Elizabeth Stell

A Storey Publishing Book Storey Communications, Inc

Contents

Get to Know Your Soil

Creating Fertile Soil

Soil-Building Tools

Making and Using Compost

Mulches, Amendments, and Green Manures

6 How to Choose and Apply Fertilizers 109

Improving New Sites and Problem Soils 133

8 Fine-Tuning Tips for Specific Plants 165

9 A Soil-Care Calendar 195

Appendixes

Earthworm Suppliers 203

Soil Analysis Laboratories 203

Recognizing Nutrient Deficiencies 204

Additional Reading 206

Useful Conversions 208

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Introduction

T Ve never outgrow a child's simple love of dirt. It has continued to 1 fascinate me since those early days of mud pies and simple earthworks. After studying it at the university level 1 learned to respect its complexity and call it soil. Years of gardening have taught me how resilient it is. The more I learn about soil, the more marvelous and magical it seems.

My first attempts at soil improvement were accidental but astonishingly successful. In a fit of environmental enthusiasm in my early teens, I decided our tidy suburban house needed a compost bin. My parents weren't exactly receptive. They vetoed a bin but were persuaded to let me try trench composting. I wasn't even thinking of the soil, just of recycling kitchen scraps.

With great enthusiasm but weak arms and a dull shovel, I started my project. No luck. Our Maryland clay soil was baked so hard by summer sun that the shovel simply bounced off! I had no idea soil could be so hard. (1 had yet to see the adobe-like soils of the Southwest!) Later, after softening rains, I tried again with better results. 1 dutifully emptied kitchen scraps into the trench, covering each addition with a bit of soil.

1 filled the trench before winter and forgot about it until spring. When I dug around to see what had happened, I couldn't believe my eyes. Loose, crumbly, easy-to-dig soil with lots of earthworms I hadn't seen before! The dark soil between my fingers seemed completely unre lated to the light-colored stuff that had resisted my shovel onlv a few months before. My parents were impressed, too. The conclusion was simple: Soil is magical stuff, yet the alchemy for transforming stubborn clay into lovely loam is surprisingly straightforward PQ ^

"We all live lives full of compromise; some work day jobs sitting behind desks, secretly waiting to come home to renew ourselves in the garden, others have made gardening our livelihood but find the demands of a business have distanced us from hoe and spade. It is a balancing act, we tell ourselves, but how do we achieve and maintain that balance? The earth is a grounding force in our technolc cal lives, our gardens havens from the ever-faster pace. That which we create around us is a mirror who we are inside, and the fertile place for our minds to grow."

—Michael Ableniaa National Gankmfig. 1997

Resetting Soil on a Larger Scale

About the same time, 1 discovered a copy of Malabar Farm on my grandparents bookshelf. Louis Bromfield reached a conclusion similar to mine from efforts on a much larger scale in the HMOs. He bought an Ohio farm whose soil was so badly eroded that most topsoil was completely gone or marred by large gullies. Though once productive, the farm had been abandoned. After years of failure to replenish organic matter and mismanaged fertility it could no longer produce decent crops.

Bromfield transformed his fields by incorporating as much organic matter as possible as rapidly as possible. He built up the soil with animal manures and green manures, crop rotations that included pasture, and judicious use of lime and synthetic fertilizers. He controlled erosion on sloping fields by growing cover crops rather than leaving the soil bare over the winter and by plowing along the contour rather than straight up and down. He grew strips of sod between strips of easily eroded crops such as corn.

Improvements were visible after only a year or two. Yields increased greatly: Corn yields doubled or tripled in four years, and on some fields wheat yields increased almost tenfold. Every year, fewer pests and diseases bothered the field and garden crops. By the fifth year, insecticides were no longer needed even though an occasional pest was still seen. The animals, fed directly from the farm on pasture, silage, or field crops, became noticeably healthier. (A laboratory analysis of the farm's alfalfa showed it was especially high in nutritious minerals.) A nearby stream muddied with soil washed from the fields became clear again.

During the drought of 1944, when farmers all over Ohio were hauling water, the springs on Malabar Farm were still flowing, because all of the erosion controls had allowed rain to seep into the soil and recharge long-term water reserves.

Why Should You Become a Soil Steward?

The easiest, most dramatic way to improve any garden is to improve its soil. Efforts to enhance your soil will give you quick results in your gardens, as well as long-lasting benefits. As you build up your soil, it will become crumbly and easy to dig. You'll be rewarded with healthy plants that look better and produce better, even when subjected to weather quirks such as droughts or cold spells.

You can also significantly reduce your pest problems — and your use of pesticides — by building up your soil. Healthy soil just does a better job of producing healthy plants. Vigorous, healthy plants have a greater ability to fight off pests and infections, just as you have an easier time fighting off a cold or flu when you're in excellent health. Fewer insects and diseases in the garden means you handle fewer pesticides and end up with fewer pesticide residues on your garden vegetables and fruits.

Tmc Power of Transformation

"Then- is no satisfaction like watching the earth grow richer be*an*? ;.»f what you do with it... 'Hie ( hnr\ in the very landscape from one of abandoned fields, of gullied desolation of hills brown and red with sorrel and broom sedge to green has been as rerriarkable as the steady darkening color of the soil as the fertility nme with gains in production ranging from 50 to 1500 percent per acre."

INTRODUCTION VÎl

Good Nutrition feeding your plants well will improve your own diet. Conversely, growing fruits and vegetables on depleted soils reduces their nutrient content.

  • gt; Soils low in the minerals required by humans produce fruits and vegetables with low mineral content * Seals with too little phosphorus, potassium, or magnesium reduce vitamin C content
  • Soils with too little nitrogen, iron, copper, or molybdenum reduce vitamin A (beta-carotene) content.

, >ipnf.f;ts the environment in other ways, t<

Soil improvement benefreduce your tras garden and kitchen wastes .ntoofflP« > I1(

same time you reduceait back .,, waUT irrigation water to mrt*^^ pr()to ,-onta.ns more

'^S^SXSduce grown by "trndW

ST^» can get highy.elds by ^ , a ng N-F-K fertilizer even where the soil «n t great 1 hat s bean ££ to a wide array of pesticides to control any resultmg pest prob-ems The quality of the produce suffers m invisible ways, though. Ev, without considering pesticide residues, the high yields on mediocre soi are achieved at the expense of mineral content and sometnnes ever, protein quality. For instance, experiments have shown that the insecticide mrathion greatly reduces the vitamin C (ascorbic acid) content of spinach. And according to U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist Sharon B. Hornick, grains such as wheat and barley grown with high levels of synthetic fertilizers may contain plenty of protein, but it's not good quality protein. In fact, the amino acids are out of balance, so J humans can't make use of all of it. High levels of nitrogen fertilizers have also been shown to reduce levels of vitamin C in vegetables such as kale.

Secrets to Great Soil

Soil is surprisingly complex, but improving it is surprisingly simple. As I learned early on, dense clay can be transformed into crumbly 1* iam simply by burying kitchen scraps and waiting. I've even convened a gravel drive into a productive vegetable bed. A few years ago. I realized that a former driveway had the best sun exposure in our tree-lined yard. A dairy farmer friend supplied a truckload of ancient manure and my husband mixed this into the packed gravel with our ancient rototiller. I sifted out the gravel from a few cartloads but soon lost patience to sift any more. Our new vegetable garden had more sand and gravel than my other beds — but then I'm used to stone after gardening on a New England hillside. While I grow my carrots elsewhere, I grow great potatoes, onions, and other vegetables on this former driveway. • 1

Your soil probably isn't as extreme as baked clay or a gravel driveway. Using this book, you can improve any soil from coastal California» sand to Southeastern clay. Secrets to Great Soil shows you how to play detective to uncover what you've got and why your soil is the way it is. Learn your NPKs, and how to choose the best fertilizer to supply these and other nutrients. Discover tools to make your work easier. Find out how many different ways there are to make compost, plus other easy options for supplying organic matter - the cure-all for soils. Learn nSKS T pr0blem Sites and t,ps for tailoring any soil to suit your cteZlTT 10 COntainer gardens. Seasonal reminders are patch of earth * y0U need here t0 nunure y°

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