Humpback whales

Why do 40-foot humpback whales launch themselves right out of the water? Are they happy to be feeding in our nutrient-rich waters? On the same lines, would broccoli leap out of the soil if they were fed compost tea?

KODIAK — Early one morning, somewhere between Chiniak and Spruce Cape, our group of four went out to watch whales. At one point, the skipper slowed down and shut down the engine.

We leaned against the boat railing to watch two humpback whales feed close to the surface. Their movements were deliberate and slow. Sliding through the kelp bed, they churned small whirlpools of foam like a barista would use a straw to draw swirls on top of a latte.

One of the whales turned toward us and exhaled in a deep whistle, the blow sounded like it originated from the center of the earth. 

The whale eased alongside the hull. It was so close we could see every knob and dimple on its head. (Did you know that these knobs are actually hair follicles? Yup, it’s all part of being a mammal). As the whale dove, kelp streamed like banners from the whale’s dorsal fin. We craned our necks toward the stern to capture every precious moment…

Humpback whales gather in Alaska waters every summer to accomplish 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.

Just like whales, which need to bulk up with food to take them through the lean winter months (in their case, Mexico and Hawai’i), 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 a couple months. This means, nitrogen (needed for leafy growth), phosphorus (roots) and potassium for fruits and flowers are in short-supply. This is especially in tight quarters, such as containers, hanging baskets, hoophouse and greenhouse beds, where feeding is even more critical.

What am I getting at? Gardens are in growth mode during the summer, right? Plants, like whales, need pick-me-ups. I’ll explain what to feed them with in a moment. In the garden, you have heavy feeders, such as broccoli, celery, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, onions and spinach. Medium feeders include basil, lettuce, potatoes and radish. And light feeders, which include peas, Swiss chard, beans, carrots and beets. 

Unlike these annual veggies, perennial flowers don’t need a lot of feeding, especially if the soil is healthy. 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 appreciate a steady supply of food. Annual flowers, showing signs of slowed growth or yellowing after their initial burst of activity in late spring and summer, may need a boost as well.

And, vegetables 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.

Having said all that, a mid-season feeding may well be in order and there are 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 become available in the root zones and worms and other tiny creatures will make short work of the new “packages” of goodies.

Along the same lines, but faster-acting, is to water your plants with compost tea or manure tea. I like to think of these liquid foods as smoothies for plants. They are easy to make. Get yourself a 5-gallon bucket and soak a couple handfuls of compost or manure and toss in some seaweed for good measure. If you have access to some comfrey, chop a few leaves and add them to the mix.

Stir twice daily to keep aerated. After a few days, it’s ready to use. To use the nutrient-rich liquid, dilute it three parts tea to one part water. It’s not rocket science so don’t sweat the details. Just feed your plants. 

I mentioned greenhouses and hoophouses. Crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers 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, if your plants’ leaves are looking a little pale these days, as in pale yellow? This is usually a sign of nitrogen depletion, which can also treatable with a dose of liquid compost or manure. (Yellow leaves can also be triggered by over- or under watering). 

A gentle word of caution dear readers: While organic matter is 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 tons 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.

To finish up, witnessing whales feeding and gliding past left us 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.”

Though after writing this column for over 23 years I consider it a personal challenge to be able to relate any topic to gardening. Even whales.

Remember, if you have a garden question, pop me an email to:

Have a great week!

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