Dealing With Nitrogen Robbing in a No-Till Garden

Gardening MistakesWe have (and love) a no-till garden. This means we do not disturb the soil by turning, tilling or double-digging. Each spring and fall we add some kind of organic matter on top of the soil, and then we walk away. By and large, this is not only the easiest approach, but it is more sustainable, and less damaging to our local environment. It builds top soil instead of destroying it. It improves existing soil composition (ours is almost entirely red clay). It makes weeding and watering more or less unnecessary. It’s a total win for us.

Unfortunately, this year we made a boo-boo.

Last year, we added a very thick layer of wood chips to the top of our garden. It looked great, and did a phenomenal job of retaining moisture during a very hot, very dry summer. We watered one time in 3 months. It was a dream.

This spring, we added a 2 inch thick layer of compost and manure on top. We didn’t think that through at all, and realized our mistake within days. We created a problem. By adding the compost and manure on top of those big wood chips, we essentially forced an acceleration of the decomposition of the wood chips. We forced them to compost. Now, this doesn’t necessarily sound all bad – and long term, it’s not – until you think through the process of composting organic matter.

When organic matter starts to decompose, it ‘robs’ nitrogen from the surrounding area. In this case, the nitrogen rich compost and manure that is both above and below the wood chips. The nitrogen aids and accelerates the decomposition process. Once decomposition is complete, that material then releases the nitrogen it bound up back into the surrounding soil. At that point, you have some great soil. In the mean time you have soil that is temporarily nitrogen deficient. This is bad news for plants.

We were really hoping that we wouldn’t see any problems, but we noticed pretty quickly that we weren’t that lucky. Darn. Plants had a yellow tinge to them, and seemed stunted. We use organic fish emulsion for fertilizer, and it really wasn’t putting a dent in the problem. It wasn’t providing enough ‘juice’ to fix anything, and adding more could create problems of it’s own. So, what to do?

Enter blood meal.

Blood meal is definitely the most effective nitrogen source for organic gardeners. It’s made out of exactly what you think it is, and it smells atrocious… like ammonia. But our tomato plants were green and growing withing 10 days of a treatment at half the recommended application rate. They’ve probably tripled in size in the last 3 weeks, and we see at least a dozen little baby tomatoes, and loads of beautiful flowers. This indicates that not only do they have the required needs for nitrogen met, but that it wasn’t too much. If you have too much nitrogen, your plants will be gigantic and beautiful, but fail to flower or fruit.

We’re still working on squashes and peppers. Part of our issue is that the wood chip layer is about halfway down the overall soil depth in our main vegetable garden. The roots of these little plants have to get big enough to get down past this ‘trouble zone’ and into some soil that is loaded with nitrogen. Until that happens, all we can do is help them get by. I’m optimistic, though.

The trick is that we only want to give them enough nitrogen to pull through this tough patch. If we give too much or give it too late, and the chips decompose and release a flush of nitrogen, we could create a bigger problem – nitrogen burn. We definitely don’t want that to happen.

Gardening is a heck of a ride. There’s always something. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you mess something up, or something goes awry. Then you feel like you’re learning all over again. I guess what doesn’t kill you – or your plants – makes you stronger. At least, that’s what I like to tell myself.

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