What’s the most essential element needed for healthy vegetables? Deep, rich organic garden soil. But we haven’t met anyone who’s started with the perfect spot of earth yet.
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The earth neither grows old or wears out if it is dunged. – Columella, circa 45 A.D
If you want to improve your soil and make it more suitable for your vegetable garden, you first have to figure out what you’re dealing with. Is your soil sandy or clay-based? Is it too acidic or too alkaline? The way to answer these questions is to have your soil tested. There are do-it-yourself tests you can purchase or you can hire a private soil testing laboratory or your local cooperative extension office to test it. Not only will the professional soil tester tell you the composition of your soil, but the lab will usually be able to make recommendations on how to improve it.
In addition to measuring the pH level of your soil — how acidic or alkaline it is — tests also look at how much calcium, organic matter, magnesium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulfur and trace minerals it contains.
Get your gardens off to a great start and keep them productive with premium quality soil amendments. Need advice? Our Soils Blog provides the ideas, information and practical experience you need to get the job done right. Now, let’s grow!
When it comes to the pH scale, neutral refers to soil with a pH of 7.0. Anything above a 7.0 is considered alkaline and anything below a 7.0 is considered acidic. Most plants prefer slightly acidic to neutral soil (from 6.0 to 7.0).
If your soil is too acidic, you need to add alkaline material such as oyster shell lime. For soil that is too alkaline, you need to add something that is acidic. Most gardeners use elemental sulfur. Learn how to change your soil’s pH here.
Once you’ve corrected the pH of your soil, you’ll also probably want to add organic matter. According to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, “an ideal soil would have equal parts of sand (0.02 to 2.0 millimeters), silt (0.002 to 0.02 millimeters) and clay (0 to 0.002 millimeters) and contain about 5 percent organic matter.”
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The Rapitest® Soil Test Kit features a “color comparator” and capsule system that’s designed for simplicity of use with accurate results. Give it a try! It’s a fast and fun way to achieve better results from your gardening efforts!
Also aerate your soil. Dig down 10 to 12 inches and turn the soil over. You can do this with a spade or a garden fork. The University of Georgia recommends digging a trench 1-foot-deep on one side of your garden. Push the soil from that trench to the outer boundary. Then dig another ditch right next to it and fill in the first ditch with the dirt from the second ditch. Proceed across the garden. You can also use a tractor-mounted plow or a Rototiller set to the deepest depth. While you’re turning over the soil, add organic matter so it gets down to the root level of the plants, so your vegetables can have access to the nutrients that you are adding.
How much organic matter you will have to add depends on your soil’s composition, the size of your garden and your climate. For example, sandy soils in warmer climates may need as much as 2,300 to 4,600 pounds per 1,000 square feet according to the University of Georgia. Heavier soils in cooler climates with less rainfall may need as little as 200 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
You’ll want to fertilize your garden plot twice if you can: once before planting and then again in the middle of your growing season. For mid-season fertilizing, it’s easiest to do what’s known as “side dressing” which means adding dry fertilizers, compost or other organic soil amendments to the side of your plants. To side dress, you dig a narrow furrow one to three inches deep at the plant’s drip line or six inches from the plant base, whichever is greater. You then sprinkle the amendment into the furrow and cover it up with soil.
Compost is a great way to add organic material to your garden and, if you make your own, reduce organic waste from your home and kitchen. Compost also attracts earthworms and other beneficial organisms. It provides nutrients to your vegetables and it will improve your soil.
You’ll want to begin the composting process using a mixture of “green” (wet, high-nitrogen) materials combined with “brown” (dry, high carbon) materials. Green items include: coffee grounds, chopped leaves or grass clippings, eggs or eggshells, fruit wastes and grains, manure, seaweed, vegetable scraps, weeds. Brown items consist of: corn cobs and corn stalks, hay, nutshells, paper, pine needles, sawdust, straw. Visit our compost ingredients page to learn more.
DO NOT COMPOST:
- Meat scraps and trash containing a lot of fat
- Colored paper
- Diseased plants
- Pet droppings
- Plants sprayed with synthetic chemicals (pesticides, herbicides)
You’ll know that the decomposition process is “done” when you can’t distinguish any of the raw materials. It should smell and feel like rich soil.
If you’re looking for a fast, convenient way to compost your kitchen throw-outs, grass clippings and organic yard waste, our compact unit is just right for you! The Compost Tumbler by Mantis quickly recycles it into nutrient-rich compost.
To build your compost pile, which should be an annual event, accumulate organic material. Your pile can be on open ground or in a bin constructed from cinder blocks, rough boards or wire. The sides of the bin should be permeable and shouldn’t be air tight or water proof. Autumn can be a great time to start composting since fallen leaves are plentiful.
Green manure is a crop that is grown and then mixed in with the soil to increase the soil’s organic matter content. Green manure crops include buckwheat, clover, soybeans or winter rye. The advantages of green manure include:
- They increase soil organic matter
- Legume cover crops replace nitrogen in the soil
- They improve soil porosity
- They help soil aeration
- The prevent erosion
- They attract and protect earthworms
- The increase “channels” for future row crop roots to follow
- They reduce compaction
- They increase nutrient recycling
- They help interrupt the cycle of soil-borne diseases that attack vegetables
Planting fall season cover crops requires more than choosing the right crop. Watch the weather. When you have a string of warmer days predicted, go ahead and plant. Prepare the area like you would for any other crop by tilling to a depth of six inches or so. Broadcast seed as recommended. Rake into the soil, water, if necessary and stand back.
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