Tips for Growing a Healthy Garden

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Lawn & Garden

Children may be scolded for bringing dirt into the house, but in the garden, dirt is transformed into soil, which is vital for plant growth. Good soil is the first step to having a great garden.

Gardeners often improve their native soil by amending it with sand or clay, and adding organic matter such as leaves, twigs, manure, and lawn clippings. This nourishes any kind of soil and encourages better plant growth.

However, the best way to get the most out of your soil is to select plants that will thrive in your soil type and environment. Here are some tips to help you choose native plants:

  • Use plants that prefer your native soil and climate. Native plants or less common plants from similar conditions are good choices.
  • Identify your garden conditions by testing your soil, observing sunlight levels, and selecting plants accordingly.
  • Check the USDA hardiness zone map for winter coldness and select plants that thrive in your yard’s specific elements.

Knowing your garden soil type is crucial for making the right plant choices. Learn how to test your soil on the next page.

Understanding the Language of Weeds

Observe the weeds in your garden and learn from them. Weeds are resourceful plants that thrive in any vacant soil. By paying attention to the type of weeds growing, you can determine the type of soil you have. Dandelions, for example, prefer fertile, heavy soil.

Other weeds thrive in specific soil types. Acidic soil encourages the growth of crabgrass, plantains, sheep sorrel, and horsetails, while alkaline soil is favored by chamomile and goosefoot. Near-neutral soils provide a nurturing environment for redroot pigweed, chickweed, dandelions, and wild mustard.

Even if you don’t know the name of the weeds in your garden, you can still gather important information by observing them. If there are few weeds growing, the soil needs work. If the weeds are sparse with short, discolored leaves, the soil may have a nutrient deficiency. If weeds sprout up quickly in some areas and slowly in others, the weedy areas are likely to be moister and better for seed germination.

If you want more gardening tips, check out:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Test Your Soil

Before adding fertilizers and amendments to your garden soil, you need to determine what type of soil you have. Soil tests tell you the nutrient levels, pH, and organic content of your soil, which are all crucial to the overall health of your garden. Follow these tips to test your soil:

To obtain a soil testing kit, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service which can often be found listed under federal or county government in the phone book. The kit will include a soil collecting bag and instructions which should be followed precisely to ensure accurate results. The results may appear as a chart full of numbers which can be overwhelming at first. However, there are some key things to look for when interpreting these numbers. If the percentage of organic matter is less than 5 percent, your garden may require additional compost. Nutrients will be listed separately, possibly in parts per million, and may also be rated as available in high, medium, or low levels. If any elements are listed as being on the low side, you will need to add a fertilizer that replaces what is lacking. Soil pH refers to the acidity of the soil and ratings below 7 indicate acidic soil. A slightly acidic pH range of 6 to 7 is the most fertile, while above 7 is alkaline or basic soil which can become infertile above pH 8. If your soil is excessively acidic or alkaline, it can be treated to make it more moderate and productive. Be sure to only add the nutrients that your soil test suggests you need, as too much of any one nutrient can be toxic and harmful to your plants. Avoid the temptation to add extra fertilizer for better results and instead save your money for other gardening needs.

To check the quality of your soil, you can conduct a simple test at home. Collect soil from different depths, dry it, and pulverize it into fine granules. Mix well and add a 1-inch layer of the soil to a quart glass jar with 1/4 teaspoon of dishwasher detergent and enough water to fill the jar two-thirds full. Shake the jar for a minute and leave it undisturbed for a minute. Mark the level of settled particles on the jar and set an alarm for 4 hours. After 4 hours, mark the next level, which is the amount of silt that has settled out. The clay will settle out over the next day or two, allowing you to take the final measurement. These measurements show the relative percentages of sand, silt, and clay, or the texture of your soil. Soil with high sand percentage tends to be well aerated, but it requires frequent watering and fertilization. Soil with more clay retains more moisture, takes longer to dry, and requires less watering. Soil with equal percentages of sand, silt, and clay is well suited for gardening.

To test your soil’s drainage, dig a hole and fill it with water. Observe how quickly the water disappears. When it hasn’t rained for a week, dig several holes that are 1 foot deep and 2 feet wide. Fill them to the top with water and keep track of how long it takes for the holes to empty. Based on the time taken to empty the holes, you can determine the soil drainage. Poor drainage needs help, and ideal drainage is between 12 to 30 minutes. Once you’ve determined your soil type, you can make changes to create the best soil possible for your environment.

Gardening Tips: Improve Your Soil for a Luscious Garden

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Amend Your Soil

Soil quality can make or break a garden. Fortunately, most soil can be improved upon with some effort. Here’s how to make the right changes to your soil:

  • Use ground limestone to raise the pH of acidic soils. Limestone is a natural soil sweetener that can neutralize overly acidic soils. Apply it in the fall to allow time for it to dissolve and work its magic. Be sure to follow guidelines on the limestone package or a soil test to avoid overdosing the soil with lime. Maintain the new pH by rechecking the soil’s pH every year and continuing to add limestone as needed. For soils with very high pH, lower the alkalinity and increase fertility by adding cottonseed meal, sulfur, pine bark, compost, or pine needles.
  • Test your soil by feel before and after amending it to judge the extent of the change. Sandy soils, which have a scratchy feel, can be enriched with a layer of compost and even some clay. Clay soils, which have a slick feel, can be lightened with extra compost and coarse sand.

No matter what type of soil you have, you can continue to improve it by regularly adding organic matter. Happy gardening!

There are many processed and packaged fertilizers available, so you don’t have to harvest your own to add nutrients to your soil. Here are some sources of specific nutrients:

  • Livestock manure (composted), bat guano, chicken manure, fish emulsion, blood meal, kelp meal, cottonseed meal for nitrogen
  • Bonemeal, rock phosphate, and super phosphate for phosphorus
  • Granite meal, sulfate of potash, greensand, wood ashes, seabird guano, and shrimp shell meal for potassium
  • Bonemeal, limestone, eggshells, wood ashes, oyster shells, and chelated calcium for calcium
  • Manure, borax, and chelated boron for boron
  • Chelated copper for copper
  • Epsom salts, dolomitic limestone, and chelated magnesium for magnesium
  • Sulfur, solubor, iron sulfate, and zinc sulfate for sulfur and zinc
  • Chelated iron and iron sulfate for iron

Do you want more gardening tips? Check out:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn helpful hints for all your gardening needs
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden

How to Add Nutrients to Your Soil

Organic matter is beneficial to all soil types. Follow these tips to add nutrients and improve your soil for better plant growth:

  • Spread a thick layer of mulch and let it rot to improve the soil of existing gardens. As the mulch is degraded, minerals are released into the soil to fertilize plants. Humic acid, another product of decay, clumps small clay particles together to make lighter, fluffier soil. Keep the following in mind for best results:
    • Woody mulch, like shredded bark, uses nitrogen as it decays. Add extra nitrogen to prevent the decay process from using up soil nitrogen plants need for growth.
    • Avoid applying thick layers of fine-textured mulches, such as grass clippings, that can mat down and suffocate the soil.
    • Use mulch to keep the soil moist in well-drained areas that won’t become soggy or attract plant-eating slugs and snails.

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      Add soil or organic material to keep shrub or tree roots covered.
  • Obtain local compost from your city or town hall service department. This compost is made from leaves and grass clippings collected as a public service and may be free or reasonably priced for local residents. To find other large-scale composters, reach out to the nearest Cooperative Extension Service. Alternatively, try contacting landscapers and nurseries who may compost fall leaves or stable leftovers for their customers, as well as bulk soil dealers who may sell straight compost or premium topsoil blended with compost. It is important not to give up as yard scraps are discouraged or banned in many American landfills, so someone near you is composting them.
  • Plan ahead for large amounts of bulky organic soil amendments such as compost, manures, and leaves that may be added to improve the soil. This will raise the soil level temporarily, but as the organic matter decays, the soil level will lower.
  • If soils rich in organic matter drop to expose the top of a newly planted shrub or tree roots, add more soil or organic matter to keep the roots under cover.
  • When planting near a house or fence, ensure the soil level is low enough so that it won’t come in contact with wooden siding or fencing that isn’t rot-resistant.
  • Avoid covering the crown, where stems emerge from the ground, with organic material when planting around existing trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers. This helps prevent disease problems.

The location of your garden and frequency of tilling can also impact soil quality. Discover how garden maintenance can enhance your soil on the next page.

Sources of Organic MatterValuable organic matter comes in all shapes and sizes. Here are some of the most common:

  • Compost
  • Livestock manure
  • Straw Grass clippings
  • Salt hay
  • Shredded bark
  • Bark chunks
  • Shredded leaves
  • Seedless weeds
  • Peat moss
  • Kitchen vegetable scraps
  • Mushroom compost
  • Agricultural remains such as peanut hulls or ground corn cobs

Looking for more gardening advice? Check out:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.

Maintain Your Garden

The location of your garden, how you till your soil, and many other factors can have a significant impact on your soil. These tips should help you properly care for your soil.

In order to maintain healthy garden soil, it is important to avoid walking on wet soils, especially clay soils, as this can lead to compression and the squeezing out of vital oxygen. Instead, use walkways or stepping stones to access the garden. When planting, cover the soil with a board to kneel or stand on.

Before planting a new garden, till or spade a thick layer of compost into lightly moist soil to bring it to life. If starting with hard, compacted soil, use a rototiller to break it up into reasonably small pieces, removing weed roots and other underground vegetation as you go.

To keep soil loose and light, add organic matter by incorporating a 4- to 6-inch-deep layer of compost into the soil and working it down to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. This will result in darker, moister, and spongier soil. However, since organic matter decays over time, it is necessary to continue adding compost, mulch, or shredded leaves to maintain the desired texture.

To preserve the texture and organic content of thriving garden soils, try spading or no-till systems. Once the soil is loose, light, and rich, minimal disturbance will help preserve the levels of organic matter. Avoid repeated tilling, as this breaks healthy soil clumps and speeds up decay. Instead, loosen rich soil before planting by turning the surface shallowly with a shovel and breaking it apart.

For deep-rooted plants like roses, consider double-digging garden beds. This traditional English gardening technique involves digging the soil to a depth of 18 inches, which is deeper than the average rototiller can reach. While it requires physical labor, it is a great option for high-performance gardens.

Double-digging can be a challenging task that requires a lot of physical effort, but it is worth it for a beautiful garden. It is best to do it gradually rather than overexerting yourself, or you can hire a professional landscaper if necessary. To start, clear the area of any vegetation and remove a strip of soil that is one spade’s length deep and width wide. Then, use a shovel to turn the soil underneath and break it up. Alternatively, you can use a garden fork to loosen the hard lower soil. If organic matter is needed, add it to the lower level. Repeat the process with the next strip of soil, but this time, mix the surface topsoil from the first trench with the lower soil of the second trench and add organic matter as desired. Continue this process until the final strip is filled with soil from the wheelbarrow.

If the soil is too hard, rocky, poor, or wet, consider building raised beds instead. For vegetable gardens, mound up planting rows 6 to 8 inches high and 2 to 3 feet wide. For permanent or decorative gardens, construct raised bed frames using timbers, logs, rocks, or bricks that vary in height from 4 inches to 4 feet. Professional help may be necessary for larger building projects.

Remember to take care of your soil to achieve the garden of your dreams. For more gardening tips, check out our helpful hints, learn about annuals and perennials, or discover how to garden.

FAQ

1. What is the best type of soil for a garden?

The best type of soil for a garden is loamy soil, which is a mixture of sand, silt, and clay. This type of soil allows for proper drainage while also retaining moisture and nutrients for plants to grow. If your soil is not naturally loamy, you can amend it with organic matter such as compost, manure, or leaf mold to improve its texture and fertility.

2. How often should I fertilize my garden soil?

It depends on the plants you are growing and the type of fertilizer you are using. Generally, it is recommended to fertilize your garden soil every 4-6 weeks during the growing season. However, it’s important not to over-fertilize, as this can lead to nutrient burn or damage to plants. Always follow the instructions on the fertilizer label and adjust based on your specific garden’s needs.

3. Can I reuse soil from last year’s garden?

Yes, you can reuse soil from last year’s garden, but it’s important to amend it with fresh organic matter such as compost or manure. This will help replenish the nutrients that were depleted by last year’s plants. Additionally, it’s a good idea to rotate your crops each year to prevent soil-borne diseases and pests from affecting your plants.

4. How often should I water my garden soil?

It depends on the type of plants you are growing and the weather conditions. Generally, it’s recommended to water deeply once or twice a week rather than shallowly every day. This encourages deep root growth and helps plants become more drought-tolerant. However, it’s important to monitor your garden regularly and adjust your watering schedule based on the specific needs of your plants.

5. How can I prevent soil erosion in my garden?

To prevent soil erosion in your garden, you can use a variety of techniques such as planting ground cover plants, using mulch, and creating terraces or retaining walls. Ground cover plants such as clover or creeping thyme help hold soil in place with their roots, while mulch helps to retain moisture and prevent runoff. Terraces and retaining walls can help prevent erosion on slopes by slowing down the flow of water and creating level planting areas.

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