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 your 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 the 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, ensuring gardening success.