Improving and Enriching Your Garden Soil

It helps to have some idea of what you are trying to accomplish by enriching your soil. Your goal is to create dirt, but dirt of such fineness, richness, and lightness that it ranks at the very pinnacle of dirtdom. This marvel of nature is loam, the rich, black earth that man has always coveted and even fought wars for, because it is so productive. Not everyone is blessed with it, but it is possible to develop it.

Loam is one of the three basic types of soil, the poor relations being clay and sandy soils. Loam has good tilth, which means that it is loose and crumbly to the depth of at least one foot before your spade hits stones, shale or clay clods. It is soil that drains well, contains plenty of nutrients, and usually teems with beneficial earthworms. Also, vegetables and flowers love it.

Clay and sandy soils do not have good tilth. Clay soil is made up of tiny microscopic particles that are extremely close together. It absorbs water slowly, and holds it. Clay soils tend to glue themselves together during a wet spell so that plant roots simply cannot penetrate freely to absorb water and nutrients. Clay soils are heavy, cold and prone to baking and crusting in summer.

Sandy soil on the other hand, have a very light, loose texture. Although air can penetrate deeply, that looseness means that water can run right through the soil. Which it does, carrying moisture and nutrients right past the plant roots.

Loam is in the middle. It contains both clay and sand but also has a good supply of decomposed organic material-leaves, old plants, rotted wood-called humus. As a result, the grains of the soil have a good structure, not too heavy not too light. The soil drains well, yet retains enough water for plant growth. Air can circulate, and the loose friable soil provides plenty of room for the roots to grow easily.

To turn clay or sandy soil into loam fortunately does not require a lot of skill, but did does require some muscle, at least in the beginning. Your first job will be to build up the physical attributes of your soil so that it has good tilth, the second will be to add various nutrients for the delectation of your plants.

Whether your soil is clay or sand, you improve it the same way: by adding compost (from your compost heap) and/or peat moss (from your garden center). Compost is partly or fully decayed vegetable matter that really adds to your soil. It is not hard to make, especially if you are patient and let nature do the work for you. Mostly I mulch, but I have found that having a small compost pile where vegetable peelings, leaves, and plant refuse can peacefully rot down together without attention from me has been very useful. Another of compost's virtues is that you can make it in any quantity that you want, so you can add some to your plants anytime you want.

If you don't have a ready supply of compost, you can substitute peat moss. Peat moss, as it comes out of the bale, is light and fluffy stuff that will lighten a heavy soil like clay. Once it is wet, it has great moisture retention capabilities, which makes it wonderful in a light sandy soil. The only problem with using it is getting it wet. If it is not wet, it will repel moisture like a sheet of plastic. An easy way to get it wet is to open the bag and put in out in the open for a week and let a few good spring rains do the job for you. If you don't have a few good rains water it every day or so til it gets good and moist.

The next item you should add is animal manure, which acts as both a soil conditioner and a fertilizer. Just in case you didn't know, all manure is not the same. In additon to fresh, dried and frozen, there is rotted and fresh. You should try to get rotted manure to put in your garden. The bacteria in your soil will need extra nitrogen to break down fresh manure, and this will snitch some of the nitrogen from your plants. Also, manure that has rotted or decomposed somewhat is in a form that your plants can use more easily.

The way to get rotted manure is to get a pile of it, cover it with dirt so it doesn't smell, and let it sit for a few months. You should also know that hen, horse, sheep and rabbit manures are known as "hot" manures because of their high nitrogen content. Cow and hog manures are known as "cold" manures because they are fairly wet, low in nitrogen, and break down relatively slowly. You can buy dried manure, powdered and odorless, in sacks at a garden center. You can work it right into the ground. When you have incoporated any or all of these soil conditioners into your garden, you will be amazed by the improved appearance of your soil, that is if you have added enough. Your dirt will be darker and richer looking and have very good tilth. You are on your way to loam.

Next you must add soil nutrients. Although compost and animal manure contain some nutrients, they don't have enough for a really vigorous vegetable garden. To survive and flourish, plants need many different nutrients. The major ones are, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). There are also a number of trace elements, including calcium, zinc, iron, manganese, sulfer, copper and magnesium. To know just how much of any nutrient your garden needs, you'll need to have the soil tested.

Now on to the subject of adding soil nutrients or finding sources for the big three, N, P, and K.

Nitrogen: Animal manures add nitrogen to the soil, so do legumes, like peas and beans. Planting a few rows is a painless way to improve your soil. Some other good sources are, blood meal, milorganite, cottonseed meal, and fish emulsion.

Bloodmeal contains up to 15 percent nitrogen and usually some phosphorous and potassium. It is also supposed to be great for scaring rabbits away from the garden patch.

Milorganite is the trade name for activated sewage sludge, it is odorless, and contains up to 6 per cent nitrogen.

Cottonseed meal contains about 7 per cent nitrogen. Apply it at a rate of about 1 pound per 100 square feet.

Fish emulsion has 5 to 10 per cent nitrogen, and is often used as a booster feeding midway through the season when the plants, especially heavy feeders, can use a shot in the arm.

Phosphrous. The best source is bonemeal. It contains a huge amount of phosphoric acid, 20 to 25 per cent or more, as well as 1 to 2 per cent nitrogen. Vegetables love it, and if you have any leftover, so will your daffodils and tulips. (You can also use rock phosphate instead of bonemeal, this is a finely ground rock powder, containing up to about 30 per cent phosphoric acid).

Potassium. The best natural source for this is wood ashes, yes the kind right from your fireplace or burn pit. Most wood ash contains 7 to 8 per cent potassium, and it is free for the burning. Putting the wood ashes back into the ground, I think is a fitting end for a tree.

To put nutrients in your garden, you can of course, use chemical fertilizer or fertilizers. There are many different products on the market. Read and follow the label directions carefully. Too much of a good thing in the way of chemical fertilizers can kill your plants. Failure to bear fruit and even injury to the plants may result from the use of too much plant nutrients, particularly chemical fertilizers, or from unbalanced nutrient condition in the soil.