Nutrients in the Garden 6: Get Acquainted With Your Soil

March 10, 2014 | 8:03 am

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There is a Chinese proverb that says, “He who plants a garden plants happiness.” I could not agree more. If you have been following the blog from the beginning of this series, you are four steps closer to planting happiness.

You have decided why you want to garden,

you know where to put your garden,

you know what you want to plant,

and you have a map of your plan!

 

Now, we talk about the most important ingredient to your gardening success: soil!

Side note: I prefer not to call it dirt. Dirt is the stuff I tell my kids to wipe off their feet before coming into the house. Soil is where our food comes from. Without soil, we are naked and hungry. Soil is cultivated by hard working farmers that keep us fed and clothed. It is critical to our mortality; out of respect for this precious resource, I prefer to call it soil.

This is where you want to get it right! With the wrong soil, your garden will struggle and you might consider throwing in the trowel and giving up. Simply put, poor soil = poor garden. We can prevent this by doing our homework now, while it’s still too cold to garden.

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There are over 70,000 types of soil and they are not all created equally; some soils are more plant friendly than others. Soils can have too much clay, be too sandy, too compacted, too acidic… the list goes on, but don’t worry, soil can be improved! Keep in mind that if you are dealing with a dire soil situation, sometimes it is easier to garden in pots or a raised bed, because you have total control over the type of soil you use.

If you choose to garden the traditional way, cultivating a spot in the yard, it’s critical to find out if it the soil will be good for your garden.  For example, a few years ago when we were renting a house, I wanted a garden but the lease didn’t allow. I talked a friend into letting me garden at her house. We thought we had a great spot, however throughout the growing season we had drainage and soil compaction issues. Well come to find out, that particular spot had been used as a dirt path that vehicles took to the back part of the property. No wonder we had issues with drainage and compaction – we were gardening on a road! The point is to know the history of that particular spot; it will help you decide where you want to garden. We would have had a better garden had we built raised beds there and filled the raised beds with nutrient rich soil.

The best, most accurate way to find out if you have a good garden soil is to take a soil sample and have it analyzed. (To learn more, view “How to take a soil sample.”). The local county Extension Service (often listed under state or county government in the phonebook) will have sample bags, forms, a soil probe and instructions on collecting samples. Soil test results usually rate the levels of soil pH, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sometimes nitrogen.

Right now, our ground is frozen solid and I will not be able to take samples until it thaws. Until then, I suggest you start digging into the knowledge of the garden community around you.   Ask a friend, neighbor, or relative who gardens. Visit the garden center or the local county extension office. They will be familiar with the type of soils common to your region.  Take the time to know what type of soil you are dealing with; you won’t regret it. Very few of us start with perfect soil!

I didn’t start with great soil, but by amending with compost and fertilizer, I have improved it to the point of producing a beautiful, successful garden each year. We will discuss how to improve the soil on your land and in alternative forms of gardening, raised beds and container gardening, in the next couple of posts. Planting happiness is on your horizon!

I am happy to be gardening with you.