Category Archives: Garden Basics

Soil Basics – Creating Fertile, Healthy Soil

Soil Basics - Creating Fertile, Healthy Soil
Soil Basics – Creating Fertile, Healthy Soil

Have you ever looked at the soil in your garden and considered it as anything more than soil? If not you should because there is a lot more there than meets the eye. It performs many functions that you may not be aware of and having good quality soil in your garden is essential for your plants. In this article we will look at the functions of soil, what different types there are and finally some ways to make it healthier.

Functions of Soil

The most immediately apparent function of soil is a medium to support plant life. It provides support both physically and biologically. Physical support is provided by allowing the plant to grow its roots through the soil to hold itself in place. Biological support is provided by its ability to hold nutrients and water that the plant needs. It also supports other types of life as well. Microorganisms and insects live in the soil and they in turn aid plant life by helping to decay organic material and adding structure to the soil. Soil allows the growth of food crops which are consumed by humans and also plants used in the creation of medicines. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria that live in soil and are used to produce antibiotics. All life on earth is dependent on it either directly and indirectly. This includes the plant life in your garden.

What is Soil Made of?

The four major components of soil are mineral matter, organic matter (humus), water and air. Mineral matter refers to the inorganic elements in the soil e.g. stones, gravel and makes up to 40%-60% of its volume. This part of the soil usually originates from the bedrock that lies beneath the soil. Organic matter (humus) is the decayed remains and waste products of plants and animals and has a great effect on the chemical properties of the soil e.g. availability of nutrients. Almost 40%-60% of a soil’s volume can be space and this is occupied by water and air.

Different Types of Soil Texture

Soil texture is defined as the size distribution of different mineral particles. These mineral particles are at their most basic level the following: sand, silt and clay. Sand particles are 2 to 0.05 mm diameter, silt particles are 0.05 to 0.002 mm diameter and clay particles are less than 0.002 mm diameter. Combination of these particles exhibit different properties in soil and some combinations favor plant life better than others. The following are the most common classes of soil texture:

Clay soil
Contains a high percentage of clay particles and feels lumpy to the touch. The small size of the clay particles means that they clump together quite readily and there is less room for air spaces. Consequently clay soils have poor drainage and do not hold nutrients very well. This is a heavy soil and is sticky when wet making it hard to work with. As much as possible you should take steps to improve the drainage of this type of soil. You will learn how later on in this article.

Silty soil
Contains a high percentage of silt particles and feels smooth to the touch. This soil is a well drained soil due to the size of the particles allowing space for water to permeate. This soil holds nutrients more readily than clay soil due to the spaces. It is easy to cultivate but can be compacted quite easily.

Sandy soil
Contains a high percentage of sand particles and feels gritty to the touch, Allows for quite a lot of space in between particles and as a result is very free draining. This has its disadvantages however as it does not hold water and essential nutrients can get washed away.

Loamy soil
This is the best type of soil texture you can have in your garden. This is soil whose properties are controlled equally by the percentages of clay, silt and sand particles. It is well drained but does not loose water too easily as is the case with sandy and sometimes silty soils. The fact that it retains water means it also retains nutrients for your plants to use. It has a great structure and is easy to cultivate.

What Makes a Soil Healthy?
Healthy soil must be fertile and have a good structure.

For a soil to be fertile it must have nutrients readily available and a pH value at a recommended level for the plants that will reside in it. Nutrients that should be available are the essential nutrients nitrogen (leaf growth), phosphorous (root growth) and phosphorous (overall health). As well as the essential nutrients there should also be trace elements like calcium and magnesium. The pH level of the soil refers to its acidity or alkalinity and each plant has its own preferred value range. Plants placed into fertile soil will grow up to be very strong and healthy specimens (that is if other conditions like light levels and climate are favorable as well).

The other determiner of a healthy soil is its texture. We learned about different types of soil texture earlier in this article. Soil having a loamy texture is the healthiest and it should be strives for if at all possible. In general a soil that retain nutrients and allow water and air to permeate it will be beneficial for the life of your plants.

How to Create Healthy Soil
No matter what type of soil you have the addition of organic matter will work wonders for its health. Organic matter is plant and animal residues in varying forms of decomposition. It will replenish the nutrients in your soil and improve its texture. You may have heard countless times about adding your leftovers and glass clippings to a compost heap. This is a great idea as your compost is the best form of organic matter. Compost in an advanced stage of decomposition (dark and without smell) is magic for your soil. It encourages microorganism activity causing soil particles to clump together and form aggregates. The aggregates allows for spaces in the soil therefore increasing its drainage. This is especially beneficial for clay soils, which have poor drainage. Other forms of organic matter are animal manure and peat moss.

If your soil is lacking in nutrients and you don’t have access to a compost heap you have a choice of using inorganic or organic fertilizers. Inorganic fertilizers (inorganic salts, manufactured chemically) can be purchased at your local garden and are applied in a dry form that is raked lightly at the base of a plant or in a liquid form. While inorganic fertilizers will work fine they have a number of disadvantages: they release their nutrients too quickly and there is some evidence to show that plants develop a resistance to inorganic fertilizer methods over time, requiring more and more to achieve the same effect. Organic fertilizers are more in tune with nature because they are created from the remains or by-product of an organism. They act slower but they ‘amend’ the soil rather than the quick ‘feeding’ it like inorganic fertilizers.

The pH of your soil will also affect its fertility. Each plant has its own preferred pH value range. To learn more pH and how to change it read my Soil pH article here

Soil like a lot of things in the garden requires maintenance. We have learned about the different types of soil texture, what constitutes a fertile, healthy soil and how to create it if it does not exist. The next step is to step out into your garden, take a look at your soil and help your plants out if your soil is of a poor quality. Your plants will thank you ten-fold believe me. Good luck!

5 Things You Can Do Now to Prepare for Spring

WinterBarnThis time of year, it may seem that the frozen land is on ‘pause’ for a few months, resting quietly. Even though there’s no growing going on, though, and the ground is a frozen tundra, there are still things you can do to prepare for spring gardening:

1. Plan your veggie garden.

Although it’s too early to start playing in the dirt, it’s not too early to get out a pen and paper and map out where you want to plant everything in your vegetable garden. You’ll probably be getting the seed catalogs soon and deciding whether to do brussels sprouts or broccoli, parsley or potatoes, and kale or cucumbers. Take into consideration the way the sunlight hits your garden, how easily accessible you want each plant to be, and what plants are particularly prone to pests when you make your decisions. Also make sure you have all the tools you’ll need for planting. Winter is often a great time to get a good price on equipment such as rototillers and cultivators.

2. Clean and sharpen your tools.

There’s no better time than over the winter to clean dirt and rust off your garden tools and have them sharpened. The smart gardeners have them professionally sharpened now, instead of waiting until warmer weather when there will be more of a rush. Lawn mower and brush mower blades can also be sharpened now, either at home or professionally at your local service center.

Seed Starting Chart

3. Start your seedlings indoors.

You can also start your seedlings indoors during the mid- to late winter so they’re ready to go as soon as the warm weather arrives. Different types of seeds should be started at different times so they are at the right stage of germination come time to put them in the ground. Start by finding the last frost date for your area (you could ask an experienced gardener or contact your local extension service). Then count backwards in one-week intervals, using the chart to the left to see when to start each type of seed.

4. Prune trees and shrubs.

Winter is a good time to prune trees and shrubs, as long as there isn’t so much snow that you can’t get to them. Without their leaves, you have an easy view of where the branches are and can cut them just where you need to. Plus, small branches will snap off easily when frozen.

5. Control invasive vines.

Vines can be tricky and frustrating to get rid of in the summer months. Try tackling them in the winter, when it’s easy to see where they start and where they end and cutting them with hand pruners is a snap. Often in the summertime they are tangled up with existing plants — many of which you don’t want to harm — so cutting them off in the wintertime allows you to more easily cut what you don’t want and keep what you do want.

8 Tips for Spring Lawn Clean-Up

feature-llvThose of us with large properties know that spring cleaning isn’t just for the closets and cupboards – it’s for your lawn, too. Winter leaves behind all kinds of debris, from sticks and dead leaves to trash and gravel. So when the weather warms up and it’s the season for working outside, here are 10 great tips for spring lawn clean-up:

1. Wait for dry conditions.

However you clean up your lawn – with a lawn vacuum, rake, or other method – the whole process will be easier and faster if you wait for dry conditions. Moisture makes debris stick together in heavy clumps, making your job harder than it needs to be.

2. Clear large debris first.

If you’re using a DR Leaf and Lawn Vac for cleaning your lawn, you’ll want to clear away anything that’s too large for it to pick up. While pine cones, gum tree balls, nuts, and small sticks will be picked up without a problem, large branches should be cleared away beforehand.

LLV2 Premier Oct 2014-353. Uncover flowerbeds and shrubs.

If you’re raking, be sure to get right up close to trees, shrubs, hedges, and fully clean out flower beds. If using a leaf vac, we recommend the Vacuum Hose, which attaches easily to your machine and allows you to vacuum hard-to-reach spots. Debris left in flowerbeds and around shrubs can stunt growth and foster disease.

4. Tidy hard surfaces.

Walkways, driveways, trails, and other non-lawn surfaces need some spring cleaning, too! Vacuum debris from walkways and trails and rake displaced gravel back on to driveways and roads.

5. Don’t forget window wells!

While you’re vacuuming the lawn, clean out window wells and other nooks and crannies around the house. The result will be better-looking and you won’t worry about mold or other disease festering so close to your foundation.

6. Get rid of thatch build-up.

Thatch is dead grass blades and other small weeds that collect on top of the soil, at the base of the living grass blades. If the build-up gets thick enough, it can choke your lawn by restricting the flow or air and water to the soil. Spring is a perfect time to remove thatch for the summer growing season. Depending on how much thatch build-up you have, a leaf vacuum may be all you need to clear it. For particularly thick build-up, a rake or dethatcher may be required.

7. Clear snow mold.LLV2-Premier-Oct-2014-68

Snow mold often appears on your lawn after the winter if leaves or other debris is left on the grass before winter hits. Usually it looks like dry, brown patches of matted dead grass, and may have a pinkish hue. The best way to get rid of it is to gently loosen it with a rake, then vacuum up the dead debris with your lawn vac.

8. Compost it!

After you’ve finished cleaning the lawn, compost the waste material! Once it’s broken down, it will be a great way to improve your soil structure and return vital nutrients to your garden. For larger waste, consider shredding it to a fine mulch with a chipper/shredder. Luckily, if you’ve used the DR Leaf and Lawn Vac, your leftovers will already be shredded to an easy-to-decompose mulch.