Enriching Your Vegetable Garden Soil

Posted on 01 December 2009

A good garden soil should 1) soak up water readily, yet drain fairly rapidly; 2) hold enough moisture for plants to grow; 3) remain loose and crumbly even in dry weather; 4) have ample space for air to circulate and roots to grow freely; 5) be easy to work; and 6) produce good crops with only occasional applications of fertilizer. These kinds of soil usually have a pleasant smell and are full of earthworms.

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Most good garden soils aren’t formed naturally; they are man-made. The way to make the best garden soil is to use ample amounts of organic amendments. Because these materials are constantly being broken down and used in the soil, you should replenish them each time you prepare the soil for planting. Compost and many commercial products are good organic amendments. (You can also replenish the soil by a process called green manuring.) When you add organic amendments, put them down in a 3 to 6-inch-deep layer on top of the soil and work them in to a depth of 9 to 12 inches.

1.Homemade compost
The purpose of composting is to turn the waste materials from your garden and kitchen into a rich, organic, soil-conditioning material. A compost pile does this efficiently by accelerating the natural processes that occur when dead leaves, grasses, and other materials decompose. Piling organic materials up while they decay is better than digging them into the ground because; when piled up, they don’t temporarily rob growing plants of available nitrogen while breaking down.
What you put in your compost pile will depend on the waste material available from your garden and kitchen, but you should follow a few basic rules so you don’t create a trash pile.

1) Spread a layer of plant material, such as fallen leaves, green or dry weeds, and grass clippings, on a flat piece of cleared ground. Add layers of manure (or a few handfuls of a nitrogen-rich fertilizer), topsoil, and kitchen scraps (except meat, fat, and bones). Keep adding more layers until you’ve used up all the debris. Don’t put too much of one material in the same layer or it will tend to pack together, slowing the breakdown and causing odor.
2) Chop or grind materials into small pieces before you add them to the pile. Smaller particles offer more surfaces for decay organisms to work on. Materials such as grass clippings that are too fine, however, should be mixed with coarser pieces so they don’t turn into a slimy mass.
3) Heat build-up is essential to make compost. Too shallow a pile won’t hold enough heat in, and breakdown will be slower. A compost pile 4 to 6 feet high will hold heat well and let air circulate. Some kind of a bin will make it easier to stack compost to this height. Steam rising from the pile is a sign that heat is being genera ted.
4) Keep the pile moist, but not soggy. Too much water limits the air supply. A pile with a slightly concave shape will catch and hold the moisture better. During prolonged periods of heavy rainfall, cover the pile with a plastic sheet or tarp to keep it from becoming soggy. If it does get too wet, frequent turning will restore it to a healthy condition.
5) Turn the pile every few weeks. Good air circulation discourages odor and flies and speeds decay. Turning also moves the outer, undecomposed material into the center so it can break down. Plenty of succulent material, such as lawn clippings and soft green weeds, should be well mixed with dry or woody materials.
6) Nitrogen is needed by the decay-producing bacteria. Sources of nitrogen are fresh manure, blood meal, sewage sludge, and commercial fertilizers.
7) Compost is ready to use when it is crumbly and the original materials have decomposed beyond recognition—usually about three months after the heap is built. Sift the compost before you use it. to eliminate large, undecomposed chunks.

2.Green manure
Planting a green manure cover crop is a good way to add organic matter to your soil in a large garden. It is not, as its name suggests, a green-colored manure but a crop that is grown specifically for turning under. Any of the fast-growing members of the grass family (annual rye grass, barley, or oats) or the legume family (clover, vetch, lespedeza, broad beans, or peas) may be planted. You could also use mustard, kale, or other broad-leafed plants. Lawn grass seeds, such as bluegrass or fescue, grow too slowly to be practical.
A green manure crop is usually planted in early fall so that it will be half-grown by spring. The entire crop is then tilled into the ground a month or so before planting time. In regions with sub-zero winter temperatures, it’s best to seed the crop between standing vegetables in late summer so plants can root before a heavy frost.
If you must delay turning the crop under because the soil is too wet, keep the crop down to an easily handled size by cutting it with a scythe, shears, or rotary mower. The crop does not have to be mature to be turned under. Although the top growth may be sparse, the well developed root system will add a substantial amount of organic matter as it decays.

3.Purchased organic amendments
If you want to save money, shop around for good, inexpensive, weed-free amendments or for amendments that are free for the hauling. Depending on where you live, you might find free peanut, rice, or almond hulls; pecan shells; cannery waste; cider mill pomace; or well- aged sludge from sewage treatment plants. (Cotton- producing states enforce regulations against the use of cotton gin wastes to prevent the spread of insects.)

4.Other amendments include the following:
Peat moss. This is a fairly expensive but excellent soil amendment. Several types are sold. Coarse brown sphagnum or hypnum peat moss is generally superior to sedge peats, which are usually black and extremely fine textured. Most peat moss sold in bales is air-dried. Wet it thoroughly before you mix it into the soil.
Wood products. Various wood products, mainly saw- dusts and barks, are inexpensive substitutes for peat moss. These amendments are sold in bagged, baled, or bulk form (bulk form is the cheapest). You can get these products from commercial firms and sometimes directly from lumber mills or yards.
You can buy wood products either raw or treated. Raw sawdusts rob nitrogen from the soil as they break down, and a few kinds contain materials that can harm some types of plants. For that reason, most commercial products have been treated with nitrogen and allowed to compost to some degree before they are sold. These commercial wood products are generally safe to use for all kinds of plants. If you buy raw sawdust, add a nitrogen fertilizer to it and let it compost for a while before you dig it into the soil.

5.Manure
All forms of manure make useful soil amendments. They improve soil structure and act as mild fertilizers. Besides the manures mentioned below, other kinds, such as rabbit and sheep manure, may be available in some areas. These should be composted before using. In some arid regions where salt buildup in the soil is a problem, it’s probably best to use soil conditioners other than manure.
Steer manure. Processed manures usually come from cattle feed lots. They’ve been treated to kill weed seeds. Use them sparingly (add no more than 8 cubic feet per 100 cubic feet of soil) as soil conditioners. Some kinds have high contents of soluble salts. Water heavily after sowing seeds pr transplanting plants to wash away excess salts.
Fresh manure or stable litter. Fresh manure needs to be aged before it is used as a soil amendment or it will burn plants. Composting is a good way to age it. If the temperature remains high enough, many weed seeds that are usually present will be killed.
Fresh horse manure can also be dug into the soil to heat old-fashioned hotbeds.

Poultry manure. Full of nutrients and virtually free of weed seeds, chicken or turkeymanure has long been a favored soil amendment. It must be aged or composted before you mix it into the soil. Fresh poultry manure will quickly burn a newly-planted crop. Some gardeners use fresh chicken manure when they plant a green manure crop in the fall. The growing crop absorbs nutrients from the manure. After being spaded under the following spring, the decomposing material gradually and safely dispenses nutrients to the growing vegetables.

2 Responses to “Enriching Your Vegetable Garden Soil”

  1. Also try using shredded paper or newspaper to your compost

  2. Alan Q says:

    I use pine straw for intermediate layers. It works well if you don’t strictly rely on it, but chopped up with leaves (especially oak & hickory) and weeds has heated well & consistently for me for over three years. We keep three compost piles, but only one that gets the kitchen refuse. By not changing the locations of our piles we keep a good base of very organic soil/loam for it to work off, and by planting the odd leafy green vegetable (we use collards) it serves to keep injecting nitrogen into the mix. Forked regularly and left to its own devices it serves to provide fertilizer for over 250 sq ft of arable raised-bed gardens. Every component comes from the property we live on, and we do not use any additives other than hardwood ash and bone meal. Eventually we plan to put in a raised box for the compost so that what falls down is the spreadable result. But for now, just the piles are working out quite well.


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