Soil Is The Soul Of Your Garden

Every gardener plants his/her garden with a vision of what it will ultimately grow into. Let’s face it, we all anticipate gardens of perfection. Eventually, sad to say, reality invades by way of blights, drought, pounding rains, insects, woodchucks, blasting winds, bunnies, Labrador retrievers, etc., etc. Oy!! As gardeners, we need to persevere and find ways to fight back. A healthy soil is the first line of defense. One definition of soul is “a vital or essential part, quality, or principal”. That pretty much sums up garden soil. Everything you grow comes from the soil – the soul of your garden.

We all understand, or should, that our health is a direct result of what we choose to eat. Equally so, the plants in our gardens can only be as healthy as the soil in which they grow. Poor soil = poor plant health = vegetables lower in nutrition. So, the question is, just what is it that your plants “eat”? What do they need to grow to their full potential? What do they need to produce food full of nutrition for you?

I know, I know, soil is not the most intriguing subject of conversation for most gardeners. But, if you want to fight back, “ya gotta do what ya gotta do”. Understanding and improving your soil is truly the first line of defense against all those nasties listed in the third sentence of this post. What follows is a very basic explanation of what your soil needs to grow healthy.

Most vegetables need/grow best in a soil with a pH that is near neutral – 6.2-6.8. The soil in your garden might be full of nutrients but if the pH is too high or too low those nutrients will not be available to your plants. Basically what you need to understand, is that a soil with a neutral pH, meaning near 7 on the logrithmic pH scale of 0 to 14, is able to release nutrients to your plants. The farther your pH number strays from neutral, the more acid (below 7) or alkaline (above 7) pH becomes, the more the nutrients in that soil become unavailable to your plants. Mind you, this a very simplistic explanation of what is in reality a complicated chemical reaction. Just remember that most vegetables grow best when the pH of their soil is from 6.2 to 6.8 meaning slightly acidic. Now you have pH numbers to aim for.

For years I worried about getting my garden soil tested and then trying to figure out how much lime to add to each bed to correct the pH. Then, with great relief, I read Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon. He recommends the addition of 50 pounds of agricultural lime per 1000 square feet of garden every year. I have followed this advice for 3 years and I can tell you that my garden produces more abundantly that it ever has. My raised beds are just about 100 square feet each so – using Steve Solomon’s advice of 50 pounds per 1000 sq. ft. – it is easy to figure out that my 100 sq. ft. beds need 5 pounds of lime per year. I weigh out 5 pounds of lime, sprinkle it throughout a bed, and till it in. Lime is slow acting in the soil so fall is the perfect time to till it in. Winter’s freezing and thawing action will nudge along the chemical reactions that bring your soil’s pH into neutral.

I must also tell you that I have been adding compost, chopped leaves, grass clippings, and old straw to my garden beds for many years. The soil in my beds is deep and rich and full of life. The small amount of lime that I add keeps things in balance and the pH where it should be. Beware, if you are starting a new garden on soil that has not been enriched you should have a soil test so you can get a good undertanding of your pH starting point. Check out www.umass.edu/soiltest/ To down load their brochure – Click on “Ordering information” at the top of the page then click on “Routine Soil Analysis Turf, Landscaping, Home Gardening” and download that form. Follow the directions and get that soil sample in the mail.

Now, what is next? Besides a rather neutral pH, a healthy soil needs to have constant additions of organic matter to aid water retention, improve soil structure, hold mineral nutrients, and help balance soil pH. My list of available organic matter includes:

Grass clippings. We allow our grass to grow just a bit too tall and when Greg mows, he collects the clippings and dumps them in a pile in the garden. I use the clippings all summer to mulch everything in the garden – my onions LOVED the extra nitrogen this summer. As the clippings decompose they feed both the plants they mulch and the soil organisms. Not a bad deal for basically free clippings. One last fall mowing provides us with enough clippings to add a layer to each bed.

Chopped leaves. Collecting leaves is a bit of work but the payoff is huge. Every fall Greg runs the mower over the leaves that fall into our yard. He uses a grass catcher attached to the mower to collect them. He empties the chopped leaves into large garbage bags and stacks the bags in the garden. We add the chopped leaves to garden beds in the fall, use them as a summer mulch, and add them to the compost pile. Don’t have your own trees? Check out the local maintenance garage in your town. Often, leaves are swept up along streets and dumped into a collection area for free distribution to local residents. Many people neatly bag their leaves and leave them on the curb for pick-up – that pick-up could be done by you.

Compost. Gotta have it. Our compost pile is part of the chicken yard. The hens constantly stir things up and contribute their manure to the mix. In the fall we dig into the pile, sift out the big pieces (which are returned to the pile) and add a 2 inch layer of finished compost to each bed. The compost is tilled into each bed along with lime, chopped leaves, and grass clippings. Don’t have a compost pile? Yikes!! Get one started! Or – check out your local garden center for bagged compost and composted manure.

Lime, grass clippings, chopped leaves and compost are the short list of soil additives. There are, of course, many more things you can add to the mix. My short list is a great start and will definitely help build a healthy soil.

Get started NOW!! Next year’s garden depends on it.

Hey from the farm,

Fran The Country Cousin

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2 comments to Soil Is The Soul Of Your Garden

  • Linda Hatton

    We usually do our tilling/digging in the spring. Does it make a ton of difference to do it in the fall?

    • Fall is the best time to add lime, chopped leaves, compost,etc. These additives, especially lime, are slow acting within the soil. Incorporating these things into your soil in the fall allows winter’s freezing and thawing to get things “moving”. If you are not adding anything to your soil and if you have a heavy, claylike soil then rough tilling, meaning leaving the soil in large clods, will help mellow your soil. Again, winter’s freezing and thawing will loosen those clods and by spring you will have a more workable soil. If you are planning early spring planting – onions or lettuce for example, then preparing your soil in the fall gives you a head start. I guess I believe that anything I can do in the fall to make the busyness of spring easier I will try to do. Great question, Linda.

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