One of my favorite things about spring is watching my two oldest sons compete at track meets. In a nutshell, the official defines the rules of the race prior to the starting gun, and the kids give their best on the way to the finish line. They have prepared in advance for their events and hope to earn a medal while helping overall team standings.
Like my distance runner son who trains well before track season even begins, there are things to do in the garden before the growing season starts. Selecting the seeds is the fun part, but keeping the soil healthy is an important investment in time and effort so the garden can grow and produce well. This year we added composted cattle manure as fertilizer to the garden plot in early spring.
In October, after weaning our seven to eight month old calves from the cows, we fed the calves on the farm for a few months before they were marketed to a feedlot. The combination of their manure and the hay that had spilled on the ground made for a pile that ultimately composted into good garden fertilizer. The manure provides the nitrogen source, while the hay lends the carbon source that aids in decomposition. Composting the manure ensures that it won’t burn young plants. Applying manure in the fall or digging manure into the soil a month or so prior to planting the garden has a similar effect. Manure from cattle in the garden provides good organic matter, as well as approximately 3% nitrogen, 2% phosphorous, and 1% potassium. Some plants, like tomatoes, will also receive some extra plant food, like Miracle-Gro, as well.
I’m glad there’s no official starting time for planting a garden, but there is still a time and season for many tasks. Some garden plants thrive on cooler weather and should be planted earlier in the season, while others do best to wait for more warmth. When it’s all said and done, we do our best to get the garden ready and planted depending on what the weather and our calendar allows us to accomplish. We aren’t aiming for perfection, but hoping to teach our kids that it’s fun and rewarding to grow food and enjoy the goodness of fresh garden vegetables.
However, out on the rest of the farm, the timing is urgent. Taking care of the soil and planting our crops is absolutely vital to taking care of our family economically in a healthy, sustainable environment. Seed selections for the farm were made before Christmas – well before the garden catalogs hit the mailbox. Our fields were grid sampled in the fall to inform us of existing nutrient levels. From that, we planned our soil nutrition needs and applied fertilizer in late fall and early spring according to weather conditions and soil properties.
Sometimes the nutrient source for fertilizer is manure based like the backyard garden. More often, the fertilizers we use are synthetic in dry, liquid, or gaseous form, which allows us to be more precise in our application. Either way, the soil nutrient level is maintained to provide for a good harvest. On our farm, using a no-till system, crop rotation and cover crops also help our soil stay in place and conserve moisture while improving soil health and soil nutrients.
Our growing season will last much longer than my sons’ spring track season, but we’re hoping in the same way that all the advance preparations will yield great results in the long run. Additional information and topics on farm and garden fertilizers can be found at http://extensionpubs.unl.edu/.