All posts by Jordan Charbonneau

Do Wood Chips Make Good Mulch?

I may never be able to say enough good things about mulch. It protects soil from erosion, adds nutrients, and so much more. Despite the growing interest in no-till gardening and permaculture, some people are still hesitant to use wood chips as mulch in their garden. They may not break down as quickly as other mulches but wood chips still have many benefits. 

Where to Find Wood Chips

One of the best things about wood chips is that you can often find them for free and you can be fairly certain that they’re free of chemicals, trash, and weed seeds. To locate free wood chips ask your town or city for the company that trims roadsides and power-lines. These companies are often looking for ways to get rid of the excess of wood chips they create. Sometimes if you live near where they’re cutting they’ll even deliver it to your yard for free. Alternatively, check with local landscaping companies and arborists as well as garden supply and feed stores. While colored bark mulches are usually pricey they may offer plain wood chips for a decent price. 

What About “Nitrogen Tie-Up”

For anyone unfamiliar, “nitrogen tie-up” is when the nitrogen in your soil is being used by microorganisms to break down carbon material (like wood chips) making it unavailable to plants for a time. However this doesn’t make wood chips bad, remember plants need carbon too! Some farmers also see other benefits of “nitrogen tie-up” like the fact that the nitrogen doesn’t leach out of the soil or too far down for plants to reach. If it seems like your wood chips are taking too long to break down or you’re seeing signs of nitrogen deficiency you can add amendments to boost your nitrogen levels and help your wood chips break down. Grass clippings, seaweed, chicken manure, and soy meal are all great options depending on where you live and what you have available.

Moisture Control & Weed Suppression

Wood chips do an excellent job at helping to keep your soils evenly moist. Many people know that they help keep your soil from drying out which is very important in dry climates or for those without access to irrigation. However, fewer people are aware that wood chips can help with soggy soils too. Wood chips help absorb excess moisture and are a great way to add organic matter to heavy clay soils. Also worth noting is how a thick layer of wood chips can help suppress weeds and unlike black plastic, it will fully break down leaving you without clean up and a smaller environmental impact.

Wood Chips are Prime Habitat

Two important features in organic gardens are fungus and beneficial insects. Wood chips are an excellent way to encourage both of these. Many of the types of fungus in your garden that help break down organic material into usable nutrients for plants will thrive with the addition of wood chips. Some people, like awesome folks of Edible Acres, actually grow edible mushrooms like wine caps on the wood chips in their garden! Several insects like earthworms and predatory beetles also enjoy habitat created by wood chips. Earthworms like the moist soil and will feed on the wood chips as they break down and predatory beetles will use them as shelter as they feed on the harmful pests that attack garden plants. 

If you’re looking to add mulch to your garden this year consider wood chips. In most areas of the east coast, they’re readily available and can help you create healthier soils and a more productive garden. 

Tomato Tips: Preventing Fungal Diseases

For many tomatoes are the highlight of the summer garden. The refreshing sweet yet acidic flavor of a garden tomato is world’s away from the bland, mealy supermarket tomatoes of winter. Unfortunately for those living in areas with hot, humid summers getting a good tomato harvest can be a struggle. Many times tomatoes can become afflicted with fungal diseases like Verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt, or Alternaria.

Alternaria also known as early blight causes “bullseye” leaf spots and can causes lesions on the fruit. Fusarium wilt causes the plant’s leaves to wilt and turn yellow and then brown. It usually begins on the plants lower leaves. Like Fusarium wilt, Verticillium wilt begins at the bottom of the plant causes yellow spots to form on the leaves before the leaves turn fully yellow or brown.

There are also many other tomato afflictions you could be experiencing in your garden these are just a few common ones. 

Don’t handle your tomatoes when they’re wet.

Fungal diseases are passed through moisture. Avoid working with your tomato plants until after all the dew or rain had dried off.

Use drip irrigation.

Using drip irrigation is more efficient and can help limit the spread of fungal diseases because the water is going directly to the plants’ roots. For those with small gardens, it’s also possible to spot water the base of the plant. If you must use overhead watering water in the early morning so that the plant will have time to dry off during the day.

Tomato trellis of string weaving at Twin Oaks Community Farm

Prune, trellis, and weed around your plants.  

We all start each spring with the best intentions but often the summer gets away from us. It can be easy to fail to keep up with these important tasks when our garden is competing for our attention with work and family obligations. However, maintaining good airflow around your plants is vital to preventing fungal diseases.

Tomatoes can be trellised in a variety of manners like the “Florida weave” pictured above, on cattle panels, or some sort of homemade tomato cage.

Rotate your crops.

Many fungal diseases that afflict tomatoes live in the soil. To keep your tomatoes disease free you must rotate your crops. Don’t plant tomatoes or other nightshades (including potatoes, peppers, and eggplants) in the same space multiple years in a row. You should use a minimum of a four-year rotation.

Keep your soil and plants healthy.

Along with rotating your crops, you should also work hard to improve your soil’s health which will help you grow healthier, less vulnerable plants. Get your soil tested and add amendments as needed. Practice no-till agriculture. Use cover crops and good quality compost to add fertility and organic matter to your soil. Mulch pathways and around plants to add organic matter and habitat for beneficial fungi and microbes.

West Virginia 63 (Centennial) Tomato – resistant to late blight, Fusarium wilt race 1, Verticillium wilt, and sunscald

Plant disease resistant varieties.

Some varieties have been specifically bred to better tolerate these diseases. Check out our disease resistant selection.

Try a fungicide.

If all else fail you can find organic fungicides. Look for those that are OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed. Keep in mind that organic doesn’t always mean completely harm-free. Many fungicides will kill off your soils’ good fungus as well as the bad. Some fungicides like copper can even cause toxicity in your soil if used too frequently or in high quantities! Some gardeners have luck with products like Mycostop which are created from bacteria that feeds on the fungus.

Having tomato diseases ruin your harvest can take a lot of the fun out of gardening. Try following these tips to keep your tomatoes disease free this year.

 

Spring Greens Ravioli & a Spring Gardening Checklist

Waiting for the bounty of a mid-summer garden can be tough. As the weather gets warmer it can be tempting to reach for supermarket tomatoes, peppers, and melons even though those won’t be ready in most backyard gardens for several months. However, we can learn to slow down and appreciate local, seasonal flavors. This recipe takes the overabundance of greens available this season and turns it into a filling and delicious meal. 

There are so many spring greens available for this recipe. In this batch, I used kale, spinach, chives, lemon balm, parsley, dandelion greens, ramps as well as violet greens and flowers. A note on the ramps: please research sustainable ramp harvesting unless you grow your own! They are overharvested in many areas of the United States.

Depending on where you’re located and what you’ve got in your garden there are plenty of other options. Consider using nettles, chard or beet greens, collards, creasy greens, cleavers, or even lettuce! I also used onion and garlic stored from last season but you could also use leeks or chives.

For the filling:

  • A large bunch of greens (about 1lb)
  • 1 medium size onion 
  • Fresh garlic

Chop up your greens and onion or leeks. Then saute the onion until tender. Add your greens to the pan, stirring them into the onions and place a lid on the pan and turn off the burner. Leave them sitting like this for a few minutes. You just want to steam them. 

For the dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 cup of water
  • Spices to taste

Combine the flour, salt, and spices. Then add the olive oil and begin slowly adding water while mixing. Keep adding water and stirring until the dough forms a ball. You may have to work it with your hands a bit. The dough should be smooth, elastic, slightly sticky and easy to work with. If you’ve added too much water you can knead in a bit of extra flour. 

Roll the dough out into four sheets about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Then you can slice it into your desired shapes and add a small spoonful of filling. Press the edges closed with a fork or just pinch them with your fingers. 

Boil your ravioli for 3-5 minutes. Serve warm.

This pasta goes great with many sauces like a spaghetti sauce you canned last season, just a touch of butter and salt, or broth. 

Spring Checklist

  • Amend soil with compost.
  • Sow cool weather crops like kale, lettuce, onions, collards, and peas and thin them as needed.
  • Harden off and transplant spring crops like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Continue starting warm weather crops indoors (depending on your zone).
  • Plant potatoes.
  • Sow or plan to sow multiple successions of crops. 
  • Get creative with the food coming in from your garden and local farmers market. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
  • Mulch garden pathways.
  • Leave dead plant material and leaves as long as possible to provide shelter for beneficial insects and caterpillars. 
  • Watch transplants still indoors for problems and pot them up as needed. 
  • Install key garden elements like deer fencing, row cover, trellises, and drip irrigation.
  • Join the Big Bug Hunt. It’s an international ‘citizen science’ project that tracks when and how garden bugs appear and spread during the growing season. Making a report only takes seconds and they’re close to launching an initial pest prediction service!

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