February 2020 Gardening Tips: Organic Gardening & Good Soil Solutions


This winter as in other winters I needed a blossom boost and have enjoyed the fragrance of paper white narcissus that I planted in tall glass vases. I surrounded the bulbs with seashells from White Sands Beach here in Old Lyme and kept them in a dark cool area keeping them moist as the roots developed.  When the bulb foliage reached about six inches tall I introduced the bulbs to indirect light.

The fragrance of this plant is so inviting and each morning on entering my lounge I inhaled their fragrance – so uplifting.I keep extra bulbs in a brown paper bag in the vegetable keeper in the refrigerator and these I am about to plant now that the first blooms have gone by. With this method, I have a succession of bloom and fragrance in my home into spring. 

Spring will be here before you know it and I already I am full of the anticipation that lives within all gardeners. Lots to look forward to and I am asking you once again, for you to garden organically. 

One can see clearly the results of pollution and climate change and what it is doing to Mother Nature and your own health in the form of poisonous pesticides and herbicides. The culprits are Monsanto and other biological monsters who are corrupting our world and how climate change through pollution and neglect is decimating our planet. The starkest evidence is the colossal melting of the glaciers and how that has affected polar bears as just one example, causing their deaths by starvation and disease. To add to add fact, the latest government news is that the EPA is spraying 14 million acres of land with bee killing poisons.  The EPA is in the pocket of Monsanto and others. We must put a stop to this and I beg you to please connect with your federal congress and senate reps to investigate.  Bees pollinate 70% of the world’s food and their demise is our demise. 

Last year was recorded as the hottest year on record for our planet.  In this country, the drought in the west, with the consequence that tinder dries conditions caused devastating fires that brought death to many in Northern California. Extreme weather patterns caused tornadoes, deadly hurricanes, earthquakes and never before recorded below zero temperatures in winter with heavy snow and  the jet stream dipping far to the south. 

As gardeners our diligence is essential to help counteract these negative changes by using only organic methods of gardening on your own plot of land; you are an important element in the quest to heal the planet. Through twenty years on my radio show WRCH 100.5 FM and through my Garden Earth lectures I received a commitment from thousands of people to discard all poisonous herbicides and pesticides and to garden organically. 

It begins by what you put into the soil for the growth of the plants, free from herbicides and pesticides – by adding liberal doses of my favorite stuff –aged manure. Manure either from the farm or in bags from the garden center.   

In 1937 Franklin D Roosevelt said that ‘the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself’America has not heeded that warning. Precious soils in this country and around the world are being destroyed by dangerous practices in industrialized agriculture and poisonous chemicals, which completely disrupts our eco system and poisoning all living things.

In your own garden you can build and retain a rich growing environment by building the Humus component - We are all carbon-based creatures as is all life on earth. Not only humans but also our soil microbes need carbon to flourish. And to attract carbon from the atmosphere into your soil you need to build the humus component. 

HOW TO BUILD THE HUMUS COMPONENT - Do not till soil - tilling breaks up soil structure.  

First step - Add composted manure three times –beginning in spring when the soil has reached a temperature of 50 degrees.  If the soil has not reached that temperature the soil organisms are not able to work with the bacteria in the manure to produce nutrients for the roots of the plants.  Purchase a soil thermometer to check the soil’s temperature. 

This year, as we have not experienced deep frost therefore the soil temperature may reach 45 degrees by the end of April to early May.  Add the manure again in July to continue to nourish your growing plants and again in October to protect and nourish your plants through the winter.    Manure is not a fertilizer; it builds soil structure and works with all the soil animals to keep a healthy disease-free growing environment.  

Second step - Add wood chips in the form of brown fine bark mulch or wood chips that you produce from your garden of aged wood chips with a combo of leaves, twigs and branches. 

These two major steps build the humus component. If you do this in your garden – not only will you helping to heal the planet but also produce the healthiest of gardens. 

A question I am often asked is ‘can I put manure over mulch for example in my July garden’? The answer is ‘yes’ – the manure together with nature’s moisture and your own irrigation enables the manure to find its way easily into the soil and the roots of your plants.     

WHAT EXACTLY DOES HUMUS DO? Humus acts like a sponge and can hold 90% of its weight in water.

Because of its negative charge – plant nutrients stick to humus for nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and others, which prevents these from washing away, acts as nature’s slow release fertilizer throughout the year.

Humus improves soil structure making it loose and friable, which helps plant root in this soil environment better access to nutrients, water and oxygen.

Humus also helps’ filter’ toxic chemicals from the soil, mulch like carbon-based water filtration systems filter toxins from your water. 

We cannot control industrialized agricultural practices but in your own garden you can make a difference.   Feed the soil and it will feed the plants.  This week I spoke with my friend Ann, who lives in Cheshire, in England, which is next door to my home county of Shropshire. Ann is an avid gardener and she told me that her daffodils are well above the soil and a week ago she started seeds in the greenhouse.

February 20th to March 20th is the time for serious indoor seed planting here. Check which garden centers are stocking organic seeds,  or go online for the seeds  - one company that I use is “Botanical Interests”.  Don’t go overboard and buy too many packs of seeds; there are about 500 seeds in each packet.  If you do purchase too many - have a seed sharing party with gardening friends.  

Equipment to have on hand – cheap envelopes, fresh sterilized potting soil mix, and sphagnum moss. Also seed trays, or egg cartons also cardboard milk containers that are cut down work well.  All containers must be scrupulously clean. Sphagnum moss works well as a planting medium; the moss can prevent a soil born fungus that causes “damping off” that causes seeds to rot before germination. I, together with gardening friends and colleagues have used this method for years and have lost no seeds to “damping off”. 

For tiny seeds I use the moss as the planting mix and for larger seeds have a topsoil base and a layer of the moss on top of the soil. 

I mix fine seeds with sand before I sow; this method helps to loosen them up. Soak the seeds overnight before planting and just before planting spray them with warm water, never cold as cold water can delay germination. When they have germinated, water gently. 

The best method of watering seedlings is from the bottom. But, if you feel you must top water, just mist with a fine sprayer, otherwise you will drown the delicate seeds, washing them out of the planting mix. Use sterilized soil when seeding but do not save any leftover soil, add it to houseplants or put it in the garden. Left over soil from the previous year, can develop disease, which will ruin future seedling crops.  If you are growing seedlings on a windowsill, place them on a south or west-facing sill; seedlings need light and do not need heat to thrive. 

Winter care of houseplants – My houseplants lift my spirits, more so in winter when the landscape is rather monochrome. I talk to my plants enjoying the blooming variety and the different foliage varieties and thank them for cleaning the air in a stuffy home environment. 

Keep your houseplants away from draughts and direct heat. If possible have humidifiers and air purifiers in the rooms, which will benefit not only the plants but also your own health. Place pebble trays under the plants and keep the pebbles moist for additional humidity. 

Spray houseplants every few days with lukewarm water and once every couple of weeks, put the plants in a sink or bathtub and allow water to run freely over the plant to remove dust from the leaves and clean salt residue from the soil. The exception to the spray or soak rule is African violets; violets do not like wet leaves. 

Aphids and white fly thrive indoors in winter and an organic sulphur solution called Safer works well to clean the soil of the insect eggs and from the foliage. Perhaps you are fortunate like me to have ladybugs in your home in winter; if so, allow these useful creatures to roam freely; the ladybug menu is aphids and white flies.  

The best time to repot houseplants is from April through June but if a plant has become root bound with no visible soil, then repot them  now. Water the plant to loosen the roots from the soil, turn it sideways on a newspaper and gently slide it from the pot.  

Cut away any dead roots and repot in fresh potting soil in a clean pot that is only two inches larger than the original.  With the plant firmly in place and the soil one inch from the rim, water it gently and do not fertilize with an organic fertilizer until April.  Plants need this dormant period to recharge. 

A few suggestions of trouble free foliage plants for the home are: Rubber plants, Spider plants, Ivy, Philodendron, Monstera and Spaphyllum. If you have a sunny window Aloes, Succulents and Cacti do great.   

Blooming plants sitting side by side with foliage plants, enjoying one another’s company, give one an impression of a miniature garden.

A few suggestions of bloomers are Cyclamen, African Violets, Kalanchoe, Primulas and Paper white narcissus. To prevent pets from chewing on the plants, add some cayenne pepper to the water when watering.  I enjoy using my herbal plants sitting in a sunny window the Rosemary, Basil and Parsley are great additions to any dish.             

Power tools - check any power tools that require maintenance or repair. Now is the time to get them into the repair shop, because as soon as the weather breaks the shop gets busy and you may not get your lawn mower back until August.  

Check all tools and implements in the garage or shed. If you did not clean them off at the end of last season, plunge the shovels and spades into a bucket of sand; sand is an abrasive and will clean off any leftover soil and manure residue.  Oil the wooden handles of tools with Linseed oil or some inexpensive vegetable oil; oil feeds the wood and keeps the handles splinter free. At the same time, check your hoses and fittings that may have sprung leaks since last year.

Make a shopping list of new tools that are needed - there are lots of sales at this time of year. However, I suggest that you buy only quality tools and hoses; the old adage applies “you get what you pay for”. Also check that there is enough twine, bamboo rods, and wire ties or nails, bags of manure and peat on hand.    In March or early April when soil and manure are available purchase bags of composted manure from the garden center or if you have a farm close by that will sell you aged manure, take a pick up truck and get a load.  If you are going that route ask the farmer for manure from the bottom of the pile – aged stuff.  Manure needs to be at least six months old, as fresh manure will burn your plants.    

Check the paintwork on your wooden fences, arbors, decks and any other outdoor wooden structures. Then purchase, paint supplies so that on a dry day in March when you can paint and everything will be on hand.  

Don’t forget to put paintbrushes on your list – I have a feeling you forgot to clean your old ones last season, which means they are ‘stiff as a poker, that being said, remember sand paper, brush cleaner and whenever possible buy eco conscious paint.  If you are painting benches and garden seats on a dry day, put them under cover before sundown. 

White walls in the greenhouse reflect light so any areas that need retouching paint with white paint. It’s a great feeling to see how  much lighter and brighter the greenhouse is after a touch of paint and the glass cleaned.  However meticulously clean and tidy your greenhouse, unfortunately in winter, white fly, greenfly and scale insects find their way to be warm therefore you will need to Spray with an organic spray. I mix an organic spray of orange peels in white vinegar and allow it to sit for two weeks before spraying – this works well and is very economical.   

Walking around a garden that looks good and feels good in mid-winter is a real pick me up. Patterns emerge created by paths, walls and hedges. As you walk, enjoy the shapes of shrubs, the shadows of evergreens and the strong silhouettes of tree trunks, their shape and bark without foliage.  

Keep the bird feeders full; I love to watch the birds in their quick flights across the garden to alight on the feeders, and their sudden bursts of song when the sun peaks through. It’s fun to watch the “pecking” order as the blue jays, who can be bullies, lead the pack, followed by finches, house sparrows and among the brown, the brilliant red of the cardinal who like the blue jay can be somewhat territorial.  Sometimes a bird appears that I do not recognize and out comes my binoculars and Peterson bird book. 

If you notice squirrels swarming the bird feeders, add some cayenne pepper to the birdseed, don’t worry the heat does not affect birds.  Away from the feeders, sprinkle birdseed on the ground without the pepper so the squirrels can also have a meal. 

Winter has its own distinctive fragrance, the fog, in the morning when the air is very heavy, thick and damp – a damp even more bone chilling than rain.  But what I love best is the smell of the soil, rich and brown, well manured or covered with wood mulch, shredded leaves or salt hay. Winter’s smells are a potpourri, one moment fresh like the east wind, next dense and sweet.

If you find you have spent year after year throwing good money after bad it may be time to get a professional design, if that is so, don’t hesitate; if you want work to begin in the spring, a design takes time to complete. 

Have a great month and I’ll see you in your garden in March.