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Tips for the Compleat Gardener - The alchemy of soil


It’s all about the soil, dust to dust. We all come from it destined from the start to return, begin again as a particle of dust until some growing thing takes us in, inviting us to join the community of life, again.

The health of the garden depends on the soil, source of nourishment for plant and herbivore, which is where you and the deer share a category.

Before we know it spring will be here and we will get ready to plant. When you have cleared the area for the garden bed it is time to either bring in good soil or add whatever the existing soil needs to achieve fertility, and I am not talking about chemicals.

For a comprehensive understanding of what goes into great soil I recommend “Secrets to Great Soil” by Elizabeth P. Stell, which I am using as one reference for this information.

The nature of the soil in any area depends on the rocks which are the ultimate source of soil. My own home yard has a lot of shale which evolves into heavy clay, sandstones grind to sandy soils and limestone to fine textured. The amount of moisture has its effect as do all the animals and plants that are present on the land.

Most soil needs added organic material, compost, aged manure, both to improve drainage or water retention and add attractions for all the other necessary ingredients that are underground, earthworms, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes, all of which digest, alter, transform elements of the soil to make it accessible to plants. All of these things are fed richly by natural composted materials without a chemical residue that can wash out and pollute your life.

The aforementioned book goes into great detail about composting your own garden and kitchen waste, there is a method for everyone, even an under-the-sink worm farm the residents of which will eagerly turn old vegetables into garden gold.

Many garden centers and hardware stores have composters available and if you are a serious gardener consider getting one or establishing a compost area in your yard. This way you can be sure what is in the compost you are using.

Several local venues sell mushroom soil, which is traditionally the composted mixture containing old manure and peat moss used to grow mushrooms for a season then passed on the purveyors to sell to gardeners. I work it into every garden when first dug and mulch with it annually because it looks good all season and feeds the garden.

Well rotted manure, older if it is horse manure because they do not digest as fully as cows, and seeds persist, worked into the newly established vegetable garden is also garden gold. You only have to do this preparation once, do it well and mulch with compost thereafter.

Once you have added the organic matter I suggest getting a professional soil test. These are available from the Penn State Cooperative Extension Agency, some local garden centers and usually at the Bucks Beautiful Garden Show at Delval College and cost $9 for the basic ingredients. They have added several other testing options for more money. These tests will tell you exactly what to add to the tested soil to achieve the balance you need for good growing conditions.

The pH of the soil has a big effect on the overall chemistry and the ideal range for most plants is between 6 and 7, which is essentially neutral, with 0 being totally acid and 14 alkaline, the average garden soil ranges from 5-7.

The major nutrients in the soil are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur with minute amounts of other elements iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron and molybdenum. The basic test focuses on the ph and major nutrients.

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