Having moved in to my home only last summer, I thought that it was a good idea to do one or two garden beds at a time. If I tried to do them all at once I would be biting off much more than I can chew!
This summer, I completed the herb garden and the small mailbox garden.
Next spring (2016), I plan to plant the vegetable garden!
It is true that a good garden begins with good soil. Unfortunately, when I did my soil test on the bed that I planned to use, I discovered that the soil was very poor in nutrients and had a high (alkaline) pH of 7.8! Something had to be done to rectify this before I can plant anything!
On top of that, there were 4 burning bushes in the bed blocking the western sun and spreading some gnarly roots throughout the bed. To complicate things further, there are 2 wires running through the bed. One to the pump for the sprinkler system, and one for the dog's electric fence. Clearly the area would need some work before I could plant anything!
BUSH REMOVAL AND LIGHT IMPROVEMENT
First, I cut back the four, 8-foot-tall burning bushes and dug out the stumps. This took the better part of a day, but was well worth it. The bed went from being part sun/part shade to nearly full sun. There is some shade over the bed for part of the day due to the oak tree 50 feet away in the neighbor's yard, but the effect of this is minimal compared to the shade cast by the four large bushes that were directly in the garden bed.
|My sandy, nutrient poor soil.|
These were spread throughout the bed and made for some difficult digging later on.
IMPROVING THE SOIL
The next step was to improve the soil. The native soil in the bed is sandy, alkaline and nutrient poor. The advantage to this is that sandy soil drains well. The problem is that nutrients wash out of the soil easily with the water. For this reason, sandy soil is often low in the nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium - NPK) that plants need to grow well.
My goal was to improve the texture of the soil so that it holds a bit more moisture and nutrients, to increase the nutrient content of the soil, and to acidify the soil so that it has a pH in the range of 6.8 to 7.0.
In addition, I needed to pull the roots of the former burning bushes out of the soil, and to loosen the compacted soil.
|Double-digging the trench - note the root and wire sticking out.|
|spreading soil amendments in the trench.|
Luckily, I should only have to double dig this garden ONCE. Now that the soil has been loosened, and a base layer of organic matter has been added, I can maintain the soil more easily in the future simply by adding compost to the hole when I plant, and spread about an inch or so thick over the surface of the soil. Also, now that all of the roots have been removed, digging holes for planting will be WAY easier!
I spread my soil amendments about 2-3 inches thick along the bottom of the trench that I double-dug, and then mixed the topsoil back over and in with the amendments. The amendment mixture I used was made up of the following:
1. Composted Horse Manure - I do make my own compost, but did not have nearly enough to cover the 300 square foot area of my garden. So I loaded up a truck with some lovely, FREE, composted manure from Brighton Rec Stables. 3/4 of my added soil amendment was made up of horse manure. Horse manure is high in organic matter and has NPK values of approximately 0.7-0.3-0.6. (Please see this website for more information on the nutrient content of various manure types: Manure NPK.) As you can see, the nitrogen content is low enough that I do not need to worry about "burning" my plants. Actually, unless you bury your plant with a ridiculous amount of fresh, wet manure, it is very difficulty to cause harm to most plants.
|Cute compost makers!|
3. Sphagnum Peat Moss - Peat moss contains little in the way of nutrients (NPK), but is great for adding organic material to the soil. 1/8 of my soil amendment mix was made up of peat moss. The peat moss helps to hold moisture and nutrients in the soil. It also has a very acidic pH of 4.0 (way more acid than coffee grounds!). This pH is low enough to actually lower the pH of the native soil and is often used to acidify the soil around azaleas and blueberries. Because my soil was so alkaline (pH 7.8), I chose to add a small amount of this as a soil amendment along with my compost and coffee grounds.
|Raking the soil back into the trench after adding soil amendments.|
5. Mulch -- I already had some wood-chip mulch on the garden bed, left over from the previous owner. However, this mulch had partially decomposed and was not enough to cover the surface of the bed to a depth of 1-2 inches as I would prefer. So, this fall, I will be dumping shredded leaves from the local oak trees onto the bed as a mulch. This will help hold moisture in the soil and prevent weeds. Leaves are also very high in nutrients and break down into "leaf mold" as they decompose. In addition, earth worms, beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi love to eat them! They should greatly enhance the viability of the soil over all.
Note: Everyone's soil is different! Please test your own soil and decide what you want to add to your particular soil. If you have acidic soil, you may want to add lime to "sweeten"/add alkalinity to the soil. If your soil is neutral or between 6.8-7.0, you don't need to adjust the pH and may only want to add compost. If you have heavy clay soil, you may want to add a lot more compost than I did. (Never add sand to clay soil! Never add clay to sandy soil! This will turn your soil into CEMENT!! Do add compost instead!) If you need advice about what to add to your soil, please get a soil test and/or contact your local extension office for advice! Click here for the link to MSU extension "Ask an Expert". Click here to find out how to test your soil.
SOIL IMPROVEMENT PLANS FOR NEXT SPRING
Next spring, I will be planting vegetables in the garden. Before I do this, I will be adding corn gluten meal (organic Nitrogen - N), bone meal (organic phosphorus - P), and potash (organic potassium - K) to the soil in the amounts recommended by the soil test that I had done by the MSU lab.
|My home-made compost before and after.|
In addition, I will test my soil pH again with a home soil pH testing kit to see if I need to add more soil acidifier or not.
Finally, as I plant each vegetable, I will add some of my home-made compost to the hole and soil surface for an extra boost, as well as to help maintain the amount of organic matter in the soil.
FUTURE SOIL MAINTENANCE
To keep my soil healthy, I will continue to add compost and/or manure to the soil each time I plant. I will put some compost in the hole, and will spread some over the surface. I will also add a thin layer of coffee grounds each year, as well as the recommended amount of corn gluten meal to keep up the level of nitrogen. Nitrogen needs to be added yearly in a controlled amount because it dissipates into the plants, and into the air over time. I will continue to mulch with leaves in order to keep up the level of minerals in the soil. I plan to test my soil pH yearly using a kit from the local big box store, and to get a soil lab test every 3-5 years, or if my plants show signs of problems.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SOIL & COMPOSTING SEE MY PREVIOUS BLOG ARTICLES:
Pimp My Soil!!
Pimp My Soil - Part Deux!
Soil - Timing is Everything
MI Free Compost
Make Compost Tea
Red Worms & DIY Vermicomposting
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