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Home > Food Preservation Articles, Reviews, & Buyers Guides > Preparing Garden Beds-by C. Smith

Preparing Garden Beds-by C. Smith  Item Number: preparing-garden-beds-by-c--smith

Before you start thinking about weeds... which plants you're going to buy... and where your garden gloves have gone, make sure you haven't neglected the foundation of every garden.  The soil.  How well you prepare it today will be reflected in everything you pick tomorrow.

Different soil types, PH balance, and nutrient levels all play a part in optimal growing conditions.  Learning your soil's basic structure will help in determining the necessary steps for optimizing it. 

Soil Types

Some plants require a specific type of soil for their survival.  Improper conditions could have a huge impact on it's health.  Basically, there are two areas that need to be addressed.  Is your soil clay or sandy?  Is your soil acidic or alkaline?

Clay vs. Sandy

  • Clay soil sticks together creating poor circulation of air and water.  This will result in plant roots that are starving for air and water-logged with moisture.  This environment will ultimately result in root rot.   The soil will also remain too cold for plants roots in these conditions.  
  • Sandy soil is much easier to work with and allows for even circulation of air and moisture.  However, if the soil is too sandy, the soil may become acidic.  Soil that is too acidic for your plant will cause it to become dried out. 

Acidic vs. Alkaline

The level of acidity or alkalinity greatly affects which nutrients will prosper in the soil.  An improper PH level can rob your plant of essential nutrients.

  • Acidic soils have a PH level ranging from 1-3

  • Neutral soils have a PH level ranging from 4-7
  • Alkaline soils have a PH level of 7 and above.

What is Your Soil Type?  Take the Test 

To determine whether your soil is made up more of clay or sand, fill a mason jar   full with water and a squirt of dish soap.  Add enough dirt to just about fill the jar. Screw the lid on tightly and shake.   Let it sit out over night and the next day you should be able to see the different layers of sand, silt and clay.   The heaviest element, sand, will sink to the bottom of the jar, while the lightest, clay, will remain toward the top.  The thickest layer will show the primary compostion of the soil. 

To determine the PH level of your soil, PH test kits can be purchased at your local garden store or nursery.

Amending the Soil

As you cultivate your beds in preparation for planting, you will need to add organic matter.  By doing this, you will create the proper growing environment for your plants.  This is known as amending the soil.

  • For clay soils add sand, soil, or compost
  • For sandy soils sawdust is said to help
  • To raise the soils PH, add ground limestone
  • To lower the soils PH, add sulfur

Other useful amendments include manure, peat moss, mulch, and leaves.  Manure helps the plants ability to use the nutrients available in the soil over a long period of time.  Make sure that you are using aged manure.  Un-aged manure can burn plants.  Peat moss will help the soil to retain moisture.  Leaves contain many nutrients that are beneficial for the soil.  A layer of mulch will help prevent the growth of weeds.

Turning the Soil

Before you even put a shovel into your bed, make certain that the soil is dry enough for cultivation.  If the soil is too wet, you will be left with large, unbreakable clumps of dirt that may affect the soils flow of air and water.  Grab a handful of dirt and squeeze it together tightly.  If the soil falls apart loosely, the soil is ready.  If it remains in a ball, the soil is not ready.  Wait a few weeks for the soil to dry. 

First time beds may require the use of a roto-tiller to break the ground apart effectively.  Roto-tillers can destroy the soil's earthworm activity which is vital for your garden.  Therefore, cultivate your beds manually in upcoming planting seasons.

Never over-cultivate.  Turning the soil too much can throw off the balance of microbial activity, leading to the breakdown of soil structure.

Ready to Plant?

Your bed has been cultivated and you are ready to plant.  But is your soil ready to be planted in?  Before planting, take one more test.  This time to check if the soil is warm enough for seeds to survive.  Dig 8" down and put your hand in the soil.  Use your best judgement to determine if the soil is warm enough or still too cold.  Seed packets will also state whether particular seeds require warm or cool soil.

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