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Identifying Your Soil Type and Preparing Your Site

Posted By Athena Dietrich On July 12, 2012 @ 8:30 am In G Living,Gardening Organically | 1 Comment

The early stages of making your garden involves some disturbance of your landscaping. What may be working may not be as abundant as it could be. Or as it will be. Gardening is an art, but soil prep a science. And as much as I would like it to be, it’s not always sexy. You have to be ready to get out there, get your hands dirty and sweat a little. After all, it’s the end result we’re going for here. And like the rest of life, the key is to relax and enjoy the process — the creative aspect of design and layout, the dirt under your fingernails, and finally reaping the rewards of your labors.

Fortunately, the first part is easy. Whether or not you enjoy it is up to you.

The first step is picking your plot.

Next opportunity you have to spend the day at home, settle in and take some time to observe your yard. Bring with you a good book and cup of coffee or tea and settle in. Relax, watch the weather. Maybe take out a pen and paper and jot down the time the sun reaches and later departs the site you have in mind.

Sunlight is crucial for optimum plant growth. Wind and rain patterns are also a strong influence. Find a sunny spot, avoid places that tend to channel strong wind. Six or more hours of direct sunlight is best. Vegetables especially require direct sun, but can handle some afternoon shade. Fruit trees are more forgiving, but you will find your fruit is sweeter if you choose a spot with afternoon sun. Your smaller fruits such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, melons, and corn will appreciate the late day heat as well.

Now that you’ve selected your site, it’s time to assess the soil. Soil types or textures are divided into three categories based on particle size: sandy, clay, and loam. (If you’re like most of us, interested in growing some veggies, but don’t aspire to become a leading soil scientist, check out this site. It succinctly describes different soil types, but won’t bog you down with more info than you need.

Most soils are some combination of two or more: clay/loam, sandy/loam, etc. A sandy/clay/loam is ideal, but through proper amendments, any garden plot can become fertile, abundant, and well balanced. A sandy soil benefits from the addition of organic matter or “humus” usually in the form of finished compost, manure, or green manure (plant matter grown for the purpose of incorporating into the soil).

A clay soil wants to be lightened. Pick up a handful of damp earth from your garden site and squeeze it in your hand. If it holds its shape when you open your hand, you have the makings for pottery, though your worms may be struggling and your plants more challenged to root, it has advantages in holding on to minerals and nutrients. The addition of humus, sand and rock dust will aid drainage and aeration. Your soil needs air and water to thrive, just like us. If it seems dense, compacted or sticky, it probably needs to be broken up with a tiller, shovel or pick axe and incorporated with some healthy loose textured compost or worm castings.

Loam or silty soil is easier to start with. Just add minerals and a little NPK, (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) and you’ll be good to go. If you want to have a really rocking garden, working towards balancing your soil will really pay off in the long run. Getting a soil analysis is easy — just take a soil sample. Put a scoop of soil into a ziploc bag and take or mail it to your local co-operative extension based out of the nearest university. They can usually provide you with a lab to get your analysis done and an interpretation of your readout.

Okay, I realize that all seems a little heady. After learning some of the basics, getting the ground dug and prepared for fertilizer will be really refreshing and a great cardiovascular workout. If you have access to a tiller, it can be a great time saving device. It quickly breaks up soils compacted by rain and time. It doesn’t have to be a hard row to hoe. A shovel, pick axe, and garden fork can work just as well – it’s also quieter, more physical and doesn’t require gasoline.

You want your soil as loose and deep as possible, I aim for a minimum of 8 inches, although double digging to a depth of 22 inches yields phenomenal results. (Some methods, like no-till Fukiyoko style, require less.) You want your end result to be crumbly fluffy soil, which makes it easy to plant your young starts and seeds. Tilling may require a few passes; if you’re working your soil by hand, start with the shovel or pick axe to do the initial passes and go back in with your garden fork. (Be sure you don’t confuse your garden fork with you pitch fork. A garden fork has a shorter, 3’ handle, straight wide tines and looks like a large kitchen fork.)

Using your garden fork, slowly go back over your roughed up plot, lifting and turning over your soil to break up larger clods, until it is uniformly loosened to the depth of the tines of your fork.

Fertilizing doesn’t have to be real technical. There are plenty of great well balanced organic blends out there. I usually mix my own to save money, but for a small plot, purchasing and storing one bag is more convenient. For veggies, you want something a little higher in nitrogen with some phosphorus and potassium. The NPK read it out is on the bag directions on application on the back.

There is a learning curve in taking on any new project, but growing food isn’t rocket science. With a little time and energy investment, fresh from the garden food can be a reality for anyone.

This is the second article in a 12 part series on organic gardening. To read the first installment, click here.

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