It’s an itchy time of year for us gardeners. The days are getting a little bit longer and a little bit warmer, but yet it’s still not prime time for planting. So what can you do if you’re dying to get out in the garden? Well, it may not be exciting, but late winter/early spring is the perfect time for some garden prep work such as giving your soil a natural boost.
Why Think About Soil Now?
By helping your soil out now when most plants aren’t blooming and you’re not quite ready to plant new friends in the garden, you give your amendments plenty of time to do their work. For example, if you apply compost now, the nutrients in the compost have time to ooze down to plant roots. As those roots start coming out of dormancy, they have a nice meal waiting for them.
Spreading compost now also gives this magic substance time to “work” on your soil to loosen and improve it. You don’t even have to do any tilling, simply spread the compost over your beds and let it sit for a few weeks. Then, you can choose to leave it as a layer of mulch, or work it into your soil.
You may also want to consider checking and changing the pH of your soil. Because it can take up to a month (or more) for amendments to alter your pH, you ought to get started now if you want to see the changes in time for spring planting.
So, how to go about it?
Rather than re-type words I’ve already written, I’m going to make use of a couple excerpts taken directly from my book Going Native: Small Steps to a Healthy Garden. The first section gives you the low down on soil pH (no chemistry degree required) and the second delves into the wonderful world of compost with a few links to help you out.
Back to Chemistry Class with Soil pH
Now, we need to talk a little chemistry. No groaning!
Your soil pH will affect your plants unless the plants are tolerant of a wide range of soil types. Some gardening sources will provide the range of a plant’s pH preferences, but if you can’t find this information you can make a few assumptions about a plant’s pH needs.
- Plants native to rainy areas are generally tolerant of acidic to slightly acidic soil (pH 5.0 to 6.5)
- Plants native to arid regions typically like slightly alkaline soils (pH 7.5 to 8.5)
- The majority of plants prefer neutral soils (pH 6.5 to 7.5)
Test kits for soil pH range from expensive jobs you send off to a lab to inexpensive litmus strip kits. If you suspect your soil is completely out of whack for your region, go for the lab-tested kits since many of these will also tell you what nutrients your soil is lacking. For most gardeners, the inexpensive kits will suffice. Regardless of which you choose, your soil pH level is a good number to know and will benefit your plants.
Because in the right pH conditions, the roots of plants are able to take up nutrients from the soil. In the wrong pH, those nutrients become locked up in a way that makes them unavailable to the plant. This means unless you dump a hefty dose of fertilizer onto the plants or give repeated applications of a spray-on foliar food, your plants will show signs of deficiency. And remember, native plants kept in the right soil conditions should never need feeding.
For example, blueberries love acidic soil. When grown in soil with a pH around 5.5, iron is freely available to the roots of the blueberry shrub. Stick that same blueberry in soil with a pH of 6.5 or higher and suddenly iron becomes unavailable to the roots. (This has to do with ions being locked up and other science-type things that you may have forgotten since high school chemistry.)
Slowly, the shrub’s leaves yellow as the plant goes into iron chlorosis. Your immediate reaction is to dump fertilizer on it thinking, “This’ll do the trick.” The nitrogen in the fertilizer does give the blueberry a spurt of leaf-producing growth, but this spurt stresses the nutrient-deficient plant leading to weak growth. Left in neutral soil, the shrub’s health and stamina suffers, you get few blueberries and eventually the plant succumbs to pests or disease and dies.
This sad tale doesn’t have to happen. All you need to do is test your soil and adjust if necessary…
- If your soil is acidic (lower than pH 6.5) and your native plants need neutral to basic soil, raise the pH by working lime (calcium carbonate) into the soil. Because the lime works most efficiently when it can wash into the soil soon after application, try to spread it just before rain is predicted. This is a good project for the fall to allow the lime enough time to change the soil pH before planting. (Lime generally takes 3 to 4 months to have a significant effect). You can also work wood ash into the soil.
- If you have alkaline soil (pH 7.5 and higher) and your area’s native plants need neutral to acidic soil, adding any kind of organic matter will help lower the pH. Items such as compost, shredded leaves, conifer needles and bark mulch all lower a soil’s pH as they break down. Again, this change takes time, so it’s best to do this project in the fall to prepare for spring planting.
- If you’re in a hurry to lower the pH, you can work sulfur into the soil. The amount you’ll use will depend on how much you need to change the pH. The formula according to the Clemson University Extension Service is as follows:
For every 10 square feet, 0.1 pounds of sulfur will drop the pH by 0.5.
For example, if you have a soil pH of 8.0 and you want to drop it to 6.0, you’ll need to use 0.4 pounds of sulfur for every 10 square feet.
Here’s the math…
- Figure the change in pH value: 8.0 – 6.0 = 2.0
- Divide that by 0.5: 2.0 / 0.5 = 4
- Multiply that by 0.1 to get number of pounds needed: 4 x 0.1 = 0.4
As with plants, don’t push your soil beyond what is normal for your region. In the wet and organically rich Willamette Valley, our soils are acidic to neutral. Trying to force them to be basic would be against the Going Native principles.
And Here’s the Scoop on Compost
There’s plenty of science and rules involved in composting which can make it seem complicated. It’s really not. You only need to follow a few basic guidelines to produce a nice, rich compost…
- Make sure your bin has good air flow. If you make your bin out of wood, space the slats an inch or two (2.5 to 5 cm) apart to let air through. You can also build a compost bin with excellent air flow out of chicken wire. Plastic bins, unless they have numerous air holes or you turn the contents often, don’t have good air flow.
- Toss in a variety of material and avoid putting in too much of one thing at one time. Grass, shredded leaves, leftover produce, straw, bunny droppings (very good!) can all go in. The key is to not add a thick layer of any one thing because this can make the bin too dry (no decomposition) or too wet (which makes rot, not compost).
- Except for the poop of vegetarian animals (bunnies, for example), egg shells and pet hair, do not throw in any animal products. This includes bones, meat and fat. These don’t break down quickly which will lead to rot. Animal products will also attract rats and raccoons.
- You can add paper to the compost bin, but make sure you shred it or it will just form a large clump. Good for papier mache, not good for composting.
- Turn the contents of your bin monthly (except in cold, winter weather when decomposition slows). When you do so, take out the finished compost from the bottom and spread it around your yard. The stuff that hasn’t decomposed yet can go back into the bin. A double-sided bin makes this easy because you can store the finished compost in one side until you’re ready to spread it.
The following are a few excellent websites that provide the all the nitty-gritty on composting including troubleshooting and guidelines on how to build your own bin…
- Metro, Guide to Effective Composting: http://www.oregonmetro.gov/index.cfm/go/by.web/id=553
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Composting at Home: http://www2.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home
- University of Illinois, Composting for the Homeowner: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/homecompost/intro.cfm
By The Way
Perusing garden books is another great way to ease the garden itch. Going Native has oodles of other tips and hints for improving your garden using organic gardening methods and native plants. The book is now available in a super affordable black and white format (there’s a color version as well). For full details, please visit the Going Native page on this website.
Thanks for reading!