Soil preparation is critical to the success of your gardening experience. Soils support plants physically as well as providing them with needed nutrients, water, and oxygen. Soils are complex mixtures of dead and live organisms. All soil is not the same. Some are more dead than others and almost all need supplementation.
There are sandy, silt, and clay soils. Most of us have some kind of combination of those three textures. Knowing what kind of soil you have will help you make better decisions when it comes to watering your plants. Sandy soils do not hold water very long, so you will have to water for shorter periods of time, but more often. On the other hand, clay soils hold the water very well to the point of causing root rot and blocking out all oxygen. Clay soils should be watered less than sandy soils. To figure out what kind of soil you have, you can send a sample to your local extension service and have it analyzed, or you can take a cup of soil, put it in a 1 qt. glass container, fill it up with water, shake it, then let it sit for about 20 minutes. The sand will drop to the bottom. The silt will drop next, followed by clay. It will take a couple of hours for all the clay to settle. You should see two maybe three distinct layers. The top layer will be either silt or clay. If it took a long time for the top layer to completely settle, and there are three layers present, the top layer is clay. If there are only two layers and it did not take long to settle, the top layer is silt. The relative thickness of the layers gives you an idea of the percentage of sand, silt, and clay in your soil.
The ideal soil is said to be composed of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay and is called loam. Since we don’t all have these percentages already in existence, we need to supplement our soils yearly in order to eventually achieve rich loamy soil.
Whether you have sandy soil or clay soil, the addition of organic matter is very important. You can haul in compost from your local city compost center, from the local farmer, buy it in bags from your local hardware store, or you can compost all your plant waste – mix it with soil and water- and create your own compost. It would be good to study composting. Perhaps that will be our next topic. If the compost you haul in has animal manure in it you will have the added nitrogen you need to finish the decomposition process without stripping all the needed nitrogen out of the soil. If you don’t use animal manures, add some nitrogen to the compost material.
Mix the organic material into your garden with a shovel and rakes or with a tiller. If you are using a tiller be careful not to create a deadpan layer by constantly tilling to the same depth. A deadpan layer is a layer of hard, compacted soil that is difficult for roots or water to penetrate.
The pH (acid or alkaline content) of the soil is also important. Most plants grow best in a ph of 6.0-7.5. A soil with a pH lower than 7.0 is an acidic soil and one with a pH higher than 7.0 is alkaline. If the pH of your soil is too high, add sulfur. If it is too low, add limestone. In order to find out the ph of your soil, you can take it in to the extension office near you and have it tested or you can buy a soil ph tester and do it yourself. It is important to note that some plants prefer acidic soil while others thrive in alkaline soil.
So after adding organic matter to your soil and either sulfur or limestone if he pH is not correct, you are ready to till it all in and plant.