Tag Archives: soil fertility

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. 

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Fall Cover Crops & Their Importance

Fall is actually one of the best times for backyard gardeners to work on improving their soil health. Without a lot of effort gardeners can improve the soils through the fall, winter, and early spring for a better gardening season next year through the use of cover crops. Cover crops are not just for large farms and have a variety of benefits.

Benefits

Reduce Erosion

First off, using a winter cover crop is extremely important in resducing erosion. When there’s nothing growing in the soil in fall, winter, and early spring any rain or melt water can erode valuable soil and nutrients and pollute the local water system. Too many nutrients in the lakes, streams, and river can cause algae blooms that can be dangerous to both people and aquatic life.

Add Organic Matter

As cover crops die or are tilled into the soil they add organic matter which is key to soil health! It gives the soil structure, retains moisture, provides habitat and food for beneficial insects and microbes, and adds nutrients to the soil as it slowly breaks down. If not tilled in the pant material also functions as a mulch to continue to suppress weeds, preserve moisture, and reduce ersosion.

Conserve Moisture

In the same way that open soil is vunerable to ersion it’s also vunerable to evaporation.  Cover crops prevent sun and wind from drying out the soil and hold rainwater.

Some Fix Nitrogen

Any cover crop variety that is a legume actually adds nitrogen to the soil as it grows in addition to the nutrients it provides when it dies or is tilled under. Some examples SESE carries will be given below.

Suppress Weeds

Cover crops also help to suppress weeds. Most cover crops are quick growing and vigorous allowing them to outcompete and knock back weeds.

Help Pollinators

Often your fall cover crops will be one of the first plants blooming in the spring, a critical time for pollinators. Planting in the fall gives you and them a jump start. They’re provided a reliable food source early helping you ensure reliable pollination throughout the growing season.

Fall Cover Crop Varieties

Southern Exposure offers a variety of cover crops suitable for fall planting.

Hairy Vetch

Hairy Vetch is both beautiful and useful. Bees and other pollinators love its purple flowers. It’s also a nitrogen fixing legume. Sow August 1st – November 1st.

Hairy Vetch Seed

Austrian Winter Peas

This awesome crop can be grown through the winter in zones 6 and up. It’s nitrogen fixing and edible! Sow August 15th – November 1st.

Austrian Winter Pea Seed

Buckwheat

Buckwheat isn’t really a winter cover crop becuase it’s what is called a “winter-kill crop” meaning that it dies back with the fall frosts. However it’s great for planting in the fall with a mix of clover because it provides clover shade and cool soil until it dies allowing th clover to take off. It can be planted in the spring up until 1 month before the last fall frost.

Buckwheat Seed

Crimson Clover

This nitrogen fixer does best where winter temperatures don’t dip below 10°F. It has longer blooms than traditional red clover. Sow from mid-July through mid-September.

Crimson Clover Seed

Red Clover

Red clover has a lot going for it. It’s well loved by pollinators, fixes nitrogen, is great for weed supression and makes a wonderful, medicinal tea. Sow in spring or fall.

Red Clover Seed

White Dutch Clover

Like the other clovers White Dutch is excellent for nitrogen and supressing weeds. Sow in late winter, spring, late summer, or fall.

White Dutch Clover Seed

Hulless Oats

Hulless Oats make an excellent cover crop for adding a lot of organic material. It should be noted that they will winter kill in areas where the temperature drop below 10°F. Oatstraw stems can be harvested for tea. Sow in later summer for a winter cover crop.

Hulless Oats Seed

Common Winter Rye

While Winter Rye is not nitrogen fixing it’s still an excellent cover crop. It can actually help stabilize excess nitrogen and releases phosphorus and potassium from the soil for plants to use. It’s extensive root system makes it excellent for improving soil structure. It’s also vigorous and great for weed supression, erosion reduction, moisture conservation, and adds tons of organic material to the soil. Sow August 1st – November 15th.

Common Winter Rye Seed

 

Just because the gardening season is coming to a close doesn’t mean there’s not still planting to be done. If you want a healthy productive garden next year it’s definitely worth the effort to plant a cover crop this fall!