I know it’s only the end of November, but it’s never too early to get a good head-start on planning for the spring garden. To that end I have been investigating ways to increase the soil’s fertility in ways that contribute to the long-term life of the soil.
What have I found? Well, the first thing I found is that I need to discover the state of my soil. To do that requires a soil test. Soil sampling should be done a few months in advance of any planting so that the nutrients have time to do their magic before the plants arrive to make use of them.
Wait until your soil is medium on the moisture meter — not muddy, but also not dusty — should clump in your hand when you pick it up and sqeeze it, like a good cookie dough. Dig a hole in the ground with a clean(!) shovel, get all the active organic matter (AKA roots, leaves) out of the hole, then take a slice about an inch thick down one side. Dump this into a clean(!) container. Do this in several places within the area you want to grow one particular “crop”, be that your garden, the perenial flower border, or your expanse of green, green lawn. Once you’ve got all the samples in the clean)!) container, mix well and put a sample in a clean(!) paper lunch sack. (In case you missed this point, cleanliness is next to Godliness in soil sampling.) The sack should be about half to two-thirds full to enable the lab to run an effective test on your sample. Tape shut and label with your name, sample location (ex: Front Field, Back Garden), the date you pulled the sample, and what you want to grow (ex: veg, flowers, hay) in that location. Each soil lab has their own form for you to fill out, but labeling the bags themselves will help you complete those forms and help the lab figure out which bag goes with which form.
Effective soil sampling can give you all kinds of nifty information, from the basics of Ph, Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus ratio up to and including what trace minerals are missing from your soil. The Texas Agricultural Extension Agency runs samples, as do private labs. Some are better than others, so be sure to use a reputable firm.
So you’ve got the results of your soil samples in hand and want to do something productive to help your soil grow healthy plants. A few rules:
1) Only fix what’s broke.
Seriously, don’t add amendments that will increase the factor that is already present. These items you’re testing for all work in concert with each other. Throwing the ratios of say, Nitrogen to Phosphorus off only hurts you.
2) In for a penny does not mean in for a pound.
Only add what will fix the problem. This is the flip side of cautionary number one. If you over-fix one of your elements — the ratio will be thrown off by your actions — and you just paid good money to compromise your soil’s fertility.
3) Go organic.
It is worth it to put life back into your soil instead of chemicals. While those chemical fertilizers may have been manufactured and marketed as fixing the problem, chances are an organic solution will last longer and not cause as many unwanted side-effects.
The Extremely Green website has a wonderful fertilizer guide page giving you some idea what to add to amend your soil for the desired results.
As an endnote, I wanted to share the following link to Sunset’s article about adding coffee grounds to your compost heap. I have a hard time convincing my local coffee shop that *I* should have those grounds, so I wondered if they were worth fighting for. Have a look at the article and decide for yourself.