In my 70 plus years of gardening and observing others try their hand at having a successful garden, the single most important principle in gardening is soil preparation.
The underlying principle that you need to understand is that the roots of plants need to have air and water to develop and grow well. It is much the same way with our bodies. When our arteries start getting blocked and blood flow is reduced, the organs of our body are compromised and our health deteriorates.
You will find that a healthy plant will have a well-developed root system to extract the necessary nutrients from the soil and to transfer these nutrients to the upper part of the plant. As we eat the plant, we then take in these vital nutrients.
Clay: This is what my garden soil looked like before I started working with it. Loamy: This is what my soil looks like now. You can change different types of soil into rich loamy garden soil.
If you have poor soil and don't have a lot of room, you might want to try
Clay soil particles are very small and compact. Gardens with these types of soil particles don’t work well because the air has a hard time getting to the roots. The soil absorbs and holds water and creates a drainage problem. This adversely affects healthy root and plant growth.
Sandy soil particles are large. The water and nutrients (particularly nitrogen) quickly drain away from the plant root zone. Sandy soil is the opposite of clay soil.
Silt soil is made up of fine particles. Like clay the soil holds water but doesn’t have good aeration around the roots.
Some people think that adding sand to clay soil will open it up. I've found that adding sand to clay creates a low grade concrete and most plants don't do well with this hardened soil.
Clay soil will change by adding in large amounts of organic matter. If you do add in some sand, add in large amounts of organic matter with the sand. Peat moss is also really good for your garden. Don’t pay too much for the peat moss go for the free organic stuff.
Any of these types of soil can be converted into an ideal, open, loamy, aerated soil. This improved soil will retain water and nutrients that are readily available for healthy plant growth.
Deep plowing every few years will break up the hard pan in clay soils and improve water drainage.
In the western part of the United States it is typical to have clay soil in your garden. I’m sure you have watched many people get excited in the spring of the year about having a wonderful garden. They till the soil, plant the seeds, water it, and then wonder why the seeds don’t grow very well. You’ll see that the soil gets hard and crusty as it dries. The soil returns to being as hard as it was before it was tilled.
The answer is adding organic matter to the soil. My wife once asked a master gardener- How much organic matter or mulch should you add to your soil? The answer was- How much can you afford? It has been my experience that most organic matter is free for the asking if you are willing to go get it and till it into your home garden plot.
Garden worms are a valuable part of a healthy garden. Worms and organic matter synergistically work together to create rich, fertile, loose, well-drained, wonderful soil. Click on the link to learn more about the the
benefits of earthworms in your garden.
Put all your grass clippings between the rows during the summer and till it into the soil in the fall.
All the kitchen scraps are collected and buried in the soil during the summer, fall, winter, and spring.
In the fall of the year rake up all the leaves you can find from your yard and anyone who doesn’t want their leaves. Note: don’t put walnut tree leaves on your garden. They are toxic to the soil. I add leaves every year and then watch the soil improve.
Use a chipper and grind up all the tomato plant vines, squash vines, corn stalks, and all the other plants that are hard to till. Then rototill this organic fertilizer into the soil so it can decompose during the winter.
In the spring, use the chipper and grind up all the raspberry, grape, and blackberry canes. You can also add the tree limbs from your spring pruning. The chips are tilled into the soil. Remember to add a little extra nitrogen. This helps in decomposing this organic matter.
Every year the soil gets more mellow and loamy than it was before you added this free organic matter.
Add decomposed manure along the row to be planted. (Use about 2 large wheel barrows for every 50 foot row). If you have fresh manure, let it sit for a year before sprinkling it on your garden. Fresh manure is too strong for your plants.
When planting the garden in the spring of the year sprinkle the following fertilizers along the row. All this is tilled into the soil. These three inorganic fertilizers go on top of the manure.
Sprinkle a modest amount of elemental sulfur (2 quarts per 180 sq. ft.)- use on alkaline soils.
Inorganic fertilizer “16-16-16” (16 parts nitrogen, 16 parts phosphorus, 16 parts potassium) (3/4 quart per 180 sq. ft.) Nitrogen helps to produce rich green foliage. Phosphorus helps with the production of flowers, seeds, and roots. Potassium is important in the manufacturing of starches and sugars in the plant.
Ironite improves the iron absorption. Iron is an essential part of the chlorophyll molecule. (¼ quart per 180 sq. ft.)
After tilling, I rake the tilled soiled back into the center of the row and smooth it. This brings all the additives back where the newly planted seeds or plants can use the nutrients for growth.
Continue to add all these things year after year and you will see the soil change from hard clay to a light loamy soil. The plants will flourish and grow big and healthy. You will also notice that the insect and disease problems will start disappearing. In recent years it hasn't been necessary for me to spray for aphids, squash bugs, or other pests that I had when my soil was not as good as it is now.
Have your soil tested if you’re not sure of its pH level. A good average is about 6.0 – 6.5 pH. Keep in mind that each plant has it own unique optimum pH level. For example: Blueberries thrive in types of soils of 4.5 - 5.0 pH.
Types of soil generally found more in the eastern states where there’s a heavier rainfall. To make your soil more alkaline, burn your vines, stalks, or branches on your garden from your yard. The ash creates an alkaline condition. You can also lime your soil to make it more alkaline. This is for Eastern soils not for Western Soils.
Types of soil generally found more in the western soils. Your composting fruits are going to make your soil more acidic. We put our apple pulp on the garden after pressing our apple cider. You still want to compost in Eastern soils.
Elemental sulfur is also very beneficial for your soil. Elemental sulfur is converted into sulfuric acid by the activities of certain soil bacteria. This acidifies the soil. This is for Western soils.
Another suggestion is to add a fungal Mycorrhizae which creates a symbiotic growth relationship with the plants and develops better root growth. These fungal spores can be added to young seedlings as you water the sprouting plants or added to the seeds as you plant them in your garden.
One important reason to add all these things back into the soil is that the types of soil where our food grows have become depleted of essential nutrients and trace minerals that our bodies vitally need. One study showed that iron in spinach decreased from 172 mg to 2.2 mg of iron per 100 grams of product over a 45-year period.
This is not only happening with iron, but it’s also happening with many other vitamins and minerals. These important and necessary nutrients are being lost. Then we wonder why we can’t maintain our health.
As you follow these suggestions, you will see a wonderful transformation of your less desirable soil to a rich loamy soil. Seeing your healthy, thriving garden vegetables will put a smile on your face.