is one that holds fertilizer and moisture, but does not shrink , the way organic peat, bark and compost components break down. Regular commercial potting soils are composed of mostly these ingredients, which shrink about 20 - 40 percent per year. The best soil for succulents, and other long lived, slow growing plants, is a mix of about 1/3 regular potting soil, 1/3 absorbent fired clay, sometimes known as expanded shale(the stuff they used to absorb oil from garage floors) and 1/3 charcoal, or bio-char. Horticultural charcoal is rather expensive, and I have found that regular briquettes work fine (not the instant light ones) when soaked in water to soften and crushed them. The charcoal and expanded fired clay both are light weight, but not too light, and they hold water and nutrients, but most importantly, they don't really change or break down so your plants will remain happy for many years.

Expanded Shale(coarse), Oil dry(fine), and Charcoal plus any good commercial potting soil.

Here are some additional possibilities of interesting and dramatic hanging plants.

From right foreground to left: Bromeliad Neoregelia 'Fireball', Sanserveria gracilis, and Euphorbia medusa

Haworthia reinwardtii

Senecio rowleyanus, String of Pearls
Yes these are my plants in my yard. The sedums, like sedum reflexum should be totally hardy for you. Also sempervariums, the classic hens and chicks, should work. This article was my first as the Dallas Horticulture Examiner. My page, which I will be filling with articles like this is: http://www.examiner.com/x-49630-Dallas-Horticulture-Examiner
Sydni, Chuck had the right idea. Marrow, aka Vegetable Marrow, is a member of the Cucurbit family, like squashes, gourds, cucumbers etc. It is generally picked small, like zucchini, and cooked similarly. Better seed houses like Stokes up here in Canada would carry it.


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