Posts Tagged ‘soil’
After five rainless days, the mud in my garden had dried out enough to qualify once again as soil… but just barely. There were no sucking noises when I dug, the holes held their shapes, and the soil actually crumbled (well… some of the soil crumbled).
My small kitchen garden dried out quite a bit over the past week; we had no rain for five days! Encouraged, I decided to move my brassica seedlings into the main garden bed.
The highest point of my garden is at its southeast corner, so naturally I started there. The soil was dry enough that I could loosen it to remove weeds, dig holes, and set seedlings without hearing sucking noises. But it was still very wet. In most years, I’ve planted in far drier soil in early April.
Slow Going in my Kitchen Garden
Even after setting in my broccoli and cauliflower, I wasn’t motivated to work more in the main planting bed; it was just too sloppy. And, while I waited two more days for the garden to dry out, more rain arrived.
Five rainless days for my small kitchen garden to dry out, and still the soil is very, very wet. Nearly every scoop I removed to dig holes for my broccoli and cauliflower seedlings stuck to the trowel—even when I tipped it to point at the ground. Rain has started again and there has been standing water in some low spots so it looks as though I won’t be planting anything else in the garden for some time. I’ve shifted attention to container gardening, and when the rain is light I’ll prep and plant my newer planting bed which seems to drain more quickly than the main planting bed.
At this point, the broccoli and cauliflower look happy; they don’t seem to mind having wet feet. Sadly, we’re about two weeks away from tomato and chili pepper planting season which is supposed to mark the beginning of the end of the pea harvest.
It seems unlikely I’ll plant peas this year. Even a wilt-resistant variety won’t be happy maturing in July. And, in an average year, I’d plant winter squash after removing the peas around July 1st; were I to plant peas now and were they to survive into July, they’d have a rather awkward relationship with the squash.
For owners of small kitchen gardens, mixing soil can become a springtime ritual. If you grow annual vegetables in containers, it’s good practice to collect the containers, mix together the soil from them, add some nutrition, and fill containers with the mix for a new growing season.
This is a minor chore that I enjoy because it’s one of my earliest gardening projects and it contributes to my feeling that winter is finally behind us. Historically, I’ve used a shovel to mix my old potting soil with compost, but this year things are way easier. I’ve invested in a fully-organic and sustainable automatic soil mixer. This short video demonstrates the amazing, cutting edge technology. Please enjoy and share your opinions:
I’m fortunate to have a heap of mature compost accumulated over 13 years from lawn clippings, leaves, weeds, and kitchen scraps.
Preparing to plant a small kitchen garden in a classic raised bed should be very easy to do. Actually, whether raised or in-ground, the issue is more whether you walk in the planting bed. If you don’t walk in the planting bed, you don’t compact the soil (much) so you don’t need to dig deep and turn the soil as you do in a traditional in-ground planting bed.
The classic raised bed is narrow enough that you can reach every point in it without putting weight on the soil—usually not more than 4 feet across at its widest point (assuming you can reach into it from both sides). Depending on your sensibilities, preparing a narrow planting bed can resemble the low-till preparation that I described in my last post, or a traditional preparation as I described two posts back.
I “manage” compost in a heap. I say “manage” because there are only two procedures I follow: 1) Add organic matter as my yard, garden, and kitchen produce it. 2) Occasionally, toss a bit of soil from the garden onto the heap (this often comes as clumps of soil attached to roots of weeds I remove from the garden). My compost might take a year or longer to break down, but I’m not in a hurry. The liability of a compost heap is that it nurtures weeds; my heap grows mostly dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass. So, when I harvest compost, I pick through it looking for roots. On the left in this photo is a section of root from elephant grass; left in the soil, it’ll send up a gorgeous stand of grass leaves… and it’ll spread quickly underground. I can’t identify the root on the right, but it looks hearty; were I to plant it in my garden, I’m sure it would grow into something annoying.
Ideally, autumn is when you start preparing raised beds for planting, but if you’re just getting started in the spring, things should work out just fine. Here are steps you can take to prepare your soil for planting if your beds are small enough that you never walk in them:
1. Excavate all weeds from the planting bed. A soil knife is ideal for this as you shouldn’t need to pry out large, cohesive blocks of compacted soil to get at the tap roots of weeds.
2. Cover the bed with a layer of organic matter. Ideally, use mature compost. Alternatively, use manure or mushroom soil. If you were preparing your raised planting bed at the end of your growing season, I’d encourage you to spread six inches of manure over the entire bed; rain and snow will leech nutrients into the soil and the organic material will break down a bit before spring.
However, if you didn’t add material in the fall, spread only about three inches of organic stuff on your raised bed in the spring. For the most part, you’ll leave this material in place; it will serve as mulch, and will feed a rich bath of nutrients to your vegetables’ roots during rainstorms and watering.
Measure along the retaining walls of your raised bed and attach twine (or yarn) to delineate planting zones. A one-foot by three-foot space might hold a “hedge” of lettuce, a small forest of spinach, or a jungle of pea vines… what to plant, and how much space to reserve depends on your tastes and your sensibilities. Upcoming posts will make specific suggestions about planting in raised beds.
If you need tools heftier than a hand trowel or a soil knife to work the soil in your raised beds, it may be because there’s too much clay in the soil. Add sand and humus and mix it in well to reduce the soil’s tendency to clump. If you’re installing raised beds this spring, fill them with soil that is at least 40% sand. Add humus every season.
3. Stretch twine to mark planting zones in your raised vegetable bed. You can set nails or staples in the tops of the raised bed retaining walls, or sink stakes in the soil as you would in an in-ground bed.
In a narrow bed, rather than restrict planting to rows, plant in zones. For example, in a 4’ X 4’ bed, a zone might start at one retaining wall and stretch for one foot into the bed. You could distribute lettuce plants evenly within this one-foot-by-four-foot zone. Or, divide the bed into 2’ squares, planting a particular type of vegetable in each square.
4. When you’re ready to plant, your technique will differ depending on whether you’re planting seedlings or seeds. An upcoming post will discuss how to plant in a narrow bed that’s covered with compost or manure.
It’s planting season in hardiness zones 6 and lower. But before you plant your small kitchen garden, it’s important to prepare the soil. Approaches to soil-preparation vary considerably, but they all have a few things in common:
Benefits of loosening soil include:
- Improved air circulation to roots of plants.
- Faster penetration of water into soil… and better drainage
- Better environment for earthworms that improve soil quality by breaking down organic solids.
- Eased raking, hoeing, planting, and weeding
- Improved penetration of soil additives applied on the surface during the growing season.
Reasons to add humus include:
- Mixed into soil, humus helps keep the soil loose.
- Humus retains water, releasing it gradually for plant roots.
- Humus provides nutrition for plants; it reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers.
- Humus feeds—and may even provide—microbes that are beneficial to your plants
Controlling your soil’s acid content can improve the production of vegetable plants. Unfortunately, some vegetables prefer acid soil, while others prefer neutral or even alkaline soil. For simplicity’s sake, I encourage you to work toward neutral PH in a vegetable bed; most crops will do fine, and you can make adjustments locally when you plant something that prefers higher or lower PH.
A slightly raised 16-foot-square bed needs the same treatment as a traditional in-ground planting bed: Add humus, turn the soil, rake it, mark planting areas, and cut trenches or dig holes.
To learn about manipulating your small kitchen garden’s PH level, find a Cooperative Extension office in your county, obtain a soil test kit from them, and submit the required soil sample(s) and paperwork. The analysis they provide for a fee should include guidelines for adjusting the PH; if it doesn’t, ask someone in the Extension office to provide you with guidance.
Absolutely get the soil tested if you’ve just created a planting bed, or if you’re about to plant in an existing bed where you’ve never planted. After making amendments according to the results of your soil analysis, you really shouldn’t need to test the soil again—people grew vegetables for thousands of years without getting the soil tested.
However, if you have problems growing some types of vegetables—especially if the problems recur from year-to-year, a new soil test is in order; you may discover the PH needs further tweaking to assure healthy crops.
Traditional In-Ground Planting Beds
Months ago, I defined a traditional in-ground planting bed as one that is simply a soil patch in which you garden. The patch is large enough that you need to walk in it to till, plant, weed, and harvest. Here are the steps to prepare a traditional planting bed as we prepared the family vegetable garden on my parent’s farm when I was a kid:
1. Remove any large items that you might not have removed in the fall—rocks, tomato stakes, plant cages, trellises, tools…
2. Cover the entire garden bed with six inches of raw horse manure. Alternatively, use raw cow manure. Ideally, use mushroom soil or mature compost.
If you’re hand-raking your garden, I hope it’s no larger than about 14 square feet. Alternatively, use a low-till approach as I’ll explain in my next post.
3. Plow and disc the garden bed. Our kitchen garden was large enough that plowing made sense, and the neighbor farmer generously stopped by each spring with his tractor to do the job. Your small kitchen garden probably won’t accommodate a tractor, so you might resort to a power tiller—or even a shovel—and finish by raking. In either case, you may need to use a thinner layer of organic dressing than I suggested in step 2; one goal of tilling is to work the horse manure into the soil, and it’s hard to work six inches of manure into the soil by hand. Many gardeners recommend three inches of organic matter, and that’s a good amount if you aren’t using machinery.
4. Pick weeds and rocks out of the loose soil.
5. Mark the rows where you intend to plant.
6. If your garden bed tends to collect rain water, mound soil from between the rows onto the rows, creating six-to-nine-inch berms. By mounding the soil you turn each row into a raised bed that will reduce the chance of excess moisture damaging your crops.
If your garden is on high ground that drains quickly, don’t mound the soil; step 7 will result in depressed planting rows that catch and hold rain water; an advantage especially in a dry year.
7. For seeds, hoe the rows into trenches to receive the seeds. For seedlings, dig slightly-larger-than-root-ball-sized holes in which to set the plants. The dimensions of trenches and holes vary depending on the types of vegetables you’re planting and—for seedlings—on the condition they’re in. Consequently, step seven is where planting instructions begin in upcoming posts.
Upcoming posts will discuss other ways to add humus to your soil. We’ll also talk a bit more about adjusting PH for specific types of plants.
The content tag for this blog begins: Your Small Kitchen Garden presents news and insights into the home kitchen garden with emphasis on simplicity. Well… I have news that had my gardening eyes rolling with disdain at the same time my geek cortex was shouting “How cool is that?” I just learned about “EasyBloom” from a company called PlantSense.
Perhaps you’ve heard of EasyBloom, though it’s so new, you can only pre-order it at this time: it’s a USB device that you plug into your computer to configure, and then plug into your soil for data-collection. There are two reasons you’d plug EasyBloom into your soil:
- To help you decide what to plant in specific places in your garden
- To diagnose an unhealthy plant’s ailments so you can help the plant recover
Choosing Plants for your Small Kitchen Garden
When you have a place in which you want to plant something… but you’re not sure what to plant… configure the EasyBloom device into “recommend mode.” Stick the device in the soil for 24 hours, then plug it back in to your computer’s USB port. EasyBloom uploads data to the PlantSense web site. The web site analyzes the data and suggests plants that should do well in the location where EasyBloom spent its preceding 24 hours.
Diagnosing a Sick Plant
When you have a sick plant in your garden, configure the EasyBloom to “monitor mode.” Set the device next to the ailing plant for 24 hours, then plug it into your computer and upload its data to the PlantSense web site. Based on the data, and (apparently) on your interaction with the web site, you’ll be able to diagnose the plant’s problem and take steps to curing it.
Gimmick or Groovy?
Is EasyBloom a gimmick, or is it a groovy tool for a small kitchen garden? I don’t know. It sounds like a neat idea, but it also seems a little nutty.
The greatest roadblock for me is the price tag; a single EasyBloom sensor costs $60.
It takes about three years for me to spend $60 on my small kitchen garden… I can’t imagine spending $60 for a single gardening gadget.
On the other hand, you can use the sensor as many times as you like. Traditionally, a serious gardener gathers soil samples and mails them to a cooperative extension office for analysis, and then plants accordingly—or makes soil amendments to accommodate the desired plants. It can take a lot of trial-and-error to solve problems. The idea of having a device that connects your garden to a professionally-developed diagnostic system is compelling.
That said, unless Mr. and Mrs. PlantSense care to send me an EasyBloom and ask my opinion about it, the old home kitchen gardener in me will continue to work my small kitchen garden the old fashioned way: I’ll mulch with grass clippings, I’ll dump autumn leaves on the soil for the winter and turn them under in the spring, and I’ll add compost everywhere I plant something. If my plants struggle, I’ll trust experience and trial-and-error to pull them through… and I might float questions on various gardening forums on the internet.
Still, my geek cortex says that EasyBloom is really cool.
If you want to try EasyBloom, you can pre-order one now at Amazon. PlanSense hasn’t yet announced when they’ll start shipping.
I once heard a master gardener decree that you should never add sand to your small kitchen garden to improve the quality of soil that is primarily clay; add only humus. I respectfully disagree. One of the finest kitchen gardens I ever saw was planted in a sandbox—my dad took over the sandbox when I and my brothers outgrew it… and it produced fine tomato crops year-after-year.
The argument against adding sand is that you can add humus instead, and humus improves the texture of soil while providing nutrition for plants. Humus, however, breaks down over time. In just one season, your clay-heavy garden soil can revert back to its original condition; you need to continue adding humus year-after-year to keep clay from re-expressing itself in your garden.
Sand for a Lazy Garden
Even if you’re not lazy, consider this: when a greens keeper at a golf course builds up a tee box or a green—or even a fairway—he or she lays down a mixture of sand, clay, and silt. The greens keeper is planting perennials (grass) and will not be able to add significant amounts of humus to the soil in ensuing years. The preferred soil mix drains quickly, but not too quickly, and it doesn’t compact easily (ensuring air-flow to roots). When I see a scoop of this stuff, I wish my whole yard was built on it.
Even when I add humus to my clay-heavy soil, at the end of the growing season, the soil is crusty and hard to penetrate with a shovel… if there were more sand in the soil, this would be far less of a problem. Here’s a link to a web site that discusses what should be in your soil, and at what percentages: Organic Vegetable Garden
But what about Compost?
OK, this is a discussion about using compost, but I’ve rambled on about soil composition. Please forgive me. Here’s how I use compost on my small kitchen garden:
I don’t use compost as mulch. I mulch with lawn clippings throughout the growing season. Being lazy, I don’t mow often enough, so I dump a lot of grass seeds, plantain seeds, and dandelion seeds on my garden.
Off-season soil amendment
At season’s end, I cover the garden with all the leaves we rake off our lawn. The grass clippings and leaves reduce to a thin organic layer by spring.
I don’t till my garden, I till my planting areas. So, for example, when I set in a new tomato, I dig a hole about two feet in diameter and 12 to 18 inches deep. That’s where the compost goes. I put a generous amount of compost into the tomato hole and add about as much loose soil. I mix the two together, filling the hole so it is only about four inches deep. Then I put the tomato’s root ball in the hole and cover it over with soil. The upshot is that each tomato plant gets its own bowl of compost-rich soil two feet in diameter and eight to twelve inches deep.
This is my approach for whatever I plant: dig a hole or a trench, lay in a generous heap of compost and mix it together with soil, then plant something on it.
Does my garden have a weed problem? Well… it’s weedy, but it’s not a problem, and it has nothing to do with my composting habits… it has to do with my laziness. When I mulch with lawn clippings, I heap them deep. In a particularly rainy year, I might put 18 inches of grass and weed clippings on the garden seven or eight times. In a dry season as this one was, I get only two or three such heepings.
In either case, if weeds do come up through the lawn-clipping-mulch one week, I bury them in more mulch the next week. By the end of the season, the only weeds in my mulched areas are rooted in mulch and they come out with a relatively gentle tug.
Weeds grow out of the holes where I plant desirable plants; this is unavoidable because the conditions that make my vegetables want to grow in those places make weeds happy as well. For a month or so, I keep the weeds down by pulling them when they’re small. Eventually, my enthusiasm flags and the weeds have their ways… but by then the vegetables are well-established, and the weeds don’t overshadow them. Despite the weeds, I’m very satisfied with the food-production. I pull bigger, more annoying weeds—especially if they look like they’re going to flower—but generally I let them go.
What’s right for your small kitchen garden?
Is there a right way to do compost? Sure. But the right way isn’t necessarily practical, and in a very limited space, you may not have many options. In upcoming entries, we’ll explore design and planting schemes for home kitchen gardens. Your garden’s design will help determine the best composting scheme for you.