{ Posts Tagged ‘soil health’ }

Who cares about soil temperature?

The snow is melting, the cows are calving, and the calendar looks right, but for me, I know it’s really spring because I can smell it. I hope you know what I mean: that earthy, damp scent that’s starting to waft around when the sun is bright. So exciting! Time to grow things! Whip out those seed packets and let’s start digging, right?
Unfortunately, no. At least not outside. Not yet.
I had to learn to curb my enthusiasm the hard way: losing more than a few seeds. Some years I was sure it was frost. Other years it was obvious they had been rotted out from too much rain. Or maybe I’d planted some old or bad seed to begin with. But the main culprit went unidentified until I started hanging out with farmers.
When growing things is not just a hobby but your livelihood, you pay extra attention to some details an average gardener may be clueless about. Such as soil temperature.
You may have heard people talking about the soil “warming up,” maybe referring to how raised beds warm up quicker, allowing earlier planting. They aren’t just talking about the dirt “thawing,” as any farmer can tell you: there are ideal temperatures for the germination of different crops, and if the soil is too cool, you end up with uneven growth or damaged seed, and those depressing blank spots in your rows.
When I learned this, I looked back and realized this was why some years I could get away with planting earlier–the mild spring had fast forwarded the soil warming–and some years even mid-May plantings were sluggish in the cool damp.
So as much as you’d like to dig in, don’t be in too much of a rush. This time of year, you’re probably just wasting your time. Better to use your enthusiasm indoors.

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.