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Articles by Dr. Francis Gouin

Dry fall following wet summer makes a good show

This year will bring spectacular fall foliage coloration — provided it stays dry.
    That’s what I told the Bay Weekly reader asking for my prediction.
    More rain means that more of the leaves will remain green for a longer period of time, thus reducing the intensity of the red, orange and yellow. If we have a dry fall, a higher percentage of the leaves will turn color at the same time. But because of drier conditions, the foliage will not last long.
    This prediction is made based on our abundance of rain that kept the foliage lush all summer long. Thus, the leaves of deciduous trees have generated an abundance of carotene and anthocyanins, the pigments that generate the red, yellow and orange colors in leaves. Those compounds are present in each leaf but masked by chlorophyll. That chlorophyll deteriorates as days cool and daylight hours shorten, and nitrogen — a major component of chlorophyll — migrates from the leaf tissues down the petiole to accumulate around the vegetative bud at the base of each leaf. 
    In years with a dry growing season, foliage is less lush, and deciduous trees have less foliage. If a dry growing season is followed by a dry fall, the foliage will be bright but of very short duration. If the growing season is dry and we have a wet fall, the foliage will be muted but slow dropping from the branches.
    Not all tree species generate the same colors. Maple trees are known for their bright red and orange colors, while the ash tree is easily recognized by its yellow fall color. A hill in New Hampshire is called Red Hill because most of the trees growing there are sugar and red maples. That hill is highly visible; many make a yearly pilgrimage to see it.
    In southern Maryland, we are lucky because we have an abundance of dogwoods that often begin showing their red colors in late summer. Near wetlands, we have sweet gum and black gum, which contribute red to purple-red colors and are most plentiful. Red maples provide a splash of red to orange-red in both wetlands and on hillsides.
    If we have a dry fall, the scarlet oaks should be spectacular with their deep red leaves. Most of the other oak species provide only a limited amount of yellowing before dropping their leaves. 
    Enjoy.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

You’ll need them to get rid of ­creeping Charley and clover

Fall is the best time to eradicate clover and creeping Charley from your lawn and garden. Both of these broadleaf weeds can be controlled by spraying with Weed-B-Gone, Trimec or Speedzone. Apply at the rate of two tablespoons per gallon of water as a light spray on the foliage. Apply only enough spray to wet the foliage. 
    Take care to avoid dripping on the soil. These sprays are phenoxy compounds that can be absorbed through the roots of desirable plants, such as trees and shrubs, causing twisting and curling of leaves next spring. 
    Apply these sprays only on actively growing plants. They are not effective on plants stressed by drought. In drought, thoroughly irrigate the area at least 48 hours before treating with the herbicides. Apply in the early morning hours when the cells of the plants are turgid.
    Foliage absorbs the chemicals in a couple of hours. Keep pets and children away from the treated area for at least 24 hours. Wear rubber boots, rubber gloves and use low pressure to avoid drift. Do not apply spray when the wind is blowing. 
    In areas of heavy infestation, a second application may be necessary. The problem area is most likely infested with seeds of these broadleaf weeds, so anticipate the growth of young seedlings next spring. Eradication cannot be done in one year due to the weeds seeds accumulated on the ground.
    To prevent spring seedlings from becoming well established, set the cutting height of your lawnmower as high as possible so that the grass shades out the young weeds.
    Both clover and creeping Charley are difficult weeds to control. It generally takes three years of persistent fall treatment to eradicate them. 
    Where the clover dies, you may notice that emerging grass blades are greener than in other areas of your lawn. This is because clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen that is released into the soil after the plants die and decompose. Not creeping Charley; it’s just a nuisance.


Mulching With Leaves

Q    After a good rain, I raked leaves off my flower garden. The layer underneath was totally dry in many places, and when the rake passed over the ground, it gave off a sound as if it were hollow underneath. The dry old mulch appeared to have lots of graying in it. What should I do?

–Vicki Marsh, Deale

A    Dry leaves are hydrophobic, meaning difficult to wet. Add about two tablespoons of dish detergent to a watering can and sprinkle the solution over the dry leaves and gray layer beneath. After they seem wet, sprinkle additional water over them and incorporate all into the soil by spading or tilling. The gray matter is most likely actenomyces that will decompose the leaf residue once wet and active.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Flowers, Vegetables and Grasses for Fall and Winter

Growing plants keeps your soil alive and well all year long.
    In the flower garden, plant annuals and perennials close together. The tops of perennials die back to the ground in fall and winter, but perennial roots stay active as long as soil temperatures are above freezing.
    Add cold-weather annuals such as pansies, sweet William, ornamental cabbage and kale to fading perennials to give life and color to the winter garden. They will also absorb nutrients already in the soil.
    Pansies provide a wide range of color and will bloom off and on all winter. Come spring, they will produce an abundance of blooms in late April lasting through May. Sweet William is bi-annual. If you plant it this fall, it will flower well in the coming spring and even more profusely in the spring of 2016.
    Caution: Rabbits love pansies. If you have rabbits, scatter mothballs under the leaves. If you have children, wrap the mothballs loosely in aluminum foil and cover them with a thin layer of mulch.
    In the vegetable garden, broccoli, cabbage and collard greens, kale and turnips are colorful, hardy and harvestable through much of winter.
    A green alternative is a soil-covering crop of winter rye. Winter rye grows a lush green carpet of grass. The perfect scavenger crop, rye grows roots deep in the soil, absorbing nutrients not utilized by the previous plants and protecting groundwater. On the surface, rye prevents your soil from being washed away by heavy rains or winds.

Bulbs Planted Now Bring Spring Rewards

    Bulbs planted in October and November go to work now. In fall, they root quickly and absorb residual nutrients from the soil. In spring, they bring the garden to life.
    Plant tulip, narcissus or daffodils, hyacinths and crocus bulbs in October and November for April bursts of color.
    Plant garlic and long-day onions for spring and summer harvest.

Flowering Bulbs
    For flowering bulbs, dig deep. Excavate an area 12 inches deep and at least 12 inches wide. Add a four-inch-thick layer of equal parts by volume soil from your hole and good compost. Do not put sand under the bulbs.
    Place bulbs at least one inch apart on top of the blended soil with the flat side of the bulb against the wall of the hole. Planting this way will direct leaves to bend outward, giving the planting a more appealing appearance. Place a single bulb in the center. Cover the bulbs with eight inches of blended topsoil and compost.
    Don’t use a bulb-planting tool, which makes holes too shallow and compresses the soil along the walls of the hole, especially if the soil contains large amounts of silt or clay.
    Blend equal parts compost and topsoil and layer the soil four inches thick across the bottom of the hole before planting. Position the bulbs upright for uniform blooming in the first year. The compost will supply all of the nutrient needs through the first growing season.
    Narcissus … daffodils … or jonquils. Whatever you call them, these spring plants are perennials in Southern Maryland gladly blooming year after year. Plant now and you’ll have yellow blooms bursting through melting snow.
    Plant your daffodils deep and you can also plant hyacinth, crocus and more seasonal flowers above the daffodil bulbs without fear of damaging the bulbs with digging tools.
    Tulips are often an annual crop in Chesapeake gardens, as our warm springs disagree with them.
    Unlike daffodils and hyacinths, tulips produce a new mother bulb each year, plus possibly a few daughter bulbs. Because our springs are short — before long, hot summers — tulip foliage does not last long enough to build a new bulb equal to or larger than the original. The Netherlands and more northern states like Michigan enjoy optimum tulip climate: cool springs that last for several weeks.
    To get your tulips to flower more than one year, plant them by mid-October in a well-drained location in full sun. Early planting assures that the bulbs develop a large root system before soils cool with the arrival of winter.
    If you want your tulip bed to last many years, choose yellow tulips, which, for some unknown reason, perform better and last longer than red, white or pink cultivars.
    Caution: Deer love tulips; don’t plant them if deer visit.

Onions and Garlic
    Garlic bulbs can be planted from early September until mid November. The plants need time to produce visible foliage before the ground freezes.
    Select a location in your garden that will receive maximum sunlight. Garlic planted in partial shade will not produce fully developed bulbs.
    Garlic grows best in well-drained soils rich in organic matter. To meet the organic requirements, spread about two inches of compost over the soil and spade or rototill as deeply as possible.
    A soil test will tell you your pH and how to achieve the garlic ideal of near 6.5.
    Plant each clove, pointed side up, in holes four inches deep and four inches apart in rows 10 inches apart.
    Just before the ground freezes in December, mulch with a one-inch layer of compost.
    Next spring, water thoroughly at least twice weekly. In May, cut the flowers just below the swollen part of the stem as they form so as to maximize the size of the bulbs.
    Just as soon as the leaves start to turn brown in early summer, dig using a forked garden spade to minimize damage to the bulbs.
    The short days of fall and winter are beloved by short-day onions. A short-day onion variety will form a bulb only when the days are short. Begin planting any time now so the plants become well established before the ground freezes. To give them the organic matter they want, amend your soil with an inch or two of compost prior to planting.
    After the ground freezes in winter, mulch the onions again one to two inches deep to help prevent the frost from pushing the onions out of the ground with repeated freezing and thawing.
    As soon as the plants resume growth in the spring, apply a water-soluble fertilizer to stimulate early active growth.
    Harvest begins in June.

Catch Phytophtora quick and save the plant

A Bay Weekly reader recently complained that her magnificent large rhododendron was dying after it had produced a super abundance of blooms this spring. After examining the plants closely, I knew that the cause of death was Phytophtora cactorum. This disease is often the primary cause for rhododendron dieback. It kills the plants starting at the ends of the branches, and works its way down the stem. If you can prune out the dying branches as soon as you spot it, you can often salvage the plant.
    To identify the disease, look for chestnut-brown sunken cankers surrounding the stem immediately beneath the wilting flower. The stem just beneath the wilted flower or seed head will be green, but the lower part of that stem, where it had grown from the previous year’s stem, will be chestnut brown. You will note that the diseased stem originated near the stem that flowered the previous year.
    The disease-causing fungi entered the stem as the old flowers wilted and dropped. Sometimes one or two branches are first affected. When this occurs, prune away the branch as close to the main stem as possible, sterilizing your pruners with rubbing alcohol between each cut. To prevent the disease from spreading, spray the plants with a mild fungicide such as Phaltan or Captan as the blossoms begin to wilt. However, fungicides are only a temporary protection.  
    The occurrence of this disease has been associated with low levels of magnesium in the soil. If you have rhododendrons that exhibit any signs of dieback, I strongly recommend you have the soil tested.
    When taking soil samples from around shallow-rooted plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons, only sample from the upper three inches of soil. Ninety percent of roots from shallow-rooted species grow in that layer. Soil samples should be taken between the drip line of the branches and the trunk of the plant. Scrape away mulch before sampling.
    Where this disease has been a problem, I recommend applying Epsom salts at the rate of one-half cup dissolved in two gallons of water and applied over 100 square feet. Apply every spring just before the plants start blooming.
    To my knowledge, there are no rhododendron varieties that are immune to this disease. The best protection is frequent inspection of the new stems, pruning out diseased branches using sterile pruners, spraying infected plants as the blossoms are wilting and falling and proper nutrition following soil testing by a reputable lab such as A&L Eastern Agricultural Lab.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Mountain laurel, blueberries and other acid-lovers, too

September is the best time of the year to transplant azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, andromeda, blueberries and other plants that thrive in acid soils. This is because these species have stopped growing new stems and leaves and are starting to generate and elongate roots.
    So take advantage of fall garden center sales. If your existing plantings are too dense or wrongly placed, now is a good time to dig and transplant.
    Here’s how to assure success in transplanting plants that prefer acid soils.
    First, make certain that the soil you will be transplanting into is adequate.  Acid soils are generally deficient in calcium and magnesium, but only a soil test of the area will correctly identify soil conditions. Each soil test should be made from a composite of five or more core samples. I rely on A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories in Richmond for all of my soil testing. 
    Plants like these also need well-drained, high-organic soils. Even if the soil test indicates an ample amount of calcium, I make it a regular practice to mix one-half cup gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the planting soil. To assure an abundance of organic matter, I also blend one-third by volume of compost or pine fines with the existing soil while blending the gypsum with the backfill. Compost adds not only organic matter but also slow-release nutrients.
    Never amend the soil with peat moss, especially when transplanting rhododendrons. Peat moss holds too much water, making conditions favorable for water-borne fungi that attack the roots of rhododendrons.
    All species that grow in acid soils are shallow-rooted. So never dig the planting hole deeper than the depth of the root ball. There is no need to place compost or back-fill under the root ball because of the shallow-rooting nature of these species.
    If you are digging plants that need more space to grow, the outside edge of the root ball you are digging should begin mid-distance between the drip line of the branches and the stem of the plant. If the soil is dry, irrigate the plant well at least two days before you dig.
    After digging, lift the plant by the root ball and not by the stem. If you are transplanting container-grown plants, after removing the plant from the container, use a sharp knife and slash the outside edge of the root ball an inch deep from top to bottom making the slashes two to three inches apart. Since most container plants are grown in soilless rooting media, slashing the root balls and pulling out some of the roots will hasten new root development.
    The top of the root ball should be visible at the surface of the finished grade. Before mulching, water the plants thoroughly to settle the backfill around the roots and eliminate air pockets. A good heavy watering helps to firm the soil in place.
    Apply no more than one inch of compost or pine bark mulch. Never use hardwood bark mulch because it is basic in nature and contains high levels of manganese.
    Azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, andromeda, blueberries and other acid-lovers will tolerate light to medium shade, but they will produce more flowers and be more cold-tolerant in full sun. In commercial nurseries, all of these species are grown in open fields and sometimes covered with light shade in late fall simply to give the plants a better appearance for sale in the spring.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

It’s a little late to start seeds but just right to plant seedlings

The best sauerkraut is made from fall-grown cabbage. The best kale and collards have been frosted a few times, growing sweeter with each frost. Fall-grown spinach and lettuce are more tender. Carrots, beets, turnips, rutabaga and kohlrabi are at their best when grown in late summer and harvested in the fall. Both cauliflower and broccoli form tighter heads in fall than in spring. I also harvest many more fall peas than spring peas. If you love Brussels sprouts as much as I do, you must get them started now to harvest a bountiful supply.
    There is more gardening ahead, and now is the time to start sowing seeds. If you planted onions this past spring, they should all be harvested by now — as well as the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach. So you now have room to start planting your fall crops.
    I have stopped planting peas in the spring because I can make many more harvests from peas planted in August. The cooler fall temperatures promote continuous growth until the killing frost comes late in fall. Spring-planted peas stop producing pods as soon as the heat comes on.
    August is also a good time to make a planting or two of snap beans. If you make two consecutive plantings about two to three weeks apart, you will be harvesting snap beans until the frost kills the plants.
    If you sowed your seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and cabbage the first week of August, the plants will be ready to be transplanted into rows by the end of the month. Seeds of spinach, lettuce, kale, collards, turnips and rutabaga should have been sown by mid August. To grow the sweetest carrots this side of heaven, the seeds should also have been planted before the middle of August, as should a row of beets for greens as well as for the sweetest roots.
    If you haven’t started your seeds, check the garden centers for seedlings of these cool-weather crops.
    Your soil most likely still holds a plentiful supply of nutrients not utilized by the remaining summer crops. Since the soil is warm, the compost you added to the garden is also releasing nutrients. A fall crop allows you to maximize the uptake of the nutrients already added as well as those released during the decomposition of organic matter.
    If you are not going to plant a fall crop, sow a cover crop of winter rye to absorb all of those free nutrients into their roots and stems. Next spring when you plow the rye back into the ground, the nutrients will be there for that crop.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Gardening in bales of straw

     As I prepare my fall garden, I’m walking in the footsteps of an Ohio gardener with poor soil who planted in bales of straw rather than install raised beds. He found his solution in a British gardening magazine on growing vegetables. Now I’m trying it, starting with four bales of straw that I placed in full sun along the edge of my vegetable garden.
    To minimize weed problems, use straw rather than hay. Straw is the residue after the grain has been harvested. Select bales tied with plastic string and not sessile. Both sessile and jute string will decompose and the bales of straw will fall apart. Those tied with plastic string will remain whole because plastic does not decompose. Place the bales of straw on either black plastic or non-woven geotextile ground cloth.  
    Before planting, prime each bale to initiate the composting process. Spread two and a half cups of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer — not mixed with herbicide — over each bale. For organic preparation, spread three pounds of organic fertilizer over each bale. Next wet the bales thoroughly and insert a long-shank thermometer to monitor temperature changes within the bales. The fertilizers will initiate composting in the center of each bale, raising the temperature. Sprinkle the bales with water daily to keep them moist so composting will take place. When temperatures again equal ambient air, the bales are ready to be planted.
    Within five days after I applied the fertilizer on each bale, temperatures within the bales fertilized with Holly Tone Organic reached 120 degrees. The bales treated with 10-6-4 fertilizer increased to only 100 degrees. It took nearly three weeks for these bales of straw to achieve the Holly Tone temperatures.
    By the end of the third week of priming, the bales treated with Holly Tone Organic started producing inky-cap mushrooms; the bales treated with chemical fertilizer followed one week later.
    At the end of the fourth week of priming, temperatures dropped to between 95 degrees and 100 degrees in all of the bales of straw.
    When the internal temperatures are the same as the ambient air, I will plant the bales with broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards. My Ohio model claims to obtain at least two years of growth, sometimes three, from each bale.
    Regardless of the results, I will write about this new method of growing vegetables and share my results and photos. I write now in hopes that you will also try so that we can compare results.
    As my dad always said, “You will never know until you try.”

Outmaneuvering Stem Borers in Zucchini
    Every year, readers complain that stem borers have killed their zucchini plants only after a few weeks of production. I have had the same problem. To enjoy zucchini for most of the summer, I make repeated plantings.
    I’ve tried with no success spreading wood ashes around each hill as recommended by organic gardening magazines. I’ve had moderate success spraying under the foliage with the insecticide Sevin starting as soon as the leaves appeared and repeating weekly.
    This year I sprayed only the stems — not the leaves or petioles — with a jet stream of Sevin, starting under the flower bud farthest away from the roots. I am still harvesting zucchini squash from the original planting with no sign of borer injury. Protecting the stem with Sevin keeps the borer from gaining entry.  
    This year’s succession of plantings resulted in a surplus harvest, which I take to the SCAN food bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2.

How to stop the Japanese beetles that cause the problem

     If you have brown patches in your lawn, I expect the cause is Japanese beetle grubs eating the roots of the grasses. Japanese beetles are out in full force, feasting on roses, linden trees and other favorite ornamentals, as well as puncturing and eating peaches, raspberries, blackberries and plums. Soon those same beetles will be landing on your lawn and depositing eggs in the earth. When those eggs hatch, hungry young larvae will begin feeding until fall when the soil cools and they burrow deeper in to survive the winter. Next spring those same larvae will crawl up closer to the roots of your lawn and resume feeding until they pupate and emerge as adults. The larvae are light gray with brown heads and curl into the letter C when disturbed.
    The brown patches you are now seeing are from last year’s larvae that survived the winter.
    Back when we lived in College Park, we did not have Japanese beetles. That’s because College Park was ground zero for the research that resulted in the development of the milky spore system of Japanese grub control. The developer was Dr. George Langford, chairman of the Department of Entomology. To test the effectiveness of the system, in the mid-1950s he treated all of the lawns within the city limits. A single treatment was highly effective.
    When Clara and I moved to Deale in 1990, the lawn was full of mole tunnels. Moles love to feast on. Realizing the mole problem was due to a large infestation of Japanese beetle grubs, I treated the entire lawn with milky spore powder the summer of 1991. It took three years before I had 100 percent control. I have never had to repeat the treatment. Japanese beetles are flying around and feasting on our little leaf linden, and they are laying eggs in my lawn, but the milky spore is digesting the larvae as they hatch. The milky spore system of control is self-supporting once it becomes well established. It has now been almost a quarter century since I first used milky spore, and I no longer have moles tunneling nor dead brown spots in my lawn.
    True, there are insecticides you can spread on your lawn that will kill the grub, but these insecticides have to be redone yearly. The use of them on lawns can also contribute to the pollution of the Bay. If you live near the Bay or its tributaries, do not use these insecticides; to be effective, they must be applied over the entire lawn.
    Milky spore is available in two forms, powder or granular. The powdered form is measured using one-quarter teaspoon at three-foot intervals. The granular form is applied using a spreader. One bag of granular milky spore will cover approximately 7,000 square feet. Milky spore must be thoroughly and promptly soaked into the soil soon after being applied. Applying it just before a predicted heavy rain is best unless you have an in-ground sprinkler system that covers the entire lawn.
    Milky spore can be used in the spring, summer or fall, but now is the best time because this is when the Japanese beetles are laying their eggs.
    Milky spore is a good, safe and effective grub control system, but it cannot be used in conjunction with any of the other harsh insecticides recommended for grub control. Having Japanese beetles laying eggs in your lawn every year keeps the milky spore population alive and well.

Organic matter adds ­hidden benefits to soil

Addition of organic matter does great things for soil. It works as a slow-release fertilizer and source of essential nutrients. It reduces the density of heavy silt and clay loam soils. It improves soil’s nutrient retention and increases water retention. All of these benefits redound to plant growth.

Retention of nutrients
    Adding organic matter to soils increases the retention of nutrients and makes them available to the roots of plants. This process is known as increasing the cation-exchange capacity of soils. You learned in the July 24 column how organic matter releases nutrients slowly through mineralization. In addition to supplying the major elements, compost supplies trace elements such as boron (B), iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), sulfur (S) and copper (Cu). These essential trace elements are important to the growth of healthy plants and to the quality of the crops they produce. But they’re not part of commercial fertilizer mixes.
    Increasing the cation exchange is especially important in sandy loams or loamy sands. Nutrients leach through these sandy soils quickly. Because sandy soils are well aerated, they do not retain organic matter. So to maintain productivity on sandy soils requires frequent applications compost or animal manure and the use of cover crops.
    On sandy loams or loamy sands, use no more compost or manure than six cubic yards per 1,000 square feet for the initial application. On silt or clay loam soils, make that four cubic yards as these soils are better able to retain nutrients than sandy loams or loamy sands. Repeated applications should be one-half or one-quarter.
Water-holding Capacity
    The addition of organic matter to sandy soils increases water-holding capacity.
    The addition of organic matter to heavy silt or clay loam soils increases water infiltration, thus increasing their ability to retain water while at the same time allowing excess water to drain.

Soil Density Reduction
    It won’t work to use sand to improve the drainage of heavy silt or clay loam soils. Short of 55 to 60 percent, the addition of sand will only result in making the soil like concrete.
    Adding 10 percent compost will increase both the organic matter concentration and the productivity of heavy silt or clay loam. Pine fines are one of the better organic materials to use to lighten heavy soils. Pine fines are a waste product from the manufacturing of pine bark mulches. Because pine fines contain high levels of lignins — a source of organic matter that resists decomposition — pine fines will persist in the soil for a long time.

Disease Control
    Another hidden benefit of amending soils with compost is its ability to control soil-borne diseases. Quality compost contains three naturally occurring fungicides and numerous beneficial microorganisms known to control common soil-borne diseases as fusarium, pythium and rhizoctinia. To get this bonus, use recently made compost. As the compost ages, these benefits are gradually lost as the biological activity of the compost decreases.

Lesson 3: Jumpstart your garden with compost tea

     Your organic garden will need a jumpstart. Organic gardening relies entirely on the release of nutrients from the decomposition of organic matter and the bodies of the microorganisms that digest the organic matter in the soil. In cold soils, nutrients are not readily available.
    Room temperature — a consistent 72 degrees — is the starting point for analyzing the situation. With 72-degree soil temperature, the rate of the mineralization of organic matter is approximately eight to 10 percent. If the soil contains three percent organic matter, it releases 24 to 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. Producing a respectable crop takes between 80 and 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
    In summer, when soils are at room temperature and above, it takes a soil with five to 10 percent organic matter to produce a respectable crop. Even if soil temperatures increase above 72 degrees, the mineralization rate increases only a few percentage points. To grow a crop in soils containing less than five percent organic matter, you’ve got to add organic fertilizers, including compost. As the microorganisms that digest the carbon of the organic matter die, the minerals in their bodies and in the cells of the organic matter are released.
    The cooler the soil, the slower the process. Mineralization of nutrients from organic matter stops when the ground freezes. In spring, the mineralization rate of organic matter is not nearly up to summer’s eight percent. Even if the soil contained five to 10 percent organic matter, it would not supply sufficient nutrients to grow early spring crops such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and lettuce.
    Traditional agriculture uses starter fertilizers with early spring transplants. Starter fertilizers are made of water-soluble minerals that are instantly available to the roots of plants, regardless of soil temperature. Applying these fertilizers near the roots of new transplants helps establish them quickly in the soil and resume normal growth. 
    Compost tea can be used as starter fertilizer. Brew the compost tea at room temperature three or four days prior to transplanting. Partially fill a five-gallon pail up to half capacity with mature compost. To assure maturity, I strongly recommend using commercial compost. Top with water and stir vigorously. Stir the compost three or four times daily to provide adequate aeration for nutrient release from the compost. Or you can aerate the compost using an aquarium air filer as a substitute.
    When you transplant three or four days later, irrigate each plant with one to two cups of compost tea.
    A second batch of tea can be made using the same compost by filling the pail again with water and repeating the process. The second batch will not be as concentrated as the first unless you allow a week or more for it to release its nutrients into the water.