Get down and dirty: Soil tips for your garden
“If you have the soul of a gardener, not for anything would you work with gloves on.” – Ruth Stout
Healthy vegetables and herbs begin with rich soil. What's in the soil ends up in the crop, which ends up in you! Therefore, think organic. Organic matter has come from once-living organisms. Just as "we are what we eat," veggies "are" what they attain from the soil in which they grow. Healthy plants grow from healthy soil. Healthy plants resist disease. Healthy plants produce yummy, healthy veggies.
Hopefully, at the end of last season, you dug non-diseased plants back into the soil and/or started a compost pile. If not, do not despair; there are organic soil amendments available to enrich your soil for 2016. Organic compost and outdoor mix, sheep and peat, etc., are sold at nurseries to get you started for this upcoming growing season.
In the Denver area, the soil can range from clay to sand. Clay soil compacts easily, holds nutrients, but has poor drainage and smothers roots. Sandy soil drains well but leaches nutrients. Of course, the most prefered soil is silt, the best of both worlds. If you have clay or sand, how do you build that perfect soil?
Compost is defined as "decayed organic matter" and is the best soil additive. Denver Urban Gardens provides 6 cubic yards of rich organic compost to each of Anythink's community gardens each spring. In your home garden – at the beginning of, during, and end of each growing season – continue to amend the soil to replenish nutrients by adding good stuff to the soil around your plants all season long. Get down and dirty! Dig back into the soil any dried up plant matter from the garden, add compost from your composting bin, and continue to follow directions on the organic fertilizer bag/container to feed your veggies. Whether your soil is sandy or clay, make sure pathways are well marked and adhered to, so that soil is not compacted around the roots. For information on building your own compost, visit dug.org/gardening-resources/.
Practice crop rotation.
Whatever crop was grown last year depleted its soil, so it makes sense to move that veggie to another area of the garden. Each veggie draws different nutrients from the soil. For example tomatoes, which pull tons of nitrogen out of the soil, should be to moved to another area of the garden. Grow peppers or beans where the tomatoes grew last year. The tomatoes may return to that first area in 3 to 4 years. Many charts are avaiable online concerning this important practice of rotating crops.
Since we're talking about soil, I have to mention "green manure," a natural fertilizer consisting of growing plants that are plowed back into the soil. Also called cover crops, they "are plants grown in a garden to improve a soil’s physical structure and fertility" (University of Wisconsin–Extension). According to Mother Earth News, "...the late summer and early fall is an excellent time to put in a green manure crop. The plants will protect your garden from winter damage and will produce organic matter during the off-season, when much of your plot would otherwise lie fallow. Then next spring, your soil will have good tilth instead of being hard and compacted." Several gardeners at Anythink Wright Farms' community garden planted winter rye last fall and plan to till it into their soil this spring.
Two great resources about green manure:
It's also worth checking out some of these favorite books available at your Anythink. I read Grow, Cook, Eat from cover to cover and now refer to it all season long for growing and cooking. I discovered cold frames in Year-Round Vegetable Gardener and now have a 3' x 6' cold frame in my backyard garden which produced greens all winter. Dig In! is my favorite read for pre-schoolers. The Story of Seeds is fascinating, and Rocky Mountain Gardening magazine is a must for me.
So, don't be afraid to get down and dirty. Prepare your soil well for a healthy crop and I'll see you in the garden!