Tag Archives: soil building

Understanding Soil Tests

If you’ve never had your soil tested you may want to consider it. While soil tests may seem like something more suited to commercial growers than backyard gardeners they’re actually quite simple and affordable. In fact some local extension agencies and/or state colleges offer this service for free. While you can purchase at home soil tests generally having it professionally done is a good place to start. 

Here’s what you can expect from a soil a test and what it will mean for your garden. 

Macronutrients

Primary Nutrients

The following three nutrients are considered the primary nutrients and the probably the most discussed by gardeners.

  • Nitrogen 
  • Phosphorus 
  • Potassium 

Nitrogen is important for plant’s vegetative growth. Phosphorus helps in root and flower development. Potassium promotes vigor. These are found in a variety of commercial fertilizers and homemade garden amendments.

Secondary Nutrients

  • Sulfur 
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

Calcium helps plants build strong cell walls, magnesium is an important part of chlorophyll, and sulfur is important for the growth of roots and seeds. Just like primary nutrients these secondary nutrients can be purchased in commercial amendments or you can make homemade ones.

Micronutrients/Trace Minerals

Some soil tests will give you the option of testing for micronutrients or trace minerals. These are minerals that plants need in very small amounts. 

  • Boron 
  • Chlorine
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Zinc

Unless you suspect a problem testing for these is probably unnecessary. Most soils have enough to keep plants healthy and deficiencies in these minerals aren’t caused by their lack of presence in the soil rather an inability for plants to take up the nutrient because of other problems such as drought stress or incorrect pH. 

These minerals are also typically present in large enough quantities for gardens in any organic fertilizer or other amendments even simple, good quality compost. 

Soil pH Level

Another important part of your soil test is your soil’s pH. pH is the measure of how acidic or alkaline your soil is. It’s an important feature on your soil test as it affects soil nutrient availability and microbe activity. This means that even if a nutrient is in your soil it may still be unavailable to plants do to your soil’s pH.

It’s also worth noting that some crops like blueberries and potatoes prefer more acidic soil than others. 

Amending Your Soil

Once you get your results you can amend your soil as needed. There are a variety of products available commercially or you can use homemade garden amendments like compost and compost tea, manure, coffee grounds, egg shells, pine needles and more. 

You may be able to get personalized recommendations from your local extension agency or soil testing service.

When adding any garden amendment it’s important to thoroughly research its effects on your garden. Certain amendments like oyster shells for calcium can affect your soil’s pH and may affect the availability of other important nutrients. You also want to avoid adding too much of anything to your garden as this can be just as bad as too little. Excess nutrients can also run off into streams and other water bodies causing toxic algae blooms.

11 Free Organic Methods to Add Nutrients to Your Garden

Seedlings

If you start your own transplants at home don’t forget about the nutrients they need. Buying or mixing a good quality potting mix is important to their success. One of my favorite ways to give seedlings a quick boost is to add a bit of compost tea or liquid kelp to their water. I typically use about 5 TBS per gallon of water. 

Pin it for later.

Strategies for Dealing with Water Logged Soils

Spring brings sunshine, flowers, and rain, tons of rain. While some rain is great for growing plants, if you have poor drainage in your garden it can make it tough to get plants in on time and get a good harvest.

Thankfully all soils can be improved! Here’s a few strategies you can use to help cope with excessive water and have a more productive garden.

Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are an excellent way to use excess water. They’re great for soil health and keeping your garden from turning into a giant mud puddle. Plant a winter cover crop throughout your garden next fall or in places you’re not immediately trying to plant in this spring. They’ll use water as they grow and eventually add organic material to the soil which helps with drainage.

Go No-Till

A more long term strategy, going no -till improves soil structure to help with drainage. The soil isn’t compacted with by any equipment and the plants, insects, and fungi create air spaces in the soil.

Add Organic Material

Aside from adding fertility, organic material is also great for breaking up heavy dense soils. By mixing and bonding with soil particles it allows for more air space and drainage. As a side note adding organic material can also help dry soils hold moisture.

Subsoil

If your unfamiliar with the process, subsoiling may seem contrary to going no-till. However subsoiling lifts the soil without mixing it or turning it over. This leaves soil structure intact and creates air space in the soil which greatly improves drainage. On large farms this is often done with a tractor and chisel plow or subsoiler but it’s also easy to do with a broadfork in a home size or small market garden.

Build Raised Beds

Building a few raised beds can help you quickly create areas with good drainage. The downside to most raised beds is that when things do dry out later in the summer they’ll require more water. Hugelkultur beds on the other hand offer both excellent drainage and good moisture retention as they’re built on a large pile of composting material. Check out our How to Build a Hugelkultur Garden Bed guide for more information.

A Note About Sand

If you have dense clay soils it can be really tempting to purchase sand to give your garden some much needed drainage. However you’re far better off just adding organic material. To get proper drainage with sand you’ll need to add tons if your soil has a lot of clay. If you don’t add enough sand you can end up with the sand and clay bonding together to form something more like brick than fluffy garden soil.

 

After waiting through months of cold and bad weather it can be devastating to find yourself standing in the middle of what appears to be a bog where your garden used to be when it’s time to sow early greens! No one wants to have to wait to plant or watch their plants succumb to the pressure of water logged soil. Try some of these simple strategies to give your garden better drainage!

How to Build a Hugelkultur Garden Bed

For those of you who  aren’t familiar, a hugelkutltur bed is a permaculture garden bed that’s designed to provide your garden with a long term source of nutrients, require little watering yet not be subject to water logging, and encourage beneficial insects, fungi, and soil microbes. Hugelkutltur beds feature many layers including a bottom layer of logs or other woody material.

There are several advantages of hugelkultur. First the logs or branches slowly rot allowing for the slow release of nutrients back into the garden bed. For this reason it’s great for gardening in areas with poor soil.

Second it’s a no-till method. Any no-till practices are favored by many permaculturalists and gardeners for a number of reasons. First tilling is time consuming and difficult especially without equipment. Second tilling actually harms and/or kills beneficial insects and soil microbes that normally help plants grow. Tilling essentially flips over layers of soil which is not something that happens in a natural ecosystem. In nature soil is built from the top by simply adding more layers of organic material that slowly break down, exactly like hugelkultur beds.

Third hugelkutltur beds often require less watering than typical garden beds but as they are raised are also less prone to becoming water logged. Hugelkutlur beds are able to hold water well because of the decomposing woody materials that act as a sponge beneath the soil and the presence of mulch on the surface layer. Mulch is key in any garden as it keeps water from evaporating, reduces erosion, and provides habitat for beneficial insects, fungi, and microbes.

Woody Material

The first step to building a hugelkultur bed is to lay down woody materials in the area you want the bed to be. Branches, twigs, and even whole logs can be used.

It is important to note that certain species of wood are not ideal for this project. These include woods that are typically favored as fence posts like black locust and cedar. These woods are slow to rot and won’t provide nutrients as readily. Other species like black walnut use allelopathy, meaning they give off a chemical intended to keep other plants from competing with them for space.  Obviously it’s also best to avoid any would that has been painted or chemically treated.

You’ll want to pack the wood as tightly as possible. For this reason it’s typically easiest to work with a variety of sizes and start with the largest pieces on the bottom. There is no limit on how tall your pile is though many people choose to use at least three feet. Once you’re happy with your pile give this layer a good watering.

Nitrogen Rich Material

The next step is to add a thick layer of nitrogen rich material. This is necessary to help the wood decay and provide your plants with nitrogen. Good materials for this layer include manure, compost, and grass clippings. Once again you’ll want to thoroughly water this layer after adding it.

Soil

Now you can add soil. It doesn’t have to be anything special as the bed will soon be adding plenty of nutrients to it. You can use what you have on hand or purchase garden soil. Another option if you don’t mind the extra work is to dig a couple of inches of soil/sod out before laying your bed and then placing it back on, upside down as the top layer. This layer should also be watered well.

Mulch

The final layer is simply a layer of mulch. Hay, straw, or old leaves are often used. As previously discussed mulch has a variety of important functions including preventing soil erosion, retaining moisture, blocking weeds, and creating beneficial insect, fungi, and microbe habitat.

Planting

Now your bed is finally ready for planting. Simply move a bit of the mulch aside to sow your seeds or transplants. Nearly anything can be planted in a hugelkutltur bed including perennials like strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus or annuals like potatoes, peppers, and lettuce. Some people even make large ones to plant trees in!

They can be a lot of work up front but hugelkultur beds will provide awesome harvests with relatively little maintenance. There’s so many benefits and they’re relatively simple and cheap (if not free) to construct.

Have you made a hugelkutltur bed? What did you grow in it? Let us know how it went!