Your Garden Soil and You
Rich and healthy garden soil is absolutely essential your plant's health.
If you grow fruits and vegetables, your soils' health can have an impact
upon your health too! There are chemicals and micro-nutrients present in
all types of soils, which are essential for healthy plant growth. There are
chemicals which are bad and can harm your plants or stunt their growth, too.
What is in your garden soil, can get ingested by your plants. Humans are
one step up the food chain. What your plants ingest gets into your system
and your family' too!
Learning about your soil, and how to improve it, will make you a much better
gardener, and keep you and your family healthy.
Types of Soil:
There are several types of soil. Some plants prefer one type over another.
Sand - This is grainy soil, which holds little or no compost or humus.
It drains very well, and holds little water. It lacks in minerals and
micro-nutrients needed by plants. Roots of plants can easily grow and expand
through sand. We all know that Cactus grows in sandy soil. But, did you know
that peanuts prefer sandy soil, too?
Clay - This is the second most common type of soil. It is largely
the opposite of sand. It retains water, and does not drain well. Heavy clay
soils can act as a pot, holding water for days, if not weeks. Water ever
so slowly seeps through it. Roots can actually drown, as there is no air
in the soil. Roots have a hard time pushing through it, and tend to ball
Loam - This is soil contains a mixture of clay, silt and sand, as
well as some organic matter. It retains water well, yet is loose and contains
plenty of air pockets for roots to breathe. Best of all, it is rich in minerals
and nutrients vital to your plants growth and development.
Humus - Soil containing a rich mixture of decomposed plant or animal
matter. It is rich in minerals and nutrients vital to your plants' growth
Manure is animal excrement. It is usually mixed with straw or sawdust that
is laid down in the animal's stall, cage or pen. Everyone agrees that well
composted manure, is the absolute best amendment for improving your garden
soil. But what kind of manure is best? Most people obtain whatever manure
is available in their area. The most commonly available manures are cow and
horse manure. There are also others such as chicken, duck, geese, rabbit,
and even pig.
Question: Is anyone out on there using Bat Guano? Some people say
that Bat Guano is the absolute best of manures. Personally, I think my daughter's
hamster produces the best manure. Now if I can only get that little hamster
to produce more..........
Unless you are well read on this topic, I'd suggest sticking with the horse
and cow manures, even though any kind of decomposed manure is better than
no manure. Of these two options, cow manure is better in the sense that the
cow processes it's food far more efficiently. Horse manure contains many
small seeds that have passed through the horses' system unprocessed. Surrounded
by all the rich compost, those weed seeds will thrive in your garden. To
minimize this, try to obtain an adequate amount well in advance. Pile it
high in your garden and let it cook(compost) over the winter or for a few
weeks prior to use.
More on Manures
Compost is one the best friends a gardener can have. Just about all
vegetation (trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables, shrubs, weeds, etc)
thrive on compost or mulch. Most gardeners have a composter or a compost
pile, where we throw anything and everything from the plant world. Most of
us are not picky at what we throw in there, and most vegetation are perfectly
fine to include in our compost pile.
It is difficult to make a long term mistake with the compost pile. If you
do not turn it and keep it moist, it will still decompose. It will just take
a little longer, and may smell a lot more as it decomposes. A common error
is to pile grass clippings too thickly. This results is a strong odor, but
does not affect the eventual decomposition.
Most people do not put meat and other table scraps composed of animal matter
into the compost pile. This is because they attract other animals and pests.
We encourage using only those table scraps that are composed of plant matter.
Make sure the things you put in the compost pile are clean and free of bacteria.
If you had bacterial wilt, or other disease problems with your crop, do not
throw it on the compost heap. If the pile is not hot enough, the disease
will winter in your compost pile and re-infest the next year's crop.
More on Composting
What to Compost
Leaves and Leaf Mulch(Black Gold):
Leaves are a frequent additive to the garden. Most(but not all) leaves are
fairly neutral in ph, and overall are healthy for the soil and plants. I
prefer Oak and Maple. Be cautious if you are getting them from the side of
the road. Some leaves such as Black Walnut contain toxins that are harmful
to plants. On occasion people will put other trash into leaf bags.
Watch for this trash and remove it, as you add the leaves to your garden
or compost pile.
In my town, we have a yard waste recycling program. Leaves are mulched at
the town site each year. The resulting mulch, which my neighbors and I call
"Black Gold", are available at no charge for use by residents. Mix ample
amounts into your garden's soil. Everything we have ever grown in Black Gold
has produced stellar results. Try it on root crops such as carrots or beets.
The roots develop easier in the improved, soft soil.
There are other mulches as well. These include pine mulch and wood chips
and lawn clippings. The drawback to some of these are acidic ph levels, little
nutrient value, or raw compost which can result in burning your plant if
piled too thickly. Unless you've done your research on a particular material,
use caution. Apply them in small amounts, or avoid them all together.
Black plastic mulch is a common mulch for home gardeners and professionals.
It is beneficial in warming the soil early in the year. It also is very effective
in keeping the weeds down, and helps to retain moisture.
However, plastic mulch, does not allow water and nutrient into the soil unless
it has many, many holes. If you use it, we recommend a drip or soaker hose
be placed under it for irrigation. A final dis-advantage is it made
of plastic, which is not environmentally friendly. Make sure to pick it up
and discard it at the end of the season.
Some other possible amendments:
Ash from fireplace. Not only is it high in potash, but is helps to raise
the pH level.
Fish entrails are great fertilizers for any plants - lots of nutrients(Caution:
use well composted material or you may find the neighborhood cats weeding
Coffee grounds, but it is hard to get a large supply. Coffee grounds are
rich in potassium.
Household scraps- vegetable matter only.
Ph Level of the Soil:
"Ph" is a measure of acidity or alkalinity. Each plant in your garden or
yard, has an ideal range that it will thrive in. It is helpful to test your
soil ph and adjust accordingly. Keep in mind that the amendments you add
could alter the ph.
Soil testing is not an absolute necessity, although it is recommended. If
your gardening area has proven productive over the years and you are constantly
adding amendments in some balance (acidic versus alkaline), you may opt not
to test it. Some gardeners have never tested their soil.
New growers and especially people who are experiencing problems with growing
other crops in the soil should definitely take this test.
Your local agricultural agency can either perform test or direct you to an
organization that does. You can also ask your local garden store how to have
your soil tested.
Another fun way is to buy an inexpensive soil tester, and test the soil yourself.
You can test for soil pH and basic nutrients. While not as in-depth as a
commercial soil test, it is far more fun. If you are in the market for a
soil tester, please support us.
Find specific ph levels for your plants
Commercial growers plant a "cover crop" in their fields over the winter.
The most common crop is an annual or winter rye grass. The grass is sowed
in the fall, and plowed or roto-tilled in the spring. Cover crops benefit
the field in two ways. First the grass adds nitrogen into the soil. Second,
it reduces soil erosion due to wind, rain and run-off during the long off
This concept is commonly practiced in commercial farming, and can be practiced
in smaller home gardens, too. Strangely, most home gardeners do not practice
You Are What You Eat:
Pesticides, herbicide and fungicides are commonly used by commercial growers.
It's use is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite this
regulation, many people still worry about the potential for residual chemicals
in the food supply. And, with just cause, as it is our bodies that might
be absorbing those chemicals. A large number of home gardeners participate
in the great hobby called gardening to eliminate or control chemicals in
their food. Organic gardening thrives on the
concept of no chemicals, and uses only naturally sourced fertilizer and nutrients
for the organic garden.
A home gardener often avoids using chemicals entirely, or uses less harmful
chemicals in limited amounts. In minimizing the use of chemicals, it is important
for gardeners to know what they are doing and to follow the instructions
There are many other ways for unwanted chemicals to get into your garden.
Here are some of the major ways:
Seepage through the soil either underground or surface water. This is especially
a concern for lawn care products where chemicals can seep through your soil.
If your garden is uphill of a treated lawn, you are more at risk.
Contaminated creeks. If you take your water from a nearby creek, unwanted
chemicals may be in the water. We recommend you test it first, especially
if you are in a suburban or urban area.
Compost material and amendments. Fireplace ash is a good example. While wood
ash is a great soil amendment, the things people burn in fireplaces often
contain harmful chemicals. Tops among them are newspapers and magazines in
color, plastics, and mixed garbage. If you are going to put it into your
vegetable garden, make sure it is pure...chemically.