Column: Healthy soil, healthy garden

By: Anne Boulton – Greenboots in the Garden

 | May 30, 2014 - 9:35 AM |
The garlic is up! Soil quality is the first line in creating strong, healthy plants and edibles. Photo by Anna Shepard

The garlic is up! Soil quality is the first line in creating strong, healthy plants and edibles. Photo by Anna Shepard

Let’s talk a minute about soil. All is not created equal. It can be confusing to know how to amend, how to fertilize, how much and how often. And always, it depends on what you are growing.

All soils contain a mineral content based on the breakdown of rock; they also contain organic matter, air, water and living creatures, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes and earthworms. The soil’s characteristic, or “tilth,” is based on the varying amounts of the above.

Heavy soils are made up of smaller particles which pack together tightly to create a more compact mass: think clay. Drainage in this soil is usually poor. Plant roots will find it difficult to penetrate this soil and will often suffer from root rot since the ground remains saturated. This is my backyard in a nutshell.

Light soils are sandy and suffer from dryness and leaching of nutrients, since any moisture washes away quickly. The large pore spaces between particles allow for water to wash away freely.

This is also my backyard hill. A challenge, I say!

Determining if your soil is acidic or alkaline is expressed in terms of pH between one and 14. A pH of 7 is neutral; lower than 7 is acidic, while higher indicates alkalinity.

The determination of a soil’s pH lets you know what nutrients are available in the soil for your plants. Certain plants enjoy acidic soil (blueberries, rhododendrons or azaleas), while others are acclimatized to alkaline soil (heuchera, cranesbill, delphiniums, garden pinks).

If you need to amend your soil to regain a more netural pH and improve the look and health of your plants, here’s what to do.

If your soil is acidic, you might note yellowing, drooping leaves or even the presence of moss. You’ll want to “sweeten” the soil with lime. This can be found readily at garden stores everywhere.

The pH of alkaline soils can be lowered with sulphur. Compost, typically high in sulphur, is a good way of lowering the alkalinity in a natural, cost-effective way.

Compost is easy to make, but if you’d like to purchase it, it is readily available in bulk at the city landfill. It’s lovely, steaming stuff.

Wood products are another way to improve your soil’s tilth, particularly if it's heavy. Sawdust, wood shavings or ground bark help to separate the fine clay particles. Try to avoid the chemical dyes, particularly if you are growing edibles. Straw or hay also makes for good covers.

Manure (poultry, sheep or cow) contains a great amount of plant nutrients, but also contains soluble salts that can harm plant roots. I would use these sparingly in edible gardens, opting instead for mushroom compost or even Meeker’s Magic Mix — a veritable gravy for your garden beds. This is a fish emulsion made on Manitoulin Island that provides long lasting nutrient support for your soil. It boasts incredible results and is planet friendly.

Ultimately, whatever product you choose to amend your soil, aim for good, organic, environmentally friendly products that won’t pollute our local waterways. Remember: your sewer drains are a direct route to Ramsey Lake, and thus, our drinking water.

Soil testing kits can be purchased at greenhouses around the city.

Anne Boulton is an avid gardener who lives in Sudbury. Visit her blog at greenbootsgardens.tumblr.com or contact her at greenbootsinthegarden@gmail.com.

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