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Soil Smarts

Success in gardening starts from the ground up By Scott Meyer

THE KEY TO GROWING an abundant harvest of delicious homegrown vegetables and fruits is right below your feet. Pay attention to building fertile soil when you start your garden (even if it’s in containers), and do so every season thereafter, and little ongoing maintenance will be required. Here are the critical steps: Established Garden

1. Start with a test. You get vital information about your soil’s nutrient content, pH, and organic matter with a simple lab test, available at a low cost or for free from your state’s agricultural university. The results will include suggestions on additives to improve those measurements, if needed. 2. Dig down or build up. Loose, crumbly soil allows roots room to spread out, giving them access to more nutrients and water. Use a garden fork or shovel to break up the soil down to about 12 inches. If that’s not possible, mound soil at least 4 inches high atop the surface to create raised beds.

1. Sow green manure. Legumes (such as alfalfa), and grains, such as buckwheat, are known as “green manure” because they add nutrients to the soil as they grow and after they decompose. Plant them between growing seasons to pump up your garden’s fertility. 2. Skip the tilling. A powerful machine that breaks up tough ground is helpful when you’re starting a garden, but repeated tilling damages the soil’s structure, compacting it and inhibiting water flow. Mechanical tilling also kills worms and other small invertebrates that help decompose organic matter into nutrients. 3. Rotate crops. Many garden pests and diseases are specific to individual crops or families (such as squash), and those troublemakers tend to live in the soil from one season to the next. Changing up what and where you plant disrupts the problem cycle and keeps your soil healthy.

3. Pile on organic matter. In nature, plants draw nutrients from decomposing leaves and other once-living materials. To fortify your soil the same way, blend in organic matter after you loosen the soil. Compost is best because it has already begun to break down into nutrients, but barring that, you can mix dried grass clippings, shredded leaves, and/or straw into the soil when you start the garden, and keep a 1- to 2-inch layer on the surface throughout every growing season.

Container Garden 1. Choose a balanced blend. You can grow just about any vegetable in a pot, but soil you dig up is not ideal for containers because it’s too

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dense. Instead, use a potting-soil mix containing coir (coconut fiber), or perlite or vermiculite (volcanic minerals that capture and disperse moisture), and compost. 2. Add worm poo. Farmers rely on livestock manure to maintain soil fertility. Worm castings are an even more concentrated source of nutrients, and they’re ideal for container soil. You can buy worm castings in bags or make your own castings with a worm bin, in which the crawlers feed on your kitchen scraps. 3. Hold the chemicals. Synthetic fertilizers promise miraculous growth that’s “non-toxic” to the environment, but they are high in salts, which accumulate and eventually leave the soil too acidic for healthy plant growth. Stick to organic fertilizers when feeding your crops, wherever you happen to grow them. Scott Meyer is editorial director of Blue Root Media, author of The City Homesteader, and former editor of Organic Gardening magazine. He lives with his wife and two children, and tends a small but productive garden, at his home near Philadelphia.


New Garden