Healthy soils make for a healthy growing season

The color of your soil tells a lot.

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Rich soils garner healthy and happy plants with a good balance of organic matter, starting as early as spring.<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>
John Zvirovski / The Jamestown Sun<br/>
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John Zvirovski, Jamestown Sun garden editor
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

This past week has really been a blessing for anyone who was tired of being cooped up. To say one has spring fever is an understatement! Just to be outdoors without being bundled up is a wonderful feeling. I finally get to discard the socks and shoes and feel the earth beneath my feet once again!

As we begin to clean out the gardens, we are in essence preparing the bed for the year to come. This all begins with soil health and composition. Now, I won’t bore you with too many details and start talking about soil kits and what you are lacking and what you need to add, and all of that jazz. Not that this isn’t important information, but part of gardening is to figure things out for yourself and learn through experience. Leave all the test kits to the research scientists and farmers who are raising crops for the masses. We still want to have fun in the garden to ensure our passions continue to reward and inspire us for the future.

When it comes to the health of your garden soils, there are a few factors of common sense I like to use. In our area, the color of your soil tells a lot. We live in an area of dark soils — the darker the soil, the richer it is in composition. The lighter the soil usually means it is higher in clay and/or sand layers, which can hinder proper growth.

Nature also tells us when soil is healthy or when it is not. A white residue usually indicates an area of dry mold or a concentrated area of salts where excess fertilizer has run off, too, typically a low spot. If left untreated, the salt content can become too high rendering that area useless. We see this on a greater scale in fields where everything from the land tends to run off toward these low spots. You will notice, in the summer, these areas have very little plant life of any type.

Good soil will typically have many earthworms moving around in it when you dig. They prefer soils that are high in nutrients and organic matter. They also like soils that have plenty of aeration and drain well for easy moving. With the presence of earthworms, you have employed little workers that will move organic matter from the surface of the soil to the lower levels of your gardens where roots can feed. These worms will also have droppings as they move along their journey called casts, which further enrich your soil.


When you dig a moist but not wet soil that falls apart in your hands with small pieces of leaves, stems and other dead plant matter, you will know that you have a soil in which 95% of your plants will thrive.

If your soils seem heavy and hard to break up, add some organic matter to make them lighter. Some of the best things I have found to lighten your soil are to use the decaying leaves you find during clean up in the spring season,  grass clippings once the mowing season has begun and bales of straw broken apart and layered to rototill or spade into the soil within the next couple of weeks.

For vegetable gardens, I like to add a 2-inch layer of leaves or straw, a 2-inch layer of compost or composted manure, and a 2-inch layer of peat moss or organic peat. Work this into the top foot of soil for best results. You can make this an annual process as it will only improve your soils and not harm them in any way.

If you are finding low spots in your garden that you want to fill or have areas where the perennials have heaved through the winter due to frost, simply take a large container and mix these three products together and fill these areas. A word to the wise — don’t add too much soil over the top of any perennial as this will make its root system too deep and it will eventually decline for having too much soil above the root line.

Working in the earth during this season seems to invigorate the soul. Why not see the element you are working with and look a little closer at the health of the medium in which you are planting. It will make the year more fruitful and rewarding.

I’m not a big fan of adding too much fertilizer to soils but a light application of 10-10-10 fertilizer will go a long way without being too hard on your plants. It is a nice mild balance that will nurture your plants all season with one application. A soil rich in organic matter will not need this additional additive.

Start your season off right with healthy soils. Yes, at times the topic seems boring, but it sure is fun to play in and get your hands dirty when you know something good is going to come from it. This is the time to prepare your gardens for planting, so do it right!

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