Garden Soil

Arthur Anderson
Adams County Master Gardener

It is not at all unusual for gardeners to believe that the soil in their gardens is capable of growing whatever flowers or vegetables they plant in it. Soil is usually low on the priority list when gardeners are thinking about putting in a garden and are busy shopping local plant nurseries that feature large, colorful plant selections and displays of garden accessories promising to create a picture perfect garden. Soil is taken for granted, but it may or may not have the various qualities necessary to produce the kind of garden you want. Unfortunately, if you plant before you pay proper attention to the soil conditions, you might just be asking for trouble.

Different vegetation must have different quantities of plant food and minerals, along with acidity content, to do well. Some plants love acid soil; others need a more neutral or alkaline soil. The wise choice is to have a soil test done based on what you want to grow in a specific location. The test results will indicate what to add to the soil to produce a good crop. Do your soil testing far enough in advance, so that you have the test results back and the soil amended before it is time to plant the garden.

In addition to taking a soil test, the next thing to do to prepare for growing is to make sure the soil is friable or easily worked up. It must have good moisture retention and good drainage. Whether the soil is clay or sand, the same remedies apply: add a good quantity of organic material (approximately one-third of the soil should be compost or other loose soil). Compost can be made from yard clippings (grass or leaves). vegetable scraps, and manure from farm animals--usually cows or horses. The compost should be well aged to reduce the possibility of weed seeds.

If you use fresh manure, wood shavings or sawdust, it should be aged at least a couple months before being added to the compost pile. Walnut tree sawdust should not be mixed into compost. There is a compound in black walnut trees that prevents growth of other plants.

Never use cat or dog manure, and never use meat or bone scraps in any compost. The pet droppings can impart disease organisms, and any fatty items in compost will attract unwanted animals to your compost bin. Also, you should not use any vegetation that has had herbicide applied to it if you are using your compost on edible crops. Be careful, too, with weed plants. They generally have seeds that will reproduce easily, and the heat that is generated in your compost may not be hot enough to kill those seeds.

The best time to prepare the soil for use in the spring is in the fall. The actual soil preparation is very important. If digging by hand, double digging is best. This is done by digging one shovel depth and pulling the soil to the side. Next, dig another shovel depth leaving it in the bed; then add the organic matter (compost) to that part of the soil and mix it in. Finally use the saved soil, mix in more organic matter and add it back to the original plot.

If using a tiller to dig, work your soil to the depth the digger will go, shovel it out and repeat this process until reaching a depth of 12 to 16 inches deep. Add your compost to the soil as you return it to the bed until all is back in place. If this preparation has been done in the fall as recommended, leaving the soil lay until spring will ease your job when it is time to plant. In fall the soil is generally drier than in spring, and so in many ways easier to work, and the prepared soil will dry out faster for spring planting if it has been amended and allowed to rest all winter.

When spring arrives, you should add the recommended fertilizer for the crop you are planting; and as soon as the soil dries out enough, you will be ready to start your garden. Remembering to take care of your soil first will pay off many times over in healthier and more beautiful flowers and vegetables. Wishing you the best in growing and producing.

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