I hear the term I have a brown thumb from people all the time. I would hear it a lot when people would stop to admire my gardens, and ask me how I did it. I never really knew what to say to them, and when people would comment on what a green thumb I had, I would wonder what makes me different than everyone else.
I suspect that growing plants is a lot like art, the secret is that anyone can do it, if they take the time to learn how. This series is dedicated to all of the things that might be wrong with your gardening techniques, in an effort to help you develop that green thumb you long to have. Each post will deal with something competing to destroy your green thumb status and tell you how to combat it.
This post deals with soil, and how to ensure that you have the optimum soil for planting. I have made this one first, not because it is the first thing you must consider as much as because it is one of the most important things you can do for a healthy garden. The next part in the series will deal with location, and since these two topics really go hand in hand make sure to check that post out as well.
Why Soil is Important
If you could put a time lapse microscope on your soil what you would see would amaze you. Soil is living environment filled with crucial organisms that live and produce there, and are vital to the health of your plants. We tend only to see the dirt in front of us, but in truth there is far more to be seen that you cannot see with the naked eye.
Without that healthy thriving environment that fosters both organisms and your plants your green thumb cannot thrive. So if you want to develop a green thumb you must first develop good soil. If you have good soil in the right location you can grow anything at all that the weather permits.
What is soil Composed Of?
Good quality soil is referred to as till and is made up of a proper balance of sand, silt, and clay. Many soils have too much of one and not enough of the others, and when these things are out of balance it can affect how well your plants grow. Each component of soil has a different function, clay for instance holds water, too much of it, and it sucks up the water and does not share it. When it is broken up and combined with sand and silt it gives the soil the ability to hold moisture properly. If you have a soil that has too much sand and will not hold moisture, properly prepared clay could be a good way to bring moisture into the soil. However this is not something that a novice gardener should attempt there are better ways that do not risk the balance of clay to sand and silt.
Too much clay however is far worse than not enough. One of the biggest mistakes new gardeners make is to go to deep into the soil pull up too much clay and after a few rains the soil becomes a hardpan that is nearly impossible to work with and will kill your plants. It will also kill off the organisms that your garden needs to stay viable, leaving your soil lifeless.
Too much clay is a common problem, and many people will give up their soil is bad and never make the effort to fix it. Too much clay can be fixed with a bit of time and effort.
How to Fix Your Soil
Fortunately it is easier than you might think to fix your soil and you can fix both problems with without risk to your soil or making the problem any worse. Compost or manure can bring organisms back into the soil, and it can also help to loosen up the clay and mix it in with the other components of the soil.
It can also help to hold water in, in soil that has too much sand in it. Organic materials such as leaf mold straw, and compost that can either be made at home or purchased from the local store will both help to retain water and help drainage. You cannot add too much organic material so the trick is to continue adding it until you get the right balance between water retention and drainage. Soil should not puddle with water, except in the hardest of rainfalls, but it should hold moisture and stay moist for a few days at a time unless the weather is very hot.
Mulch can also help to retain moisture, by discouraging evaporation, but make sure to use organic mulch that will break down and add to the soil structure. Organic mulch will also break down over time and add even more to the structure of your soil.
Your Soil Needs Nutrients
In addition to the proper structure your soil also needs nutrients that your plants need to grow. Soil tests will be needed if you suspect that your soil is low in nutrients. As a part of this series I will go through the proper nutrients in your soil, how to determine what tests you need and how to correct the deficiencies.
In theory adding enough organic matter should cure any deficiencies your soil might have, however, if not, a test can help to determine this. Things you should check for include nitrogen, phosphorous, potash. If your soil is deficient in these things there are amendments you can add to improve the nutrients in your soil. Avoid chemical fertilizers for best results, organic amendments will help improve over all soil condition.
Check your Soil PH
All soils should have their pH checked, since this is a major cause of why gardens struggle. If a soil has a low pH it is said to be acidic, if it has a high pH it is said to be alkaline. Ideally for most crops and plants you want a neutral soil that is balanced between the two. There are some plants that have needs for a more acidic or alkaline soil. You can raise pH by adding lime to your garden. This should be done during the winter. To fix a low pH you need aluminum sulfate or cottonseed meal.
Other drainage problems
While the vast majority of drainage problems have to deal with poor soil not all of them do. If your soil is in good condition but still does not drain, you will need to figure out how to remove that excess water. Too much water causes plants to rot in the ground. Berms and French drains can be used to divert water. Also pay special attention to how you build your rows in the garden. If drainage is problem you can run your rows in such a way as to discourage water from standing. Use top soil or compost to fill in low areas in the garden to discourage water from puddling.
Good soil is the crucial foundation of a healthy garden. Without good soil, plants will struggle to grow, look stunted, pale, or die from rot. They are also more prone to disease and insect damage, if they are unable to get the nutrients from the soil they need. Making sure your soil is ready for planting is the most important thing you can do to ensure success in your garden.