The Lowdown on Dirt
by Mira Dessy
Here in Vermont the soil is still fairly solid and that probably won't be changing too soon. Once it does change we get that lovely "extra" season called Mud Season. But for those of you in warmer climates it's probably time to start thinking about what you are going to do with your soil to make it better for your garden.
The best thing that you can do is to add compost. If you haven't started a compost heap I strongly encourage you to start one now and you will most likely be able to use the resulting hummus at the end of the growing season to mulch your garden. Basically compost is nothing more than vegetable household waste, grass clippings, leaves, chipped branches, anything organic. I actually throw in some paper as well, coffee filters and shredded newspapers (although not too much). A compost heap should contain a fairly even mix of green and brown material. Brown material is usually the paper and dead leaves from the fall. You cannot put dairy products (except eggshells) or meat products in the compost heap because the heap will not "heat" properly and you stand a very good chance of attracting all sorts of unlovely rodents to the pile in search of food.
When preparing your soil in the spring you can spread a very thick (2") layer of compost on top of the garden and then dig or till it in. The composted material contains all sorts of nutrients that are beneficial for your garden. I currently have two compost heaps going and by the time I am finished I will have used them completely and will be starting more to use at the end of the season. One of the nicest things about starting a compost heap is that it always seems to attract worms. Don't ask my why but every year when I start to sift the compost (to remove the larger lumps) I always have a very healthy crop of worms. Worms are GREAT for the garden, they burrow into the soil making nice paths to aerate the soil and help to break it up.
Depending on your soil conditions you may need to add other material. In very clayey soil it is necessary to add something to help break up the soil. One thing that is very good for this is to add sand. Obviously the sand is a lighter, more porous material and will help to balance the clayey texture. Another good thing to add to clayey soil is gypsum. It can be purchased at any nursery. Although it can be expensive it is a great addition and will really help improve the soil in a very short period of time.
Peat is also very good for the garden. One benefit is that peat holds a lot of moisture which can be helpful in very dry areas. Another benefit is the nutrients (not much but some) that it will add to your soil.
Of course manure is always good for the soil. You need to be careful though because if you use horse manure it needs to be well aged/cooked, otherwise you will get a lot of weeds sprouting up in the garden. A horses digestive system in not as good as that of a cow so you can get more weeds if you use horse manure.
One last piece of advice for amending soil applies to the end of the season. One of the best things that you can do for your soil is to plant winter rye. It has very long tap roots and is good for breaking up the soil. You can also use it in the spring to add large quantities of nutrients to the soil by plowing it under. Clover is also good as a garden ground cover and can be plowed under, but it doesn't have tap roots that are as long and is actually grown in the spring/summer. So if you have an area of the garden that you are not going to plant you could put in white clover and then plow it in the following year to add nutrients.
If you're not sure about what kind of soil you have or which, if any, of the above pieces of advice apply to your situation you can always call your County Extension Service. They are usually in the government section of the phone book. You can contact them to ask questions about the soil in your area (if you live in an area which has multiple soil types you can buy an inexpensive soil testing kit from them) and what to do to improve the soil for maximum benefit to a vegetable garden. They will also be able to provide you with lots of good advice about what will grow well in your area. This is one resource that you should definitely utilize.
Mira addresses gardening issues for The Dollar Stretcher. If you have a gardening question you can send it to Mira at firstname.lastname@example.org
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