By Kristen Smith
Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start – when you are learning to read, you begin with ABC. When you garden, you begin with soil! Checking the condition of your soil and amending it is probably the most important thing you can do that will determine your gardening success.
Some basic steps you should take to improve your soil are:
- Test your soil
- Determine your soil texture
- Add organic matter
- Avoid compaction
To begin, start with a soil test. Your local state University will more than likely offer a modestly priced soil test. The test will typically give you an analysis of the soil pH –that is the level of alkalinity or acidity in the soil. The test will also give you a breakdown of the macro nutrients and may even offer advice on how to amend your soil. Typically if the soil is towards the acidic end of the spectrum, you can add lime to raise the pH and if the soil is towards the basic end of the spectrum you can add sulphur to lower the pH. You want to aim for a pH generally around neutral; 6 to 7.5 is best for most plants. pH levels too far away from neutral may interfere with your plants being able to absorb essential nutrients from the soil. Also, be sure to consider the types of plants you plan to grow in the site. For example, plants like Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Camellias, and blueberries prefer soils with a lower pH.
Next you should determine your soil texture. Generally if the soil forms a tight ball when you squish it in the palm of your hand, it is clay. If it does not form a ball or falls apart when you try to squish it together, it is more loamy or sandy. The best way to improve soil that is either too clay-like or sandy is to add organic matter. Try working well-rotted compost or manure into the first few inches of soil.
If you are feeling really up to a challenge you could try a process called double digging. This process is best done in the fall. Dig a trench about 12” deep –place the soil from the trench just outside the edge of the bed. Add organic matter into this empty trench. Dig another trench next to the previous trench (now filled with organic matter) –add organic matter to this trench and top with soil from the third trench you will dig. Continue until you’ve dug the entire bed. Top off the last trench with soil removed from the first trench. This wonderfully aerates you garden bed as well as provides a lot of excellent organic matter for a few years. This is a great idea for newly established garden beds or veggie plots.
If this all sounds like a lot of work – you could start out with some raised beds. There are many kits available, or you could build your own out of a few planks of lumber. Fill the beds with bags of topsoil or garden soil purchased from your local garden center. This soil should be a good start for the first year. You may need to check it for pH and nutrients in following years or just add more soil as needed.
Finally, avoid compaction. You’ve just worked so hard to create a great patch of ground to grow beautiful healthy plants. If you need to step into the bed frequently in order to weed, or harvest crops, consider placing strategic stepping stones for easy access, or if you will be doing a lot of planting, consider using a wide wooden plank to stand or kneel on. The plank will evenly distribute your weight so the soil doesn’t get too compressed in areas.
By paying attention to your soil and giving it a helping hand as needed, you should have great gardening success. Dig in and get dirty!