Soil works harder in an intensively planted garden, so it needs more attention.
Your soil works the hardest in your garden, so why wouldn't you dedicate more time making sure it has everything it needs to help your plot thrive? Whether you're growing spring flowers like zinnias or edibles like cherry tomatoes, raspberries, chives, and tomatillos, take a few extra moments to make sure that your soil is in tip top shape, starting with the 10 Easy Soil Tests and a little extra focus on these areas of concern.
Tilling Remove sod, weeds, rocks, and roots. Till in 6 inches of material from your compost pile or well-rotted mature for fertility and good soil structure. Get a soil test and amend the pH level, aiming for a neutral pH, if recommended.
In A Nutshell Your best option is to add organic matter and grow plants that do well in alkaline soils.
The Whole Story Technically, all soils with a pH higher than 7.0 are alkaline, or "sweet," but most garden plants tolerate a pH up to about 7.5. Alkaline soils are generally composed of basic (high pH) parent materials such as limestone (calcium carbonate). High-pH soils are more prevalent in arid climates, because rainfall does not leach the calcium and other basic materials out of the soil. Soil pH affects nutrient availability for plants, and in soils with a pH over 7.8, iron, zinc, and phosphorus deficiencies are common.
Lowering soil pH is a slow and challenging process. "The truth is, lowering soil pH is hard, because the limestone in the soil continually dissolves," says Jessica
Davis, Ph.D., a professor of soil science at Colorado State University. Davis recommends getting your soil tested to determine its pH, lime content, soil texture, and mineral and nutrient content. If the test results indicate a medium or high lime content, she recommends not trying aggressive measures to lower the soil pH.
The most aggressive way to lower soil pH is to apply pure sulfur or flowers of sulfur. You should follow your soil test's recommendations, but in general, if you are applying sulfur to an area that does not currently have any plants growing in it, such as a new garden bed, you can apply it at a higher rate than in areas with growing plants. You can also add organic matter, such as compost or composted manure, to your soil annually and mulch with acidic organic mulches, such as pine needles. Adding organic matter slowly lowers your pH over time, while increasing microbial life and improving the structure of your soil.
Regardless of how, or if, you decide to amend your soil, Davis recommends growing plants that do well in alkaline soils, such as linden trees (Tilia spp.). "Gardeners who have their heart set on growing an acid-loving plant like a blueberry should grow it an container," Davis says. "That way, you only have to change the pH of a small amount of soil."
While most of the thousands of species of nematodes on Earth are not harmful, some nematodes parasitize and cause diseases in humans and other animals as well as attack and feed on living plants. However, there are ways to deter these pesky pests from disrupting your garden—like planting Marigolds To Protect Your Melons.
While most nematodes are beneficial, a few species of these translucent, unsegmented worms are plant parasites. Pest species are only about 1/50 inch long and cause root knots or galls, injured root tips, excessive root branching, leaf galls, lesions or dying tissue, and twisted, distorted leaves. Plants most commonly attacked at the roots include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, lettuce, corn, and carrots. Plants that sustain leaf and stem injury include chrysanthemums, onions, rye, and alfalfa.
What Are They? Often described as wormlike, nematodes are not closely related to true worms. They are multicellular animals with smooth, unsegmented bodies. The nematode species that feed on plants are so tiny that you need a microscope to see them. They are often long and slender, although some species appear pear-shaped.
Some nematodes feed on the outside surfaces of a plant while others burrow into plant tissue. While soil-dwelling nematodes are the most common culprits, some species can damage stems, foliage, and flowers.
No matter where they feed, these tiny creatures can seriously damage plants with their sharply pointed mouth that they use to puncture cell walls. The real damage occurs when a nematode injects saliva into a cell from its mouth and then sucks out the cell contents. The plant responds with swellings, distorted growth, and dead areas. Nematodes can also carry viruses and inject them into plants. The feeding wounds they make also provide an easy entrance point for bacteria and fungi.
Beneficial nematodes that help to create the idea of Living Soil may feed on decaying material, insects, or other nematodes.
What You See Unlike most other disease-causing organisms, plant-parasitic nematodes seldom produce any characteristic symptoms. Most of the symptoms that do appear are vague and often resemble those caused by other factors—such as viruses, nutrient deficiencies, or air pollution. Nematodes feeding aboveground may cause leaves, stems, and flowers to be twisted and distorted.
If nematodes are feeding on roots, a plant may be yellowed, wilted, or stunted and infected food crops will usually yield poorly. If you suspect nematode injury to roots, carefully lift one of the infected plants and wash off the roots for easier inspection. If nematodes are causing damage, you may see small galls or lesions, injured root tips, root rot, or excessive root branching.
How They Spread Whether they feed above or belowground, most nematodes spend at least part of their life cycle in the soil. While they can’t move very far under their own power, they can swim freely in water and they move more quickly in moist soil—so it's a good idea to keep your soil well-drained, but What The Heck Does Well-Drained Soil Actually Mean? They also spread by anything that can carry particles of infested soil, including tools, boots, animals, and infected plants.
Beneficial Nematodes Beneficial nematodes are slender, translucent, can range from 1/25 inch to several inches long and have unsegmented bodies. Their roles in the garden vary. Some are soil dwellers that break down organic matter and are common in a compost pile. These decomposers are easily visible and they are about ¼ inch long. These types of nematodes are effective against a variety of pests including weevils, clearwing borers, cutworms, sod webworms, chinch bugs, and white grubs. Nematodes can attack and kill these insects by either injecting bacteria that kills the host within 24-48 hours or by entering the host, parasitizing, and feeding on it. When purchasing and applying them to your garden, it is very important to select the right species of nematode because different species are effective against different pests. In addition, nematodes require moist, humid conditions, and fairly warm soil to be most effective. Water all application sites before and after spreading nematodes and follow application instructions carefully.
For the five raised planting techniques, I used a mixture of 2 parts topsoil to 1 part compost. Through the course of the growing potato season, the benefits and drawbacks of each became clear. 1. Hilled Rows Dig straight, shallow trenches, 2 to 3 feet apart, in prepared soil. Plant seed potatoes 12 inches apart and cover with about 3 inches of soil. When the shoots reach 10 to 12 inches tall, use a hoe or shovel to scoop soil from between rows and mound it against the plants, burying the stems halfway. Repeat as needed through the growing season to keep the tubers covered.
Pros: Nocontainersto buy or build; nosoilto transport. This is a simple, inexpensive, and proven method that farmers have used for millennia. Practical for large-scale plantings.
Cons: Yield may be limited by the quality of the soil. In places where the soil is badly compacted or low in organic matter, one of the aboveground techniques might work better.
2. Straw Mulch
Place seed potatoes on the surface of prepared soil, following the spacing specified for hilled rows, and cover them with 3 to 4 inches of loose, seed-free straw. Mound more straw around the stems as they grow, eventually creating a layer a foot or more in depth.
Pros:The thickmulchconserves soil moisture and smothers weeds. Harvest is effortless with no digging. This method is suggested as a way to thwart Colorado potato beetle.
Cons: Yield in the test plot was slightly less than in the hilled row. Field mice have been known to use the cover of straw to consume the crop.
3. Raised Bed
Loosen the soil in the bottom of a half-filled raised bed. Space seed potatoes about 12 inches apart in all directions and bury them 3 inches deep. As the potatoes grow, add more soil until the bed is filled. If possible, simplify harvest by removing the sides.
Pros:This method yielded the largest harvest in my trials, and the potatoes were uniformly large. Raised beds are a good choice where the garden soil is heavy and poorly drained.
Cons: The soil to fill the bed has to come from somewhere—and it takes a lot.
4. Grow Bag Commercial growing bags are constructed of heavy, dense polypropylene. Put a few inches of a soil-compost mixture in the bottom of a bag, then plant 3 or 4 seed potato pieces and cover with 3 inches of soil. Continue adding soil as the plants grow until the bag is filled. To harvest, turn the bag on its side and dump out the contents.
Pros: Grow Bags can be placed on patios or driveways or used where garden soil is of inferior quality. The bags should last for several growing seasons. Their dark color captured solar heat to speed early growth. Harvest was simple, and the yield was impressive, considering the small space each bag occupies.
Cons: This is a pricy technique. The brand of bag I used costs $12.95.
5. Garbage Bag
Plant a large plastic garbage bag following the instruction for a Grow Bag, punching a few holes through the plastic for drainage. Roll the top edge of the bag to help it stay upright; otherwise the bag is prone to sag and spill soil. To harvest, rip the bag and dump out the contents.
Pros: Like the Grow Bags, a garbage bag can be employed where in-ground growing is not an option. Black bags capture solar heat to speed early growth.
Cons: Aesthetically, this is the least appealing choice. Yield was meager, perhaps because the thin plastic allowed the soil to heat up too much, limiting tuber formation.
6. Wood Box
Following instructions found online at irisheyesgardenseeds.com, build a bottomless square box (I used lumber from discarded pallets). Plant the same as for a raised bed. The box is designed so additional slats can be screwed to the sides as the plants grow and soil is added. In theory, a bottom slat can be temporarily removed to facilitate the harvest of new potatoes. For the final harvest, tip the box and dump out its contents.
Pros: This is another raised strategy for growing potatoes where the garden soil is of poor quality. Yield was similar in quantity to that of a raised bed.
Cons: A lot of time and effort went into the construction of the box. I felt the results did not justify the effort.
7. Wire Cylinder
Using hardware cloth with ¼-inch mesh, fashion a cylinder about 18 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall. Put several inches of soil in the bottom, then plant 3 or 4 seed potatoes and cover them with 3 inches of soil. Continue to add soil as the potatoes grow. To harvest, lift the cylinder and pull the soil back to expose the tubers.
Pros: In a climate with incessant spring rains, the wire mesh would provide excellent drainage and prevent the soil from becoming waterlogged. This is another raised technique to consider where garden soil is poor.
Cons: I harvested a limited number of undersized tubers from the cylinders—a dismal showing, probably because the soil-compost mixture I used dried out so quickly that the plants lacked adequate moisture.