In order to have good, healthy, productive plants you must have good, healthy soil. A good soil is one which retains water, readily releases nutrients to the plants, and drains well. A good soil should be porous enough to allow air to circulate around the roots and yet be strong enough to support the plant during growth and maturity. The three guidelines used to judge "good" soils are structure, nutrients and pH level.
Have you ever heard someone refer to the soil type as being heavy or light? Heavy soil is clay-like and sticky, especially when wet. Light soil is very dry and sandy. The best type of soil, loam, falls somewhere in between the two. This is known as soil structure. Good soil structure is one that is equally balanced between sand, clay and loam. This type of soil will permit good drainage while allowing sufficient water retention. It will also help retain soil nutrients while maintaining food aeration of the roots.
Soil must have three important nutrients: they are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. All three of these "ingredients" plays a key role in the development of a plant. Nitrogen is used by the plant in the development of the stems and foliage. Phosphorous is used for the growth of the roots and flowers. A plant's food production is promoted by potassium. Soil lacking any of these three key nutrients will cause poor growth and development of the plant in one or all of these major areas.
Nutrients, together with proper soil structure, will enhance your plants' chances of successful growth. A good way to find out exactly what you have in the way of soil structure and nutrient levels is to have your soil tested. Most extension offices provide this service. Check with your local office regarding any fees charged. They will send you instructions on how to gather the sample(s) to be tested. I went through a local garden center to have my soil tested.
I was instructed to take small spoonfuls of soil from approximately 20 different areas of the garden. I also had to dig down a good 6-8 inches to get my samples. This allows you to get an overall view of your garden, not just one concentrated area. The report I received told me my soil type, the nutrient levels, and another important measurement, pH.
The proper pH level in your soil is directly related to the health of your plant. Plants cannot absorb the nutrients if the pH level is too low or too high. A soil with a pH too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic) will stop the nutrients from being released and made available to the plants. The ideal pH level for flowerbeds and vegetable gardens ranges from 6.0 to 7.0. Your soil test will give you the best picture of your soil's structure and quality.
Easy Composters You Can Build
In this handy booklet you'll find plans for several types of compost bins, plus tips on selecting the site and maintaining balanced compost.
So you've received your soil test results in the mail. The news isn't too bad. Your pH is a little low (5.5), the soil needs some organic matter, and your nutrient levels could use a little adjustment, but otherwise, the structure is pretty balanced. Okay, where do you need to begin? Address the pH problem first. The soil's pH levels must be corrected before any of the other adjustments can be made.
You have to add ten pounds of lime per 100 square feet of soil in order to raise the pH one full point. To lower you pH, substitute sulfur for the lime. Lime and sulfur can be purchased at any local garden center. I recommend using dolomitic limestone. It won't burn plant roots and it adds magnesium to the soil. Magnesium is a trace element plants love!
So, your pH level is fixed, now let's work on the organic matter. Organic matter does two things for your soil. It adds nutrients and aids in the soil structure. It makes clay-like soil more crumbly and helps sandy soil retain moisture. Well-rotted manure, leaf mold, peat moss or compost are just a few of the organic materials that can be added to your soil. Spade 3 inches of the top layer down to a depth of six inches. You can add a general garden fertilizer, such as 5-10-5 or 5-10-10. Follow the directions on the package for how much to apply but don't add it until two weeks after the pH adjustment.
There are good times to amend a soil and there are better times to amend a soil. The best time to amend a soil is in the fall. This gives all the materials that were added time to breakdown. Dig the garden in the fall, leaving it rough and messy looking. Do not smooth it out to look orderly. The winter freezing and thawing will naturally aerate the soil. Insects present in the soil will be exposed to the elements. If you must dig and amend the soil in the spring, test the soil first to see if it is ready to be worked. To do this, take a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball. If the ball breaks apart easily, the soil is ready. If it doesn't, the soil is too moist. Wait two weeks and try this test again. Working a soil too soon in the season breaks down its structure.
It is a good idea to add more organic matter a week or two before you start planting in the spring even if you had already added it in the fall. Add about a 4 inch top layer and work it down about 6 - 12 inches.
One of the organic materials mentioned before was compost. There is nothing hard about making compost. You can build fancy bins or use trash barrels. If you decide to go with a bin, a good size to work with is 4' x 4' and no more than 4' high. Some companies sell various types of compost containers, which can be easier, but at times, costly. Concrete blocks, chicken wire, old fencing or even hay bales can be used. I used old pieces of wood I had lying around and concrete blocks. I cornered out the area with the blocks and then laid the wood on top of each block forming a box. Adding the concrete blocks creates air spaces. Airflow allows the microorganisms that breakdown all the materials to do their job more effectively.
Let's make a compost pile. Decide what kind of container you are going to use. The list is endless as to what you can put into a pile. Just remember the trick is in the layering. The more chopped up the materials are, the quicker the pile will decompose. You should always try to add a nitrogen source, such as grass clippings, to help speed up the process. Always layer the materials you are adding. For example, start with a layer of hay, then add leaves, banana peels, grass clippings and garden soil. Repeat the layering as you gather materials always ending with garden soil. This helps reduce the possibility of odors. Make it a point to turn your pile at least once a week and add water only if the pile seems dry. NEVER add meat scraps because you will attract many undesirable critters to your yard. Woody materials such as tree branches take a long time to breakdown so don't add them. Wood ashes are a good source of potash. You can also add your end of the season crops to the pile. Just don't add any plants that may have been diseased during the growing season. Earthworms present in a pile is a sure sign your pile is decomposing properly. Coffee grounds, vegetable waste, eggshells, fruit scraps and leaves are just a few examples of what can go into a compost pile.
A garden soil can quickly be depleted of all its nutrients. Always amend your soil at the end of your growing season and add organic matter again in the spring. Remember, the healthier your soil, the healthier your plants. Happy Gardening!