“No One Ever Fertilized an Old Growth Forest” – My Organic Approach

Last week I purchased a book by Don Langevin titled, How-to-Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins the All-Organic Way. I already own one of his other books on giant pumpkins, and I figured this would be a good addition to my library

 
 

At first, I was a bit skeptical about using an organic approach to grow my giant pumpkin. Dale always jokes that I could pump absurd amounts of Miracle Gro 20-20-20 into my soil and my pumpkin would eat it right up, whereas other plants would start glowing in the dark from it. I mean, you must need something as potent as 20-20-20 to grow something that big in 3 months, right? Despite thinking organic gardening is a great thing, I didn’t feel that organic anything had the power to produce big or plentiful plants. After reading this book (twice) I have a totally different view, and I’ll try to sum up some of the lessons I learned from my reading. Don’t worry, I’ll show some pumpkin pictures too!

The goal of organic gardening is to create a soil environment that contains beneficial organisms like fungi and bacteria. These organisms form a symbiotic relationship with the pumpkin plant, allowing it to maximize nutrient uptake and resist disease. Chemical fertilizers (containing salts), fungicides, and pesticides can all kill these beneficial organisms. I like to think of it in terms of our own bodies. Humans have “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria in their systems. When you take antibiotics, you are killing off both the good and bad bacterias, creating an imbalance in your body. To help get those good bacteria back, you could start taking probiotics. Those antibiotics we take would be analogous to fungicides/pesticides, and the probiotics we use to get a healthy rebound would be comparable to organic amendments to our garden. Ideally you would avoid antibiotics all together and just stick with the probiotics.

Don Langevin explained in his book that “No one ever fertilized an old growth forest.” Here is an excerpt from his book that explains this:

“Look at an old growth forest if you have one nearby. Think about it – see the beauty, the age, the health – yet, no one has ever fertilized it. Perhaps it suggests that something else is in control besides man when it comes to plant success . . .  The plant can get all that it needs and wants by merely excreting an elixir of attractants through its roots, called exudates. These exudates are the plant’s wastes, but also the plant’s communication to surrounding soil constituents as to what it needs, and what it offers in return.”

When the plant flushes waste from its system, this waste acts as a food for organisms surrounding the roots. Unfortunately, when we destroy these organisms with chemical fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides, we make the plant dependent on us for intervention since we just killed off its entire support system.

Below are some of the organic methods I am currently using.

  • Mycorrhizae – I put mycorrhizae first on the list because I think this is the best addition I will be making to this year’s pumpkin. Last year I used fish and seaweed fertilizer (another important component) and Miracle Gro 20-20-20 to grow my 661-pound pumpkin. This year, I’m ditching the 20-20-20 and trying all this new stuff. Mycorrhizae is a fungus that forms a symbiotic relationship with the plant. It is attracted to plant waste excreted from roots (and even leaves), and in return the mycorrhizae brings in nutrients and protects the plant from pathogens (disease). These fungi are NOT used as an “add-on” to chemical fertilizers. They should be used “instead of.” The salts in chemical fertilizers can kill the mycorrhizae (and other soil organisms), so you’d be defeating the point of using mycorrhizae if you also used something like Miracle Gro. More isn’t always better.
 Network of mycorrhizae branching out from the plant’s roots.

Network of mycorrhizae branching out from the plant’s roots.

  • Azos – Azos are a type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Giant pumpkins cannot consume nitrogen in its natural form in the air. Instead, that nitrogen (N) needs to be bonded to another element and have a + or – charge to it, as see in ammonium (NH4+) and nitrate (NO3−). These two forms of nitrogen are considered nitrogen “fixed” molecules, and that is the only form of nitrogen the plant roots can absorb. The roots have their own electrical charges and can attract both + and – charged molecules. Azos are one type of bacteria responsible for fixing nitrogen, and they play an important role in the plant’s ability to absorb it.
 
 
  • Humic acid – Humic acid transforms insoluble nutrients into useable ones. It also inhibits the buildup of “bad” fungi and stimulates microbial activity. According to Don Langevin, “This is the nectar of the gods for your soil and leaf surface microbiology. Humic acid should be a part of any soil building program relying on organic material as the source of plantfood.”
 
 
  • Kelp meal – Kelp meal is an organic food source for the microbes in the soil. It supplies potassium, trace minerals, and growth-promoting hormones. You can add it to your soil in the spring before transplanting, but since I missed that marker, I’m mixing it in with my soil/compost when I bury the vines.
 
 
  • Fish and seaweed fertilizer – Almost every article I’ve read on giant pumpkins mentions the use of fish and seaweed fertilizer. All seaweed products contain plant hormones: auxins, cytokinins, and gibberellins. These hormones help increase/enlarge plant cells and increase root formation and flowering. It also provides major/minor nutrients, amino acids, and enzymes. When used on the leaves as a foliar feeding, the fish and seaweed products can also help prevent powdery mildew, a destructive disease that affects the leaves of the plants. I get powdery mildew every year on my plants if I don’t use preventative measures.
 
 
  • Cow manure – We used two truckloads of manure this year in my garden. It is a great source of nutrients and organic material. We tilled our manure into the soil, although this book advises AGAINST tilling because it can destroy established fungal hypha networks, earthworms, and other organisms. Make sure you know where your manure is coming from. If the cow farms use antibiotics, insecticides, fungicides, or herbicides, that may affect your pumpkin patch.
 Dale loading cow manure.

Dale loading cow manure.

  • Compost – Compost, defined in its simplest terms, is decayed organic matter. I have a compost pile at home which is composed of food scraps, plant material from last year’s garden, and leaves from last fall. It acts as a great source of minerals and microbes, and it’s free! I am still learning about compost, so Dale has been helping me out in this area since he is a Master Gardener. I am currently mixing in compost with my soil when I bury the vines, and we will also be making compost tea to use as a fertilizer throughout the season. I will write more on this in the future as I start to understand it better.

My current method of pest control is mechanical (removing the bugs and eggs by hand). This is very labor intensive, but I’m trying to avoid using any pesticides. I own some neem oil, which is an organic pesticide that also helps prevent powdery mildew. Even though it is organic and is mentioned in Don Langevin’s book, I’m trying to avoid using it. If neem oil is strong enough to kill pesky bugs, doesn’t that mean it has the potential to kill the organisms in my soil? Neem oil can kill bees (our friends!) if put in direct contact with them, so it hasn’t won me over yet even though it is derived from a plant. With that being said, desperate times call for desperate measures, and if my plant is severely threatened by insects or disease, I will try to find the best option to keep it under control.

Big Momma is doing great! I am spending a lot of time burying the vines and “training” the vines to go where I want them to. Next blog I’ll talk more about training the vines and avoiding soil compaction (which is another area I’m trying to learn more about).  Here are updated photos from all my plants:

 This is a photo of Big Momma trying to get out of her hoop house. I kept her covered this day because it was 40 degrees.

This is a photo of Big Momma trying to get out of her hoop house. I kept her covered this day because it was 40 degrees.

 1400 Lopresti (Big Momma)

1400 Lopresti (Big Momma)

Big Momma is doing GREAT! She has two baby pumpkins on the primary vine. One is 9 feet down, and the other is 10 feet. I want my “chosen” pumpkin to be 12-15 feet from the stump since most of the water and nutrients come from the leaves/vines “upstream” of the pumpkin. So even though I have pumpkins, I probably won’t keep them since I want ones further down.

 Baby pumpkin!

Baby pumpkin!

The other pumpkin in my backyard, the 1421 Gaboury, isn’t growing very quickly. She is growing, though. The cold slowed her down in May, but I think lack of sunlight is the culprit now. Maybe she will be a good size for a pumpkin boat!

 1421 Gaboury. She is growing, but slowly. Poor thing doesn’t get much sun!

1421 Gaboury. She is growing, but slowly. Poor thing doesn’t get much sun!

The 1695 Gaboury (at the Bangor Community Garden) is starting to grow more. Her leaves don’t look the healthiest, though. There were a lot of cucumber beetles on her today and she hasn’t been watered in a while, so I’m sure there are multiple factors that could be playing a part. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about pest control since I can’t get over there every day to squish bugs. Even just tending to Big Momma is extremely time consuming.

 1695 Gaboury. Definitely not as big or spoiled as Big Momma, but growing better than the 1421 Gaboury. I don’t get over to the Bangor Community Garden enough to water her, but she is getting a lot of sun which is great!

1695 Gaboury. Definitely not as big or spoiled as Big Momma, but growing better than the 1421 Gaboury. I don’t get over to the Bangor Community Garden enough to water her, but she is getting a lot of sun which is great!

That's all for now. Back to the patch!