Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Preparing the Soil

It's the kind of weekend that leads to heating pads and cold packs. This is not the most fun chore. Let's be honest, it's hard work. Push up your sleeves, because it has to be done before you can sit back and enjoy those strawberries.

The key to a bountiful harvest is good soil. Without it your garden will struggle. So it's worth it to spend as much time as it takes to get it right before you plant.

In general, soil is either clay, sand or loam. Clay is made of tiny particles that stick together. It is slow draining, does not allow good aeration but tends to be nutrient rich. Sandy soil is made of larger particles and is fast draining, does not retain moisture and is nutrient poor. Loam is our goal; a mixture of rich organic material of varying sizes which drains well, retains moisture, provides good aeration and is nutrient rich.

Here's a simple test you can to do to see what type of soil you have in your garden. It's the squeeze test. Take a handful of moist soil and squeeze it tightly in your palm. Now open your hand and look at the soil. If the soil holds together in a clump but falls apart when you poke it, then it's good news. You have loam. If you open your hand and the soil does not hold together then you have sandy soil. If the soil holds together even when you poke it then you have clay soil.

If you have clay soil, add compost, peat moss and course sand. This will improve drainage and aeration.

If you have sandy soil, add humus, peat moss, compost, clay soil. Your soil needs more organic material which retains moisture and nutrients.

Adequate drainage is essential for healthy plants. To test your soil's ability to drain, dig a hole 12 inches across and 12 inches deep and fill it with water. Watch how long it takes for all the water to drain from the hole. If it takes longer than an hour, you have poor drainage. This can lead to problems for the plants so add organic matter and consider raised beds.

Another key thing to know is your soil's ph. Most garden centers sell ph tests. If your soil's ph is below 6 your soil is too acidic and if your ph is higher than 7.5 it is too alkaline. Consult with your local nurseryman for guidance on correcting ph, or for more specific soil testing.

My garden area was very sandy. Our local soil is sandy in general, but this area was basically a dead zone because we had an above ground pool there for years. The pool installation involved laying several inches of sand down so my top soil was sand. No organic matter was to be found except for some struggling weeds.

My first chore was to remove that sand, or most of it. Let me tell you, that was not fun.

The next thing I did was remove another few inches of soil to make room for more of the new garden soil I was having delivered. Then I dug down 2 feet deep to loosen the compacted soil and remove rocks, bricks, Hot Wheels, marbles, combs, etc. It was a bit of a treasure hunt.

Because my soil was so poor, I decided to have a truck load of organic garden soil delivered to fill my beds. I asked my favorite local nurseryman for a recommendation for a good source of organic garden soil. That saved time trying to research online, and I trust his expertise. I phoned the supplier who helped me decide how much I needed based on the dimensions of my garden. They delivered it in a dump truck which was so easy. Oh, that pile of soil was a thing of beauty. Rich, dark, moist soil making my sandy pit look sad.

After the hard ground was loosened I added new garden soil along with some organic fertilizer and dug that in, mixing the new soil with the old. More back breaking work. Ugh. At this point I was saying to myself that I only had myself to blame, this was my fault, I decided to do this to myself.

I leveled off the ground and went to take some Aleve.

Next step - make the raised beds. I filled them using only the new soil. For the first year I had very few weeds because the new soil was composted so it had no weed seeds. That was such a luxury.

Looking back all that work was worth it. The soil is fabulous and so are the strawberries.

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