To have a garden, whether in the ground or in containers, you need soil, says Brenda Miller, environment and natural resources program manager at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Sullivan County.
That seems obvious, right? You have to put seeds or plants in something. But local forums are full of new residents asking, “Where can I buy soil?”
“If you have a yard, even a small one, you have the beginnings of a garden,” Miller says. Now you just need to help the soil along—let it reach its full potential.
And at the same time, you’re restoring a little piece of the Earth.
Learning your soil and helping it become better “is the basis of everything we do as gardeners,” Miller said.
To do that, wait for a dry day.
Then till the soil, just enough to turn it over.
“If it’s wet, you’re just pounding the ground,” Miller said.
Then it’s time for the soil test.
You’ll find out the pH—acid soil or alkaline? Here, it’s largely acidic.You can add lime to balance the pH out.
“If your pH is off, your plants are going to be stunted, your yield will be reduced.” Balance your pH, and not only will that improve the plants but they’ll also “be more resistant to disease.”
“Getting soil tested is very, very important,” Miller said. You’ll learn what macronutrients are already in your soil. “You want healthy plants that will outcompete the weeds.”
You could say that some weeds have evolved to thrive in soil that hasn’t been cared for.
Then there’s figuring out your soil’s texture. You’re aiming for “a nice loam, a mix of all elements”: clay, silt and sand. The size of the soil particles determines which category it falls into.
How can you tell what you have? Well, you can send some soil to a lab, but you can also just go out, grab a handful of dirt and pay attention. Is it gritty, doesn’t stick together and slips through your fingers? Probably sand, says a paper by Cornell Cooperative Extension. Silty soil breaks apart easily and looks floury when dry. Clay forms large clods and cracks will appear on its surface. It’s sticky and can be molded when damp.
Each one has its virtues. Clay can deliver nutrients to plants like nobody’s business. Sand warms up fast and drains well, and root vegetables, like potatoes, love it. Silt, the National Geographic Society says, is more fertile (consider the Nile and how it fed Egypt). It supports water retention and air circulation.
What you want is loam: a balance of all the elements. It has organic content, it has nutrients, it drains and it’s easier to till than clay, said Miller.
But don’t go nuts with the tilling.
“The critical element is air spaces. The structure of the soil. You can break it down, like with too much roto-tilling, and then it’s really hard to get back... it’s critical to till your soil with care.”
Depending on the results of the test, add lime.
Till again. And then stop. Remember, don’t over-till.
Here’s a test: grow carrots. “The carrot is the bellwether of how your soil is doing,” said Miller. Is it sweet? Mostly straight? That’s a carrot grown in good soil.
“Go through one season,” she said. “See how things did. Play with cover crops. Nature abhors bare ground.”
That’s because wind and water will erode land without something growing on it, even if it’s a cover crop like clover, ryegrass or winter wheat. In the spring, dig it in by hand. It’s green manure, as the cooperative extension says.
This way, “you’re never degrading your soil. You’re always improving it. You’re capturing carbon in the Earth.”