DAKOTA GARDENER: Garden soil preparation
The soil is the most important part of your garden
We are all anxious to get outside and work in our gardens after a long winter season.
North Dakota State University Extension is starting a column to help you grow a bountiful garden and a beautiful landscape. We will share information each week that is based on scientific research and targeted for North Dakotans. This week, we start with the foundation of your garden, the soil.
I would argue that soil is the most important part of your garden, not the vegetable plants. A healthy soil is the key to a garden that produces a plentiful harvest.
Your first step is to make sure the soil is dry enough to cultivate. Working the soil when it is too wet can destroy the soil structure, resulting in soils that are hard and have poor water drainage and aeration.
You have an easy way to tell if your garden soil is ready to be worked. Take soil from 2 to 3 inches deep in your garden in your hand and gently squeeze it into a ball. If the ball falls apart, the soil is ready to be worked. If not, the soil will need some more drying time before it can be worked.
Once your soil is dry enough to work, the next step is to add organic matter such as compost or peat moss. The addition of organic matter improves soil structure as well as water and nutrient-holding abilities.
Organic matter is the best amendment for any soil situation. Organic matter can be added in the fall or spring on top of the existing garden soil about 2 to 3 inches deep before working the soil.
The last step is the addition of fertilizer. The typical fertilizer nutrients that plants need are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). The only way to know for sure what your soil needs is to run a soil test on your garden. The NDSU Soil Testing Lab offers soil testing for homeowners.
For $19.50 plus postage, the lab will test the amount of N, P, K, pH, soluble salts and organic matter. Lab personnel then will provide customized recommendations for your site.
The test is well worth the cost, especially if you save yourself the fertilizer expense. Soil tests can be run every year or every few years, depending on your gardening style. Local Extension offices have soil testing bags, directions and information sheets for gardeners, or go online at www.ndsu.edu/snrs/services/soil–testing–lab.
If you don’t have time to complete a soil test before planting, the general recommendation is to add 1 pound of an all-purpose fertilizer such as 10-10-10 per 100 square feet of garden or add smaller amounts of nitrogen a couple of times during the growing season.
Incorporate the fertilizer by tilling or raking it into the soil. When you are ready to plant, prepare the seedbed by leveling the soil with the back of a heavy rake to break up any large pieces of soil.
Something to think about during the summer is moving toward no-till or reduced-till gardening. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service encourages building soil health by keeping the soil covered as much as possible and disturbing the soil as little as possible, keeping plants growing throughout the year to feed soil, and diversifying plant material through crop rotation.
Start this fall by placing a thick layer of mulch, compost, grass clippings, leaves or similar organic matter in a layer about 6 to 8 inches deep over your garden soil. Let the organic matter sit during the winter. When the garden is ready to plant next spring, move the mulch to the side and use a hoe to dig the furrow for seeds or a hand trowel to dig the holes for transplants.
When the seedlings have emerged and the plants are growing, move the mulch or add mulch closer to the plants but not touching the stems. Enjoy the reduced weed competition and healthier soil.