Q & A: Miscellaneous

Got a gardening question? Ask Susan! What follows are reader questions. Each time a new one comes in, I’ll add it to the top. To ask a question, drop me a note at Susan@susansinthegarden.com.

Q: I have been gardening in raised beds for the past 2 years. I’d love to know more about soil testing…I bought a kit from Gardens Alive last year and my kids and I tested our beds in the spring… not sure I did it right, but I tried to amend my soil appropriately. How do you test your soil and how often? Which kit do you recommend? R.N., Spokane

A: If your plants have been growing well over the past 2 years, and if you are amending the soil annually, you probably don’t need to test your soil. By amending it with organic materials such as compost, grass clippings from an untreated lawn (no weed-n-feed), or a small amount of chicken or rabbit manure, or shredded leaves, etc., you are helping rebuild the soil. You’ll notice I didn’t mention horse or steer manure above. That’s because there is a very persistent herbicide that doesn’t break down and it will wipe out your entire garden and contaminate your soil. So I recommend avoiding those 2 types of manures, just to be safe. Each type of vegetable crop that you grow has different nutritional needs, so they can deplete the soil of those nutrients over the course of a growing season. For example, leafy plants like lettuce, cabbage, spinach and broccoli, use a lot of nitrogen. Plants that bloom and set fruit (tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, etc.) need a lot of phosphorus. And root crops such as onions, turnips, beets, carrots and parsnips use both phosphorus and potassium. That’s why it’s important to amend your soil either at the end of the season or before the start of the new season. If your plants aren’t doing that well, then I would definitely recommend a soil test. I haven’t had enough experience with the different soil test kits available at garden centers, so I can’t really recommend a specific brand. But they will generally tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are in your soil at the time of testing, and perhaps also the soil pH. Another option is to have a soil test performed. Here in Spokane, the Spokane County Conservation District offers soil tests that are quite detailed. I think they cost $30. Here is a link to their website: http://sccd.org/. And here is information on their soil testing service: http://sccd.org/departments/soil-science/soil-testing.

Q: I saw your garden on “Growing a Greener World.” Lovely gardens! I was very impressed by the quality of photos shown on the episode. I’d like to know which camera you use. JW, VA.

A: I primarily use a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, although there are newer versions of it available now (mine is about 4 years old). I really like the zoom it has, which is perfect for getting bird and wildlife photos from a distance. I do have a DSLR (Canon 50D), which I really should update as well, but I’ve been so happy with how simple the PowerShot is to use. I also like using my iPhone for flower and insect close-ups.

Q: I don’t understand what half strength dilution means referring to the
fish fertilizer.  Could you tell me how much to use per gallon of
water? OLR, Spokane

A: When I fertilize young seedlings with fish fertilizer, I like to use it half-strength to avoid burning or overfeeding them. This means using half as much fish fertilizer from what is recommended on the label. So, for example, they recommend 2 tbsp. of fish fertilizer to a gallon of water for vegetables, bedding plants, bulbs and annuals. That means I will use 1 tbsp. of fertilizer to a gallon of water.

Q: Can you tell me where we can purchase a copy of your book? 

A: Thank you for asking! There are several places where you should be able to locate Northwest Gardener’s Handbook: 1) at the Spokane County Master Gardener’s plant clinic, located at 222 N. Havana St. (just south of the Indians Ballpark). They are open 9-3 Mon-Thurs, 9-1 Fri and 9-12 Sat. Their phone number is (509) 477-2181; 2) at Auntie’s Bookstore downtown; 3) at Barnes & Noble (either Northtown or east of the Spokane Valley Mall) and 4) On Amazon.com.

Q: One problem we have with the garden is weeds. Frustrating the amount of weeds we have. Can you suggest a product that will decrease the amount of weeds. Is Preen a good one or is there something more effective. JK, Spokane

A: I completely understand your frustration with all of the weeds! If only our gardens grew as readily as they do. As much as I despise weeds, I don’t like using any chemicals in my garden because I don’t want to handle them and I worry about the impact they will have on the rest of the ecosystem within my garden. You might consider a few other options:

1. If the weeds appear in your pathways, you might try using a landscape mulch (also known as weed-block) covered by a few inches of bark. We did that in our vegetable garden and rarely get any weeds growing there.

2. Try mulching around your plants with things like grass clippings, compost, shredded leaves, or weed-free straw. The mulch will inhibit weed growth while helping the soil to retain moisture.

3. When weeding, try not to rake through the top few inches of soil as that will bring other weed seeds to the surface.

I did just notice that there’s now an organic version of Preen, but I don’t know how effective it is. Here’s a link to some information on it: http://www.preen.com/products/preen-vegetable-garden-weed-preventer. I was unable to find out what the active ingredient is.