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Home > Essentials of Gardening > Gardening Basics > Testing and Tilling of Soil
Testing and Tilling of Soil
Soil testing
Testing and Tilling of SoilCheck soil fertility and pH by having your soil analyzed at least once every three years. Soil pH measures the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Vegetables vary to some extent in their requirements, but most garden crops will do well with a soil pH of 6.2 to 6.8. This is a little below neutral, or slightly acid (sour). If soil pH is too high or low, poor crop growth will result, largely due to the effects of pH on the availability of nutrients to plants. A soil test will also give you an idea of the relative nutrient level of phosphorus and potassium in the soil.

Make basic nutrients and pH adjustments to the soil by adding required fertilizers and lime (or acidifiers). In new garden spots, remove sod with a spade and use it to patch your lawn or put it in a compost pile to decay. Plow, spade, or rotary till the soil. Work only when soil moisture conditions are right. To test, pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it. If it stays in a ball, it is too wet. If it crumbles freely, it should be about right. Excessively dry soil is powdery and clumpy and may be difficult to work. Take samples at the surface and at a 2- to 3-inch depth in several locations in the garden plot. If soil sticks to a shovel, or if when spading, the turned surface is shiny and smooth, it is still too wet. Working soils when excessively wet can destroy soil structure, which may take years to rebuild. Plowing with a tractor when the soil is wet is especially damaging, causing the formation of a compaction layer that will inhibit root growth. Soils with adequate humus levels generally allow more leeway because of their improved structural qualities.

Just prior to planting, break up large clods of soil and rake the bed level. Small-seeded vegetables germinate best in smooth, fine-surfaced soil. Do not pulverize the seedbed soil. This destroys the structure and promotes crusting and erosion problems.

Tilling the soil
The type of equipment used to prepare your garden will depend on the size of the garden, your physical ability, time, and budget. Options include hand digging with a spade or shovel, tilling with a power rotary tiller, and using a small garden tractor or a full-sized farm tractor. While garden plowing is still a common practice, turning the soil completely over has been found to be detrimental. It can cause soil compaction, upset balances of microorganisms, and cause layers of coarse organic material to be buried below the influence of insects and microbes that would otherwise cause breakdown of the material. In addition, gardeners in other-than-rural areas have trouble finding a farmer who will come to plow and disk the garden for a reasonable price (or at all). Rotary tilling (rototilling) is sufficient for most home gardens, as long as plant debris accumulation is not out of hand. Rotary tilling mixes the upper layers of soil rather than completely turning the soil over, and the effects produced are generally desirable. One possible harmful effect of rototilling is the formation of a compaction layer just beyond the reach of the tines. Use of deep-rooted cover crops or double digging can do much to prevent or alleviate this problem when it exists. Small gardens can be designed using raised beds, which may be worked entirely by hand if the area is small enough. In recent years there has been an increase in research for design of no-till systems of commercial vegetable production. These systems hold promise for application in the home garden also.

Gardeners often wonder whether to plow/till in the spring or fall. Working the soil in fall has several advantages over the traditional, spring plowing. It allows earlier spring planting, since the basic soil preparation is already done when spring arrives. Turning under large amounts of organic matter is likely to result in better decomposition when done in the fall, since autumn temperatures are higher than those of early spring, and there is more time for the process to take place. Insects, disease organisms, and perennial weeds may be reduced by killing or inactivating them through burial or exposure to harsh winter weather. The physical condition of heavy clay soils may be improved by the alternate freezing and thawing, which breaks up tightly aggregated particles. Also, snow is trapped between the hills of roughly plowed soil, so more moisture is retained than on flat, bare ground. Incorporation of limestone or rock fertilizers in the fall gives them time to become integrated with the soil and influence spring plant growth.

Fall plowing alone is not recommended for hillside or steep garden plots, since soil is left exposed all winter, subject to erosion when spring rains come. If a winter cover crop is grown to improve soil and prevent erosion, the ground will have to be tilled in the fall to prepare the soil for seed and again in spring to turn under the green manure. Spring plowing is better for sandy soils and those where shallow tilling is practiced. Generally, most gardens must be disked or rotary tilled in the spring to smooth the soil for planting.

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