Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Toils in My Soil

Plots in the community garden that I belong to are not for the faint of heart. I'd like to say that it takes a gardener as stubborn as mugwort, sly as bindweed, hungry as a slug and spritely as a sparrow to face the adversaries there. Honestly though, I think that I wouldn't have made it through previous seasons at those plots without a great deal of blind optimism. Here's what things looks like at the beginning of the season, before cultivation. But, I think it's going to be a great year.

The weeds served as a green mulch of sorts, retaining nutrients between seasons. After I removed them, I decided to till the soil. In many situations, tilling can damage soil structure, causing valuable pores (which hold air and water for the plants) to break down. It may also expose weed seeds in the soil to water and sunlight, activating them to grow. In this case, I already knew that the soil is prone to sogginess and compaction, two hallmarks of heavy clay. To balance things out, I needed to dig in sand and compost, which meant turning over the top layer to at least a 1ft depth. As for the weed seeds, my soil is so chalk-full of them that there are always some ready to sprout!
Luckily, when I started to till, I noticed that there was a layer of sand underneath all the clay, so I mixed the two together.
I know that nature abhors a vacuum. If I didn't plant up these plots soon, nature would do it with species of her choosing. What's more, I already gave into buying vegetable plants days before, and they taunted me every time I looked out my patio door. You know what I'm talking about.
But could my soil sustain these new plants? Like any well-meaning vegetable gardener, I wanted gloating rights at the end of the season. I envisioned (and still do) gigantic peppers, beans by the bucketful, and flourishing Asian vegetables. Better do a soil test to be sure of the soil- one that doesn't involve waiting long for results.

The old standby is using your hands to feel for the presence of gritty sand or squishy clay. If you want to know the proportions of each material, which I did, all that you need is a jar and some water.

I filled some jars 1/3 full of soil from each of my planting areas, poured water on top of that, and shook up each jar. I let the jars sit for a few hours so the soil samples could settle into layers of silt, clay, sand and organic matter. If you like numbers, you can measure the width of the layers and calculate the percentage of each material.

Then there's the pH test, which can be useful when growing vegetables because they're less tolerant of acidic soils. I've heard that the same color-changing chemical compound in litmus paper can be found in red cabbage, so I boiled some cabbage and combined a teaspoon or so of soil from each site with the water from the cabbage. The results were a disappointing brownish-purple. Supposedly the water would range from blue to pink depending on the acidity, but I didn't get much range past murky. Maybe I used too much soil. Considering the relative convenience of litmus paper, next time I'll stick with the litmus test.

Judging by the existing materials and the acidity of the soil, I get a better idea of how much compost I should add, and if I need to add any lime to make it more alkaline. Testing the soil now will also help me diagnose any plant problems that come up over the season, because so much of plant health depends on healthy soil.

After tilling in the amendments too the soil I made a series of berms for extra drainage, planted my new vegetables and walked away with an optimistic smile.


  1. What and interesting post! You are a great writer and I really enjoyed learning about your process with this community garden plot. That first picture is a doozy!

  2. Good plans! I did a meme on the soil jar test a while back and it was very interesting to see the results...I have had the red cabbage idea tucked away for a rainy day but haven't tried it yet.

    I hear ya on the blind optimism part...I'm an expert on that! haha! :)

  3. Blind optimism: a quality a gardener cultivates ;)

  4. Desperate Gardener, I'm sooo glad you enjoy my writing! (Sometimes I wonder if the pictures are hogging all the attention.) I can guarantee I'll be posting again about the community plots.

    Hanni, I'm going to check out your meme right away! Let me know if the cabbage works out any better for you.

    Patricia, somehow I just knew I wasn't the only blind optimist out there ;)

  5. Isn't it satisfying to turn a plot of weeds and poor soil into a thriving vegetable bed? I wish I could be as disciplined as you about testing the soil - I'm more of a 'feel a handful of earth and hope for the best' type :)

    And I resonate with your optimism at the start of every growing season. How could we do it otherwise?


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