If you’re like me, you have your vegetable seed packets all lined up on the counter, and are already sorting and rearranging them while dreaming of culinary treasures to come. But first things first: Before you plant, make sure your soil is ready, too.
Don’t get too eager; if you squeeze a handful of soil, does it ball up or fall apart? It’s ready to work when it crumbles. It’s hard to wait, but well worth it in the long run.
Next up: Nurture your soil, so it nourishes you.
Unlike perennial beds and ornamental borders that can get by with a program of benign neglect, the veggie plot needs an annual boost to ensure a bountiful harvest. This is especially true if you grow heavy feeders like cabbage, tomatoes, beets or corn that can deplete your soil in a single season.
If you’ve never done a soil test, or if it’s been a while, I highly recommend it. You’ll find out what nutrients you need, and, more important, which ones you don’t. You’ll also find out your soil’s pH, the measure of acidity or alkalinity.
When I think back on my efforts to achieve that “rich, loamy, well-drained soil” so often described as the perfect growing medium for edibles, you might call it “Adventures in Soil Amendments.” Read on, and learn from my mistakes.
Long ago, before the internet, gardeners had to glean information from books. The problem was that many of them were written by folks in England or New England. One author waxed enthusiastically about using wood ash to sweeten the soil. Who doesn’t want sweet soil, I thought, as I sifted ashes all around.
But soil is a very local issue. Ashes are great for people in Eastern states with soils that lean to the acidic side, but my region was already alkaline. That folly turned my garden into a toxic waste dump, giving my tomatoes a twisted Chernobyl vibe. Returning the soil to a pH of about 6.0, the actual sweet spot for veggies, took time and effort.
My quest for crumbly, chocolate-cake-like soil continued. I flirted with our zoo’s “zoo-do” but couldn’t get my head around the snake poo that was included with more conventional contributors. I added our rabbit’s litter to my passive (lazy) compost pile. I hauled a load of aromatic horse manure from a stable, and was rewarded with zillions of weed seedlings.
Eventually I went with store-bought but still organic solutions for feeding the soil that fed my family and me. On a later soil test, a handwritten comment praising “good organic content” was like getting a gold star.
My current kitchen garden is pretty and productive. I pack a lot of veggies, fruits and herbs into very little space. I break the rules about spacing but I never skimp on my soil. To get away with intensive plantings, I supercharge it. Every year I apply compost and manure to my raised beds. The same should be done if you’re growing directly in the ground.
Compost fluffs up the soil, keeping it loose and easily crumbled, while adding micronutrients. Aged cow manure adds nitrogen. As plants emerge, I top-dress with a balanced organic granular fertilizer that contains the micro-organism archaea, which helps break down organic matter into more usable form to be absorbed by plants. I may also water new veggie transplants with a diluted mixture of fish emulsion.
When purchasing soil amendments, ask about provenance. When tempted by cheap or free loads, consider the source. Are there pesticides and other undesirable ingredients that could possibly contaminate your growing beds?
Use only manure that has been heat-treated to kill weed seeds and pathogens in areas where you grow food. In the hierarchy of manure, sheep, pig and poultry are considered “hot” and can burn tender plants. Your safest bets are with composted horse or cow manure. You can even customize your beds by applying more manure in areas where you plan to plant heavy-feeders.
I don’t till or double-dig my veggie beds. I avoid stepping in them as well. I lightly work the amendments into the top 6 to 8 inches with a hoe, and rake smooth. Excessive tilling can disrupt soil structure and beneficial organisms, cause compaction and bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. Regular additions of organic matter improve soil texture and eliminate the need for tilling over time.
Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators.”