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Soil – the Heart of Your Garden

March 15th, 2009 by Veggie Master · 4 Comments

Here’s the number one rule for growing a successful garden –  Feed the soil, not the plants.  Take a look at the natural growth around you – trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers – all the nutrients they need for health and vigorous growth are in the soil. 

These nutrients are constantly being replenished by Mother Nature.  Melting snow washes nitrogen into the soil.  Decaying leaves and plants add humus and food for the multitude of soil dwellers, from earthworms to bacteria.  Weathering rocks release necessary micro-nutrients.  The really magical part of this whole process is that many diverse elements are brought together in the soil and made available to plants in the exact form they need to grow and thrive.

The question is, how do you know when you have good soil?  Most gardeners think the way to find out is to have their soil tested and then add the recommended amendments, usually in non-organic forms.  While this will report the chemical composition of your soil, it does not tell the whole story.  A more reliable method is simply to add organic compost to your soil.  A new garden needs at least six inches, and heavy or poor soils require a foot or more.  You can make your own compost or purchase it by the bag or truckload.  Either way it’s an investment that will pay huge dividends.

To save labor when starting a new garden create raised beds by removing sod and putting the compost on top of bare soil.  Do not dig it in, you will bring up all kinds of nasty weed seeds.  Instead plant directly in the compost.  If you build raised beds a foot or more high, you don’t even need to remove the sod.  It will decay and add more nutrients to your garden.

Another benefit of compost is that it moderates soil pH.  It will generally be in the 6.5 range which is fine for most plants.  If you are growing crops which like a lower pH such as potatoes, do not add lime to the soil.  Real acid-lovers such as blueberries, azaleas and rhododendrons will need soil amendments like peat moss to bring down the pH.

Moisture retention is a crucial attribute of good soil.  I use a hands-on approach.  Scoop up a handful of soil and squeeze it by making a fist.  Open your hand.  Is the soil in a ball?  Does it readily crumble when you poke it?  If the answers are yes then your soil has enough moisture to foster plant growth without being too soggy.

Feeding your soil a diet of organic compost instead of junk-food chemical fertilizers will yield strong, healthy plants with a high degree of disease resistance, insuring gardening success.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Veggie Master

    Thanks, SoilJunkie, for your insight into the soil wave. I’m lucky to have very “alive” soil already in my garden so adding compost simply fuels the process. I can see how some soils could need the addition of certain supplements to get things going.

  • SoilJunkie

    Adding compost is great but it is dead! There is a great source of minerals, micro nutrients and organic material but no “soil life”. Compost has been heated to kill out bacteria, fungi, nematodes, etc. all of which harvest the bound up nutrients in compost and exchange them with the plants. Compost will do very little besides holding moisture until it is activated! You need to activate with compost tea, organic fertilizers that feed beneficial bacteria, beneficial fungi with sugar and carbon. Once you get the soil wave going then you have healthy soil! Then the plants will thrive. (Soil wave: bacteria, fungi, nematodes, arthropods all constantly feeding/exchanging nutrients with on/with each other!)

  • Veggie Master

    Thanks for expanding on the subject of soil, Jim. An example of what you’re talking about is adding greensand to the soil when growing potatoes. Greensand is an organic amendment which adds necessary potassium. Kelp meal also helps potatoes grow strong and healthy. And you’re right, it’s always a good idea to get area-specific tips from local gardeners.

  • OrganicJim

    Your article is good but like many I read they are local specific. This country is very large with many different soil conditions and needs. Adding organic matter to the soil is necessary in all cases but the amount and how it is done and what needs to be in it varies. In desert areas 2% organic material can grow many things but that same 2% is on the very low end in other areas. In Florida and other areas of the south that are flat and warm snow is not a factor and runoff from higher ground is not a reality. The further south you go the faster fresh organic matter decomposes and need to be replenished.
    Any time you are growing crops where you harvest and remove for use you are removing nutrients from the soil. These have to be replaced and the only way many of us can do that is by finding products that have these trace nutrients (elements) in them and hopefully in a plant-available form. National articles are good but learn to look to local information for your final needs.

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