How to Analyze Soil Temps and Drainage
Soil temperature and water drainage rates are as important to a plant as sunlight and fertilizer. Learn how to analyze these key elements in your garden.
When you get the soil-test results back, you may find that the soil is a little acidic. You can add lime using a broadcast spreader (Image 1). This gets the lime spread evenly and at the right amount per foot (Image 2). Your extension service will tell you how much lime you need to bring your soil into the 6.0 range. Vegetables grow best between a pH of 5.8 and 6.5.
You have several choices when it comes to adding amendments to your garden beds. There are two ways to buy amendments: in bags or in bulk. Some things that you need in small quantities, such as pelletized fertilizer, can be bought by the bag; others, such as compost or soil conditioners, should be bought in bulk (Image 1).
Most garden centers sell a gardener's blend of composted manure, hardwood chips and humus, as well as a composted blend of plants and leaves (Image 2). Called soil conditioner, it has many of the elements garden soil needs. You can order it by the truckload and have it dumped out near your garden, then carry it in with a wheelbarrow as you need it.
This type of mixture has a lot to offer: The small chunks are recycled hardwood chips, and they'll provide structure and air pockets in the soil. The dark dirt around it is composted manure and humus; it will release a slow and steady supply of nutrients into the ground as it continues to break down. Because it's all composted, you don't have to worry about weed seeds and disease.
Spread the soil conditioner over the top of your garden beds; then use a metal tined rake to even it out. It doesn't have to be perfect because you'll need to till it in for best results.
One secret weapon for vegetable gardening success is worm castings, which are simply worm manure. They're high in nutrients, light in texture and odor free. Many gardeners think worm castings actually help control fungus problems and repel insects such as whiteflies. Because they're so rich in nutrients, you need only one part worm castings (Image 1) to five parts garden soil. Once you spread the worm castings over the garden, use a tiller to incorporate all of the amendments into the soil (Image 2). The tiller mixes the soil down to a depth of 6", making it loose and rich for the plants you'll be adding to the garden later on. A tiller is an important garden tool: when you use it, the ground gets broken and mixed at the same time--that's what builds healthy soil.
A tiller does a great job on the top layer of soil, but it doesn't reach far enough into the deeper layers. A garden fork is perfect for creating channels of enriched soil deep into the dirt (Image 1). As you press the tines in, a little bit of the good soil on top is pushed into the holes you're making below (Image 2). Piercing, or aerating, the ground under your loosened topsoil is known as interfacing. This means that loosened or enriched soil on the top is introduced, or interfaced, with the lower soil level. It's great for plant roots because they get a path of loose, fertile soil to travel through. Interfacing helps plants establish deeper and healthier root systems in a short amount of time. This helps them fruit faster and handle drought much better. Interfacing is critical for heavy clay since the ground is hard and drains very slowly. You may not need to do this if your soil is loamy or sandy. If you can easily dig into your soil to a depth of 12" or more, you can omit this step.
Divide the garden into different zones that relate to how you'll use it. One area can be for vegetables that grow best in rows, one for melon hills and one for open-planting crops such as corn. Vegetables grow best in deep, fertile soil, and the easiest way to get it is by piling up your newly tilled soil into mounded growing beds. It doesn't matter if you shape it into rows or hills; the important thing is to have deep, loose soil that vegetable roots can easily grow through.
Many gardens act as magnets for the hungry wildlife that lives nearby. No pest-control system is perfect, but attacking the problem on multiple levels can make a difference. The first step is to keep out the digging pests such as rabbits and chipmunks. By installing a heavy-duty wire-mesh fence around the garden, you can make it really tough for them to get in (Image 1). You can attach this to the bottom of a picket or slat fence. To install the underground part of the pest fence, dig a trench 12" deep and a few inches wide around the inside of your fence (Image 2). Position the trench so that the mesh hangs straight down below the wooden pickets. Starting at the support post next to the gate, staple the fencing to the post so that about 12" goes below the fence and 12" goes above the ground (Image 3). Use heavy-duty galvanized staples, which don't rust and break down when they get wet.
Once you finish the main part of the fence, staple more of the mesh to the garden gate, positioning it so the mesh drags the ground as it opens and closes. Leave an overlap of mesh around the edges to keep pests from sneaking through the cracks around the gate.
Once the lower fence is in place, backfill the trench with dirt, and the underground route to your garden is protected. Be aware that if you live in a state where gophers or woodchucks live, this foot-deep fence may not be enough to keep them out. Check with your local extension service for more recommendations, or try catching them in a live trap so they can be relocated away from your garden.