Organic gardening starts with the soil. If you want to plant a healthy garden filled with beautiful flowers and good things to eat, then you need fertile, well-drained soil. You will need to figure out what your soil needs and probably do some work to help it along, but the result will be loamy, fertile ground.
Soil testing is the best way to determine the condition of your soil. There are many different soil tests, and each looks for different things. Many tests you’ll be able to do by yourself; others require the special skills and equipment of a laboratory.
What do soil tests look for?
Most people think of acidity and nutrients when they think of soil testing. Those are important soil qualities, and no study of the soil is complete without knowing if your soil is acidic or alkaline, and what amount of nitrogen, potash, potassium, magnesium, and calcium your soil contains.
As you study your soil, it’s also important to learn its texture. Some plants do well in sandy soil, while others prefer soil with more clay. Look at how the soil drains, as well. If your garden is boggy and doesn’t drain well, you’ll need to correct the problem or use water-loving plants.
Finally, organic gardeners are concerned with the overall health of the soil. They want their gardens to grow more than plants, by making them home to a variety of living organisms. Some soil tests will analyze the amount of organic matter in the soil and the number and kinds of microbes and other microscopic organisms.
Types of Soil Tests
Do-it-yourself-tests – Many soil tests can be done in the garden, without any special equipment. The most basic tests look for soil texture and drainage.
The percolation test – To learn how well your soil drains, dig a hole that is about 30 cm. deep and 15 cm. wide. Fill the hole with water, and watch how long it takes the water to drain. If your hole is empty in less than eight hours, you have good drainage. If it takes longer to drain, then you have poor drainage.
The watering test – If you’re worried that your soil is too dry, use the watering test. Thoroughly water a spot in your garden, and then wait two days. Dig a 15-centimeter deep hole in the spot you watered. If the soil 15 centimeters deep is already dry, then your soil does not hold enough water.
The squeeze test – To determine the composition of your soil, try the squeeze test. Two days after a good rain, squeeze a small handful of soil. It will either feel slippery, meaning you have a high clay content; like wet baby powder, indicating a high silt content; or gritty, suggesting sandy soil.
Extension office tests – Most extension offices offer basic soil testing for free. If you call the local extension office, they’ll send you a test kit that gives you directions for taking a soil sample. Mail them your sample and they’ll send you back an analysis of your soil, letting you know the pH and which chemical nutrients, such as nitrogen and potassium, are in your dirt.
Laboratory tests – Knowing what your soil is made of and how well it drains tells you a lot about what you need to do to improve your soil. Do-it-yourself tests give you important information, but they don’t tell you everything you need to know about your soil. By sending a soil sample out to a laboratory, you’ll be able to find out what nutrients are in your soil to feed your plants, and what microorganisms are there to help or hinder your plants’ growth.
Once you know what your soil is made of, you’ll know what problems you need to help it overcome. Most gardeners find that organic gardening techniques are both easy to use and give longer-lasting results than chemical methods. By adding organic matter and working to accept or improve drainage problems, you’ll be able to turn dirt into loam within only a few seasons.
Adding Organic Matter
Incorporating living materials into your soil will improve its texture and nutrient composition. Organic matter can help your soil hold together or can break up clay. It will improve the biology of your soil, encouraging the animals and microorganisms that help soil maintain fertility. Using a mix of compost, aged animal manure, and green manure will let you fix a wide variety of soil problems.
Using Compost – Compost is the organic gardener’s best friend. Made up of decomposed carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials, compost contains nutrients and microorganisms that will improve any type of soil. You can make your own compost, or you can buy it from most garden centers or home-improvement stores.
Making compost – Making your own compost is a wonderful way to use your household wastes to turn your patch of dirt into a garden paradise. You can compost in a pile, a bin, or a compost turner. You’ll need water, air, nitrogen-rich green materials, and carbon-rich brown materials. Layer the materials in a bin or a pile, using 25 parts brown materials to 1 part green materials. Heat is what decomposes the material in your pile, so use a thermometer to measure the temperature. It should be about 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Water and turn the pile when the heat starts to decrease. If your pile starts to smell, add more brown. If it doesn’t heat up properly, add more green.
|Nitrogen-rich green materials||fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grass cuttings, manure, eggshells, hair, weeds|
|Carbon-rich brown materials||hay, nutshells, pine needles, sawdust, straw, corncobs, vegetable stalks, dry leaves, paper, straw|
Applying compost – Unlike chemical fertilizers, which can burn plants if applied too often, you can spread compost on your garden as often as you can make it. Work a layer of compost into the top two inches of soil before you sow your seeds in the spring, spread it around the base of new trees, or add a layer of compost before planting new sod or grass seed. In established gardens, add compost as mulch or work it into the soil when you turn over cover crops.
Using Manure – Animal manure is another organic material that adds nutrients and texture to your soil. Manure from different animals has different compositions, so gardeners can use the results of their soil test to choose the right product for their gardens.
Types of manure – Animal manure can be used fresh or after it’s been composted. Fresh manure is readily available, but has high ammonia and salt contents, and usually contains harmful bacteria and weed seeds. The heat from composting usuallykills the weeds and E. coli, and makes the nutrients from animal manure easier for plants to assimilate.
|If your garden needs:||Nitrogen||Potassium||Phosphorus||Magnesium||Calcium|
|Then choose:||cattle, sheep,poultry||cattle, sheep||poultry||sheep||cattle, sheep,poultry|
Applying manure – If you’re applying fresh manure, work it into the soil in the fall to give time for the ammonia to release and for the nutrients to break down into useable form. Composted manure can be applied in the spring, when you turn over the garden and add new plants.
Green Manures – Often called cover crops, green manures are crops planted to control erosion and add nutrients and organic matter into the soil. Green manures are planted in the fall and worked into the soil in the spring, or are planted during the growing season as part of a crop rotation plan.
Types of cover crops – Many cover crops are legumes, which are plants whose roots work together with bacteria in the soil to convert nitrogen in the air into useable form. Legumes work best when the seeds are inoculated with plant-specific bacteria. Examples of legumes that make good green manure crops are clover, soybeans, and hairy vetch. Other kinds of plants also make good cover crops: buckwheat, oats, winter rye, and annual ryegrass are a few. Cover crops often work best when planted together, so ask a nursery specialist to help you choose one or more that will benefit your soil type.
Using green manure – To plant your cover crop, start by tilling or raking your planting site. A layer of compost is helpful, but not necessary. Broadcast the seeds by hand, and rake to bury them. In the spring or at the end of the growing season, mow the plants to break up the leaves, then till or dig the rest of the plants into the soil.
Managing Drainage Problems
Adding organic matter to your soil will improve its texture, helping it to retain the right amount of water. Therefore, organic gardeners have fewer drainage problems than conventional gardeners. If you have only minor drainage problems, then adding compost or manure or planting cover crops should help. If you soil is extremely wet, though, you will need to either plant to accommodate your land or try to solve your drainage problems.
Planting for Poor Drainage – If you have an extremely wet spot in your garden, you may be able to use plants that tolerate or thrive on wet conditions. Many beautiful trees are native to wetlands and rivers, and will grow well in areas that don’t dry out quickly. River birch, bald cypress, weeping willow, sweetgum, and sycamore trees all do well in wet soil. Smaller plants may also grow well in poorly drained soil: azaleas, marsh marigolds, water irises, and pitcher plants are a few.
Breaking up Hard Ground – Often, soil drains poorly because it’s compacted or has a deep layer of clay or other hard material. By breaking up the problem soil, you can forever improve your garden’s drainage.
Double digging – Double digging is hard, time-consuming work, but if it breaks up the hardpan, then you won’t have a drainage problem anymore. Start by digging an eight-inch deep hole about three feet square, removing the dirt. Dig down eight more inches, turning over the dirt and breaking it up. Start a new hole, putting the dirt from the top of the second hole into the hole you just double-dug. Continue until you’ve double-dug the entire wet spot.
Planting deep-rooted plants – Many trees have deep roots that, when planted near a structure, are known for working their way into the foundation of a house and causing a lot of damage. If you plant these strong-rooted trees in an area where you have poor drainage, they will do the work of breaking up a hardpan for you. Choose a variety that does well in wet soil, such as a weeping willow.
Using Raised Beds – If the plants you really want to put in your garden won’t tolerate wet or dry soil and you don’t want to do the work of breaking up a hardpan, consider gardening in raised beds. Loosen the soil under the spot where you’ll be gardening, then bring in enough topsoil mixed with organic material to make gardens that are 10 to 15 cm. high, one to two meters wide, and as long as you wish. Frame the gardens with brick or wood to prevent soil runoff, or pile the dirt in simple mounds. Your plants will have a fertile, well-drained place to grow.
Testing your soil and improving it may seem like a lot of work at first. Once you get out into the garden, though, you’ll discover one of the greatest joys of gardening organically. By adding organic material to your soil and helping it drain properly, you’ll create an environment where your plants will thrive. You will have fewer pest problems, and everyone on the block will want to know why you hydrangea bushes have greener leaves and bluer flowers than theirs.