You want your vegetables and fruit trees to grow well and provide you with good food, so you seek advice about how to create the best soil conditions for your plants.
You encounter this recommendation in Sunset’s The Edible Garden book about how to grow broccoli: “Feed with a high-nitrogen complete fertilizer before heads start to form.”
And then you try to figure out how to apply such a recommendation: Feed how much — a tablespoon, a cup, a bucketful? And what kind of fertilizer is considered “high-nitrogen?” What makes a fertilizer “complete?” And then you think a little further and wonder, what if the head of broccoli starts to form before I notice — should I still feed, should I feed more or less?
Maybe you also come across instructions about preparing your soil before planting, such as the tens of pages dedicated to the topic in the book How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. There are multiple diagrams, side notes, illustrations, suggested tools, and within the text you find the ironic phrase, “Do not strain yourself . . .”
Alas, after crunching your brain figuring out how to apply the recommended fertilizer and getting a workout from all that “double digging,” you’re convinced that fertile soil requires a degree in chemistry and an Olympian’s energy. You can go that route and you’re likely to get good results. But there is another way. In fact, achieving and maintaining fertile soil can be child’s play.
I learned to grow vegetables and fruit trees while living on the outskirts of a rural village in Africa, where no chemical fertilizers were available and where everyone’s days were filled with chores like fetching water from the spring and hand-washing clothes. Food was grown in the simplest and most expedient way. When I returned to the U.S. and took training classes to become a Master Gardener I learned a lot, but I also very often remember listening to a PhD’s lecture and thinking, “It doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
Well, who am I and how do I know? I’m just a guy who’s been doing it a simpler way for more than a decade now, and I eat the proof that my soil is fertile every day.
For my vegetable beds, I add about two inches of compost each year. I usually add about an inch in late winter before planting tomatoes and corn and peppers, and then I add about an inch again in late summer before I plant my cauliflower and cabbage and onions. There’s nothing special about those times; it’s just when I usually do it.
I merely spread the compost on top of the soil. I don’t dig it in. There’s no need. It gets incorporated into the soil naturally, eventually.
Compost laid; to be spread once lettuce is harvested.
Sometimes I use compost that I’ve made in my yard, which includes some of our chickens’ poop, and sometimes I use compost from the Miramar Greenery in San Diego, which is what my sons are helping me load in the photo at the top. I’ve noticed over the years that plants grow better with my compost compared to Miramar’s, but unfortunately I’ve not yet been able to produce enough of my own.
For my fruit trees, I sometimes add a little compost too, but only if I have more than my vegetable beds need. Mostly for the fruit trees I just keep a thick layer of wood chips as a mulch under them. Over time, the wood chips break down and are incorporated into the soil just as the compost is in the vegetable beds, but I tend to only replenish the wood-chip mulch once a year. I like to do it now, in late winter, so the rains soak the mulch for free, but I do it at other times if good wood chips become available then. I aim for a new, replenished depth of about five inches each time. There’s nothing magical about this depth, but a thinner layer will vanish into the soil more quickly and a thicker layer gets awkwardly close to low-hanging branches.
Fresh wood-chip mulch under a young Pinkerton avocado tree.
Sometimes I also get wood-chip mulch from Miramar Greenery, but often I get wood chips from a tree trimming service who is working in the neighborhood. It means they don’t have to pay to dump their load elsewhere, so it benefits both of us. I was lucky enough to get a load dumped last week, so I’ve been replenishing the mulch under my trees over the past few days.
One steaming pile of wood chips.
Is compost really enough for fertile soil in vegetable beds? As I said above, I eat the proof every day, but so do others. My friend Erik, for example, has added only compost on his vegetable garden for a number of years and his plants do as well or better than mine.
And are wood chips really enough for fertile soil under fruit trees? Again, the proof is in the pudding. I couldn’t imagine getting any more fruit out of my Valencia orange tree:
But it’s not just me. The other day I visited a friend who has an extensive orchard in her backyard. This woman is a certified arborist and a certified Master Gardener, she grows an astonishing variety of fruit trees — from Jan Boyce avocados to Honeyheart cherimoyas to SpiceZee nectaplums — and she puts nothing more than a thick layer of wood chips under them.
(Paul Gautschi follows a similar routine up in Washington, and Ruth Stout was doing something similar a hundred years ago.)
How is it that compost and wood chips do all of this work — creating and maintaining soil fertility without any additions of specially formulated fertilizers or constant tillage to loosen the soil? That is a question whose answer is book length. But here is a list of some specific effects that compost has on the soil, along with an attached bibliography for deeper reading.
And here is an excellent publication by Linda Chalker-Scott of Washington State University on the documented effects of using wood-chip mulch, which you’ll find are nearly the same as compost.
However it works, and however much we do or don’t understand it, the evidence is there. You can give your mind and your back some rest, and perhaps give your kids some fun with a shovel every now and then. For a simpler path toward soil fertility exists.
You might also like to read:
(listen to the Karl Hammer episode about compost)
I suspected that when I pointed out to my son Cass that the Kishu mandarins were ready, it would be a whirlwind of peeling and chewing that wouldn’t stop until the tree was bare, and I was right. The photo above shows Cass on December 3rd with the final fruit. He ate his first one on Halloween, when the tiny tree had 81 pieces of fruit on it. Every single day I had to stop Cass and his little brother Miles from picking and eating another and another and yet another. They weren’t even anywhere near prime flavor yet.
Kishu, Seedless Kishu, Kishu Mini — however it’s called, this little mandarin tree was built by God as the perfect natural snack for children. The fruit is the size of a golf ball; a child can grasp and pull it from the tree. The peel comes off readily; Cass peeled them all himself (Miles had a tendency to get distracted by chewing on the peel, but he’s barely a year old). The fruit is seedless and the sections easily come apart. Oh yeah, and the taste: “It’s a burst of tangy sugar!” I wrote in my notes the first time I ate one.
Unfortunately, you’ve probably never tasted one nor will you unless you plant your own tree. For commercial farmers, the fruit is too small and hard to pick such that it’s not profitable.
If you do have your own tree, they’ll likely taste good enough to eat from November through March. Watch 36:55 to 39:50 of this video taken in early March, 2012, at the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection to hear some details about the Kishu as told by citrus expert Ottillia Bier, as well as to see some of us old kids experiencing the fruit for the first time. This is the moment when I determined that I would buy a Kishu tree for my yard.
This is my Kishu tree today. It was planted in January of 2015. It flowered that spring, but didn’t hold fruit. It flowered again in the spring of this year and set the fruit that we just finished eating. For a tree that has been in the ground a bit shy of two years to hold 81 fruits is not shabby. It’s only about three feet tall. I have done nothing special in my care for it: I planted it in full sun; I gave it water every four days during the summer; it has a layer of woodchip mulch under its canopy; I have never fertilized it.
We’ve got a wide selection of other fruit trees in the yard, and the boys enjoy them all — plums, pluots, apricots, peaches, nectarines, oranges, pomegranates. But the way they got obsessed with the Kishus . . .
Kishu, the best fruit tree for kids, the best fruit tree for the kid in all of us.
(Want to buy a Kishu tree? I bought mine at Home Depot, but it was grown by Durling Nursery. Durling also supplies trees to Walter Andersen Nurseries in San Diego County as well as Armstrong Garden Centers throughout Southern California, among many other retailers. Kishus can also be mail ordered from Four Winds Growers in Northern California.)
(RELATED POST: Citrus year-round)
I love avocado trees, and I sure love my son Miles, but toward the end of the summer his placenta tree started to lose leaves and then lose more leaves and then have some die back on branch tips, so I got emotional in a way I never have toward a tree. I’ve killed many trees over the years; it’s part of the learning process. But the prospect of killing the avocado tree that I planted over my son’s placenta upon his birth felt like failing as a father.
I dug around the base of the tree with my hands to find the problem. Was it a disease? Could I even save it? A healthy avocado tree has roots with white tips poking up into the mulch or leaf litter beneath it, but I found none. So I dug deeper. I found only a few roots. Where were they? Then my fingers poked into a cavity, I wiggled them in the air pocket, and I knew immediately where the roots had gone — or more accurately, who had eaten them. I followed the gopher tunnel more than halfway around the base of the tree. A gopher had eaten over half of the tree’s root system. A tree that loses roots sheds its leaves in order to bring its top into balance with its bottom.
I had never been angrier at a gopher. I immediately set every trap I had.
At the same time, I felt grateful that the buck-toothed varmint hadn’t finished off the tree entirely. Only a few weeks prior, another gopher had eaten to death a young Hass avocado tree I had planted in another part of the yard. Until the killing and damage to these two avocado trees, the Hass and Miles’s Sharwil, I had thought of the gophers in my yard as being a real threat only to my vegetables, which they had been attacking from day one. But now I had to patrol the rest of the yard where the fruit trees are too?
It’s appropriate that Miles and his Sharwil avocado tree would surprise us and require us to adapt. Miles was so calm and sleepy in his first few months of life that we were worried, and now — at one year old — he’s so loud and stubborn that we’re a little worried in a different way. In that photo at the top — our annual “pose with your placenta tree photo” — he squirmed out of Ursula’s lap to roll around on the ground and run toward me to grab my camera.
As for his placenta tree, I did catch the cause of its problems.
But only after a protracted hunt. So I’m adapting my methods and diversifying my arsenal.
The Cinch trap on the bottom represents my latest acquisition. The Cinch trap’s main benefit is that you don’t have to dig a big hole to set it. I have grown so tired of making craters around the yard in order to set pincer and box traps, especially within the vegetable beds. (I’ve also grown tired of standing near an active feeder hole to try and get a shot at a gopher’s head. Waste of time.) The Cinch trap can be inserted into a small surface opening to the gopher’s tunnel network. I’ve found it very effective so far. (Here are some videos that have helped me use it properly, done by master Cinch trapper Thomas Wittman.)
I dug around Miles’s Sharwil tree today to check for roots, to see if any had grown back in the past month or two since eliminating the gopher, and found some white tips. Hurray! Happiest I’ve ever been upon seeing avocado roots.
My lesson going forward is to immediately set traps whenever gopher presence is detected in the yard. There is more at stake than just plants.
While working in the yard yesterday, an Asian woman with a heavy accent stopped her car and asked if I knew where Shoemaker Farm was. I’d never heard of it, I said.
“There are persimmons,” she said.
“Aah! It’s just down the street.”
There’s a u-pick persimmon orchard two blocks from our house, only I hadn’t known the name.
This morning, I loaded up my two sons and drove the truck down the street. For $20, we got to fill up a five-gallon bucket. Cass helped picked some low-hanging fruit.
Miles helped by taking the fruit back out of the bucket and tossing it on the ground.
There were two older women picking to the east of us and three Asian families picking to the west of us. These were Fuyu persimmons. They come from Japan. It made sense that the people most interested in picking a bucket of persimmons were immigrants from Asia.
But I didn’t fill my bucket to the rim. During the picking, we took a break and ate a couple.
Also, and more importantly, a couple days earlier while taking a jog near the persimmon orchard, I had picked a couple because I wanted to see if they were ripe, and I wanted my visiting brother and his family to taste them. I had known that I would come pay for a bucket soon — that was how I justified the “theft.”
When we were done picking, Cass, Miles and I brought our bucket back to show Mrs. Shoemaker.
“You didn’t quite fill it up,” she said.
“I know. We ate a couple while we were down there picking.”
“Well, I’m going to fill it up for you,” she said, and she fetched a nearby plastic bag of persimmons.
I felt guilty, but I didn’t say anything, and then Mrs. Shoemaker made me feel guiltier.
“Ed caught a woman trying to steal these the other day, so let me put them in your bucket.”
He’s two and a half years old now, so I decided it was time to let him sow some of his own. He really enjoyed sprinkling the lettuce seeds; I let him sprinkle way too many since he found it so fun. But probably his favorite part was getting his hands mucky while mixing up the soil and water. Does getting your hands dirty ever get old? That was probably my favorite part too.