Gardening secrets: Epsom salt and sugar

This veggie bed soil isn’t very active. So I buried frosted tomato vines in it and sprinkled on my powerful duo, and in a month I’ll plant seeds.

Gardening shouldn’t be expensive.  If you believe everything you read, especially those wonderful gardening catalogs and even advice from professional gardeners, a garden could be quite an investment.  Talk about golden carrots!  I have spent my fair share of money for gardening products in my time.  Then this permaculture stuff got into my head and it makes me rethink everything.  Permaculture proves that gardening shouldn’t be labor intensive, just labor-wise.  Make things work for you and let plants get on with what they want to do.  Makes some forehead-slapping sense to me.

Organic fertilizer is a plus for firing off poor soil, but it is expensive.  There are two other very inexpensive household products that you can use to really charge your soil, promote growth, make fruit sweeter, reduce some weeds, release the bound-up vitamins and minerals in the soil, promote world peace… well, I’m getting a little carried away, but not by too much.

Epsom salt is named after Epsom, England, where the active ingredient Magnesium sulfate was originally created.  Not found naturally, it must be processed, now most often from dolomite.  Dolomite is mined in the United States and internationally.  The sustainability of dolomite mining and the environmental impact of mining, processing and shipping Epsom salts may be something to consider, if you worry about the locality of products you purchase.  I don’t know what impacts those are.  Epsom salts can actually be made at home by chrystalizing magnesium sulfate, but I’m thinking that although I enjoy do-it-yourselfing, this is a little too much.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind one day.

Epsom salt is inexpensive and readily available.  It is recommended for tomatoes, peppers and roses, but I use it around citrus trees, in the veggie beds, and anywhere leaves are looking sickly.  The Epsom salt bag recommends sprinkling 2 tablespoons around the base of each plant, so you can see a little goes a long way.  It is also a wonderful bath salt which eases sore muscles and leaches impurities from your skin (often recommended as a diet aid because of this). (Also if you have a greywater system, your magnesium-enriched bathwater will flow out to nutrify your plants!  Such a deal!)  Some sites tell you never to take it internally; the bag and others recommend it for… let’s say… loosening things up inside.  It is also used as a curdling agent in making tofu.  There is a relationship between calcium and magnesium whether it be in the soil or in our bodies.  They need each other in a ratio of about 2:1 calcium to magnesium for best absorption.  (Dairy products don’t have that ratio, so if you drink milk you may not be absorbing the amount of calcium you thought you were).  Also, calcium and potassium compete with magnesium for uptake into roots, and even though your soil samples may indicate enough magnesium your plants may not be receiving enough.  Here are some good sites for looking into the science behind it if you’re interested: National Gardening Association, a book excerpt here which goes into more details about how its made and how to use it medicinally, and even a site about how to make crafts with it.

Also, don’t let the name confuse you.  Epsom salt is Magnesium sulfate, not salt as in table salt which is Sodium chloride.  Applying Epsom salt to the ground is not like applying, well, salt.  Applying Sodium chloride to your soil is to kill it.  I’ve read and overheard inexperienced gardeners say that they’ve poured salt on weeds because, after all, it comes from the ground so it shouldn’t do any damage.  Ummm, no.  Invading armies would salt the fields of their enemies so they couldn’t grow crops there for decades.  Heavy salt in the soil is a huge problem (which, of course, if you’ve been paying attention to past blogs you know can be readily solved by….. what?  I’ll give you a chance to fill that in and reveal the answer at the end!)

As for my other ‘secret’ ingredient is sugar.  Yes, my soil is on junk food.  Actually using organic molasses dissolved in rainwater would be best, and I have done that when making a microbial brew, but I am but one person with a thin purse so sugar it is.  Why sugar? It is a complex carbohydrate which plants need to produce protein, starch and fats.  Plants produce their own sugar through photosynthesis, and by secreting their own sugars through their roots determine which microorganisms they want to thrive near them.  I use a little sugar on ailing soil; all those millions of microbes and fungusey things that are in the soil get a jump-start with something sweet. Have you ever made bread and mixed a little sugar in with the yeast to proof it?  Same difference.  The soil critters feed off the sweet, multiplying like crazy and making your soil turn into healthy goodness. If your soil is healthy, you don’t need it. When the sweet is gone they munch on organic materials processing them more quickly and opening up all those locked nutrients in the soil.  If there isn’t enough for them to eat and there is a die-off, then their little bodies become nutrients for the soil (as they would anyway).  To put this into perspective, let me relay to you an interesting fact I learned in my Permaculture Design Course. When a field is plowed and farmed, the first year crops are good.  Each successive year that it is plowed and farmed the fertility is less and the crops worse until the ground is barren.  That is because with the first plowing or tilling gajillions of microbes are slaughtered and it is their dead bodies that fertilize the crops.  Each successive year there are fewer microbes available to slaughter until they are all gone and the soil has become dirt.  And then we have dust bowls and run-off, erosion, loss of the water table, the drying up of streams, climate change, universal discord… well, you get the picture.

Climbing Don Juan here was a miserable, spotty rose last Spring, while all his friends were tall and lovely. I added Epsom salt and sugar, and he fought off the black spot and is thriving.

Only lightly sprinkle the sugar around your soil; too much can hurt plants.  I have used sugar successfully to kill off an invasion of nutgrass, something about which I read on the Internet.  This sedge turned up in my pathways and although I hand weeded the little guys (I didn’t eat them although they were cultivated as a crop in Egypt) they just kept on coming, even after I had put plywood over the top for awhile.   So I sugared them then threw the plywood back on, and Bob’s your Uncle, no more nutgrass in that area.   I envisioned millions of little mouths biting away at the nutgrass bulbs underground… I need to stop thinking about that.  What really happened is that the microbes fed off the sugar and multiplied wildly to a point where they locked up the available nutrients in the soil which non-natives need to grow.  Native plants won’t be bothered because they can thrive in poor soil. Here is an article about the research behind sugaring to prevent weeds.  I lightly add sugar around established plants that aren’t doing well, and water into new vegetable beds where the soil isn’t vigorous yet and allow the beds to sit awhile before I plant seeds.

Refined white sugar is of course empty calories.  Any dissolved sweet will work well, too.  Beet sugar, agave syrup, leftover pancake syrup, sorghum syrup, honey, molasses, diluted jelly… use your imagination and your pantry.  The more nutrients in the sweet the better for your soil, but also the more expensive it will be.  If you are using sweet for houseplants then you should be wary of possible interest by house ants.  Outside it isn’t a problem.

So share your bath and your jelly donut with your garden and you’ll both be happier and healthier!

(Answer: compost!  You knew that!)

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