Farmer Green's Corner Kick your shoes off. Set a spell. The Amazing Almanac has lots to tell. Let's Get our hands Dirty!
It's All About Soil
Soil is weathered rocks and minerals combined with organic matter, water, and air. Over time, rain, snow, ice, and variable temperatures pulverize rocks into tiny particles. Different rock types and weathering conditions determine what kind of soil will be found in any given area. Since the most essential quality of soils, from a gardener's point of view, are the organic components that promote healthy and thriving plants, soil amendments - manures, composts, peat moss, various mineral and nutritional additives, and the like - are often the key to achieving excellent results.
Understanding the correct method of amendment to be applied requires a knowledge of what one's soil needs to bring in into the proper balance optimal for growing plants. This knowledge begins with understanding which of the three basic classifications the soil you're working with falls under. Next, determining what conditions of drainage, pH, and weathering are in play affects the method of amendment required.
PARTICLES The primary determinant of soil type is what kind of particles it mainly consists of. There are three basic kinds of soil particle:
Sand Sand is the largest particle type, thus sandy soils have the largest 'pore space', or space fro water and air to mover freely. These soils drain quickly, allowing them to be worked more quickly after rains than the other types. Sandy soil also warms more quickly in spring than the others, allowing for earlier planting. Among the drawbacks of sandy soils is the tendency for quick drainage - for water to pass through quickly, which carries nutrients with it, resulting in soil that is typically low in fertility.
Silt Silt is made up of tiny, more-or-less rounded particles. Smaller particle size results in both larger surface area and smaller pore spaces than found in sands; this results in slower drainage, and more retention of nutrients.
Clay Clay particles are the smallest of all, usually microscopic in size - a single ounce of clay contains millions of particles. The miniscule particles tend to pack to together so tightly that it is more difficult for the roots of a plant to make their way through the soil. Sticky when wet, brick-hard when dry, clay particles bind water to themselves, making it more difficult for plants to obtain. The same is true of nutrients; despite the typically-high quantity and quality of them in clay soils, plants have difficulty in obtaining them for use. These factors make clay soils the most difficult to garden in.
TEXTURE The combination of these particle types determine the composition of the soil a gardener is working with. Soils are almost always a combination of all three types, and the proportions of each determine which of the three major kinds of soil one has. Determining what prevalent type of soil one has is easy to do, by performing a time-honored test, the so-called 'ribbon test.' This old-time farmer's method steps provides the answer to what is the predominate particle size of the soil, which results offer guidance as exactly how to proceed towards correctly amending the soil for maximum performance. To perform the ribbon test, and determine whether or not such a ribbon of soil will hold together in the hands, simply gather a little water - a small saucer-full is enough - a ½ cup or so of soil, and a god pair of water-resistant gardening gloves. Moisten the soil with the scant few teaspoons of water in the sauce or other container - just enough to make the soil clump - roll it into a ball in your hands, and then try forming it into a ribbon. Whether or not this may successfully be done will reveal the soil's predominant nature.
Sandy soil If the soil will not hold together, breaking apart no matter how much water is added, it is a sandy soil. You will notice its gritty nature, and be able to feel individual grains.
Loam If the ribbon you form holds together, but tends to crumble, this is indicative of a high amount of sand, silt, and/or organic matter - the loam. This is the soil type that is best for gardening.
Clay soil If the ribbon you've formed packs together easily, the soil has a high clay content. This type will often be sticky, and typically will stain your skin. If the ribbon feels smooth rather than sticky, it's likely to be silty clay. If it feels gritty, it's probably sandy clay.
Soil Testing A soil test can pinpoint nutrient deficiencies and excesses, as well as pH values, all critical components of good soil. Such tests are time- and money-saving tools (also, earth-friendly) because they point out what amendments are needed, eliminating needless fertilizer applications. Many crops and flowering plants are more pH sensitive than most (e.g., blueberries, hydrangeas, etc.), so soil testing may be critical in this regard. There are many commercially-available testing kits, and they are also usually available from county extension services, which usually offer the most accurate results, with the added benefit that the soil report produced will likely include recommendations for improving your soil.
Love Apples - the Marvelous `Mater
Tomatoes like a nice warm area in full sun, and need at least 8 hours of sunlight a day, or they get spindly and produce little mature fruit.
They like soil that has a pH of 5.5 - 6.8, is fertile, deep, well-drained, and that is rich in organic matter. If the soil stays soggy where you want to plant, build a raised bed.
You want soil that will hold water as evenly as possible because uneven uptake of water can cause all kinds of problems with tomatoes including: flower drop, fruit splitting and blossom-end rot.
To help give your tomatoes the best-suited environment you can, till in a good amount of compost or organic matter. A general guide would be 3 inches (7.6 cm) of organic matter into the top 6 inches (15.2 cm) of soil.
You can also grow a cover crop to help build the soil. Plant a grain or legume crop, sometimes called green manure, for the purpose of chopping it down and adding it to the soil.
One way is to plant hairy vetch (Vicia villosa), a nitrogen-fixing legume, in your garden bed in the fall. In the spring, cut it down and till the residue into the soil. This provides both nitrogen and an instant mulch that preserves moisture.
Lastly, many tomato diseases reside in the soil and affect peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and other crops in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. To break the disease cycle, and to help get rid of the disease-causing organisms, rotate tomatoes with unrelated crops, such as corn, beans or lettuce.
Composting is controlling the natural decay of organic matter by providing the right conditions for composting critters to convert yard trimmings, kitchen scraps, and the like into a product that can be returned to your landscape and garden. Tiny organisms (mainly bacteria, fungi and protozoa) break down garden and landscape trimmings in a moist, aerobic (oxygen-demanding) environment. The final product is a dark, crumbly form of decomposed organic matter.
Compost improves your soil. When added to soil, compost breaks up heavy clay soils, helps sandy soils retain water and nutrients, and releases essential nutrients. Compost also contains beneficial microscopic organisms that build up the soil and make nutrients available to plants. Improving your soil is the first step towards growing healthy plants.
Most plant material can be used for compost. Organic trimmings in your landscape, such as fallen leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, flowers and the remains of garden plants make excellent compost. Compost made from grass clippings treated with herbicides and pesticides is not recommended for use in vegetable gardens. Kitchen scraps, such as fruit and vegetable peels and trimmings, crushed eggshells, tea bags, and coffee grounds and filters can also be composted. Woody yard trimmings can be run through a shredder before adding to the compost pile. Sawdust may be added in moderate amounts if additional nitrogen is applied. Add a pound of actual nitrogen per 100 pounds of dry sawdust. Organic materials that should not be added to your compost pile include meat, bones and fatty foods (such as cheese, salad dressing and leftover cooking oil). Do not add pet or human wastes to a compost pile.
Weeds that have not gone to seed can be added to the compost pile. Weeds with large storage roots like nutsedge, Florida betony or greenbriar should be left out and dried in the sun before composting to reduce their chances of survival.
The high levels of heat produced in the center of the compost pile can kill many pests, such as weeds with seeds and diseased or insect-infested plants. However, it is very difficult to mix the contents thoroughly enough to bring all the wastes to the center, so some disease organisms may be returned to the garden with the compost.
Organic materials for composting all contain nutrients that provide energy and growth for microorganisms. These organic materials each have their own ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) in their tissues (Table 1). These C:N ratios are important because the tiny decomposers need about 1 part of nitrogen for every 30 parts of carbon in the organic material. If the ratio is greater than 30:1, nitrogen will be lacking and materials will decompose more slowly.