Can Florida “Soil” Be Improved Long-Term? by David the Good For the last couple of months I’ve been working on a book project with gardening expert Steve Solomon. He’s the author of Gardening When it Counts and the eye-opening work on soil mineralization The Intelligent Gardener. As we’ve talked about the unique growing conditions in Florida, the topic of sand keeps coming up. When you have clay or loam in your soil, you can make improvements stick… whereas sand is “a sinkhole for plant nutrients,” as Robert Parnes puts it. I remember making compost for my mom’s garden in Ft. Lauderdale. The sand in my parents’ backyard is the dreaded Florida “sugar sand.” You could drop compost on it and come back a month later and it was like you did nothing. It eats humus. Fertilize the ground and it washes through. Buy soil and dump in there and it lasts longer but will eventually leach
away. It’s ridiculous. Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You could spend your life making compost piles to feed a sandy Florida garden… but if you walk away for a year, the ground there is back to being sand. Deep mulching lasts longer, of course, but as much as I love seeing the ground turn rich and black beneath a layer of mulch, getting enough wood chips to keep a big garden covered is a losing proposition unless you have friends in the landscape or tree-trimming industry. So what can you do? Here are two options that may improve your sandy garden beds longterm – plus a quick fix that will allow you to grow in even the sugariest of sands.
1. Biochar Biochar is a fancy term for charcoal. If you have wood and brush, burn it to coals, douse the fire and – voila – you have bio-
char! Sure, there are more complicated ways to make it with kilns and barrels, but I don’t have the time or inclination to invest extra time or money into the process. Once you have your biochar – however you make it – crush it fine and then add it to your beds. If you soak it in compost tea or any other nutrient-rich solution (a tea of rotting weeds… a bucket of urine… manure water, etc.) before adding it to your garden beds, it “charges” the biochar with good stuff and allegedly will feed the beds better. Charcoal stays in the soil for a long time, catching and holding nutrients that normally leach through. Though this method is in the experimental stages right now, I am hearing good reports on biochar helping poor soil. With our Florida sand, we can use all the help we can get!
2. Add Clay to Your Compost Clay has a unique bonding ability that joins it to composting materials and increases the