Vegetable Gardening For Dummies
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After clearing your garden area in preparation for planting, you need to take a close look at your soil — give it a good squeeze, have it tested, amend it, and then work it out to make sure it’s in shipshape.

Good soil gives vegetable roots a balance of all the things they need: moisture, nutrients, and air. And knowing your soil type enables you to counteract problems that you may face when gardening on that piece of land. I explain the basics in the following sections.

Distinguishing different types of soil

Three main types of soil exist, with a lot of variations in between. Hard clay is at one end of the spectrum; soft, sandy soil is at the other end; and loam is in the middle. Being familiar with your soil helps you know what to expect when gardening.

Clay soil tends to have a lot of natural fertility but is heavy to work with and doesn’t drain water well. Sandy soil, on the other hand, drains water well (maybe too well) but doesn’t have a lot of natural fertility. Loam, the ideal soil, is somewhere in between the two.

Here are general characteristics of the three basic types of soil:

  • Sandy soil is composed of mostly large mineral particles. Water moves through this soil quickly, taking nutrients with it. Sandy soil is well aerated, quick to dry out and warm up, and often lacks the nutrients that vegetables need.
  • Clay soil consists of mainly small particles that cling tightly together and hold water and nutrients. It’s slow to dry out and warm up, and has poor aeration, but it’s fertile when it can be worked.
  • Loam soil is a happy mixture of large and small particles. It’s well aerated and drains properly, but it can still hold water and nutrients. This is the soil to have for a great vegetable garden.

The squeeze test

To find out what type of soil you have, grab a handful of moist soil and squeeze it. Then use these guidelines to determine what type of soil you’re working with:
  • Sandy soil falls apart and doesn’t hold together in a ball when you let go. It feels gritty when you rub it between your fingers.
  • Clay soil oozes through your fingers as you squeeze it and stays in a slippery wad when you let go. Rubbing clay soil between your fingers feels slippery.
  • Loam soil usually stays together after you squeeze it, but it falls apart easily when you poke it with your finger.
If you have sandy or clay soil, don’t despair; you can improve your soil and make it more like loam by adding organic matter, such as compost, sawdust, animal manure, grass clippings, ground bark, and leaf mold. To learn more about this, check out my book Vegetable Gardening For Dummies, 3rd Edition.

Testing your soil's chemistry

Vegetables are kind of picky about soil chemistry. Too much of this nutrient or too little of that nutrient, and you have problems. If you don’t believe me, see what happens when tomatoes grow in soil that’s deficient in calcium; they develop blossom-end rot. Yuck. Sometimes too much of a nutrient, such as nitrogen, causes lots of leaf growth on plants (such as peppers) but few fruits. Getting the levels just right is important for the best harvest.

In addition to nutrient levels, soil pH also is an important factor in plant growth. The right pH enables vegetables to use nutrients from the soil. Soil is rated on a pH scale, with a pH of 1 being most acidic and a pH of 14 being most alkaline.

If your soil’s pH isn’t within a suitable range, plants can’t take up nutrients — like phosphorus and potassium — even if they’re present in the soil in high amounts. In addition, if the pH is too low, the solubility of certain minerals, such as manganese, may increase to toxic levels.

Most vegetables grow well in a slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6 and 7. Potatoes, including sweet potatoes, prefer a slightly more acidic soil, in the 5 to 6 range. But in general, if you aim for a soil pH between 6 and 7, your vegetables should grow well.

The only way to find out whether your soil will be to your vegetables’ liking is to test it. Don’t worry; analyzing your soil isn’t complicated, and you don’t need a lab coat. Here are two ways that you can test your soil:
  • Use a do-it-yourself kit. This basic pH test measures your soil’s acidity and alkalinity and sometimes major nutrient content. Buy a kit at a nursery, follow the instructions, and voilà — you know your soil’s pH. However, the test gives you only a rough picture of the pH and nutrient levels in your soil. You may want to know more about your soil.
  • Have a soil lab do a test for you. A complete soil test is a good investment because a soil lab can thoroughly analyze your soil. Here’s what you can find out from a soil lab’s test in addition to the pH level:
    • Your soil’s nutrient content: If you know your soil’s nutrient content, you can determine how much and what kind of fertilizer to use. In fact, many soil tests tell you exactly how much fertilizer to add; see Chapter 15 for more on fertilizer.
    • Soil problems that are specific to your geographic region: A soil test may help you identify local problems. The soil lab should then give you a recommendation for a type and amount of fertilizer to add to your soil. For example, in dry-summer areas, you may have salty soil; the remedy is to add gypsum, a readily available mineral soil additive.
Of course, soil labs charge around $20 to $30 for their basic services. Your local Cooperative Extension Service office or a private soil lab can conduct a complete and reliable soil test. To locate a private lab, search the Internet for soil test labs around the country. You also can ask your Cooperative Extension Service office for recommendations.

Fall is a good time to test soil because labs aren’t as busy. It’s also a good time to add many amendments (materials that improve your soil’s fertility and workability) to your soil because they break down slowly.

To prepare a soil sample to use with a do-it-yourself kit or to send to a soil lab, follow these steps:
  1. Fill a cup with soil from the top 4 to 6 inches of soil from your vegetable garden, and then place the soil in a plastic bag.
  2. Dig six to eight similar samples from different parts of your plot.
  3. Mix all the cups of soil together; place two cups of the combined soil in a plastic bag — that’s your soil sample.
After you’ve collected your sample, consult the instructions from your soil test kit or the testing lab.

If you’re testing a soil imbalance — a known problem that you’ve identified in either pH or nutrients — you may want to test your soil every year because changes in pH and most nutrients are gradual.

A home testing kit is a good way to test a pH imbalance. For nutrients, you may want to do a yearly test at a lab until the imbalance (high or low levels of a nutrient) is fixed. To maintain balanced soil, test it every three to five years.

Adjusting soil pH

Most garden soils have a pH between 5.5 and 8.0. This number helps you determine when and how to adjust your soil’s pH level. The following guidelines help you interpret this number:
  • If the number is below 6, the soil is too acidic, and you need to add ground limestone.
  • If the measurement is above 7.5, the soil is too alkaline for most vegetables, and you need to add soil sulfur.
In the following sections, I explain how to figure out how much lime or sulfur you need to add to your soil and how to apply the materials.

Calculating how much lime or sulfur you need

All Cooperative Extension Service offices, any soil lab, many lawn and garden centers, and the National Gardening Association website have charts showing how much lime or sulfur to add to correct a pH imbalance. The charts tell you how many pounds of material to add per 1,000 square feet, so you need to measure the size of your vegetable garden first. Then use Tables 1 and 2 to figure out how much lime or sulfur you need to add to your soil.

Pounds of Limestone Needed to Raise pH (per 1,000 square feet)

pH Pounds for Sandy Soil Pounds for Loam Soil Pounds for Clay Soil
4.0-6.5 60 161 230
4.5-6.5 50 130 190
5.0-6.5 40 100 150
5.5-6.5 30 80 100
6.0-6.5 15 40 60

Pounds of Sulfur Needed to Lower pH (per 1,000 square feet)

pH Pounds for Sandy Soil Pounds for Loam Soil Pounds for Clay Soil
8.5-6.5 45 60 70
8.0-6.5 30 35 45
7.5-6.5 10 20 25
7.0-6.5 2 4 7
In general, soils in climates with high rainfall — such as east of the Mississippi River (particularly east of the Appalachian Mountains) or in the Pacific Northwest — tend to be acidic.

West of the Mississippi, where less rainfall occurs, soils are more alkaline. But regardless of where you live in North America, you should easily be able to find the lime or sulfur that you need at your local garden center.

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