Soil is to a garden as a foundation is to a home, or as the tires are to a car; it supports everything above but is understated and too often neglected. If you want a healthy garden you must never take your soil for granted.
The best start to maintaining a healthy soil is to learn about the soil in your gardens. Is it clay, sandy or loam? Is it acidic or alkaline? Is it lacking any vital nutrients?
You can figure out the first question yourself very easily. Pick up a handful of the soil when it is moist but not saturated and squeeze it. If it sticks together and doesn’t want to fall apart it is clay, if it sticks together but easily falls apart it is loam, and if it doesn’t stick together at all it is sandy. The ideal is loamy soil; if you have either of the other two you will need a great deal of amendments to get the soil to the best consistency for growing the most number of plants.
To find the pH of your soil, whether it is acidic or alkaline, you will need to purchase a test kit. You can find these at most garden centers. There is not an ideal pH, but you need to know what kind of soil you have to know what will do well in your gardens. If you have alkaline soil with a high pH, over 7.0, you probably should not bother with trying to grow blueberries or rhododendrons, as these are plants that need acidic soil to thrive. On the other hand, Clematis and asparagus like their soil to be on the alkaline end of the spectrum. And despite the claims of some products, it just is not feasible to completely change the pH of your soil. Now, if you have soil that is too extreme one way or another, you may be able to lower the pH some with sulphur or raise it with lime.
As for the last question, whether or not your soil is lacking nutrients, you’ll need to send away a sample of your soil to the labs at Cornell University. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, 203 North Hamilton St., Watertown, (315) 788-8450, ext. 243, will be able to provide you with a sample kit. The fee is minimal and is well worth the information they will provide you with.
Now that you know all about your soil, how do you maintain it to keep it producing the best produce and the most beautiful flowers? You must continually amend it to replenish the minerals and nutrients used by the plant throughout the growing season.
I am a big believer in compost. I use a simple 2-pile method for composting. Kitchen scraps (with the exception of meat or dairy), yard leaves, grass clippings, saw dust, etc. all go onto a pile. When the pile is big enough (about 3x3x3) I start a new pile and let the first one sit and break down. If the pile is turned a couple times it will heat up and start to decompose. This process will only take a few months. You’ll know it is done when it looks like soil and smells like soil.
A tenacious gardener never has an overabundance of compost. Each fall after a few heavy frosts when most of my perennials have died back, I throw a nice layer of compost on the beds. In spring, compost is added to the vegetable beds before they are turned and planted. In summer, when I start new garden beds with the lasagna gardening method (another article topic), compost is always used as a layer.
Compost is the number one, best way to amend your soil. You’re also saving that material from going to a landfill.
Manure from grazing animals is another good source for a soil additive. If you have access to a pick-up truck and don’t mind a little labor, you can usually get all the free horse manure you want from a local farm. Just be sure that it is aged and well rotted before using it in the garden.
Products like Miracle Grow are not recommended for long-term fertilization of garden beds. These will cause salts to accumulate in the soil leading to a decrease in productivity. They do, however, have a place and help with a burst of growth in situations such as potted annuals. They’re like steroids for plants, useful for some situations and short-term use, but dangerous if over used.
So, remember, before you plant, pay attention to your soil.