If you ask me what the difference is between soil and dirt, I’ll say soil is what gives life to your plants, and dirt is what gets on your shoes in the city. (Yes, I realize “Dirt” is part of Dirt Diva, but I love alliteration!) Healthy soil is the foundation of a prosperous garden, so how do you build that foundation?
How do you navigate the aisles of the garden center where hundreds of products promising to sweeten/ activate/enrich your soil call out from the shelves?
You can’t improve when you don’t know the problem, right? Before you buy, I recommend testing your soil for existing nutrients, organic matter content, and pH. With a baseline to guide you, you’ll be able to choose only the soil amending products you need (if any), saving you money. A soil test is a simple and inexpensive process and tests for all these things. Below is a snapshot of a soil test from A&L Labs in Virginia, who the Fertrell Company representative I work with sends the samples to. On the left side are the names of the nutrients, pH, and % organic matter being tested for, and the colored graph shows the levels present in the sample. Below the graph are the soil fertility guidelines, given as recommended number of pounds of amendment per 1,000 square feet needed to correct the deficiency. You can do a little math to calculate quantities for the size of your garden. (Not shown are the written amending instructions).
Either myself, the Sullivan County, NY Cornell Cooperative or Wayne County, PA Penn State Extension offices can assist you with the soil test process, as we have the connections to the labs that perform the tests. Do your test before planting begins, as soon as you can dig 6-8” inches down into your existing or future garden site. Only a pound of soil is needed for the sample, and can be collected by peeling back sod, if present, and slicing straight down into the soil beneath with a garden trowel, to include the top 8” of soil. I like to do this several different locations within the garden area, to achieve a balanced profile and avoid making a too big a hole in one place. View this short and helpful University of Illinois Extension how-to video here.
When the test results come back a week or so later, there will also be some recommendations to follow to balance your soil for the type of crop you are growing. These amendments get mixed or tilled in to the top 4 -8 inches of the bed.
Here’s a photo of my homemade compost, the best soil conditioner there is, since it contains a high percentage of carbon, a necessary plant nutrient. Incorporating compost is the best way to boost the % organic matter content in your soil, to the optimal 4-6% range. The soil test above shows 5.1% organic matter-excellent! Each spring I spread a three inch thick layer of compost on all my vegetable beds, and I scatter it on top of my perennial beds along with any amendments, and work it into the soil with a long handled cultivator for small beds or small rototiller for big beds. Vegetables and annual flowers are the neediest in terms of balanced soil, while perennial flowers, shrubs and trees can make do with native soil, as long as there is enough to dig a deep enough hole to cover the root ball! There’s many names to describe the stuff we dig, be it clayey, sandy, loamy or rocky, but please, don’t call it dirt!
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