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Soil Preparations

  1. Soil Preparation and Management

    I finished the first tilling last week and the ground is still broken up nicely. Birds are hopping around, pecking at the dirt and catching their morning breakfast of worms. That’s a good sign because when your soil contains the right amount of nutrients and organic matter the worms will move in, aerating the garden.

    For a quick, simple test of soil conditions, dig a hole about 12 inches across and 12 inches down, placing the dirt on a piece of cardboard, wood or other similar surface. Sift through the dirt and count the earthworms. If you have about 10 worms in the pile, your soil is pretty balanced. Less than that may mean that you need to do some soil maintenance.

    pH – Not Too Sweet, Not Too Tart!

    The pH number is the measurement of soil acidity. Most plants thrive when the pH factor is in the neutral range. A measurement of 7 indicates a neutral pH, while lower numbers represent an acidic content and higher numbers indicate alkalinity. The entire range is from 0 (highly acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline) on the pH scale.

    What you need to strive for is a range from 5.5 to 7.5 to get the best results. There are several ways that you can test pH. Most garden centers and farmers’ co-ops will carry simple test kits. Follow the directions carefully to ensure accurate results. You may need to test several areas of the garden plot, especially if it is large. The results can vary from section to section, so don’t take for granted that your entire garden is the same. For example, we have a pine tree on one side of the garden that sheds needles. Pine needles are acidic in content, so decomposing needles will increase the acidity.

    If you want an expert opinion, check your phone book for a local soil testing lab or university agricultural department extension. When you take the soil to them they test it and give you suggestions for improving it. Garden lime is often used to combat acidity, for example.

    One way of ensuring good soil on several levels is the use of rich compost. Compost should not be confused with mulch, which is a chopped up mixture of various wood types. Compost is the result of decaying organic matter, usually made up of plant wastes. While you can purchase it, you can also make your own rich compost. Grass clipping, flower clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps can be used. Other good sources of compost material are coffee ground, egg shells, sawdust from untreated lumber or wood and livestock manure. Never include meat scraps or pet droppings as these many contain parasites and diseases.

    There are several methods you can use to make good, rich compost: slow, cold composting; fast, hot composting; and, vermicular composting that uses worms in the process. In fact, the art of compost is another subject all by itself. However, information can be obtained from your local university website. Some home improvement stores carry small, rotating barrels that are vented to allow air to interact with the compost. This can be a quick and easy way make it.

    Squeeze It, Poke It and Percolate It

    Squeezing and poking will help you determine what type of soil you have in your plot. This is called the squeeze test and it will help you determine if you have sandy soil, clay or the Holy Grail of dirt: loam. Sandy soil will drain quickly; however, it won’t retain the nutrients and moisture necessary for good growth. Clay is a veritable storehouse of nutrients. Unfortunately, it will retain too much water, literally drowning some plant species. Loam is the best of both worlds. It is nutrient-rich, retains good moisture content and drains off the excess easily.

    To perform the squeeze test, take a handful of soil that is moist, but not wet, and squeeze it into a ball. Open your hand and check the results. If it falls apart immediately, you have sandy soil. Enriching it with compost will often remedy this problem easily.

    On the other hand, if the soil holds it shape, even after poking it, you have clay soil. You will need to till in some filler to break it up. If your dirt ball holds its shape and then crumbles when poked, you have excellent loam.

    The percolation test determines how quickly your soil drains. Dig a small hole, about six inches across and a foot deep. Fill it with water and let it drain. Then fill it again and track the time it takes to drain. The hole should empty in less than four hours. Any longer than that means the ground is retaining water for too long.

    Onward and Upward!

    Soil management doesn’t stop there; it continues as the season moves on and the plants grow up. Many gardeners will place tarps or mulch around their plants. This keeps in moisture and may help some in pest control. I prefer a natural mulch of wood chips or straw because it retains moisture and can be tilled into the garden at the end of the harvest. The mulch will decompose slowly, introducing nutrients into the soil for the next planting season.

    Happy gardening!

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