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a hand full of soil
Well-prepared soil clumps in your hand, but does not hold together tightly.

Soil 101

Without good soil there can be no good garden, so remember, the key is preparation

Know What You're Working With
In more ways than one, good soil is the basis of all good gardening. Question is, how do you tell if yours is in tip-top shape, and if it isn't how do you get it that way?

To start, host Michael Weishan suggests a useful trick. Pick up a handful of your garden soil and squeeze it in your fist, then look at it. What you want to see in properly prepared soil is a ball that clumps but does not hold together tightly. On either extreme you have soil that is essentially clay-like, and soil that is too sandy. Made up of extremely fine particles, clay-like soil will clump together in your hand and hold its shape. Soil particles in this state are too minute and tightly packed to allow water and nutrients to penetrate. Sandy soil presents the opposite problem: being too loose, water and nutrients pass right through so quickly that plant roots don't have time to benefit from them.

Another important factor is the measure of general acidity or alkalinity of your soil, known as pH, and not quite as easy to find out by picking up a handful of dirt. So before you can begin preparing your soil by adding things to it, you first have to find out what's in it. The local agent of your state cooperative extension office will be able to give you information about the general soil characteristics are in your area. (See link below.)

But no matter where you live, the most important point to remember is to be an informed gardener: Know what you're working with.

To Lime or Not to Lime?
Your soil's pH, which stands for potential of hydrogen, is the measure of acidity or alkalinity, on a scale of 0 to 14. On the pH scale, 0 corresponds to the most acidic (e.g., battery acid), 7 is neutral (e.g., distilled water), and 14 corresponds to the most alkaline (e.g., liquid drain cleaner). In general, vegetable gardens will thrive best in soil that is slightly alkaline, a condition enjoyed in most areas throughout middle America. The east and west coasts, however, — and New England in particular — have more acidic soil. To ameliorate the acidity problem, chief Victory Garden gardener Kip Anderson sprinkles a layer of ground limestone over the vegetable beds.

spreading stuff on soil
After applying a lime to reduce the soil's acidity, Kip scatters a balanced fertilizer over the bed.


Fertilizer
Next Kip sprinkles the soil with a balanced complete fertilizer, which is one made up of equal parts nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) — the three essential plant food nutrients. Nitrogen helps promote leaf and green growth. Phosphorus is important for root growth, blooming and fruit production. Potassium contributes to disease resistance, plant strength and aids in photosynthesis. These three core ingredients are always listed on the bag in the same order, with the numbers representing the percentage by total weight of each component. Fertilizers are available in a variety of N-P-K combinations. But the key distinctions have to do with balanced vs. unbalanced, depending on whether the N-P-K are in equal or unequal proportions; and complete vs. incomplete, depending on whether all three ingredients are or are not present. A last note on fertilizer: Kip emphasizes that it is more effective to add fertilizer at this stage of preparation, so it gets mixed down into the soil to reach the root zone, rather than adding it later to the surface of the finished bed.

using a tool on soil
Once a layer of organic matter has been added, the next step is to mix everything in.


Organic Matter
Fertilizer is followed by an application of all-important organic matter. For the Victory Garden beds, Kip uses composted manure mixed with humus. Adding organic matter ensures that both the nutrients and plant roots have something to bind in to, acting as a kind of equalizer. It makes clay soils a little lighter and more porous; to sandy soils it adds some heft and substance. Rake the organic matter over your entire bed to a depth of about 1 to 2 inches, using a bit more if your soil is very clay-like. (Kip adds that you should repeat this every year to revitalize your soil and sustain its retention of water and nutrients.)

sticking a hand in soil
Kip performs the hand test. If you can put your hand in the soil to your wrist, you're ready to plant.


Dig In
Finally, you have to get in there and dig it all in, which you can do equally well with a pitchfork or a rototiller (depending on your back perhaps). The old-fashioned way is to take your pitch fork or spade and move through the bed turning over the soil, being sure to get as deep down as possible to distribute all your lime, fertilizer and compost into the root zone. The same goes for the rototiller, although with that, bear in mind it is possible to over-rototill your soil. So once you think you have it generally mixed in, be done, because tilling your soil too fine will present you with another set problems.

Once that's done, you can perform one last, simple test for properly prepared soil: If you can put your hand into the soil as far as your wrist, then your preparation is complete — plant away!

For more information on resources used on the show, visit our Resource Directory

This segment appears in show #2706.

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Published August 31, 2007