So, you're ready to garden!
Maybe you've entertained the idea of growing some of your own food.
Perhaps you are a gourmet cook. Your idea of organic, wholesome
herbs and vegetables includes knowing how those foods were grown.
Whatever your reasons for growing, you need to begin this challenge by
assessing the needs of your soil.
Know Your Soil
In order to have healthy plants, you've got to have healthy soil and
the first step in making your soil healthy is to test it and find out what
it needs. Many nurseries will test a sample of your soil for a nominal
fee or even for free. They may provide a kit for soil testing as
well. Seed catalogs also sell them. Often the County Extension
Agent's Office provides a soil testing service or can direct you to
a lab that will. It can not be stressed enough: KNOW YOUR SOIL!
ADD THE AMENDMENTS! The single most important step to healthy plants,
less disease and fewer cases of damage by pests is to get your soil in
top shape. It's not hard. Even a gardener on a tiny plot can do wonders
with good organic soil practices.
What is Soil?
Soil is the loose top layer of the Earth's surface. It consists
of a variety of horizontal layers called horizons. Organic matter,
minerals and other solid matter forms the basis for soil. Sand, silt
and clay in varying proportions determine the texture of the soil while
air and water fill the gaps between the solids. Sand particles are
the largest measuring between 1/50th and 1/500th of an inch. Pick
up a pinch of soil between your fingers and rub them; the sand feels gritty.
Silt particles are smaller: between 1/500th and 1/2,500th of an inch.
Silt feels like a powder. Clay particles are smaller still.
At 1/12,000 of an inch and smaller they are too small to be seen even with
an ordinary microscope! Clay feels slippery when wet, rubbery when
moist and hard when dry.
Clay: is sticky when wet. Too much clay causes water to
drain slowly which can lead to problems with run-off and erosion.
When dry, it hardens and cracks on the surface causing excess evaporation
and upsetting root systems. It compacts easily.
Sand: Drains quickly. Too much sand prevents plants from
absorbing nutrients, as they leech away.
Loam: The mixture of clay, sand and silt that provides moderate
drainage and good aeration. Loam is well-drained and promotes fast,
deep root formation and nutrient retention.
We've talked about soil types. Now, let's discuss the pH factor.
pH is a measure of acid to alkalinity. Just as a human blood stream
has a pH, soil also has a pH. It is measured on a scale of 0 (most
acid) to 14 (most alkaline); a pH of 7 is considered neutral. When
the soil pH is to high or too low, the availability of nutrients to the
plants is reduced, leading to poor growth and weakened plants. Disease
soon follows. Most plants can grow in a pH of 4-8, though you will
want a soil pH of 6.5-7 for most vegetables, fruits, nuts and flowers.
If your soil is above a pH of 7.5, your plants won't be able to absorb
the available iron. Iron chlorosis appears as a yellowing of the
leaves with their veins outlined in green. The quickest remedy is
an iron spray directed at the leaves. However, a longer lasting fix
is to reduce the alkalinity with compost, copperas, iron sulfate, sulfur
or cotton seed meal. Read the labels for amounts per square foot.
A soil that is too acidic for your plants is just as bad. You
can correct it with lime. Again, read the labels. If you find
that providing a soil condition for special plants is too difficult, check
the natives, (plants, that is), for some that thrive in your native soils
with a small amount of amending. Upkeep on a plant that requires
excessive pH maintenance can be frustrating and maybe not worth the extra
Does the word compost mystify you? Turn you off? Make you
think of smelly piles of rubbish? It doesn't have to. You can
compost! You need to. Your plants will thank you, your garden
will flourish and your floral bouquets will delight all who see and experience
them. And, you will be providing a valuable service to your self
and your planet for future generations! While you await the results
of your soil test (3-6 weeks), you can be doing something great for your
land. To begin with, let's familiarize ourselves with what composting
is all about.
In its essence, composting takes wastes and heats them up; decomposing
them to such an extent that their chemical make-up (when placed in your
soil) becomes readily available to your plants. This nurtures them
with vital elements necessary for their good health and ultimately, yours.
Nothing tricky in that.
To compost you need to find a place to put the materials. It should,
of course, be near the garden. If you are planting in containers
or do not need a large amount of compost during the year, you may want
to purchase a small-scale ready-made compost bin. Many home and garden
supply stores carry them, as do the major garden and seed catalogs.
Instructions for use are usually included. Place your compost pile
near a water source as you will want to sprinkle it on occasion, especially
during dry weather. You may also want to cover it with plastic sheeting.
To the basics then:
Use kitchen garbage. No meats or meat products. Shred or
blend into slush. Use old coffee grounds (unbleached filters are
best). Below is a list of other possible ingredients, larger items
such as twigs and leaves should be chopped with a mower or shredder:
The most popular method of composting for the home gardener is called the
Indore Method. It was devised by Sir Albert Howard at the beginning
of this century. In this method the compost heap is exposed to the
air and kept moist (not soggy) for the maximum microbial action.
This method turns most of the carbon content into energy creating heat
and carbon dioxide which passes into the air. The interior temperature
in an active heap can rise as high as 160° F (71°C). Some
composters cover their heaps with plastic to keep the moisture content
constant. This is a good practice in dry areas and during times of
Tomato or Squash vines
Building Your Pile
To build your compost pile (or bin if you don't like the unkempt appearance
of an open pile) you can use the following guidelines:
For the Indore Method, the average pile is 6 feet deep by 3-5 feet high
and 10-30 feet wide. Begin by spreading a layer of plant wastes
over the area to be covered by the pile. Then, add a 2" layer of
manure (any, except human). Follow this with a thin layer of topsoil
about 1/8 of an inch thick. Next, sprinkle lime, phosphate rock,
granite dust or wood ash to increase the mineral content of the finished
humus. Do not add lime if an acid compost is needed. Water
the pile and keep layering until the desired height is reached. Don't
walk on it or compact it in any way! This will slow down the
aeration process. Tubes of drilled p.v.c or wire mesh may be inserted
3-4 feet apart to increase air flow if desired. Within a few days,
the pile will heat up and shrink in size. 2-3 weeks after it's started
you should use a shovel or pitchfork to turn the pile and then again after
5 weeks. That's all there is to it! In about 3 months you should have an abundant
supply of organic humus to feed your soil and ultimately, yourself!
Once you've gotten your soil test back and purchased you amendments,
use a seed spreader or hand broadcast them over your beds (flower, vegetable,
etc.) Then, spread your compost and turn it all under. If you
have the time, let it all sit for a season so the nutrient have a chance
to settle down into the "root zone" of your future garden. If you
have used organic amendments, they will break down slowly. This will
allow you to plant sooner without fear of "burning" your plants.
Later in the season, you can side-dress with additional compost or manure
tea to bolster you plantings.
If you have a large field, you can plant legumes such as alfalfa, clover
or vetch. Properly inoculated, these legumes can produce staggering
results. Alfalfa and clovers are the most efficient nitrogen fixers.
With the right management, they can fix 100 pounds or more of nitrogen
per acre. Planting legumes and turning them under at flowering, is
the simplest and most economical way to get nitrogen into your soil for
plant availability. Another excellent source of nitrogen (if it is
available in your area) is seaweed!
Check with your County Agent or a Master Gardener for a suitable cover
crop for your area and season. Knowledgeable nursery people, herb
societies, local garden clubs and that next door neighbor with the beautiful
garden can be of tremendous help in your efforts to grow a healthy garden.
Don't hesitate to ask either, most gardeners love to talk about their gardens!
Sue McDonald is an avid gardener living in Boise, Idaho.
She is a regular contributor and editor to the Better Earth News.
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