Improving Our Soil

I’ve gone through a lot of different phases as a gardener. I started out being heavily influenced by the PBS television series Crockett’s Victory Garden. The host, James Crockett, was a huge fan of compost, and he called his three-bin composter his Brown Gold Cadillac because of the valuable commodity it produced. Crockett used a mix of organic and conventional fertilizers and pest control in his garden and for a long time I did too. I still have the book that Crockett wrote in response to the popularity of the TV series, and my copy is well-worn from frequent use.

my Crockett

my Crockett’s Victory Garden book

After that I began using even more organic methods in my garden, fueled by reading Organic Gardening magazine and other Rodale press publications. That was tempered somewhat by my living on a 40 acre farm that I rented out to a farmer who grew corn and soybeans using conventional methods. Fast forward a few years and I retired and moved to Happy Acres, where I’ve been gardening for the past eight years. This is my third garden spot in about 35 years of gardening, and while hobbies have come and gone, gardening has been a constant throughout my adult life. It is safe to say that growing things is in my blood, and it is difficult to imagine me not doing it, as long as I am physically able.

compost - a gardener

compost – a gardener’s Black Gold

These days I call myself an organic gardener, even though I’m not afraid to occasionally resort to non-organic approved methods or chemicals when there’s no better solution to a problem. And I also like to rely on as much scientific evidence as I can when it comes to making my gardening choices. That includes periodically testing the soil. The last time I did a soil test was back in 2010, and the results then showed our garden soil had a near ideal pH of 6.4, and contained 4.8% organic matter, which was also pretty good. However the soil also tested for slightly low levels of calcium and potassium (277 lbs/acres), and very low levels of phosphorus (102 lbs/acres). That basic test did not report on sodium, sulfur, or any of the so called trace elements, so I don’t have any idea of those levels back then. Note that different labs use different extraction methods, and the results cannot easily be compared to one another unless you know the methods.

2010 soil test report

2010 soil test report

Since then I’ve been adding as much compost as I can to the garden, and mixing in other organic material like leaves, grass clippings and straw. I’ve also applied liberal amounts of various organic fertilizers. The garden has produced well, and given us lots of vegetables to eat and give away. But I suspect it is not as productive as it could be. I’ve noticed several areas of the garden seem to be less productive than others, and several crops don’t do as well as others. That convinced me it was time to do another soil test, and to do some study on the science of soils and on growing better vegetable and fruit crops.

To that end, I just finished reading The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food by Steve Solomon. In the book, the author makes a case for what he calls “remineralizing” your soil, and explains how to bring the mineral nutrients in our soil into balance in order to grow healthier, more nutrient dense food. He advocates gardeners do periodic soil testing and then apply the appropriate amounts and types of organic amendments as indicated by the test results. Considering how the overuse of fertilizers and other chemicals is polluting our waterways and aquifers, it certainly seems like prudent advice. He rejects the idea that merely throwing more and more compost and manure on our gardens is the answer to better gardening results. Once the organic matter is at a desired level, only a thin layer of compost is needed each year to maintain it.

I also recently re-read a chapter titled “The Living Soil” from Wendy Johnson’s Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. The author is a Zen meditation instructor and an organic gardening mentor, and the book itself is partly a gardening manual and partly a love letter to Planet Earth and all the creatures (big, little and microscopic) living on it. Now I am reading Teaming With Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition by Jeff Lowenfels. He explains basic soil science and plant biology in (mostly) laymen’s terms, and then advises how to apply the science to our gardening practices and fertilizer choices. It’s hard reading at times, but fascinating and very informative. Hopefully my head will not explode from all my recent research efforts!

using soil auger to get soil sample

using soil auger to get soil sample

As for the soil test, the next step was to take soil samples, and send the soil off to a lab (Logan Labs) for testing. This time I got a test that reports on twelve different soil nutrients and minerals, as well as pH, Total Cation Exchange Capacity (TCEC) and organic matter. I am now studying the test results, and coming up with an action plan for the garden. I will be back soon and share my plan,  as soon as I get it all worked out.

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11 Responses to Improving Our Soil

  1. Daphne says:

    I took samples last week. Right now they are drying out in the dining room. Then I’ll send them to my extension service. The first one I took here said I was low in phosphorous, but everything else was good. The last one said I was pretty balanced. I haven’t done one in two years now. But I suspect I might need to lime this year. The soil naturally gets very acidic here if you let it (blueberries grow wild around here – though it is weird that I have trouble growing them). I’m just hoping the organic content is as high as last time. Compost may not be a balanced fertilizer, but it does help hold those nutrients in the soil and keep them from washing away.

    • Dave says:

      Our extension service doesn’t offer any soil testing, and the local co-op we do have isn’t any cheaper than sending it off. Solomon advocates for using compost on the garden for the reason you mentioned, and has a chapter devoted to making better compost. That will no doubt be a part of my plan for next year.

  2. Dave, I love your blog. Today’s post took me back to 1976, when I lived briefly on a 7-acre farm, raised lambs, grew a garden, and began watching Jim Crockett’s Victory Garden. My gardening has been more sporadic than yours, and I didn’t go organic until the 1980s. Wouldn’t have it any other way now.

    • Dave says:

      Thanks for your kind words Lou! I have no doubt that Jim Crockett served to inspire many people of my generation. It’s hard to imagine the dearth of gardening info that was around back then, and his show gave him the chance to share not only his gardening wisdom, but also his love of gardening.

  3. Michelle says:

    Your post really got me thinking, because I agree that the most important task for a gardener is to take care of the soil – feed the soil and it will feed your plants and they will feed you. But I never have done a soil test and probably won’t be doing one in the foreseeable future. My objection to those standard types of soil tests is that they are designed to tell you what to feed your plants, they completely ignore what the soil, or rather the life in the soil needs. I was just reading recently that a healthy cup of soil contains more microbes than there are humans that have ever existed. Amazing! So what I would like to know from a soil test is how healthy is the microbial life in my soil and how can I promote a healthy population of good flora and fauna in there. Healthy soil = healty plants = healthy food. Sorry to sound preachy, but I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with this topic and I could go on but I’ll spare you…

    • Dave says:

      It is a complicated topic, and certainly there is no consensus view on even the ‘correct’ levels of the various nutrients and minerals. A big part of my long term plan will be to learn more about the microbial life, and to promote it’s health. I definitely plan on experimenting with mycorrhizae application next year, though I have already been using it in the soil mix I use to grow seedlings in. And I want to do more study on this part of the equation too.

      Solomon makes a compelling case that one reason the nutrient levels of our food has declined is due to depleting our soils of the basic minerals. I consider testing for those minerals, and replenishing as needed, as sort of an insurance policy. Since I eat so many homegrown vegetables, I want to be sure I am not shortchanging myself nutritionally. Though I have to add, eating food from the grocery or farmer’s market is no guarantee of its safety or nutritional value. So I doubt my homegrown produce is less healthy.

      • Michelle says:

        I think the topic is downright murky. So much of the science about the soil microbiom is new and there’s so much still to learn, it’s difficult to choose a “right” approach. Thank you for your reading list, I’m going to add them to my own. At the moment I’m reading Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations – a fascinating examination of the likelihood that human soil erosion caused by poor agricultural practices contributed to the fall of a number of civilizations. And next up on my list is The Soil Will Save Us – how healthy soils can sequester carbon dioxide and help reduce the effects of climate change. I’m so happy it’s raining again so I can stay indoors and get some reading done!

  4. Margaret says:

    Just catching up on my blog reading…week before Christmas is always chaotic!

    We don’t have extension services in Canada so have no choice but to send our soil to a lab for testing. Like you, I did the basic test last year on my original 4 beds but will definitely invest in the more comprehensive one next time. At this stage, I’m keeping the 4 original beds and all the new beds separate for testing purposes as the triple mix that went into these two bed groupings was markedly different. Next year I’ll be doing a test on the new beds to see where they stand. I’m looking forward to hearing about your results & how you plan to address any issues that come up.

    I LOVED the Victory Garden but didn’t start watching it until the late 80’s when Roger Swain hosted. That show was watched religiously, together with Gardening Naturally with Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. I even have some of the latter on VHS still…gotta switch it over to digital – I certainly wouldn’t mind watching it again.

    • Dave says:

      I loved the later versions of Victory Garden too. Gardening by the Yard was another of my favorites, with Paul James. I never saw the Gardening Naturally series, but I have several of their books.

  5. Dave's SFG says:

    Wow, talk about timely. I have Solomon’s book sitting here in front of me. And I have two of Lowenfels books (Teaming with Nutrients, Teaming with Microbes) on my Kindle. Something set me off Googling and I ran into a blog by Erica Reinheimer which led me to Solomon. To be honest, he is a bit of a whack job, but he may be on to something with mineralization. At least it is interesting to see his push back against the compost is the answer for everything crowd. Looking forward to hear what you discover.

    • Dave says:

      Solomon is highly opinionated, to say the least! I am guessing his book will never be recommended by Rodale Press, even though it was a Mother Earth News recommendation.

      I’m just about finished with Teaming with Nutrients, and now I want to read Teaming with Microbes as well. I need to do my reading now, before the garden gets me busy again!

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