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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