Garden Soil Basics
When you are starting your home garden, the first and most important thing you must bear in mind this: everything in nature happens in circles, for a reason, and every action has, or will have a reaction, therefore you must understand that everything you do in your garden today could affect it for years to come.
Devote enough time to your garden and you will soon be able to see the benefits of your work because the healthy and nutritious soil will give you healthy and fruitful plants. Remember that what’s feeding your garden soil is indirectly feeding you as well. Gardening is simple once you understand one thing: plants are like people; they need food, water and air to survive.
Gardening is something similar to painting oil on canvas: the painter is eager to start painting, but before that, he must prepare the canvas. Preparing the canvas is not something he enjoys, because it stands between him and his creation, but he has to do it: if the preparation is not done properly, and all the equipment and the tools are not there, no matter how talented the painter is, the painting will be bad. Think of the soil in your garden as your gardening canvas. Many gardening beginners often make mistakes with soil preparation. They do not test its quality and properties, they do not fertilize the soil well enough, aerate it, or they don’t do something else that is needed to make the soil perfect for planting.
Before you plant anything take your time with the soil you will be using. If you make sure your soil is healthy and full of nutrients, you will see the results of your work in healthy and fruitful vegetables, fruits and herbs. Plants are like people; they need to be taken care of.
The first step is to examine the texture of your garden soil. Soil texture depends on the three main elements it holds: sand, clay and silt. Although there are accurate scientific ways to find out what the texture of your soil is like, even the most inexperienced among us can do it themselves: just pick a crumb of soil and rub it between your fingers. Sand feels gritty to the touch. Clay sticks together. Silt particles are slippery when wet and powdery when dry. Most soils are somewhere in between. If the soil between your fingers feels gritty, it means that sand is dominating in its texture. If it feels smooth like powder when dry, and slippery when wet, it is full of silt. If your soil is mostly clay, it will be harsh when dry, and sticky when wet. Each of these properties has their specific pros and cons, and what you need to achieve is a healthy balance.
Achieve the Perfect Balance
The perfect soil (for most species) will have a healthy balance of the three. Sandy soils are not rich in nutrients, microbes and organic matter, because they drain rapidly through the large gaps between the particles. Heavy clay soils are quite dense, they do not drain well and they tend to be hard and crack when dry. Because there isn’t much space between the clay particles, there usually isn’t much organic matter or microbial life in the soil. Plant roots have a hard time growing in the hard material. Garden soils that are full of silt are more fertile than either sandy or clay soils, they are dense and do not drain easily. Each of the three types of soil can be improved by adding a certain amount of organic matter, like compost. In a short period of time, you will be able to decide which amount fits your soil the best. Beside compost, sandy soil will also benefit if you spread organic materials like leaves, hay or straw as mulch around the plants. Heavy clay soil can be improved if you regularly, each year, add an inch or more of organic material on top of the beds. If your soil is full of silt or full of clay avoid walking on it, or putting heavy object in the surface, because it tends to compact easily.
Garden Soil PH
Most plant species prefer PH neutral soil, but in practice that is rarely the case. Whether your soil is too acidic or too alkaline, your aim is to balance it out. It is not difficult, even a beginner gardener can do it, but do not expect the change to happen over night, or with the help of some magic recipe or tool. It will probably take a season or two to achieve the perfect balance in the soil.
- One of the most frequently asked questions is: “How do I know the PH of the soil in my garden?”
There is PH meters you can buy (they are not expensive), but there is an easy way to test the PH yourself: Mix some soil with a small amount of salt and two tablespoons of vinegar. If the mixture starts to react (it will start to foam), your soil is alkaline. If there is no bubbles, which means that your soil is not alkaline, take a clean mug, put some soil in it, add two spoonfuls of baking soda and water. If the mix stirs up and bubbles, your soil is acidic. If you haven’t observed any reaction in neither of the experiments, you are lucky: your soil is neutral (which is what most species like). If, on the other hand it is acidic or alkaline, there are some quality products to balance it. You can raise PH of the acidic soils using oyster shell lime, powdered limestone, wood ash (use moderately, too much wood ash can take nutrients out of your soil) etc. Alkaline soil can be optimized with the addition of sulfur, sawdust, conifer needles, sawdust or oak leaves.
In general, there are about 20 elements in the soil that are essential nutrients for plants. Ideal garden soil would have all of them, and in perfect ratios. Even if you had that, not every plant would enjoy such an environment. Once again, it’s the individual approach to each species that will yield the best results. The best way to go would be getting to know each individual plant, finding out which nutrients are essential to its growth, and trying to create the perfect environment for it. it’s better to have a few species well taken care of, that plenty of them in the same conditions, which they really wouldn’t like.
Among the most needed nutrients, the first three are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. To find out which elements your garden soil holds, and which it’s lacking you have to test it using a chemical reaction test kit. There are numerous test kits out there which test different elements in the soil, but they will be a subject of a separate article.
Although various fertilizers and mineral nutrients (agricultural lime, rock phosphate, greensand, etc.) should be added periodically to the soil, by far the most useful substance for building and maintaining a healthy, well-balanced soil is organic matter. You can add organic matter to your soil in many different ways, such as adding compost, shredded leaves, animal manure or cover crops.
As I said before, compost improves fertility and the structure of all types of garden soil and also provides a rich food source for soil microbes. It also absorbs and stores nutrients that are then available to plants. Organic compost can be purchased, or you can make it yourself at home.
Making your own compost can be as easy as piling brown layers (straw, leaves), and green layers (grass clippings, livestock manure, food waste) on top of one another. It should be kept moist and often turned upside down. If it doesn’t look or smell well at first, or you are concerned about rodents and other animals getting into it, there are all kinds of bins and composters to contain your compost material. Composters are an indispensable gardening tool. Without compost all organic waste would end up as garbage. This way we give the nature back what we took from it.