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Living Spaces—Dig It—Prep for Spring
By Victoria L. Freeman, PhD
Gardeners know there’s nothing quite as bewitching as the first signs of green life pushing aside soil. Until those delicate sprigs peek through, you’re never quite sure if you’ve done what it takes to cultivate garden vitality.
Healthy soil is paramount, especially for organic gardens, says Eric Sideman, PhD, organic farmer and crop specialist for the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association. “Robert Rodale once said that conventional farmers feed crops but organic farmers feed soil, and he was right,” Sideman notes.
Preparing soil has two primary aims: tending to the soil’s physical structure and chemical-nutrient balance, which is influenced by pH. Soil structure, Sideman explains, is what holds plants upright, allows air spaces between particles for roots, and ensures that dirt holds enough moisture. When it’s dry, till the top 12 inches (deeper if soil is compacted) of your garden and determine what type of soil you have. Sandy soil, which feels grainy or coarse, contains plenty of air but doesn’t hold moisture well. Clay, on the other hand, tends to suffocate plants. Loam—a combination of sand, silt, and clay—yields an ideal balance of support, air, and moisture.
Regardless of your particular structure, Sideman says that adding organic compost is the best strategy for improving soil quality. He recommends staying away from sludge composts. Instead, use a nutrient-dense mixture of fast-decomposing materials like aged animal manure or homemade compost.
While attending to structure, take a soil sample for pH testing. Kits are available at most garden centers; for personalized recommendations, contact the agricultural extension department of your state university. Ideal pH is 6.5, says Sideman. Gardens that are more acidic (lower pH) require amendments like powdered limestone or oyster shell. For soil that’s too alkaline (higher pH), mix in pine needles or coco peat. Follow the amendment quantity guidelines suggested by your test results and till in amendments to root depth, or around 12 inches for most plants.
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