Now that fall is just around the corner, it's a great time to think about getting your garden ready for next year's fruits and blooms.
"Fall is the time to get ready for spring," said Leonard Perry, an extension professor at the University of Vermont's Department of Plant and Soil Science, in a newsletter. "In September you can start putting the garden to bed, plant bulbs for spring bloom, and get your soil tested in preparation for the next growing season."
To achieve the best results possible, don't even step into a nursery until your soil is ready. In fact, if you're starting a new garden, getting your soil ready now will be a tremendous benefit.
Experts say the first thing to do is consider the quality of your existing soil, including the pH level; which fertilizers your garden will need, and what additives and organic matter will work best to give you a robust, vibrant garden.
It's important to become familiar with the texture of your soil, which is established by the amounts of clay, silt or sand particles that exist in the soil. Clay is on one end of the spectrum. It can hold water and nutrients sufficiently, but it's tough for the roots to grow through. Sand is on the other end of the spectrum. It drains well, but in the process nutrients get pulled away - and it dries quickly.
The ideal soil for gardening is loam, which has the best amounts of silt, clay and sand. If you squeeze it lightly, it should hold its shape.
Another factor that contributes to the success or demise of your garden is the pH level - a 1-14 scale that measures the acidity of the soil. A score of 7 is neutral; below 7 is acidic, above 7 is alkaline.
Most plants prefer neutral soil, which allows plants to successfully draw nutrients from the soil. Acidic soil is more common in areas with heavy rainfall like the Northwest. Alkaline soil is more common in drier areas. If your soil is only slightly alkaline, it will still be productive for many common plants.
Many nurseries and some local agricultural government agencies provide soil tests to determine your soil's pH.
Most soil will benefit from additives, which can improve drainage, retain moisture, provide aeration, and supply organic matter. Organic matter, the decaying of once living plants and animals, is fundamental to the fertility of your soil.
Organic amendments improve aeration and drainage - they act as wedges between particles and particle aggregates. In sandy soil, they help hold the water and nutrients.
When organic matter decomposes, nutrients are released, adding to the fertility of the soil. The nitrogen that is released is converted into ammonia by soil micro-organisms, then into nitrites, and then into nitrates, which is absorbed by plant roots.
One popular additive is mulch, a loose organic material that is generally anything from bark or sawdust to straw or leaves. Mulch serves a variety of purposes - it reduces evaporation, thwarts weed growth, insulates the soil, and can be aesthetically pleasing.
Another option is compost - decomposed organic material. This works best if you have a steady supply of plant waste like grass clippings and leaves, as well as vegetable scraps from your kitchen use. You allow these items to decompose together, usually for 6 weeks to 6 months. You may want to use a cylinder or specially made container to hold your compost.
Other additive options include composted manure, humus, peat moss, and top soil.
Once you have your additive ready, it's important to mix it in properly with the ground soil by digging the depth of at least one spade and incorporating soil amendments, never more than 2 inches of organic material to the soil at a time. Mix deeply and uniformly. Add a volume equal to 25 to 50 percent of the total soil volume in the cultivated area.
You can also use a rotary tiller, which turns about 6 inches worth of soil. It's important not to overwork your soil. About once a year is sufficient. And if you're working a new garden, try to plan ahead so you have to time to let it set for 6 months before you begin planting.
Organic amendments are always being decomposed, so it's beneficial to add to your garden on a periodic basis.
In addition, nurseries offer packaged soils, ideal for starting your own seeds, container gardening, and beds. You'll find names including potting mix, professional grower's mix, planting mix, potting soil, and plant specific mixes. They generally contain organic matter, compost, sand, and materials that retain moisture.
You should also keep your soil fertilized. There are six nutrients, commonly called macronutrients, which are essential to the lives of plants. The nutrient that is most often lacking is nitrogen. In addition, phosphorus and potassium are generally needed for annuals, bulbs, and perennials with shallow roots, and turf.
So once you become familiar with your soil and prepare it properly, you'll have the most important job out of the way and will be one step closer to a healthy, thriving garden come springtime.