Garden failing despite your best efforts? Check out soil conditions

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

More often than not, gardens fail not because of insects, disease, under watering, over watering, bad plant material, too much sun or even too little sun. Instead, the cause is simply poor soil conditions.

It’s as simple as that! Successful gardening begins with good soil. Healthy, fertile, well-drained soil is the key to a fun and rewarding garden. Like the foundation is to a house, a roux is to a gumbo and pilings are to a bridge, good soil is to a garden.

Without getting too technical, soil is composed of weathered rock, organic matter, air and water. In a perfect world, garden soil would have 45 percent solid material, 25 percent air space, 25 percent water, and 5 percent organic matter. Of course, very few soils meet this criteria. Also all plants do not prefer the same type of soil.

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Soil texture is defined as the relative amounts of sand, silt and clay in the mineral portion of soil. You can do a quick test to find the texture of your soil. Grab a handful of soil and add a little water to it to try and make it muddy. Take some of the mud and rub it between your thumb and fingers.

A gritty feeling mixture contains a lot of sand. If it feels floury, it has a lot of silt. A smooth and creamy mixture means lots of clay. Loam is a soil type that has moderate amounts of sand, silt and clay. Typically, loamy soils are the best to build on for good garden soil.

Organic matter, the result of decomposed plant and animal material, works to improve soil structure. When added to a sandy soil, organic matter will help hold moisture.

Add it to heavy clay soil and the organic matter will improve the drainage and tilth. Common organic amendments include back yard compost, pine bark and peat moss.

After the soil has been amended to improve the structure, texture and drainage, how do you ensure that it will supply the nutrition needed to grow giant flowers and vegetables that will make your garden the envy of the neighborhood?

The easiest, cheapest and best investment you could make for your garden is a soil analysis or test. A good chemical soil test is easy, cheap and provides you with a thorough analysis of the nutritional availability in your soil. How can you improve soil if you do not know what it is lacking?

Taking a soil sample is easy. Take a clean pail or bucket. Walk through the area to be sampled and in six to10 spots dig up some soil to a depth of 6 to10 inches.

After collecting a gallon or two of soil, mix it together thoroughly. Next, place a pint of that soil in a sample box or bag. Label it according to the particular area in which it was taken and what plants you would like to grow there. Just remember that the results will only be as accurate as the sample you send in to the lab.

Ideally, separate samples should be taken for each different area of your lawn and/or garden depending upon past fertilizer treatments and intended future use. For example, requirements for azalea beds, St. Augustine grass and a vegetable plot should be considered separately.

Take samples to your local Cooperative Extension office and they will assist you in the last easy steps of the process. In a few short weeks test results will be sent to your home and you can take it from there.


Traci Maier

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