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soil composition and organic fertilizer

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
hello,

i'm an absolute beginner with gardening. i've been trying to grow herbs in my apartment for awhile with varying degrees of success (mostly "fail").

so one of the most important questions are what kind of soil should the plants have and what's the best way to do it organically?

this was mentioned on another thread by KYHeirloomer. what's the Extension Service?

looking online for organic and i found this info:
Organic Fertilizer Recipe

Mix uniformly, in parts by volume:
4 parts seed meal*
1/4 part ordinary agricultural lime, best finely ground
1/4 part gypsum (or double the agricultural lime)
1/2 part dolomitic lime
Plus, for best results:
1 part bone meal, rock phosphate or high-phosphate guano
1/2 to 1 part kelp meal (or 1 part basalt dust)
*For a more sustainable and less expensive option, you can substitute chemical-free grass clippings for the seed meal, although clippings will not provoke the same strong growth response. Use about a half-inch-thick layer of fresh clippings (six to seven 5-gallon bucketfuls per 100 square feet), chopped into the top 2 inches of your soil with a hoe. Then spread an additional 1-inch-thick layer as a surface mulch.
is this a good soil composition or is this just the fertilizer? is there a difference? should your soil be a certain composition and the fertilizer another? is this for outdoor gardens only or can i use it for indoor container gardens, too?

also picking up that different plants require different soils. is there an all-purpose soil or should i really learn what each plant requires and where's the best place to find that information? i would like to grow basil, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, dill, oregano, parsley...and that's all that i can think of for now.

i've thought about vermicomposting as it seems like something that would suit apartment-living; i can compost my kitchen waste and use it for the plants. any comments or suggestions on how this is incorporated into the soil? should i even pursue this and just stick to figuring out the garden before trying to pursue something else simultaneously?

so by this point you can probably tell by all my questions, that i know very little about gardening but would dearly like to have a thriving one, one day. please feel free to be as explicit with the information as possible and don't feel like you are being patronizing because i really do know nothing. particularly would like to hear back from those who were able to successfully grow indoors. i live in Chicago, IL (zone 5, i think) and so part of the time of the year i can have it outside (as long as the evil squirrels don't maul them) but during the winter months will need to bring them indoors.

thank you,

blackbirdpies
post #2 of 11
Yes, Chicago is Zone 5. But for vegetable gardening it hardly matters. Gardening literature makes a big deal about the zones, but as a vegetable/herb gardener you can pretty much ignore them. Rather, they are important to those growing trees, shrubs, and ornamentals, such as perennial flowers.

The zones (Technically USDA Plant Hardiness Zones) merely tell you whether or not a particular plant is hardy where you live. And that translates as being able to survive overwinter with no protection.

The vast majority of vegetables are either annuals, or are tropical perennials which we grow as annuals. Peppers, for instance, would fall into that latter category.

So, for your outside plantings, what matters are the last- and first-frost dates. They determine what you can grow, and when it should be planted.

Next: That formula may or may not be right for all plants; seems rather lime-heavy to me. And I have no idea what they mean by "seed meal." From the comments re: grass clippings, I'd presume it's there to add nitrogen. If that's the case, cottonseed meal is the usual choice in formulas like that.

Either way, it is just a fertilizer; that is to say, plant food. It is not soil. Soil is a matrix of various materials, including pulverized rock, loam, clay, sand, and other materials such as decayed organics. Included in the matrix are nutrients (either naturally present or because you added them as fertilizaer), earthworms, and what we call the "micro-herd,"---a collection of molds, bacteria, tiny critters, and other biologicals that contribute to both soil- and plant health.

Soil provides a support structure for growing plants, and anchors their roots, among other things.

If you are going to grow organically there is one rule of thumb: If you want to grow good plants, you have to grow good soil. There are numerous books and web sites that can help you understand what that means. But basically it means creating and maintaining "tilth," which refers to the composition and density of the soil, and how plants interact with it.

Vermiposting is a very good way of recycling vegetable scraps. When used outdoors, you can either till it in or just spread it on the surface---worms and other members of the micro-herd will draw it into the soil, as they do with your mulch. Used indoors it's better to scratch it into the surface, and let it leach through as you water the plants.

All that said, herbs, as a group, do not need much fertilizing. If you start with a good potting mix that's pretty much all you need. In fact, over-fertilizing can be detrimental.

There are many reasons why indoor herbs fail. Among them, in no particular order, are:

1. Too little light---either because too little falls, or not enough falls over time. Plants, in general, need a minimum of 6 hours summer sun or equivilent in artificial lighting to grow happily.

2. Over-watering.

3. Over-fertilizing.

4. Temperatures outside their comfort range.

We've had several discussions, here, about growing herbs indoors. I would recommend that you read them. Then come back with any questions you may have (and I'm sure you will).

Let me end by pointing out that gardening can seem overwhelming to a beginner. Don't let that deter you. We all started somewhere, and went through what you're going through now.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #3 of 11
I should have included that the best general purpose organic fertilizer is equal parts of blood meal, bone meal, and hardwood ashes.

This provides the three major nutrients needed by plants (there are 16 in all). Whether or not you need to add any of the others depends on your soil make up---most of the time they are present already, and are replaced both by the kinds of plants you grow (f'rinstance, legumes fix free nitrogen from the air) and the compost and other organic materials that you add.

Other amendments are also used, depending on the soil structure. Lime, for instance, is often used to "sweeten" an otherwise acidic soil.

But one thing stands out: You're in an apartment, and, if I understand correctly, won't be growing in the ground. Which means you mostly won't have to worry about the soil composition, because you'll be container gardening. Depending on how extensive you get with this, that means you'll be buying soil---either in bags, from a garden center, or in bulk from a nursery.

For your containers I would just get equal parts of the best topsoil and potting mix you can find, and mix them half & half. That should serve you just fine.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #4 of 11

Herbs in pots

This is going to take a while so bear with me...

"I'm an absolute beginner with gardening. i've been trying to grow herbs in my apartment for awhile with varying degrees of success (mostly "fail")."

-- Herbs aren't the best "houseplants". They really do like fresh air and LOTS of sunshine. But you're going to give it a go, so...

"So one of the most important questions are what kind of soil should the plants have and what's the best way to do it organically?"

-- any good, not overly-supplemented (such as Miracle-Gro Soil Mix) potted soil works for annual and perennial herbs. You don't need anything fancy.


"looking online for organic and i found this info:
Organic Fertilizer Recipe

Mix uniformly, in parts by volume:
4 parts seed meal*
1/4 part ordinary agricultural lime, best finely ground
1/4 part gypsum (or double the agricultural lime)
1/2 part dolomitic lime
Plus, for best results:
1 part bone meal, rock phosphate or high-phosphate guano
1/2 to 1 part kelp meal (or 1 part basalt dust)
*For a more sustainable and less expensive option, you can substitute chemical-free grass clippings for the seed meal, although clippings will not provoke the same strong growth response. Use about a half-inch-thick layer of fresh clippings (six to seven 5-gallon bucketfuls per 100 square feet), chopped into the top 2 inches of your soil with a hoe. Then spread an additional 1-inch-thick layer as a surface mulch.
is this a good soil composition or is this just the fertilizer? is there a difference? should your soil be a certain composition and the fertilizer another? is this for outdoor gardens only or can i use it for indoor container gardens, too?"


-- what you published is a formula for fertilizer, not potting soil. And yes, there's a big difference. Soil, by definition is mineral component + organic component. The natural soils outdoors are mineral component + BIO-organic component, meaning that a true soil contains living organisms (the real essence of organic gardening). Potting soils, on the other hand, are composed of a pseudo-mineral component (such as perlite or vermiculite) and a simple organic component such as peat moss or composted bark. Soil provides the structure or base for the plants.

Fertilizer is a concentrated organic material (or synthetic inorganic material) that provides the food for the plants (actually, in the best sense, it provides the food for the "edaphon", the living portion of the soil.

It's difficult to do truly "organic" growing of any kind indoors or in containers because you lack the "edaphon" that breaks down any organic fertilzier into forms that the plants can take up as useable nutrients. In other words, the fertilizer formula you posted works very well in the great outdoors but it just won't do what you want it to do indoors.


"also picking up that different plants require different soils. is there an all-purpose soil or should i really learn what each plant requires and where's the best place to find that information? i would like to grow basil, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, dill, oregano, parsley...and that's all that i can think of for now."

-- basil, dill, and parsely are annuals and would do best in a rich, moisture-retentive potting mix ("soiol"). Thyme, sage rosemary, chives and oregano are perennials and do better with a less-organic, leaner potting mix. By the way, you do know that dill and rosemary get pretty dang BIG, yes? And basil is a balker when it comes to winter indoor production.

There are a gazillion on-line sites for herb growing info. Some are actually pretty accurate.


"i've thought about vermicomposting as it seems like something that would suit apartment-living; i can compost my kitchen waste and use it for the plants. any comments or suggestions on how this is incorporated into the soil? should i even pursue this and just stick to figuring out the garden before trying to pursue something else simultaneously?"

-- Persue vermi-composting. If nothing else, it's a good way to get rid of your kitchen waste without feeling guilty about filling up landfills. When you harvest the worm castings, simply use them to mulch your potted plants; it will provide needed nutrients -- in a useable form -- to the plants. Don't think that they're something "magical", though (as many want you to believe).


"part of the time of the year i can have it outside (as long as the evil squirrels don't maul them) but during the winter months will need to bring them indoors."

-- Growing outdoors is the best way to go with herbs.

Basil, dill and parsley are easy growers and you can harvest them and freeze or dry them for winter use.

Thyme, sage, rosemary (especially 'Arp'), chives, and oregano are hardy plants and will survive Chicago winters in the ground (not in pots).

Good luck,
Joe
post #5 of 11
Potting soils, on the other hand, are composed of a pseudo-mineral component (such as perlite or vermiculite) and a simple organic component such as peat moss or composted bark. Soil provides the structure or base for the plants.

Joe, I think you're confusing potting soil with starting media here. Otherwise, good post.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #6 of 11

Potting soil/mix?

"Potting Soil", in the best sense, is never made with actual soil.

"Potting Soil" is technically called "potting mix" in the commercial plant production world.

"Soil" is what you find in your back yard and on the prairie and on good farms. It is mineral component, organic component and living component (the latter two often combined and stated as "bio-organic").

I'm sorry if my original dissertation didn't make it clear between "potting soil" and "potting mix".

"Potting Mix", as sold in bags at retail or as used in the commercial greenhouse and nursery industries, contains no "soil". It IS made with mineral components such as perlite and vermiculite (in medium to coarse grades) and shredded peat and/or composted wood by-products. It is made without soil (including so-called
"topsoil") so as not to contaminate the production substrate. That means ALL the living stuff is left out -- good and bad.

Small-time growers and amateur container gardeners are welcome to mix "topsoil" and real soil in with their potting mixes. And they can call it anything they want -- potting mix or potting soil or whatever. Not what I recommend.

"Starting mix" ("seed mix") is made with the exact same ingredients as "potting mix", except that the grind or grade of the material (perlite, vermiculite, peat, organic material, alfalfa meal or whatever) is FINE (versus medium or coarse).

I'm not confused here.

Joe
post #7 of 11
Thread Starter 
thanks thegardenguru & KYHeirloomer! you both have an abundance of information about soil. i think my head is still spinning.

i do have some questions for you both, still

by lean vs rich, is that less organic vs more organic? or are there just more nutrients? what makes a soil moisture-retentitive? was "soiol" a typo or are you just blowing my mind with more terminology?

regarding the blood meal, bone meal and hardwood ash, is that something that i would pick up at any garden center? i haven't been fertilizing my plants at all so i don't think over-fertilization was the problem. i'm going to try to get a light, that you mentioned in another post, KYHeirloomer. i've blasted that post with my incessant questioning there, too. :crazy:

again, thank you both. i now have fuel to be able to go in and ask more intelligent questions at the garden centers and get the right "soils" for my herbs.

blackbirdpies
post #8 of 11

Soil, etc.

"lean" = more grit, less organic, infrequent feeding.
"rich" = more organic, more frequent feeding
"soiol" = typo (good thing, ay?)

I don't know of any stores that sell wood ash. Old time stuff you make at home. But easily overdone.

Keep in mind that plants in pots have different fertilizer requirements that plants int he ground. In pots, they have a limited supply (unlike plants in the ground that have extensive root systems) so they must be fed regularly albeit lightly.

Also keep in mind that organic fertilizers (such as blood and bone) work only if you've started with a living soil base. Remember the edaphon? Not usually found in packaged potting mixes.

And finally, give herbs as much sunlight as you can when growing indoors. Full sun, south window is really good.

When I think about it, if you do even a moderate amount of cooking with herbs, can you really get enough supply from some potted plants indoors?

Joe
post #9 of 11
Blackbirdpies,

Blood and bone meal should be available during the season at most garden supply centers. Trouble is, this isn't the season, and most of them clear the shelves for other products. You might find it on-line, however.

Wood ashes are something you produce yourself. It's best to use hardwoods. If nothing else, even a hibachi or tabletop grill can be used (but watch the smoke levels). Maybe take it to a local park. Basically, you're just building a fire in the grill, using wood instead of charcoal, and saving the ashes.

They do take time to cool down, so don't transfer them to a plastic pail. Get a metal one, or wait until they're fully cooled down before transferring.

You won't need a great deal. Outdoors, for instance, the blood-bone-ash mix is applied, even to heavy feeders like alliums, at the rate of 1 cup each per each ten row feet. With alliums, that rate is tilled in, in the fall (just before planting), and it isn't until may that the plants get side-dressed with another application. In other words, a little goes a long way.

Your best bet, initially, would be to put the fertilizer together, then mix it with the soil before filling the pots. Can't give you precise amounts, but at a guess I'd say a couple of tablespoonsful per 6-8 inch pot.

Something to be aware of as well. Herb requirements run counter to normal container growing techniques in this regard:

In general, containers dry out faster than if you'd planted in the ground. This is true whether indoors or out. So you have to water more frequently. This, in turn, tends to leach out the nutrients. Which means you have to fertilize more often.

However, if you think about it, most of the common herbs we grow are from the Mediterranean region. And that means semi-arid, generally infertile soils. So govern yourself accordingly. It doesn't hurt, with your herbs, if the pots are practically dry before you rewater them. And when you do, you don't want to make the soil swampy. The soil should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

As GardenGuru points out, fertilization should be done lightly. I wouldn't fertilize herbs more often than once a month, and then only at about 25% of the recommended amounts that you'd use for, say, vegetables.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #10 of 11
Thread Starter 
alas, our southern window has a lovely view of a brick wall so there will be no life-giving rays of sun coming from that direction. ditto with our northern exposure and we have no windows pointed westward. the most sunlight that we get is from the east (until the present building is torn down and a huge monstrosity pops up in its place). nice large picture windows. might go the route of using lights, however, or both, just to see what each will produce.

we have a garlic chive plant given to us that has managed to thrive quite well. it's in a 7-inch terracotta pot and appears quite hardy and gives us plenty of chives. not sure if it makes a difference but it came from somebody else's outside garden, soil and all. i think they pretty much just dug up a chunk of earth and chives and plopped it into the pot. i'm hoping that i could extrapolate this one moment of success for future endeavours, that it is possible. admittedly will never have enough basil, particularly when it comes to making pesto, but on those moments when i can just snip a few leaves and add fresh basil to my pasta, it's like getting a Xmas present. i get all giddy.

don't suppose i could use bone ash or is that a completely different monkey? i know a ceramic studio whose manager wouldn't mind if i scooped myself up some...hehe...

thanks again, Joe (aka thegardenguru) and KYHeirloomer
post #11 of 11

Thanks for the information guys, i use seaweed organic fertilizer, it's good


Edited by chuangxin - 10/17/12 at 1:05am
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