{ Posts Tagged ‘amending your soil’ }

Soil health: starting the season right

I love this quote from Beverley Nichols that showed up in an advice article in my CG email this week:

“Light in a garden is a quarter of the battle. Another quarter is the soil of the garden. A third quarter is the skill and care of the gardener. The fourth quarter is luck. Indeed, one might 
say that these were the four Ls of gardening, in the following order of importance: Loam, Light, Love and Luck.”
 

In fact, several of the bits of advice in the article mention the importance of healthy soil.

I consider myself a fairly well informed gardener. I’ve gleaned quite a bit of knowledge over the years about all kinds of topics, and lucky me, I have a pretty solid memory retention. But when it comes to soil health, I’ve pretty much spread on the compost and crossed my fingers. Last year, I started feeling that my soil was getting depleted. I can’t tell you exactly why, just a general sense that growth wasn’t as strong as it could be, drainage more sluggish than normal.

So when I learned a class was being put on by a neighbour, an expert in agricultural soil health, I immediately marked it on my calendar. The evening was really valuable, and I learned a whole lot, but it truly is one of those topics that start feeling bigger the more you learn.

Some of the fundamental things I seem to be doing right, but I’ve never been one to add commercial fertilizers, and I think my compost is simply missing some of the trace minerals that plants and soil need. Your average garden-center NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) products don’t have them either.

Here’s a few of the nutrients I learned about from my neighbour. A soil test is the best way to determine what you need, and a really good garden centre or agricultural consultant should be able to help you identify ways of adding them.

Nitrogen: encourages vegetative, or leafy, growth. If your pepper plants look gorgeous but aren’t flowering or setting fruit, they probably have (proportionally) too much nitrogen. Gasses off quickly, so must be topped up more frequently than other nutrients.

Phosphorous: encourages strong root growth and structure. Part of the problem with phosphorous is that it tends to bind with the soil, making not all of what’s in there available for plants to use. It’s needed early in the plant’s growth to do the most good.

Potassium: I always thought this was nutrient for flowering and fruiting, but the real benefit of this important nutrient is how it builds a plant’s aerial (above ground) structure: how strong the stems and leaves are, how well it can take up water, etc. Also fights high levels of magnesium.

Sulphur: competes with sodium. I need to keep the sulphur levels higher than my sodium levels and it will minimize the effects of an alkali (high sodium) soil–but that’s because I have a fairly alkaline (high pH) soil. If you have a more acidic soil, use calcium to balance out the sodium. (Are you confused yet?)

Calcium: among other things, contributes to the storability of the harvested fruit.

Boron: important in plant reproduction. When boron levels are low you end up with hollow potatoes and strawberries, or pea pods with only a few peas in them. But careful: high levels are toxic.

Then there’s magnesium and aluminum, which at high levels cause cracks on top of the soil and contribute to drainage problems. And selenium and zinc, which contribute to both human and plant immunity. But selenium is restricted in Canada as it’s categorized with–get this–arsenic.

Yikes. Apparently there’s a reason people go to universtiy to understand all the ins and outs of this science. I’m ready to throw up my hands and go back to my compost and crossed fingers.

But I did get a bag of fully balanced synthetic fertilizer, which I am spreading on this weekend–with the compost and the leaves.

 

Feeding my soil

In the past, without really understanding what my soil needed for my plants to thrive, I would spread a few bags of top soil on my gardens in spring and call it a day. But I’ve been reading about pH levels and the importance of composting and mulch that I don't know where to begin. So I turned to Anne Marie to seek advice on how a budding gardener should prepare her soil.

Here is Anne Marie's advice:

  • For most plants, pH is less of a concern than the type of soil present. Most plants are fine with soil that is slightly alkaline all the way to slightly acidic. It is only when soils are very acidic or very alkaline that some plants will struggle if they're growing in a type of soil that is not suited for them.
  • For example, acid-soil loving rhododendrons growing in very alkaline (limestone based) soils. Most plants are tolerant of a relatively wide range of soil pH values.
  • Test your soil for its pH level if you are curious. Horticultural lime or garden sulphur are the most often recommended products applied to alter the soil acidity level.
  • PH aside, compost is excellent to add to the soil. Make sure it is from a reliable source.
  • Three to five centimetres of compost added each spring is a great soil enrichment program.
  • Then place a layer mulch on top of the compost.
  • An undyed organic mulch is great if only a small layer of compost can be added or if compost is only added every other year. The organic mulch (shredded pine bark, pine needles, cedar mulch, etc.) will break down over time and become part of the soil. Therefore it should be topped up every year.
  • My advice is to leave the existing soil alone and work on adding compost to it each year, with the addition of a mulch topping. This is a much easier task to build a “raised bed” than dealing with clay, for example, and fighting the battle to change the soil composition.

So with this helpful advice, my next step is to apply a layer of compost to my beds.