As we are tending to our fruit and vegetable plants and hopefully watching the gardens grow, it’s a great time to think about the soil. Soil is such an intricate part of the garden, often going unnoticed and unappreciated for the important role it provides in our gardens, yards, and landscapes. Soil — not dirt — can often determine the success or failure of the garden, yet many don’t give it proper credit.
A soil test can give you the latest “dirt” on your soil including the pH, macro and micro nutrients, and more. While there is often a rush to test the soil in the spring, response times can be much quicker this time of the year, because gardeners aren’t thinking to test their soil, unless there are problems.
Random samples should be collected from throughout the garden, combined, allowed to air dry if you have been watering, and a representative sample taken from the larger collection. Sample depth depends on the plants you are growing and where the roots of the plants are growing. Only about a cupful of soil is needed to be submitted for testing. If you have questions about how to take a soil sample, contact the OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteers on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for instruction. Printed information, including a brochure, can be found online at www.umass.edu/soiltest/pdf/soilbrochure2011.pdf.
No matter the soil type, adding organic matter or compost can bring big benefits. In sandy soil, for example, organic matter aids in the moisture and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil. In clay soils the organic matter increases air and drainage.
This material can be added in the form of finished compost or raw materials such as grass clippings and leaves if allowed time to break down. Caution should be used when composting prolific seeders. While a hot compost pile — one that heats to a temperature of about 140 degrees for four to five consecutive days — can be hot enough to kill seeds, many piles don’t get that hot. Those piles decompose more slowly and can spread prolific plants.
Incorporation of compost in the fall as you are putting your garden to bed seems to work out extremely well. In areas of the garden that are home to perennial plants, a light side dressing can be beneficial.
Planting cover crops is also a means to increase organic matter, improve the soil structure, control erosion, suppress weeds, and encourage beneficial insects to make their home in your garden. Ryegrass, clovers, hairy vetch, alfalfa, oilseed radish, and buckwheat are a few of the cover crops that can be planted.
So instead of taking soil for granted, go out in the garden and take a look. The soil can tell a lot about your garden!
Meanwhile, our team has been hard at work creating a Web page focused on local foods. Topics include: Why Local Foods?, OSU Extension Lucas County’s Signature Program — From Plant to Plate, Resources for Northwest Ohio Community Gardens, The Maumee Valley Victory Garden Challenge, Lucas County’s Local Foods Connection Newsletter, and Keeping Your Produce Safe.
Visit http://lucas.osu.edu and click on the Local Food Connections link on the left. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.
Amy Stone is an educator with OSU Extension Lucas County. If you have questions, call the OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Horticultural Hotline at 419-578- 6783. Volunteers are on hand Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Questions also may be emailed to mghotline @ag.osu.edu and possibly answered in a future Plant to Plate column.