After shutting down the boat engine we leaned against the railing to watch two humpback whales feed close to the surface. Winding slowly through the kelp bed, they created small whirlpools with their pectoral fins and tails, like a barista would use a straw to draw artistic swirls on top of a latte.
Then one of the whales slowly turned toward us, exhaled deep and low, and eased alongside the hull. It was so close we could see every bump and dimple on its dark skin. Long ribbons of kelp streamed like banners from the whale’s dorsal fin as it dove. We craned our necks toward the stern to capture every precious moment. Here’s a video I made illustrating that magic close encounter…
Humpback whales gather in Alaska waters every summer to do one thing: Eat. In fact, good feeding is a mid-summer’s dream to many species on the planet, from whales and eagles, to bumblebees and plants. (I’ve included more photos from recent whale watching trips at the end of this piece).
Just like whales need to bulk up with food to take them through the lean winter months, plants need a pick-me-up with a midsummer feed to take them through the rest of the season. The garden, after all, has been churning out non-stop growth for several months. As a result, levels of essential nutrients like nitrogen for leafy growth, root-promoting phosphorus and potassium for fruits and flowers are in short-supply. In limited spaces like containers, hanging baskets, as well as greenhouse beds, feeding is even more critical.
And since gardens are always growing, your first consideration should be keeping them healthy and well fed. This is especially important for heavy (vegetable) feeders like broccoli, celery, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, onions, spinach. Medium feeders include basil, lettuce, potatoes and radish. Light feeders would be peas, Swiss chard, beans, carrots, and beets.
For the most part, perennials don’t need a lot of feeding, particularly if the soil is healthy and rich and was prepared well at planting time. Still, a top or side-dressing of compost may do the trick and will be appreciated by “heavy feeders” such as lilies, delphiniums, astilbe and phlox.
Perennials that are currently blooming, or have yet to bloom (as in some lilies), still need a steady supply of food. Annual flowers may be showing signs of slowed growth or yellowing after their initial burst of activity in late spring and summer. And vegetable that are still producing will have used up a fair amount of available nutrients in the soil around them, particularly if you’ve planted a second or third crop in the same bed.
So a mid-season feeding is in order. And there is a number of ways to accomplish this.
My first preference is to sprinkle well-rotted compost around plant roots or in between rows of plants. Not only is this a wonderful soil-builder, but with each rainfall or watering, nutrients will be made available in the root zones, and worms and other tiny creatures will make short work of the new “packages” of goodies.
Along the same vein, but slightly faster-acting, is to water with compost tea or manure tea. These liquid foods (I like to think of them as smoothies for plants) are easy to make. Just soak a couple handfuls of compost or manure (add a handful of seaweed for good measure) in a 5-gallon bucket of water. Stir occasionally to introduce air and thus keep the concoction from smelling bad. To use the nutrient-rich liquid, dilute it 1 or 2 parts tea to 1 part water. It’s not rocket science so don’t sweat the details. Just feed your plants.
One of my favorite ways to make manure tea is to add a cow or buffalo pie to a bucket of water. I don’t bother to break it up. Instead I just scoop out the colored water and feed it to tomatoes, cabbage, herbs, calendulas, whatever.
Dilute the teas even more and you have a fabulous—and instant—foliar feed. It’s best to spray plants early in the morning rather than in the heat of the day.
Greenhouse crops need feeding as soon as flowers form. For tomato growers, a potassium-rich seaweed or compost liquid added to the watering can every week encourages more flowers and a better harvest. And those pale yellow leaves? They indicate a shortage of nitrogen, also treatable with a fast-acting dose of liquid compost or manure. (Yellow leaves can also be cause by over or under watering). As for a magnesium deficiency (yellowing leaves with bright green veins), a weekly spray of diluted Epsom salts can help return things back to normal.
A gentle word of caution here: While organic matter is considered the magic elixir, more is not always better. An over-fertilized perennial will reward you with weak, leggy growth that flops over half-way through the season. Over-feeding can also affect bloom performance, producing lots of green foliage at the expense of flowers. However, if your soil lacks organic material, your plants will benefit from routine, light (lay off the nitrogen) mulching.
Beholding a whale glide along the hull of the boat can leave you pretty wide-eyed and wired, so we retired to the galley for a muffin and a cup of coffee.
“Wow,” I said. “When I get home, it might be tough to wrap my head around writing my weekly column.”
I knew I could do it, though, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: After writing this column for fifteen years I consider it a personal challenge to be able to relate any topic to gardening. Even whales.
Thanks for visiting… May you have a whale of a good time today!