“Then God said, ‘Here! Throughout the whole earth I am giving you as food every seed-bearing plant and every tree with seed-bearing fruit.’”
In the Garden of Eden, the Lord planted fruits and trees of all kinds for the benefit of man. We know that when Adam and Eve left the garden, they worked by the sweat of their brow for their bread. But God did not leave Adam and Eve wholly alone. The Lord has blessed the earth with abundance for our sakes. In Psalms 33:5, we read:
“…the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”
It is our role to harness that goodness through work and stewardship. One of the most valuable ways to access the goodness of the Lord is through soil improvement. We may not be able to control the amount of rain that falls on our garden or when the first frost comes, but we can make a direct, positive impact on the quality of our soil.
The first step in improving soil is determining what type of soil you have to begin with. Scoop up a handful of moist, but not soggy, soil. Sandy soil feels somewhat dry and grainy. It crumbles almost immediately. Clay soil feels wet and sticky. It forms a ball when you squeeze it. Loam soil – the Holy Grail for gardeners – feels slightly moist and soft. It neither crumbles nor sticks together, but resembles the texture of chocolate cake. It has a rich, earthy smell and is usually dark.
Another reliable strategy for improving your soil is to send a sample to a university extension lab. Within a few weeks, you’ll receive a detailed soil analysis, which details not only the type of soil in your garden, but also the pH level and any nutrient deficiencies. The soil analysis also offers recommendations for amendments to improve your soil. Once you know what your soil’s strengths and weaknesses are, you can begin making improvements, which might include:
Compost and Manure
Regardless of your soil type, annual applications of compost and/or manure improve drainage, fertility and texture. This is important because vegetable gardening takes a toll on soil. Use only well-composted manure and avoid horse manure, which tends to harbor weed seeds.
During the growing season, spread untreated grass clippings over your garden soil at a rate of 1 inch per week. Thicker applications won’t dry and become a slimy, odorous mess. Grass clippings not only conserve moisture and keep weeds down, but they also add nitrogen to the soil and improve soil’s texture. Try spreading a final layer of grass clippings on your garden in the fall after you’ve cleaned the garden out. The clippings prevent soil erosion and break down over the winter. Till them under in the spring.
Vegetables prefer soil pH levels between 6.0 and 7.0. If your soil is very acidic, amend it with dolomitic limestone to raise the pH level. Spread 5 to 10 pounds per 100 square feet of garden area for each scale interval. The amount varies, based on your soil type. In sandy soils, apply less. In clay soils, apply more. Make an application of limestone several months before you plant your garden for best results.
Peat moss is a relatively expensive soil amendment, but it’s invaluable for western gardeners struggling with alkaline, clay soils. The peat lowers soil pH slightly and lightens heavy soils. Peat comes in wrapped bundles and is very dry. It is difficult to moisten once it’s worked into the soil. Place it in a wheel barrow filled with water to moisten it before digging it into the soil.
If you have very alkaline soil, you can add ground sulfur to lower the pH. But follow directions carefully, since adding too much can harm the soil. Another option is to apply calcium sulfate or aluminum sulfate fertilizers. In general, though, the best approach for lowering soil pH is to simply add more organic matter to the soil. Add acidic materials, such as dry leaves, pine needles or peat. Opt for vegetables that tolerate alkaline soil.