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Building Your Garden from the Ground Up -- Organically - Jay Mertz

Before we can build soil we must first understand the type of soil we have. Is it silt; which is fertile and retains moisture, but is easily compacted? Do you have sandy soil, which is light and gritty in texture and drains well? You may have clay that is heavy, slow to drain, and sticky. Clay soil is hard to work, but is usually full of nutrients.

Is your soil acid or alkaline? They are terms that apply to the pH of the soil. The scale runs from 1 to 14, wich 7 in the middle. Soils with pH below 7 are acid and soils with pH above 7 are alkaline. Most plants do best in the 6 to 7 range. Some plants like Azaleas and Blueberries do best in more acid soils. The pH of soil can be adjusted through the use of sulfer, peat moss and pecan shells. This will make the soil more acid. Acid soil can become more alkaline with the use of lime or calcium carbonate. As you can see, we must first become acquainted with our soil before we can amend it. A good soil test is recommended.

Healthy soil is the key to organic gardening. Feed the soil, the soil will feed the plant, and the plant will feed you. Good healthy soil will contain 5% humus, a balance of silica and paramagnetic sands or rock powders. It is important to balance the soil so it provides all the conditions plants need.

Listed are several reasons our soil could be out of balance:

  • Your soil characteristics may not be favorable. The soil may be too sandy to hold sufficient moisture and nutrients. The soil pH may be too acidic for the plants you want to grow.
  • Your soil may be depleted by years of use.
  • Through the use of man-made chemical fertilizers the microorganixms in the soil could have died. Dead Dirt!

Soil is much more than just dirt. It is a mix of fine rock particles, organic matter, water, ari, microorganisms and critters. Healthy soil contains plant roots, animals, insects, bacteria, fungi, other organisms and earthworms.

Let's improve our soil. There are no silver bullets or overnight solutions. It can take several years to build fertile, rich soil. While you are building your soil, supplement with organic fertilizers -- feed your plants.

The most important step in building quality soil is to add organic matter. Organic matter will help improve soil structure and microbial activity. There is a wide range of organic materials available to gardeners. The most popular and easiest to use is compost. Additional excellent materials include aged manure, old leaves, straw, grass clippings, pecan shells, peanut hulls, organic cotton burr materials, wood chips and humate. Learn to make your own compost -- it is superior. Other materials which should be added include lava sand, granite sand, greensand, and basalt. These sands work well when added to compost.

I personally use 2 cubic feet of cotton burr compost, 40 pounds of pecan shells, 10 gallons peanut hulls, 40 pounds lava sand, 20 pounds granite sand, 40 pounds basalt sand, 8 pounds DE, and 10 poounds greensand to 1,000 square feet. I prefer this blend for clay-type soils. I plant with worm castings and mulch with peanut hulls, leaves or hay. This year's mulch is next year's compost. For each growing season I recommend 1 to 2 inches of compost. Rock powders or sand only needs to be added every 3 years. These materials should be applied in the late fall to give the material time to work in the soil and to develop the micro flora. Products like Pent-A-Vate, Medina, and Agrispon work well to help develop and multiply the micro flora and mellow the soil. If you want to make this process simple, just purchase you compost and add Rabbit Hill Farm "soil builder!"

The decay process works best if there is a constant supply of food for the microorganisms. Sugar or molasses works best. I like molasses at the rate of 6 tablespoons per gallon of water. This can be applied every 3 months. Mulch also feeds the microbes. After planting, leave no bare soil. Mulch - Mulch - Mulch!

The first year I grew organic produce I only used a 1/4 to 1/2 inch layer of horse manure dusted with humate, tilled into the soil. Worm castings were used in planting. No other fertilizers were used that season.

The most important thing is to use what you have. Keep your cost factor low, and know your source of material. You do not want to end up with contaminated compost or mulch. As your soil reaches a good balance you will find more earthworm activity.

Be sure and not over-till your soil. When you till, you add oxygen and nitrogen, which causes an explosion in microbial activity. It is a good idea to add organic material when tilling to feed the increasing microbial population. Use the tiller only when you absolutely need it. Use mulches to reduce weed problems, conserve moisture, and to keep soil temperatures low.

Feed the soil -- your garden will love you!

Contributed by Jay Mertz, owner of Rabbit Hill Farm