As the weather warms up, we start to think about planning our garden for the new season. Even before we plant our first vegetable in the garden, it is a good time to evaluate the nutritional value of the soil and to work on getting it in a healthy condition. Gardeners understand that the soil the plants grow in must provide certain micro and macro nutrients in order to produce a wonderful crop
. A common question we are asked is, what is the best way to add the right organic material to your garden to help your plants grow without breaking your budget?
Understanding some basics about the soil and the activity that is going on under the ground is a great start in making a decision into what kind of amendments to use. Soil is more than just dirt. It is a medium composed of minerals, organic matter, water and air and it houses a community of living organisms like worms, fungi, microorganisms and bacteria. Choosing organic soil amendments makes better sense than synthetics because they add nutrients naturally to the soil and build better soil structure. Organic soil amendments can also provide better water drainage and healthier root growth. Healthier plants have a better chance of surviving diseases and pests than those that are stressed.
There are different organic soil amendments you can choose from. Each of these is different in what they provide, so knowing your soil type will help you decide which ones you need. There are 3 types of soil: clay, sand, or loam. Clay soil is very common in this area. It is a compact soil that does not allow water to drain easily and the soil becomes hard when it dries out. Sandy soil allows the water to drain quickly and does not contain a lot of nutrients. Loam is a combination of clay, sand and silt. It holds plenty of water but dries out quickly so air can get to the root structure. It is the type of soil that gardeners would enjoy having. If you have either clay or sandy soil, you can improve your soil structure by adding soil amendments. Below is a list of common soil amendments that can be added.
Compost can be any organic matter that is allowed to decompose and is used as a soil amendment and as a fertilizer. Compost is usually decomposed leaves, plants or green food waste. Compost works with any soil type. It helps to break up the particles in clay soil for aeration and adds nutritional value to sandier soil. Rule of thumb is 25% of the soil should be compost material.
Healthy soil should have an abundance of earthworms in it. In addition to the castings that are naturally in the soil, you can also add this during your plantings. The worms eat decaying matter in the soil and when this matter passes through the digestive system of the worms, castings are left behind. These castings contain micro and macro nutrients which plants can absorb easier than synthetics. Earthworm casting also allow for aeration so the soil doesn’t compact and increases the beneficial microbes and bacteria.
The pH of the soil is an important factor in your garden. When the pH is out of balance, the vegetable plants cannot absorb the nutrients they need. In this area of the country, our soil tends to be more acidic (less than 7 on the pH scale). To determine the pH of your soil, you can send soil samples to the University of Delaware and they can test it and send you a report. Based on the type of plants you are growing, you can use lime to increase the pH. It is important to check your soil first before adding lime, to ensure your soil needs an adjustment.
Most people are familiar with the little white “cubes” in regular potting mix which are known as vermiculite. There is also another product known as perlite that is similar in nature. Vermiculite and perlite are both minerals that are heated to extreme temperatures until they burst into small particles. They can both be added to a soil to help with aeration and moisture retention. Perlite is usually a little more expensive and is used more in hydroponics. Vermiculite is less expensive and holds more moisture. Be careful adding these products to your soil, as they can hold too much moisture, especially if you already have clay soil that doesn’t drain well.
Animal Based Fertilizers
Organic fertilizers can be added which are derived from byproducts of animals, birds, fish and sea life, poultry and bats. These products provide nutritional value to the plants in the form of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). All fertilizers will provide you with the nutrient value of the product as a percentage of N-P-K. Nitrogen helps the plants with strong leaf growth, phosphorous helps with root and flower growth and potassium helps with the overall health of the plant. The use of these products can also help with soil structure and aeration.
Soils which are undisturbed contain a fungus that naturally helps plants absorb nutrients. This root fungus is called mycorrhizae and it creates a mutual beneficial relationship between the plant and root fungus. Mycorrhizae fungus is found naturally in soils, but most soils have been tilled, excavated, eroded or over-fertilized which can deplete the mycorrhizal fungus. The fungus attaches itself to the roots of the plant and increases the surface area of the root structure. By enlarging the root structure of the plant, it increases the absorption of nutrients and water.
These are some of the soil amendments you can add to your garden. The key to adding amendments is to first look at your soil and determine what problems you are having with your garden. Once you determine which amendments you need, add them slowly over time and in small quantities. This way you can watch as the soil changes and you will not spend a lot of money at one time. Every time you plant, add the amendments to the row or the plant hole. Over time, you will add enough amendments so that your whole garden will be alive and healthy, even under the surface.
Pam is an avid lifetime gardener of vegetables and flowers. In addition to growing orchids in her greenhouse, she enjoys biking, traveling and spending time with family.