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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Pimp My Soil - Season 2

It's March here in Zone 5b,  Michigan.  The days are gradually getting longer.  The Spring Solstice is almost upon us.  The weather is slowly warming, but we are still about 2 months away from our last average frost date (May 16).

Even so, I am thinking about my vegetable garden.  I plan to plant some frost-hardy crops in early April... but more about that in a later post.

My poor soil is looking darker already after amending it last fall!
Right now, I am preparing the bed where the vegetables will be planted.  That means, amending the soil as well as laying out the plots.

Last fall, I had my soil tested through MSU extension.   The results of that test can be seen in my blog post from last fall: "Pimp My Soil Part Deux." To make a long story short, my soil was very low in both phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), had a very alkaline pH of 7.8, and is very sandy, so does not hold nutrients very well.

I took my first steps in alleviating this problem last fall by double-digging the bed, taking out some thick roots from a couple bushes that I had removed, adding horse manure, home-made compost, peat, and coffee grounds to the soil.  I also added some rock dust to boost the mineral content of the soil.  Then, I covered the bed over with a combination of oak leaves and arbor-vitae leaves from my yard as mulch.  For more details see my previous post: "Vegetable Garden Soil - From Scratch!"

From this point on, the beds will be no-dig.  That mean,  each year, I will be adding organic material to the top of the soil, and using my garden fork to gently loosen the soil in the to 4 to 6 inches, but I will not be turning it over or tilling it. By doing this, the soil structure should improve with time, earth worms will congregate in the beds and the over-all soil quality should improve. As a bonus, by not tilling, I will be doing my (very small) bit to prevent additional, unnecessary, carbon dioxide from escaping into the atmosphere where it could contribute to global warming.  To learn more about the philosophy behind no-dig gardening, and the relationship between tilling and global warming, check out these links: "No Dig Abundance - Charles Dowding (YouTube)," and "No Dig Gardening - Deep Green Permaculture," and "Energy Agriculture: Carbon Farming - Iowa State Extension."

Corn gluten meal = N, Bone Meal = P, Potash = K
Now that spring is approaching, it is time to add organic Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK) to the soil.  For my 500 square foot garden, per the recommendations from my soil test, I added 4lbs of bone meal (Phosphorus), 2lbs of potash (potassium) and 3lbs of corn gluten meal (nitrogen). 

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Do NOT add nutrients to your garden in the amounts that I did! GET YOUR SOIL TESTED FIRST!  The soil test will tell you how much you need to add - or maybe you are lucky and won't need to add any at all!

I plan to add organic NPK supplements to my soil both this season and next.  In 2018, I will get my soil tested again.  If the NPK and pH are at acceptable levels by that time, I will cease to add any more bone meal, potash or corn gluten meal, but will continue to add compost, coffee grounds, manure, leaf mold, and leaf mulch. Theoretically, the free, local resources should be enough to sustain the nutrient levels in my soil and help to build the organic content of the soil to a point where my soil will no longer leach nutrients.  By adding peat, sulfur powder and leaf mulch, the pH level of the soil should come down to acceptable levels gradually as well. Ideally, I would like the pH to be between 6-7.  For now, the soil nutrients were so poor that I believe that they need the extra boost from the bone meal, potash and corn gluten meal.  So, I am applying them temporarily.

I also laid out my vegetable beds.  Because I wanted to have my garden lay-out aesthetically in keeping with my other flower and herb beds, I used an organically shaped bed that flows along the west side of the back yard and connects to the "blue border" bed (more on the blue border in a later post - stay tuned!).  I edged the bed with stones.  Some of these I bought cheaply from a local guy on Craigslist, others were kindly gifted to me by my neighbor who had left-overs after having a patio put in.  Within the curved, stone-edged bed, I laid out 4 smaller beds for growing vegetables, with mulched aisles between them.

The beds are about 4.5ft wide so that I can reach across them from the aisle to reach my vegetables and to weed.  The aisles are maybe a foot wide, just big enough for me to easily walk down them.  I separated the beds from the aisles with branches from bushes and trees that I had pruned last fall.

Warming the soil with plastic.
Today, I raked the winter mulch off of the beds, and onto the paths in between.  I then "forked" the beds to loosen the soil.  This is not the same as tilling. I did not turn the soil over, but simply inserted the garden fork into the soil and gave a gentle lift to the soil to allow air in and to loosen the soil.  Then, I sprinkled the organic fertilizer onto the beds along with some free coffee grounds from Starbucks, and 2 bags of cow manure from the local big-box store. I then raked the beds smooth.  While doing this, I was pleased to spot about 8 healthy-looking earth worms.  I hope they enjoy the beds and make permanent homes there!  They are such a help to the vegetables!

The last thing I did was to cover one of the beds with left-over plastic from one of my mini-winter hoop houses.  I did this in order to warm the soil so that I can plant my early spring seeds 2 weeks from now.

The results of my labors are shown below:

The veggie beds are ready for planting!

I am quite proud of how the beds look.  But I REALLY can't wait until I can plant in it!

If you want to read my other blog posts on soil improvement please check out the links below:

Pimp My Soil
Pimp My Soil Part Deux
Vegetable Garden Soil - From Scratch
MI Free Compost
Critter of the Month: Eisenia fetida (Redworms) & DIY Vermicomposting 
Soil - Timing is Everything
Make Compost Tea

Happy Gardening! :)  

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