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Answering a Reader’s Question – Root Crops – pH – bone meal – Buckwheat – and more

Ask any question about gardening and you can get a multitude of answers. The problem comes in knowing what information to act on.

How we receive information we read or hear (what we end up believing and acting on) depends in most cases on what we already have stored in our mind, be it true or false.

Make no mistake about it, repetition is a powerful tool. Even if the information repeated is flawed or totally incorrect, if we see it written or hear it spoken (by the media, various places on the internet, or by those we associate with) over and over, we tend to accept it as truth.

Would Not Having the Internet Make a Difference?

Even though I didn’t have the internet to look to when I started gardening (I consider that a blessing!), I still had access to reading material that influenced me. For the first 10 years, I thought I needed everything I read about.

At one time or the other during that first decade, I was sure I needed green sand, rock phosphate, bone meal, blood meal, wood ash, finished compost, and every other amendment you can think of.

What I Found Out

What I found out over time is that you don’t need any of that. What you do need to be successful is properly prepared soil, lots of organic materials that will turn to organic matter, and a covering for your soil. Nature will do all the complicated part of perfectly balancing the soil for you if you allow her to. (And no, it won’t be instant, but probably quicker than you think.)

Building on a Firm Foundation

The main purpose of my book, Organic Gardening, Cutting Through the Hype to the 3 Keys to Successful Gardening was to record in one place the information that anyone could read and immediately go out with a shovel and a hand tool and start to garden AND be successful.

It’s a quick and easy read. It’s not complicated. It tells you everything you need to be successful in gardening. It gives a great foundation on which to build additional knowledge that you’ll accumulate through the years. And of course, you always want to learn more. But, if you didn’t know anything but the information in the book, you could still be successful.

Folks are Made up Differently

I realize of course that some folks love complicated answers. They want to add a little of this and little of that to “fix” whatever problem they’re having. It seems the quick way to get what they want. (Our society promotes “quick” even if it’s not the best way.)

The problem with that is you have no way of knowing for sure if what you’re doing is really helping correct the balance in the soil or throwing the balance off even more.

Is a Soil Test the Answer?

And yes, you can have a soil test. As I mentioned in my book, the concept of a soil test is excellent. Now, if it were just all that easy.

In my book I covered home testing kits, lab testing, reading the results, and asking the labs for help. I also covered how the majority of labs determine the results and what they base their recommendations on and why you, as an organic gardener, may not want to act on those recommendations.

Then I covered the labs that will give you the most benefit and why that’s true.

Where I Stand

Complicated, especially when it comes to gardening, makes my eyes glaze over.  I’m just not interested, because I know I don’t have to be.  Nature will do it for me.

After I start a garden, my part is to watch, observe, learn, and add a diversity of organic materials to the soil (including cover crops) so nature can do all the complicated work for me.

Reader’s Questions

In the block below is the email my reader sent to me.  The simple answers to her questions are written above.  I do however have some additional comments that may be helpful.

This is my 4th year of gardening and I have not yet successfully grown them (root crops). Beets, turnips, carrots, radishes – all I get is tops. The roots do not bulb up. Googling seems to indicate that the soil must be lacking in phosphorus?

I’ve added 2-4″ of compost each year, and grew buckwheat last summer in the areas I planted root vegetables in this year. A few weeks ago I found some bone meal in my shed and put some on top of the soil around all these plants but I think it was 1) too late to help and 2) apparently it needed to be mixed more deeply into the soil because the roots need to contact it according to this article. (

That article also mentions pH levels. I had the soil tested in 2011 and it measured 5.9. Buffer pH (whatever that means) was 6.83. So perhaps I need to do something to raise the pH? If possible I’d like to figure out how to fix this problem in time to grow fall root crops successfully. Any ideas?

Not Enough Information – But What Comes to Mind

There are always lots of possible reasons that things don’t grow properly.  I’d have to have a lot more information to really know the cause, but in spite of that, a few things come to mind instantly when I read the email.

I don’t know if the reader is adding nitrogen to her soil or not, but if she is, too much nitrogen is one cause of root crops producing just foliage and not roots.  Another reason can be from not leaving enough space between each plant.

Is just 2 to 4 inches of compost each year and Buckwheat enough to balance unimproved soil?

I will take my reader literally and assume that this is all she is adding to her soil.  If that is true, my experience tells me it’s not enough to balance unimproved soil.

8 More Points for My Reader to Consider:

  • Compost only has the nutrients that were in the composted materials. In order to have all the nutrients, they had to be in the compost to begin with. This is where the nature’s great principle of diversity comes. The more variety of material you have for your compost, the better it will be.
  • If I remember correctly from previous emails the reader has sandy soil. If she is just using compost, the nutrients in that compost will drain through the soil rather quickly. I have sandy soil in parts of my garden and the only thing that greatly improved that soil was adding various organic materials like leaves and such. They break down and improve everything about the soil. It’s my opinion that 2 to 4 inches of compost each year is not enough to change the soil. Of course, it helps. But I’d want more.
  • Buckwheat is a great cover crop. Its roots scavenge phosphorus, calcium, and mineralized rock phosphate making these nutrients available for your next crop. Keep in mind, however, any cover crop can only scavenge what is already there!  It can’t MAKE those nutrients.  They have to be there.
  • By using as many varieties of cover crops as you can use AND using as many varieties of organic materials as you can find you can add nutrients to you soil. When all these things break down, the nutrients will be there and will be taken up by the next crop and/or scavenged by your next cover crop. When their biomass is laid on top to decay again (or turned under), the nutrients will be recycled again.
  • Bone meal is not an instant fix for anything, although folks use it like it is. More importantly, unless you really know (not just guess) what your soil needs, I would recommend not adding anything except organic material (leaves, straw, kitchen scraps, etc.) and/or compost. (I would not use bone meal anyway as I explained in this post.)
  • Although soil pH does affect the availability of certain nutrients, there are lots of examples and proof out there (if you want to research it) that improved soil can have a lower pH and plants that usually like a higher pH can still get the nutrients they need. Information on the internet indicates that beets have been successfully grown in pH as low as 5.5.
  • The ideal pH for most vegetables is about 6.3 to 6.8. (My soil pH is 6.7 to 6.8) In most cases the easiest way to get that pH is to continually add organic material which will change your soil as it decays and becomes organic matter. The organic matter will change soil towards neutral rather than acid.
  • And just so my reader will know, buffer pH is “generated” in the lab that does the soil test and has nothing to do with the actual pH of her soil. It’s for the lab’s purposes in making recommendations to the gardener on how to change the soil.

Final Thoughts

Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you choose to make it.  I prefer to keep it simple.

Related Posts:

Organic Gardening Keeping it Simple

Organic Gardening – Gardening with Nature – Simple or Complicated

Gardening Keep it Simple Because It Is


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  • I was the reader asking these questions.

    Theresa, my compost is mostly from shredded leaves and kitchen scraps. I don’t put grass clippings in as I leave those to compost on the lawn. I mulch with either pine straw, more leaves, or this year – winter rye biomass.

    I am not adding nitrogen. The only thing I add is a bit of dolomitic lime in planting holes of tomato, pepper, squash, etc. transplants, otherwise I get blossom-end rot.

    So, it sounds like I should just keep adding as much organic material as I can each year plus cover-crop. I guess I just won’t bother trying to grow carrots and radishes until I get success with beets and turnips – at least I can eat those as greens!

  • Theresa

    I just read your answer to growing root crops.

    You have gained so much wisdom, and you were very wise to start with.

  • Heather, if you already have seed for carrots, why not try starting some in August for a fall crop. Sometimes they do a lot better then.

    Also, if you have radish seed on hand, plant a few this fall and next spring. You never know when conditions may change.

    Also try planting things in various places. Sometimes it’s amazing the difference a few feet can make.

    You didn’t mention the varieties of radishes and beets you plant, but keep in mind that some form bigger roots than other.

    When I read what you are doing, it sounds good. I am a bit puzzled when I recall that you were trying to made your soil more acidic for your blueberries. You mentioned the pH in the 2011 soil test was 5.9. That’s already leaning heavily acidic.

    Do you know what your pH is now? Why not get a pH tester? They’re not expensive and you can keep track of what changes take place.

    Once your soil is what it should be, blossom end rot should not be a problem.

    Hey Don.
    Thanks for commenting.


  • OH Theresa, When I read this, it reminded me of myself a few years ago. How glad I am to leave all the complicated stuff behind and just enjoy my garden. I’m with Don, you are a walking encyclopedia of garden knowledge, but what impresses me most is that you still keep it so simple and fun.

  • Last year you wrote several times about winter rye as a cover crop and your method of employing it with different crops. I’m always surprised what a positive effect sowing winter rye in one year has on the harvest in the subsequent year, especially with potatoes. This year I followed your suggestions for tomatoes and planted them in the stubble from winter rye sown in 2013. So far they are growing vigorously with only a little liquid fertilizer made from stinging nettles and comfrey. The early blight has had no effect so far, and the plants seem to be very healthy. I also left 300-400 plants (ryr) standing and will get about a kilogram of seed. Your suggestions were really helpful!

  • Millard, I sure appreciate this great update on how the tomatoes in the rye stubble are doing for you. I have a lot more suggestions to follow. Always more to write about than time to write unfortunately. But I’ll get to it all sooner or later; most especially with this kind of encouragement.

    Keep up the great work! I love hearing about how you’re doing.
    All my best wishes for continued success!

  • I will look into a pH tester, Theresa. The blueberries were put into a completely different area, where the soil had tested basic. The beets are Detroit Red. I’ve tried 3 different varieties of radishes in 4 different spots. I’ll keep trying!

  • Was just thinking about you Heather. I wish I more fully understood the details of your property. If I did, I could help you more. But even in spite of that, if you keep adding organic materials and following the basic principles, you’ll end up with great results in the end. I’m always glad to help you whenever I can.

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