The annual Back to Basics Sustainable Living Event at Pine River-Backus School on Saturday, Feb. 15 once again had information for anyone wanting to learn about fiber, beekeeping, mushrooms, food processing and many other traditional skills. Holding two full classroom sessions was Kathy Connell of Redfern Gardens of Sebeka.

Connell, a former inspector in the meat, organic farming and organic processing industries, among other careers, spoke on garden management including garden fertility.

Connell said she has been gardening since the age of eight.

“Someone wanted me out of the way and handed me corn seed and said, 'go plant these.' I was hooked,” Connell said.

Even so, some of her lessons were learned the hard way in adulthood. One lesson she gave her class on fertility was not to assume there was any one answer that was right for everyone. Connell, for example, has changed her mind on many things. An advocate of organic gardening since the 1960s, it may be surprising to learn that she has some leeway for inorganic fertilizers, which she says are excusable from time to time. The alternative, after all, is often buying produce which may have been exposed to fertilizers and pesticides.

“I would far rather you use a chemical fertilizer and succeed than using an organic fertilizer and fail,” Connell said.

She also opposes the idea that gardens should never be tilled, instead advocating for wise, rare use of tilling.

“My tilling once in the early spring will not mess up the soil forever,” Connell said. “Tilling has advantages if used sparingly”

Many of Connell's lessons were learned tending to her own farm in Sebeka. When she first began farming that land, Connell said the soil was so over worked that there wasn't even enough bacterial life to break down organic matter in a reasonable amount of time. One field was still adorned with four year old rows of cut corn, which should have decomposed by then. Using an exclusively organic approach to amending the soil back to good health, it took seven years before the garden soil had a healthy balance of bacteria, minerals and nutrients.

Among the lessons she shared with her class were troubleshooting tips for identifying nutrient or mineral deficiencies. Chief among these were deficiencies in nitrogen that is needed for growing shoots, phosphorous which is needed for growing fruits and potassium that is needed for growing roots. These are the nutrients, in order, that are represented by the numbers on bags of chemical or organic fertilizers in the format 10-10-10 or similar.

The warning signs she pointed out were:

  • Yellow leaves on the bottom of a plant's stem, which are good indicators of nitrogen deficiency. This can be amended by adding green manures or nitrogen rich fertilizers, all of which should be high in proteins.
  • Leaves with a purplish tint, which can indicate phosphorous deficiency, though it can also be caused by cold temperatures that prevent phosphorous intake. If it is cold, gardeners can wait to see if the leaves improve in warmer temperatures, but if they become more purple, these plants can be amended with phosphorous rich organic or chemical fertilizers.
  • Dead, dry leaf edges can indicate a potassium deficiency. Once again, Connell said this can be a common deficiency for tomato plants while they are rooting. Ash from untreated wood can be used to treat potassium deficiency, though gardeners should be aware of their soil PH, by testing with test strips available at the pharmacy, before amending with wood ash, which can make soils alkaline. Connell does not advise adding potassium every year.
  • Blossom end rot can be an indicator of a mineral deficiency in calcium. There are some soil amendments that can be used to increase calcium, but Connell warned that irregular watering limits calcium intake and could also cause blossom end rot.
  • Leaves with dark veins, especially on tomatoes, are indicators of a magnesium deficiency, which can be amended with Epsom salts.
  • Shriveled, irregular strawberries can be an indicator of either insect damage to flower buds, or boron deficiency, which can be treated with household borax.

In all these cases, Connell warned her students that several of these signs can have multiple causes. In addition, they need to be careful how much amendments they add. In some of these cases, Connell only adds three teaspoons of an amendment for a large section of garden.

These amendments are available in both organic and non-organic sources, though Connell warned that some organic sources may also pose moral dilemmas for some. For example, blood or bone meal both support a sometimes controversial livestock industry. The same is true for pelleted chicken manure, all of which may have been exposed to other contaminants like antibiotics and pesticides. Connell uses soybean meal, which she says may not have been grown with organic practices, so no matter what fertilizers a person chooses, they must consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Before amendments are even considered, gardeners have to be aware of their soil condition. In addition to PH, home gardeners can determine how much clay, sand and organic matter is in their soil by mixing it in a jar with water, shaking it, and allowing it to settle in layers. As for nutrient and mineral content of soil, she recommends either contacting the local extensions office or paying for a quality soil test service such as from Peaceful Valley or Midwest Bio Testing.

“Before you think about what you're going to purchase at all, you're going to need at least one good soil test,” Connell said.

She warned that gardeners should not pay much attention to the nitrogen in the test results, as it varies by temperature throughout the year.

In addition, needs vary by plant, so gardeners need to adjust their process based on what they are growing as well as how you will be gardening.

“Fertility is going to be largely based on gardening techniques you use,” Connell said.

In addition to recommendations for soil amendments, Connell made recommendations for various other types of soil improvement methods. Once again, she warned no solution is one size fits all.

A gardener may use green manure such as clover, rye and buckwheat. Most work on nitrogen fixation, but each has their own advantages, for example, rye can help eliminate weeds.

A gardener may use mulches, which serve as protection and eventual fertilizer for plants, though mulches can also lower soil temperature in a way that is not beneficial for some plants such as eggplants, which like hot soil.

A gardener may also use ground covers, also known as living mulch, though these can take three years to properly balance a garden biome. Before that balance is reached, a garden may not produce as desired.

Overall, Connell kept stressing that the class did not have to choose just one practice and live with it.

“Nothing is concrete,” Connell said. “You have a right to change your mind.”