How can we give our garden soil a boost in order to promote vigorous, healthy plants. It is the life blood of our gardens, but it needs care the same way our bodies do. And like our bodies, I think many of us take it for granted.
Each spring, how many of us head out to the garden, till it up and add the same fertilizers we have been using for years? We complete our planting, and assume we're done. But as the season moves forward, and we begin to harvest our crops, something just doesn't look right. The yields are not as large as in the past; the taste isn't as good. I wonder what's going on?
Is your garden soil getting tired? Perhaps the nutrient levels are not what they used to be; maybe the soil is not holding the moisture as it once did. What can we do?
I like to compare healthy soil the same way we determine problems with the human body. We can diagnose the problem using various testing procedures, and then set about working on a cure.
I have always been a strong advocate of soil testing. The majority of our state universities provide soil testing at a very reasonable price. In my area Michigan State University also provides fertilizer recommendations along with the test results. There are also a number of independent laboratories that will provide soil testing for home gardeners. I don't recommend the "do it yourself" kits as I feel the results are unreliable. So to begin, I urge you to get a soil test before starting on any manipulation to your garden soil.
Plants need 16 elements from which to grow and develop. These are hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, iron, carbon, boron, chlorine, manganese, molybdenum, copper and zinc. Three of these elements do not originate from soil mineral compounds. Hydrogen and oxygen come from soil and water. Carbon comes from the carbon dioxide in the air. Deficiencies of any of the above can affect plant performance.
The best way to maintain healthy soil is by adding organic material. Compost, grass clippings, shredded leaves, straw, and manure are just a few items that will help build healthy soil.
My sister recently moved into a new home where all of the topsoil had been stripped away, leaving hard clay in the garden area. She began to amend the area, which consisted of sand, organic material, compost, grass clippings, leaves and pine needles. In just two years she has created a garden consisting of loamy, fertile soil. Her latest soil test showed a balanced garden soil suitable for all types of vegetables; all it took was a little hard work and patience.
Cover crops, sometimes referred to as green manure, are another excellent way in which to help regenerate your soil. A cover crop is any one of a variety of plants whose primary purpose is to enrich the soil, prevent soil erosion, deter weed growth, and improve soil fertility. Most of the plants used as green manure are in the legume family which is high in nitrogen, beans, peas, lentils etc. The primary objective in using these types of plants is to replace the nitrogen consumed by the previous crops.
Cover crops are also an excellent way to suppress weeds; this is accomplished in two ways. During the growth cycle they compete with weeds for available moisture, space, light, and nutrients. After the cover crop dies, it forms a thick mulch layer thus smothering the weeds.
Some suggestions for cover crops are annual ryegrass, buckwheat, field peas, hairy vetch, mustard, oats, clover and wheat.
To sum it up, get a soil test to see where you stand. Add organic materials--you can never get too much of them. Plant cover crops to enrich your soil. You won't be disappointed.
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