By Kelly Orzel, author, master gardener and owner Bowery Beach Farms
When most gardeners think about their garden, they picture big beautiful blooms or perfectly ripe tomatoes…I think about what’s underneath: Dirt. (Sidenote: I would bottle that scent and wear it if I could!)
But first things first, test your soil. The importance of soil testing cannot be overstated. Most vegetables prefer a pH of 6.5, but without a starting point you won’t know whether you need lime to raise it, or sulfur to reduce it. Your results also tell you which amendments to add if you want to grow brassicas, nightshades or something else. Soil test kits are available at your local extension office and for a nominal fee you’ll get all sorts of helpful information (it’s worth the investment).
Don’t scrimp on soil. I saw it time and again when I worked in the nursery, weekend warriors trying to save a few bucks on inferior soil, while spending huge amounts of money on dahlia tubers, new seeds or bright, colorful annuals and perennials. This ADES (All Dirt Is Equal Syndrome), affects many new (and experienced) gardeners, and can be disastrous in the garden!
Let’s dispel soil myth #1 first: Topsoil is not the answer. “Topsoil” means the dirt was scraped from the top, including troublesome weed seed. It doesn’t indicate if it has organic matter (which you want) or what percent of sand, silt and clay is in the bag. What you really want instead is loam. Loam has just the right balance of soil particles, giving you excellent drainage and improved nutrient and water-holding capacity (yes!). Look at soil bag descriptions and look for something that drains well.
Every year I start with a soil test to determine what my plants are going to need and add accordingly (blood meal for foliage, bonemeal for flowering plants and lime/sulfur to adjust the pH). Just follow the directions on the bag and apply.
A note on digging. Unless you are starting a brand-spanking new bed, DON’T DO IT ! This is soil myth #2: Rototilling mixes your soil. No. It doesn’t. Actually, it breaks apart your soil’s structure and kills the beneficial microbes and worms living in your garden.
Instead, top dress your beds with a few inches of compost and let the earthworms do the work. It’s what they want to do anyway and they’re good at it. They’ll sense that delicious, nutrient-rich compost ladled on top of your garden bed and crawl up, around and down as fast as they can to digest nutrients, leaving castings and distributing nutrients throughout the soil. Why would you want to mess with the natural order of the universe?
For new raised beds, fill them with a 50/50 mixture of garden loam and compost, topping it with a few inches of straight compost. Otherwise, all the same principles for amending and no tilling apply.
Soil myth #3: You need to aerate your soil. Wrong-o. While you want some space in your soil for air, water and roots to tunnel through and reach nutrients, let the soil microbes handle that. This is why good soil structure is so important (remember that mix of sand, silt and clay we talked about?). You don’t want too much sand because that will cause all your water and nutrients to drain away before plants can get a hold of them, and you don’t want too much clay either, which causes root rot. With the right blend of soil particles, earthworms and microbes not only till, but they aerate as well, leaving behind hundreds and thousands of channels as they slide, inch and wiggle their way through your garden.
Once your bed has been made (ha!) and planted in, try to avoid stepping on and compacting the soil. Each time you compress the soil, you’re squeezing out all those air channels and suffocating the roots.
As you plant into your beds and notice an increase in earthworms, that means you are doing something right! Earthworms are a sign of healthy, biological activity in your soil. If you don’t see as many worms as you like, you can add casting to help improve the fertility, buy actual earthworms and toss them into the garden or raise your own in a homemade earthworm bin (there’s lots of free plans available online).
Personally, I use drip tape and landscape fabric (rated for 12-15 years) with holes burned into them, and plant directly into these little pockets to help control the weed situation.
While most of us hate weeds because they make the garden look sloppy, but they’re extremely dangerous because they steal all that organic matter and water from your plants, and overcrowd your garden. To make it look more aesthetically pleasing you can cover the fabric with wood chips, straw or gravel.
For more information on soil, its amendments and nutrients, compost, as well as everything you can (and can’t) imagine about organic growing and the kitchen garden, pick up a copy of Kelly’s book, The Backyard Gardener, available on Amazon, Barnes+Noble’s or get your signed copy on her site, Bowery Beach Farm.
Kelly Orzel is an author, girl-farmer, garden speaker, Master Gardener and life-long grower of green things. With more than 20 years of experience and a master’s degree in Horticulture, Kelly’s obsession for plants and flowers has culminated with Bowery Beach Farm in Maine. As a sustainable, organic farmer she specializes in culinary herbs and scented geraniums.
Aside from dirt, Kelly loves bread and cheese, over-sized sweaters and Jane Austen novels. For more information on Kelly and her garden lectures, contact her here! You can visit her and her farm at BoweryBeachFarm.com.