Phase four in preparing your Spring garden: Spring digging

>> Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Grab your shovel, your favorite gloves and garden clogs, we’re going to play in the dirt!

I love the image that brings to mind. Come spring time gardeners everywhere are itching to get out into the garden and start digging, cultivating, pruning, and planting again. We are ready to shrug off the long gardening dry-spell of winter that has tested our patience and are ready to unleash our pent up plans and dreams for this years edition of our dream gardens. Our tools, long hidden in the dark recesses of our sheds, yearn to be brought back out into the open and put to good use. Our playing-in-the-dirt toys have gotten more sophisticated since we were kids but the old urge never seems to die.

Dirt, actually if you use this word around a gardener you will likely be told in no uncertain terms that soil is the proper term because dirt can be found just anywhere, but after you have poured you heart and soul, not to mention an untold fortune in compost and soil amendments, into your garden plot, dirt graduates to the exalted designation of soil. Soil, that substance from which all life springs, is aching to be a part of your dream garden. And so, with memories of gardens past compelling us to return to our labor of love, we are eager to resume our pursuit of creating our own personal, peaceful oasis in a world that has become too hurried and too demanding. We welcome any opportunity to get out and begin digging.

Every ailment, every problem, every nutrient, every joy (as it pertains to gardening, that is) springs from the soil. It’s a heavy responsibility, but healthy soil is the single most important ingredient to raising healthy plants. Healthy soil allows nutrients to be taken up by your plants. Unhealthy soil sucks the life right out of anything you plant in it. You can throw all the high potency fertilizer you want into your garden and water it religiously but if the soil is not healthy you will have wasted all your time, energy and money.

Soil cannot be healthy without organic matter, which can be any combination of or all of the following:

leaf mold, aged manures, worm castings, household compost, certain kitchen waste, chopped up leaves, newspaper, cardboard, grass clippings, etc.

There is no set formula for mixing and preparing any of these ingredients because it all breaks down, and gives back what it has collected over its useful life, some faster than others. The purpose of adding organic matter to your clay garden, is to allow the movement of water and air to the roots and to allow roots to penetrate the soil more easily. The purpose of adding organic matter to your sandy garden, is to slow down the movement of water and air around the roots and to provide something for the roots to hold on to. If you have ever tried to garden in hard clay you will know the importance of loosening it up so plants can take root without drowning. If you have ever tried to garden in loose sand you will know the importance of providing some substance for the plants roots to take hold without drying out. Organic matter is this key substance to taming both of these extremes.

Organic matter also supports the microbial life that is the basic building blocks for all soil life. Just as in the sea, where tiny plankton support almost all sea-life, microbes support almost all soil life. Without either of these huge populations of tiny life forms, life as we know it would simply cease.

Of the organic material I listed, two stand out as being the gold standard for soil improvement. Compost and worm castings. Properly made, compost and worm castings provide natures most balanced form of nutrient rich amendments you could ever spread onto your garden.

Garden Compost
Creating garden compost is a symbiotic form of science and art and has become the holy grail of serious gardeners everywhere. The mythology and ceremony around creating it puts a lot of people off to the idea of making their own but it really isn’t as difficult as it first seems. Plus, a side benefit is you get to reuse what was once considered garbage, in the form of kitchen scraps, and yard waste. There are many great websites devoted to composting that will take you by the hand through the entire process. This is something that each of us should do if only from an environmental standpoint. You don’t have to buy precisely designed bins or tubs to make compost, and the formula does not have to be exact, it is a very ‘ballpark’ type of thing and you can soon learn the adjustments that need to be made to have your very own black gold. So, you can help the environment and cut your costs on soil amendments, what more can you ask for?

Worm castings
You can harvest your own worm castings, too. Of course, for this you must have an enclosure for your worms, and this can be anything from plastic tubs to wooden crates. Feeding your kitchen scraps to worms is the ultimate in recycling. Worm farming uses specialized worms, you cannot just pull any earthworm out of your yard and expect them do your bidding. One of the best blogs I have found that covers the whole worm farming thing, called vermicomposting, is at Redworm Composting. Bentley Christie, the posts author, is extremely knowledgeable concerning vermicomposting and will readily answer any question or concern you may have. Check out his site for some great info.

To get the most from your garden soil, you should have it tested for pH balance and nutrient deficiency.

Proper pH balance
An improper pH level, alkalinity and acidity, can cause your plants to literally starve to death. In a balanced pH environment, bacteria is better able to decompose organic matter and microorganisms can convert nitrogen in the air into a form that your plants can use. When the soil is too acidic or alkaline both of these processes are greatly impaired. Inorganic fertilizers will make your soil more acidic over time and adding amendments to the soil alters your soil's pH. Testing and adjusting your soil’s pH level accordingly will help maximize your plants' potential in size, health and quality of flowers, vegetables and fruits. You can buy pH test kits from your local nursery and they are very easy to use.

What fertilizer is needed?
Get a soil test to determine what other amendment is needed to bring your garden to optimum performance levels. A soil test can tell you such things as how much nitrogen, potassium or phosphorous is needed. This information can save you a lot of money by not adding unnecessary fertilizer and it will definitely help your success rate with growing more beautiful and bountiful plants. Your local agriculture extension office will test your soil sample (usually for a small fee) and will tell you how to collect the sample and what size sample they require. Expect to wait 3-5 days for results. You can also buy soil test kits from your local nursery, it won’t give the complete or more accurate analysis a lab would but it can give you a general idea of what is lacking as far as the three basics (NPK) for around $20.

Let’s dig in
You don’t want to dig in mud, good for mud pies but not for gardening. Digging in wet soil will leave clumps after the sun dries out the sogginess and we don’t want clumps in our garden! Test the soil down to about 10” to see if the soil is dry enough to work. Spread your soil amendments and fertilizer (a balanced slow-release is best, 10-10-10) and then dig it all in to about 8-10” deep. A note here, as tempting it is to use a roto-tiller, my advise is, don’t! Roto-tillers have a tendency to break up the soil too much (destroying much needed soil structure) and they can compact the soil just out of reach of the tines. The tried and true pitch fork and shovel are still the best way to go.

As of this posting it is late February and with weather patterns changing as they are, we’ll soon be able set our seedlings out to harden off. If frost threatens, you can always use cloches or simply throw a sheet over your tender seedlings, see Extending the Gardening Season. Personally, I’m counting the days with the excitement of an expectant father.


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