We have to prepare for everything, whether it’s for a career, a city council meeting, a country fair, a junior’s first day at school, a well-stocked pantry, or anything else. It’s the same with gardening. You can’t expect to reap much of a crop if you throw your seeds out on the ground with nature’s wildflowers, weeds, and debris.
Following the old ways
There has to be more preparation than that. Ancient gatherers moved about taking whatever nature provided. Those folks were dependent on the wild to see them through thick and thin. Gradually some of the ancients began to till the soil with sticks and such, and they began to learn how to grow certain grains and vegetables, save seeds for the next season, and so on.
They found that certain areas were good for growing food plants and others were not. Let’s fast-forward to our time and see if we’re not following the same pattern when we select a gardening spot and begin to enrich and till it.
The first thing we do is to pick an area open to the sun and with a slight slope to it if possible. All vegetable gardens need sunlight—a bare minimum of six hours. Even so, lots of plants won’t reach peak production, as they really require more sunlight than that. Peppers, okra, tomatoes, and other summer crops only reach their potential if given eight hours or more of sun.
We all love our shade trees, particularly in the summer when old Sol beams down and tries to wilt everything in sight. However, if there are shade trees nearby the garden site, you can bet they’re not only going to cast shade part of the day, but they are also going to “sap the soil.”
Their roots are not gathered up neatly near their trunks. Instead, they are roaming underground away from the trunks seeking moisture and nourishment for the trees.
Where better place to find their requirements but out there in a nice garden spot that is being organically tended and watered?
This is the reason we often find long, live roots showing up in odd places in our gardens if there are trees just beyond the garden spots.
Preparing the soil
When you have found what you believe is the best location for your garden, then the soil factor comes into play. If you luck out and select a spot where someone had diligently tilled a garden before you came, you’ll probably find that the soil may need some attention, but it will be feasible to garden there again. You can go about the chore of clearing off the spot, getting rid of weeds, grass, etc.
There is always the possibility, even with existing gardens, to find that the soil is too acid or too alkaline for the plants you want to raise. To be absolutely sure you have the soil pH you need, it is well to ask your county extension agent about a soil test and be guided as to how to go about this.
Generally speaking, soil samples need to be taken from several spots in the garden. Brush aside any surface debris and insert a sharp trowel into the ground for a few inches to obtain a small sample of the soil. The agent will tell you how much is needed for a test.
After receiving the results of the test, you will then be advised as to how to go about changing the pH of your garden soil if need be. The term “pH” is used to indicate the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the soil. pH values from 0-7 indicate acidity, and 7-14 indicate alkalinity. pH 7 is regarded as neutral.
Most good garden soils will have a pH of 6.0-8.0, which will accommodate many of our vegetables—tomatoes, okra, turnips, lettuce, cabbage, asparagus, etc. There are others, however, that prefer a lower pH. Lima beans do best in a soil with pH of 5.5- 6.5. Potatoes like pH 4.8-6.5 and strawberries produce better if soil has a pH of 5.0-6.0.
A handy book to have is the LaMotte Soil Handbook. It lists many shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetables giving the soil preference for each.
To illustrate the importance of the proper pH, here is a little story about a problem some friends of ours had with their blueberries. They had planted several blueberry bushes in a very good location—good drainage, sun most of the day, etc.
These folks also owned some poultry houses and disposed of the litter by distributing it on their pastures and vegetable garden. The pasture was green, and the garden was flourishing. All was going well except for the blueberries. They definitely looked like they were on the way out.
“I can’t understand it. Everything else is doing so well. We have watered these plants and fertilized them. Look at them! We don’t know what else to do for them. Could it be the soil?”
The bushes looked like they were planted at the right depth, and the soil seemed moist enough. I asked what they were using for fertilizer. “Oh, we’re using the same litter we use on everything. You know poultry fertilizer is one of the best fertilizers around. That is, if you apply it in the cool season.”
They were amazed that one of the best fertilizers around, was not good for everything. It’s poison for acid lovers like blueberries, azaleas, and many varieties of trees and berries, etc.
The end result was that they had to dig up the blueberry plants, remove the soil and start all over with new plants. The new blueberries were given plenty of leaf mold and mulched with a mixture of leaves and pine needles. Last accounts I had was that they were doing fine, and the owners were happy with their blueberry harvest.
Not only does the pH enter into gardening, but the quality of soil is a big plus or minus for gardeners. However, all soils may be improved by the addition of organic matter such as grass clippings, pine needles, leaves, and so on. Be diligent about trying to improve your soil, and one day you’ll realize a good garden spot was worth all the effort.
Avoid using chemicals in your garden and cater to creating a habitat for earthworms. If you have any by-products of black walnut trees (leaves, twigs, walnuts), dispose of them away from the garden as they are toxic to many plants.
Looking for that perfect gardening soil
We’d all like to have perfect gardening soil, but sometimes we come across obstacles, particularly if we’re beginning to garden in a new place. Clay is probably the worst of the soils with which to work. A garden rarely contains pure clay, but there can be enough of it to stymie one’s best efforts.
A test for clay is to rub some of the wet soil between your fingers and notice the extremely fine particles that actually have a greasy feeling to the touch.
When clay soil is dug or plowed, it produces big clods which, when dry, are almost as hard as bricks. When clay soil dries out on a level spot such as a yard, it produces large cracks through which any sub moisture escapes. Grassy areas are in peril during drought as the runners from the grass are actually stretched to the breaking point when the cracks enlarge.
If you want to make clay soil productive, you can begin by the addition of plenty of organic matter. Provide good drainage and work, work, work. If your problems with clay are severe, I’d suggest you find another garden spot.
Sandy loam is probably the best soil for gardening as long as there is plenty of humus and not too much sand. A nice balance is ideal for most food plants. Too much sand, and it’s like gardening in a sieve as water doesn’t linger long in the sand. You’ll find yourself spending far too much time watering the garden between showers if your soil is too much on the sandy side.
Doing some last-minute work
After all the spring and summer effort, the time arrives when the last possible vegetable has been gleaned from the garden. Maybe some fall greens remain, but winter is soon going to take its toll on them. Here in the Southwest Arkansas part of Zone 8, fall is a good time to take stock of your failures and successes and plan ahead for next year.
Fortunately, gardeners in our area can do quite a bit while the garden is resting. We can remove old bean vines and supports, pull up stalks of plants that were cut down by Jack Frost, and generally tidy up the place. We can almost work at this at our leisure, as our really foul weather usually occurs from mid-December through January.
We have raised beds, and after removing any dead plants or debris, I like to give them a nice thick layer of organic matter to decompose during the winter. This will make a home for the earthworms that will till our soil in the spring. Nothing with a lot of seeds attached is put on the beds or in the compost bin. Seeds will only come back to haunt us in the spring. You can count on nature to keep a liberal supply of weed seeds in reserve.
Stalks of tall plants such as sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and okra all make good places for certain garden pests to harbor over until warm weather begins again. However, these stalks may be crushed in a shredder along with twigs, vines, etc., and added to the compost bin where they will be of use.
Shrub clippings and rose bush trimmings may be ground up and put in the compost bin where they will make mulch and be ready to apply to the garden when spring rolls around.
Some folks rake up their leaves and put them in bags for the local trash hauler to cart away. Then they buy fertilizer for their plants. What better fertilizer than the organic matter they paid the trash hauler to remove? Yard rakings can almost always be used around shrubs and trees to good advantage. Want to cut down on the summer water bill? Try mulching.
The cold season is also a good time to check one’s gardening tools with a view to sharpening some, replacing handles in others, and discarding those that are of no further use. When spring comes, you’ll be glad your tools are prepared for it. If you have a greenhouse, chances are you could use the room now occupied by some things that belong in the trash bin. In our case, we are making plans to remodel our greenhouse with a view to cutting down on some of the work connected with handling large plants. After all, there does come a time.
The Scout motto, “Be prepared,” can certainly be applied to gardening. There’s no point in beginning the gardening season by having to clear the place of debris, tough perennial weeds, matted vines, and other tripping hazards. That sort of thing makes one wonder if Mama raised a fool. Gardening should be a pleasant experience wherein gardeners look forward to tending their plants and harvesting those picture-perfect vegetables that make them the envy of the neighborhood.
Stephen Harris has written this article for Prepper’s Will.