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Home > Essentials of Gardening > Gardening Basics > Soil Preparation
Soil Preparation in Gardening
Soil consists of 50 percent mineral solids (clay, silt and sand) and 50 percent water, air and organic matter. A good mixture of clay, silt and sand provides a well-structured soil. Clay soil is a dense soil; although quite fertile, it drains poorly and can turn to near concrete when dry. Sandy soil on the other hand is lower in fertility and drains too quickly, leeching nutrients and drying out roots. Silty soil is more porous than clay and less porous than sand. It is very fine and smooth, so washes away easily.

Soil Preparation in GardeningYou can determine the structure of your soil with a simple test. Dig up about 250 ml (one cup) of soil and place it in a one litre jar with a lid. Fill two-thirds of the jar with water and add five ml (one teaspoon) of liquid dish soap. Seal it and shake thoroughly. Set it aside and do not disturb it for several days. When the soil settles, the different soil types will separate into distinct layers. The sand will be at the bottom, the clay at the top and the silt in between. You can look at the relative ratio of each layer and identify what kind of soil you have. All these types of soils can be amended to provide a healthy environment for your plants.

The best way to improve your soil is with organic matter. Although adding sand to a clay-laden soil, for instance, will help the structure, incorporating organic matter is better as it helps improve not only the texture but also the biological activity of the soil. Worms and bacteria in the soil eat the organic matter and help decompose it, providing a fertile and healthy loam. Peat moss is effective as a soil amendment. It loosens clay soil, allowing good drainage and air circulation.

Added to sandy soil, it acts as a sponge, holding the water and nutrients that plants require. Other organic matter that can be used to improve soil is manure, shredded leaves, leaf mold, grass clippings, sawdust and compost. (These must be added in layers or thoroughly mixed in.)

Natural fertilizers can also be added to the soil now. Organic fertilizers will not burn plants and continue supplying nutrients for a long time. Over time, they also improve soil texture by adding organic matter. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, natural fertilizers feed the soil, not merely the plants.

The principal nutrients that plants require for healthy growth are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). On fertilizer packages you will notice a series of numbers such as 5-3-3. These are the NPK values, respectively.

Sources of nitrogen are fish meal or emulsion, alfalfa meal, feather meal, blood meal, manure, grass clippings and hair! Hair is a very concentrated source of nitrogen. Next time you clip your tresses, save them for the garden. As a plus, hair creates a barrier, helping to deter such pests as slugs. Lightning provides nitrogen as well. You may notice a greener lawn after a thunderstorm. Phosphorus sources include bone meal and rock phosphate. Potassium can be found in kelp meal, greens, wood ashes and tansy. Wood ashes will make your soil more alkaline, so add it accordingly. Tansy leaves can be steeped to make a wonderful potassium tea for your plants.

To help plants grow faster, become stronger and healthier, and become quickly established, it is important to improve the soil. The best way to improve the soil condition is to add organic material such as straw, grass clippings and leaves. It may be necessary to add a fertilizer with more nitrogen, as these non-composted materials will take nitrogen from the soil as they break down. Ideally, already composted material should be added to the soil for improvement. In the spring or fall, these organic materials should be tilled into the soil. For proper root development, approximately 16 inches of the soil should be loosened and all large clumps should be broken up.

The garden area should be free of weeds. A thick layer of mulch should be placed on top of the soil to retain moisture and help prevent weed germination.

Soil Preparation in GardeningSolarizing destroys soil-borne disease and sterilizes the soil. If beginning a new garden in an area that has been previously gardened, solarizing is a recommended solution to ensure a lack of plant disease. To use this technique, In early spring place a sheet of black gardening plastic (available at local nurseries) over the garden area and hold the corners down with rocks or mounds of soil. Leave the plastic on for a few weeks to two months. The sun heats the black plastic, the heat is transferred to the soil under the plastic, and the temperature of the soil is raised - destroying any soil-borne disease. After a few weeks, the plastic may be removed and the soil planted.

Regardless of the soil in your garden, it can be improved by adding organic matter. This is one of the keys to successful vegetable gardening.

If your soil is heavy clay, the addition of organic matter improves both drainage and aeration and also allows better root development. Liberal amounts of organic matter help sandy soil hold water and nutrients.

Where do you get organic matter? This magical stuff which improves soil and serves as a food source for soil fungi and bacteria comes in the form of peat moss, compost, hay, grass clippings, barnyard fertilizer, shredded bark, leaves or even shredded newspapers.

When adding organic matter to soil, supply enough to physically change the soil structure. Ideally, at least one-third of the final soil mix should be some type of organic material. To accomplish this, spread a 2- to 4- inch layer of organic material over the garden surface and till it to a depth of at least 6 to 10 inches. Apply the recommended rate of fertilizer over the garden surface at the same time, and till it in along with the organic material.

Some gardeners prefer a shovel or spading fork to the rototiller for working garden soil, but many look for an easier way to handle this chore. For gardeners with rototillers or those who are considering renting or buying one, here are some tips to make the tilling job much easier.

Tilling the garden will be easier if you leave an untilled row between passes. Wide turns are easier to make with a tiller than "about faces." Also, the machine won`t pull itself and you toward the next row, which it tends to do if you come close to overlapping rows.

When tilling heavy clay soils or breaking ground for a new garden, reduce the tiller`s engine speed so that it turns the soil more thoroughly with less bucking and bouncing.

When tilling ground for the first time, don`t try to work it to the maximum depth in the first pass. The first time around, set the brake stake to half the desired depth. Then set it for full depth and go over the ground a second time.

Till only when the soil is slightly dry and friable. Tilling when it`s too wet leaves large clods which become rock-hard when dry. Mud clumps clinging to tiller blades upset its balance, causing undue wear on you and the tiller.

More...
Planning Choice of Plants Soil Preparation
Testing and Tilling .. Soil Amendments Procurement of Plant..
Planting Techniques Planting Techniques .. Types of Soil
Digging
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