All Year Round, Homesteading, Organic Gardening

Feeding Your Soil- 101

“Regard your soil as the living, breathing entity it is- to be nurtured, fed and sustained.” – Peter Fossel

Garden Boxes Rock

 

Soil is the Soul of your Garden!

It doesn’t matter what you plant or where you bought your plants or seeds, if your soil isn’t healthy- you will not be successful.  Soil may not be very exciting to a new gardener, but once you really understand the complexity and the vitality of healthy soil – you will look at soil with new eyes!

Micronutrients and Microbial Organisms are essential to healthy soil!

Microbes- the unseen, unsung heroes of soil and organic gardening.  They serve first to break down organic matter into a form plants can use, and then to improve the soils structure and the ability of plants to draw sustenance from it.

Micronutrients are those minerals and elements that are not needed in great quantities but are essential for plants to be healthy.

Where to begin?

The first step in bringing your soil into the best shape possible and into a state of high fertility is to know what type of soil you currently have.

A soil test is important to do in the very beginning.  Once you have a base line, deciding on amendments will be easier.  After the initial soil test, it isn’t necessary to keep having the soil tested- the plants will tell you if the soil is lacking.

To do a soil test- get a sample bag from the county extension office or from the lab that you want to use.  With a bucket in hand, dig 6-8 inches down with a small shovel and place the soil in the bucket.  Take samples from all over the area you are testing.  Even on a small piece of property, the soil can vary from on area to another.  Collecting from multiple points will give you a better picture.  Stir all the soil together and then fill the bag and mail it to the specified address and follow the lab’s instructions.

When the results come back- take the results to your county extension office and the agent can help you read and analyze the test results.

Now, it is important to understand that you don’t have to have a soil test to begin improving your soil.  The following amendments are perfect for every garden and cannot be over used as they are organic in nature and mild in their effects.

But, you do need to look at your soil and determine what kind you have:

Sandy Soil

Clay Soil

Loam

Or a combination of these types

 

Regardless of what you grow- fruits, herbs, vegetables, or flowers- it all starts with the soil.  The plants will only be as healthy as the soil that their roots are anchored in.  Therefore, it is imperative that attention is given to the health of the soil.

Key elements are:

Friability– the texture of the soil.  It should be soft and crumbly- think potting soil.

Most people do not begin with perfect soil of just the right texture but that does not mean you cannot be successful at gardening.

If your soil is too coarse (sandy) texture will be improved by adding compost and other organic materials such as mulch, leaves, etc.

If your soil is too fine (clay), which causes it to be compacted’ then it is going to need organic matter and other amendments such as green sand or expanded shale to loosen up the soil.

The Ph Balance- the Ph balance in the soil should be slightly alkaline.  If the soil is acidic the Ph can be adjusted by adding lime. However, I don’t think this point is worth getting worked up over unless you are growing a plant or crop that is extremely picky.  There are also many acid loving plants out there.  So, know what you are dealing with but then focus on using what you have versus feeling like you must change your soil.  If a soil is alive with microbial activity, plants can tolerate a Ph balance that is not quite right.

Drainage- this is more of a location issue.  If the location of your garden does not have good drainage you can fix this with using raised beds.  Sandy soils tend to drain too fast and clay soils tend to not drain fast enough.

If you have sandy soils you need to slow the drainage down by incorporating organic matter into the soil.  Any type of compost will work.  Compost acts like a sponge and holds onto water which helps correct the problem of drainage with sand.

Clay soils do not drain fast enough, so incorporating expanded shale or rock phosphate, you can spread the molecules out and allow the water to flow through.  Clay is very nutrient dense, so if you can solve the drainage issue, you can grow beautiful things in clay.

5 Key Amendments for Organic Soil

Organic Matter– compost, manure, etc

Lava Sand- The sand-sized and smaller waste material left from lava gravel mining is an excellent, high-energy soil amendment material.

Rock Phosphate– a finely ground rock powder, contains minerals and will enhance the soil texture

Greensand- a material from seabed deposits, contains minerals and improves soil texture.

Limestone (Lime)- rock powder used to sweeten acidic soils

 Micronutrients- these may be missing from your soil but are essential for crops and blooms.  Magnesium found in Epsom Salt is a good example.

Organic matter from a wide array of sources and greensand will ensure that you have micronutrients galore.

 

Earthworm Castings

Worm castings have been long known to be a highly fertile component of organic soil.  Compared to the average soil, worm castings are said to contain 5 times more nitrogen, 7 times more phosphorus and 11 times more potassium.  They are rich in humic acids and improve the structure of the soil as well.

How To Apply- use these methods with any of the amendments

Top-Dress- this is simply sprinkling the amendments over the top of the soil.  This method would be used in existing beds.

Working It In- In using this method, you would apply the amendments to the soil and then turn the soil over.  The soil can be turned over by hand with a shovel or by machine such as a tiller.  This method would be used in new beds or in row cropping.

Fertilizers:

Compost!  LOTS of it-  This is one of the best fertilizers you can use.  If you have your own compost pile then it is free- which makes it even better!

Animal Manures– any animal that chews its cud produces manure that can be added directly to the garden.  This would include Llamas, goats, and sheep.  Other animal manures need to be composted first for about 6 months then added to the garden.  Rabbits are an exception to this rule, their manure can be added directly to the garden.

American Blue Rabbits
Not only do these cute things produce excellent fertilizer for your garden- they are easy to keep!

Carl Poole Fertilizers- this is a good company that makes some great products.

These should be applied in September thru November for Spring and Summer gardens and June – August for Fall Gardening.  Top dressing is the best way as tilling can disturb soil biology.  The less disturbance the better.  Most beds are still in good shape from the summer garden and just need to be cleaned up and top dressed.

Bringing soil to a point of great texture and high fertility is an ongoing process- once you have achieved beautiful soil, you will still need to maintain it with these same amendments and fertilizers.

Even though your plants will tell you if something is wrong, don’t wait for a struggling plant to address the soil.  Make amending the soil part of your garden schedule and then happy plants will greet you all year long!

An herb garden
Beans, and Texas natives make good companions with herbs.

 

3 thoughts on “Feeding Your Soil- 101”

  1. Holly, I was just talking to my husband about you today. When I lived in Corsicana I attended many of your classes. I was trying to remember how you taught about prepping our garden during the the fall and winter. I remember about worm castings (since moving, I can’t find the bag I bought). I think you said we could layer with cardboard…but what else?

    1. Hey there!
      Yes, cardboard is a great weed barrier and you can lay it now. Once the cardboard is down pile on the leaves, grass clippings, and compost and/or mulch. Stay tuned for more posts on fall/winter garden prep!

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