evaluating & improving garden soil
Before you start planting flowers or vegetables in your garden, it is always better to evaluate your soil first and later improve it accordingly. Would you rather do that or plant your flowers and ask yourself why are they not growing, or why did they die after a couple of weeks?
There are a few types of soil:
1. Loam – The ideal soil that holds air, water, and nutrients. It is composed of sand, clay, silt, and organic matter. Excess water is allowed to drain away while the soil retains its nutrients and water. Loam soil easily works over a wide range of moisture conditions. A handful of loam feels soft, and holds shape once squeezed. When squeezed harder it will crumble.
2. Clay – This soil is draining, and warming really slowly. Easily compactable, meaning it is making it really hard for the plants to grown roots. The plants usually die out due to lack of water. When squeezed in hand, this soil forms into a sticky, hard mass.
3. Sand – Sand holds too much air and there is no room for water nor nutrients, therefore it has to be watered frequently and fertilized more often. Sand soil is a subject to water and wind erosion, tills easily and warms up quickly. When squeezed in hand it hardly maintains form and will not form a ball.
We can come to a conclusion that good soil is better suited for growing healthy vegetables and flowers. So we have to find out what kind of soil we have, in order to improve it. The methods for evaluating are really simple and the tools that are usually found around the house.
– Soil Structure & Tilth: Dig a hole in the soil around eight inches deep when the soil is neither too dry nor wet. Separate an intact section about the size of a beer can, then break it apart. Determine whether the soil is powdery, granular or cloddy. Ideally, your soil should be made up with different sized crumbs that can hold their shape under little pressure. Crumbs that are hard to break apart means that your soil is too hard.
– Compaction: Find a wire flag and vertically push into the soil at different locations, mark the depth at which the wire bends. More compact soil means the wire would bend sooner. A foot or more penetrable soil is ideal.
– Workability: Till or dig the soil, if it produces cloddy or plate-like clumps it means the workability is low.
– Soil Organisms: Dig a hole into the soil about six to seven inches, you will be looking for insects and bugs. Count them, and if there are less than ten, then it means that your soil does not enough players in the food chain. Having populated soil with insects, bugs, fungi, bacteria, etc. is a sign of soil quality. The more it has them, the less chance of pests and disease.
– Earthworms: You will be also looking for earth worms and their tunnels when digging a hole. Having two to three worms is good, having more is better. If there are not any, than that means your soil does not have enough of the organic matter they feed on.
– Root Development: Using a shovel or by hand, gently dig a hole around the plant, preferably a weed you won’t miss. Once the root depth has been reached, pull the plant up and look at the extent of root development, search for white fine strands that have a white, healthy appearance. Dark, brownish roots mean there are serious drainage problems. Stunted roots can also mean disease or root gnawing pests.
– Water Infiltration: For this you can use a can and fill it with water after you have stuck one open end in the soil. Then measure how much water the soil absorbs every hour. Everything slower than half and inch to an inch per hour means the soil is compact.
Clay, sand, silt all contribute with certain nutrients that plants use in order to grow and thrive. Another best thing that amends soil is organic matter. Organic matter is a process of decaying remains of plants and animals. As it decomposes, organic matter releases nutrients that are absorbed by microorganisms in the soil. Wood chips and saw dust are also used, but be careful since they also use nitrogen as they decompose and that might leave the plant thirsty for nitrogen.
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