Planning A New Garden, Soil Preparation
The more time you spend preparing your garden before planting, the less you will have to do throughout the year to maintain it. Ideally, preparation for the upcoming growing season will begin the season beforehand, but let’s not kid ourselves, most of us don’t prepare for things a year in advance.
Before you can begin thinking about what to plant and where, you need to figure out what type of soil you have. Your soil type will go a long ways in determining the success of your garden. Many vegetables prefer a certain type of soil and nutrients; it is beneficial for your garden to prepare your soil for what you want to grow.
A soil test of the nutrients and pH balance of your soil will inform as to what fertilizers and organic compounds should be added. Don’t shortchange your garden by not doing a soil test – it will save you money during the growing season.
Once this is done, you can get to the fun part of deciding what vegetables to grow. When your garden is ready to be planted, go here to determine the best time to put your seeds in the ground.
Types of Soil
There are six main types of soil. Knowing what type of soil you have will give you important insight into which plants will do well in your garden.
Clay soil is sticky and lumpy when wet and then hard as a rock when dry. It drains poorly and has few air spaces. It is slow to warm in the spring which makes it less than ideal for early planting.
Sandy soil is gritty, drains fast and is powdery when dry. It struggles to hold nutrients as they easily get washed away.
Silty soil is soft, holds moisture easily and is readily cultivated. It is great for vegetable gardening.
Peaty soil is dark, damp and a little spongy to the feel. It is acidic which means organic matter decomposes slowly making it harder to gain nutrients.
Chalky soil is granular and stonier than all other soils. It drains quickly and is generally lacking in nutrients.
Loamy soil is a mixture of clay, silt and sand. It is damp and fine in texture. It is excellent for growing vegetables.
How to Determine Your Soil Type
The Water Test: Pour water over your soil. Sandy and gravelly soils will drain fast. Clay soils will take longer to absorb the water.
The Squeeze Test: Take a fistful of soil in your hand and squeeze it tightly. If it is gritty and crumbles easily in your hand, it is sandy soil. If it is slick to the touch and stays the same shape when you release it, it is clay soil. If it is squishy, it is peat soil. If it holds its shape for a short time and feels smooth, then it is loamy or silty soil.
The Settle Test: Put a bit of soil in a transparent container with some water. Shake it well and let it sit for a minimum of 12 hours. Cloudy water with soil particles on the bottom of the container indicate clay or silty soils. Clear water with a layer of soil particles on the bottom indicate sandy soil. Slightly cloudy water with lots of soil particles floating on top indicate a peaty soil. Grayish water with small gritty fragments at the bottom of the container indicate chalky soil. Clear water with a layer of soil on the bottom and a very fine layer on top indicates loamy soil.
The best way to determine your soil's nutrient type is to have it tested. This usually involves sending a small sample away to a lab or using an at-home test that you can buy in most gardening stores. The best time to do a soil test is the season before you plant so you have enough time to make adjustments to the soil, if needed, and give organic material time to break down.
The tests generally measure levels of soil pH, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Once you have this information, you can make a better informed decision about what types of plants your soil will welcome. Also, with this information, you can ascertain what amendments are needed to prepare your soil for the plants you would like to grow.
If you find the pH of your soil is too high or too low, it can be adjusted to a level that plants will prefer. Plants like a pH between 6.5-7.0 as that is the spot where nutrients and minerals thrive naturally.
If your soil is alkaline, adding ground limestone will help it. If it is too acidic, add sulfur. Any adjustment to pH is a temporary solution and should be checked throughout the year and the growing season and adjusted as necessary.
Other additions to consider will depend on what type of soil you have and what the soil test results indicate. If your soil needs to be enriched, adding compost or organic material (manure, shredded leaves) will help greatly. A layer of 1-2 inches of organic material is sufficient to start. You may need to add more further along in the season, depending on how well your soil absorbs the nutrients.
You may find, based on your soil test, that adding fertilizer will help a great deal as well. Do as the test results recommend. There are many different types of fertilizers with different levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, so make sure you find the one best suited for your situation.
After adding the amendments, mix them all together in the top 6-12 inches of your garden soil to distribute the nutrients. This should be done when the soil is mostly dry and crumbly, never when it is wet, as that prevents the soil from mixing properly. You can do this by hand with a spade or digging fork, or if you have a larger space, a rototiller does a nice job.
At this time, also, go through your garden and pick out rocks and roots and other hindrances to growing.
When your soil is at its best, your vegetables will be at their best too. Healthy soil makes for abundant crops and happy gardens. Planting without knowing your soil type is like throwing dice and hoping for the best. Give yourself a head-start on success and prepare your soil to reach its maximum potential.