The magical ingredients of successful soil
When it comes to planting, good soil is the foundation on which you build a good garden. And building good soil involves analyzing what you've got and supplementing what it needs...
Along with organic matter or humus there are three primary minerals that make up soil: sand, clay, silt. The right balance of both humus and minerals will achieve garden loam, the best soil for growing plants.
Soil that has too much clay will cause problems by holding water and being too wet and dense to work. Soil that is too sandy will allow water and the nutrients to run through the ground too quickly to be absorbed, leaving plants high, dry... and hungry! Soil that is too silty will also allow water and nutrients to run through the ground too quickly, and when dry has a powdery texture that is prone to wind erosion.
Improve and transform soil into loam
When creating a garden and at the beginning of each growing season, check your soil's texture. Pick up a handful and squeeze gently:
If it feels sticky and stays in a tight mass, your soil is too high in clay. If it feels harsh or gritty and won't hold a shape or crumbles it is too high in sand. If it feels smooth or floury and won't hold a shape, it's too high in silt. If it molds into your hand yet crumbles apart when squeezed, it has the perfect texture. It is loam, sweet loam!
Going loam... how to balance your soil
If your soil has too much clay add some sand and/or silt to improve drainage and workability. If it's too sandy or too silty consider mixing in some clay to help water retention. In every case 1/3 of the final soil should be organic matter or humus. To do this simply, spread a 4 inch layer of moist organic matter on your topsoil and work it in to a depth of 12 inches.
Why? Because humus improves drainage to keep roots from rotting; opens up fine textured soils; and provides more oxygen essential for root growth. Humus is a cure all for most soil ailments and can only help even the best soil. If used every year it will improve the long term fertility of your garden and produce healthier, more beautiful flowers and vegetables.
There are a variety of humus-producing organic materials available on the market: well-rotted manure, peat moss, ground bark, sawdust, or homemade versions like compost or shredded leaves.
Soil pH testing
You can send soil samples to a lab for testing. Samples should be taken after the growing season but before winter. Some nutrient additives take several months to become effective, so you need your test results in enough time to apply the nutrients in the fall. To take a sample, make a 6 to 8 inch vertical slice with a clean garden tool. Remove a 2 inch from the top to the bottom of the slice and place it in a clean container. If you have a large area with similar soil types, mix samples from several places. If you have areas with obviously different soil types, send them in separately. You need no more than one pint per sample.
To determine the pH of your soil get a soil test kit sold at most nurseries. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with 7 being the neutral level. Soils that read less than 7 are on the acidic side, those higher than 7 are on the alkaline side. It is important to know the pH of the soil because it affects the soil chemistry and plant metabolism, which in turn will determine the success of your garden. Most plants will perform well in soils with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5.
To lower your soil pH, add soil sulfur or an acid forming mulch. To raise it, add lime. Follow the manufacturers recommended amounts.
Fertilizers: organic and inorganic
Organic fertilizers are the result of the natural decomposition of plant and animal waste. Sewage sludge, manure, compost and many plant meals are organic fertilizer. The percentage of Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) is low in comparison to weight, so you would need a considerable amount more to equal the nutrient value of a small quantity of inorganic fertilizer. Also, all but bone meal contains a large percentage of Nitrogen and a small percentage of Phosphorous and Potassium. Bone meal contains mostly Phosphorous.
Therefore, you would be required to supply additional fertilization to give your garden a balanced feeding. Also, the nutrients in an organic fertilizer are generally available only as decomposition occurs, which gives long lasting results but at a slow pace. Inorganic fertilizers, those that are mined or manufactured, are high in nutrient value in proportion to weight. They can be accurately balanced in a variety of ratios. Inorganic fertilizers tend to dissolve quickly, so they are fast paced but are not long lasting. Because of the high concentration of nutrients, they can be caustic and will kill plants if applied directly on roots or foliage.
In an effort to maintain a balance between length of usefulness and speed of results, many gardeners use both types of fertilizer and each comes either wet or dry. The dry or granular type generally feeds plants over time as it dissolves during regular watering. A wet or liquid fertilizer releases its nutrients quickly. This is an advantage for starting plants, but requires repeated applications to maintain a proper level of nutrients throughout the growing season. Both types work equally well, make your choice based on your watering routine and personal preference.
There are all kinds of different fertilizer formulas on the market: ones for blooming plants; ones for vegetables; ones that boost the greenery of house plants; and ones that encourage good root growth for transplanting. What makes them different is the proportion of the 3 major nutrients: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous(P) and Potassium (K) in the form of potash.
Commercial fertilizers always list their proportions prominently on the label. For example, 20-20-20 is, by weight, 20 percent Nitrogen, 20 percent Phosphorous and 20 percent Potassium. Nitrogen promotes leafy plant growth and lush leaves, Phosphorous promotes root development and flower production, and Potassium or potash promotes disease resistance and healthy flowers. See plant nutrients.
Seasonal plants and flowers
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Tips and ideas for your garden
Here are some quick links within our site to help you with your gardening.
Working the soil
Once you've figured out what your soil needs, you can supplement it. This includes turning over the soil after adding the extra nutrients, or fertilizer. Then use a rake to smooth the surface, and now you're ready to plant.
Even if their soil is balanced from the previous fall many gardeners regularly spread 3 to 5 pounds of a 5:10:5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden area before cultivating. Remember that plants are living things that need nourishment on a regular basis, as they are continually depleting the soil of nutrients. Periodic fertilization provides the nourishment plants need to grow healthy and be prolific bloomers or produce lots of fruit.
If humus is king in the garden then compost is the most benevolent of kings. Compost is a dark, rich, crumbly organic fertilizer with a coarse texture. Adding compost to your flower and vegetable gardens is one of the best things you can do for your soil. It improves the texture of the soil while adding vital nutrients to give your plants a boost.
You can create compost from many materials you might ordinarily throw out: leaves, grass clippings, weeds, garden refuse, table scraps (except meat and dairy products), straw, old mulches, sawdust, manure, seaweed, nutshells, fish wastes, tobacco stems and wastes, wool clippings, corncobs, paper scraps, wood ashes, feathers, pine needles, peat moss, and old sod.
You should cut larger materials into small pieces to speed up decomposition. Adding some garden soil containing earthworms will also help speed up the process. Your compost bin will need to have holes for air circulation and should be kept moist. Compost material needs to be turned periodically. The more often it is turned the faster it will decompose.
When it's ready, simply add six to twelve inches of compost for every one inch layer of soil. Add compost to your garden often and you will see the results in a happy, successful garden.
Composting - basic guidelines
• If it once had roots - throw it in
• Dry your grass clippings
• Chop your leaves
• Throw in some dirt
• Add water
• Mix well (when you get around to it)
• Let sit for 6 months to a year