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Improving Your Garden Soil by Linda A. Williams

Today I have the privliege of posting an article from a guest writer and gardening expert! Linda Williams is the ower of Windrush Farm here in Farmington, MO.



I met Linda for the first time at a local farmer’s market and she stood out because of her wonderful display of unique products – all created or grown right on her farm. Everyone at the market had the standard tomatoes, potatoes and other garden veggies you would expect – but Linda always had unique things that no one else had. And what was even better was her knowledge of ALL things that grow, and her loving way of being willing to share that knowledge. What a shame when such knowledge is not appreciated and shared through the generations! Part of the mission on our farm is to share what we are learning so that future generations can have develop their own ability to have food liberty! Linda fits that goal so well and we are blessed to know her and learn from her. And so I asked if she would be willing to occasionally write a guest blog post for our website. Here is her first post – We hope you enjoy it!



President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The history of every nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil."


Today we're going to talk about caring for the soil. Not just taking care of it, but also caring about the soil. There are around seven billion humans on earth today, and we rely on food grown on just 11% of our planet's land surface. Of that 11%, three percent of that soil is classified as highly fertile or highly fertile at-risk. The remaining 8% is marginal soil, which means that it can become wasteland very quickly if it is not nurtured. We need to care about this.


What is soil? Everyone knows what soil is, right? It's the stuff that holds plants upright in the garden. It keeps the wind from blowing plants away. It’s usually some shade of brown in color...



That's about the limit of what many of us know or care about soil. As long as it's doing its job (holding plants upright and in place), there are a lot of other things in the garden that need our attention. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? Remember your first garden - wasn't that great? Breaking the ground for the first time; making the beds straight as an arrow; setting the plants in the soil exactly 8" apart... Everything grew and produced so much that you were sneaking zucchinis into people's unlocked cars, right? And the next year, it was still a great garden, wasn't it? Plenty of produce, a few bugs, but nothing you couldn't handle. And in the following years, well, maybe not so many peppers, maybe a few more bugs, maybe a fungus took out the zucchinis, but heck, I guess I was just really lucky that first year. Is this sounding familiar to anyone? Those bugs, that plant disease, the reduction in crop production - if you have had these experiences, your soil is talking to you. It is communicating with you that something is wrong. Soil understands that its purpose is to provide nourishment to plants, and it wants to fulfill that purpose. If soil is healthy, the plants growing in it will be healthy.


Healthy, living soil feeds plants everything that they need in order to thrive and to resist and recover from pest insect and disease pressure. This doesn't mean that you won't have some bug bites on your lettuce. But, if your soil is healthy, your lettuce crop won't be decimated by those bugs. The bugs will simply eat their fair share and move on. Living soil is composed of about 45% minerals (sand, silt & clay), 5% organic matter, 25% air, and 25% water. Living soil also contains billions of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, algae, and protozoa, and small animals such as nematodes, earthworms, and insects, all of which serve to affect plant growth and health. When we harvest plants or the fruits of those plants and take them out of the garden, we remove from the soil the nutrients that those plants used in their lifetimes. If that's done often enough without replacing those nutrients somehow, the soil will soon become marginal, and finally barren.



There are 16 nutrients that plants use in order to survive and to thrive. More than 90% of the dry matter weight of a plant is made up of the nutrients Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H), and Oxygen (O), all of which are supplied mostly by air and water. The remaining 13 nutrients are supplied by soil. These nutrients are divided into three categories: Macronutrients, secondary nutrients, and micronutrients. The macronutrients are: Nitrogen (N) Phosphorus (P) Potassium (K) Sulfur (S) The secondary nutrients are: Calcium (Ca) Magnesium (Mg) The micronutrients are: Iron (Fe) Manganese (Mn) Boron (B) Molybdenum (Mo) Copper (Cu) Zinc (Zn) Chloride (Cl) (Please note that even though these are called micronutrients, don't underestimate their power. Too much of any of these micronutrients may be toxic to plants and to the soil's microorganisms. Get a thorough soil test done and strictly follow its recommendations for any organic amendments!) Nutrients in soil are made available to plants in two ways: through the breakdown of soil minerals and through the decomposition of organic matter. Nutrient release from organic matter breakdown can begin within a few days and can last for centuries. Nutrient release from soil mineral breakdown is much slower: depending on the mineral it may take many, many years for a significant amount of nutrient release to occur. So you may not see an immediate benefit from adding some minerals to your soil. But if your soil test says that they are needed and you add them today, someone, someday, will benefit from your efforts.


There are two ways to achieve and maintain soil fertility: The first way is Culturally - that is by managing our tilling practices, by water management, by using green manures and cover crops, and by rotating crops.


The second way to maintain soil fertility is by using Supplements - such as organic wastes and minerals. When used together, these two methods - paying attention to the way the soil is manipulated and supplementing the soil when necessary, will help you to insure that your soil stays healthy and fertile. Starting with cultural practices that can improve soil: Let's talk about tilling for a minute. There are advantages and disadvantages to tilling the soil. Advantages to tilling include: - helps to prepare a seedbed - loosens up compaction, temporarily creating pathways in soil for air, water, and plant roots - brings soil nutrients up from lower layers in the soil - gets rid of weeds, adding their bulk and returning their nutrients to the soil - mixes in green manures, minerals, and compost


Disadvantages to tilling include: - causes long-term compaction - destroys colonies of important microorganisms - causes erosion of topsoil - brings weed seed up (One weed's seeding means seven years weeding.) - causes faster consumption of organic matter It's best to till as little as possible, only cultivating the surface after planting your crops. The advantages to this are fewer weeds over time, less erosion, and less work. Water management is the cultural practice that I most struggle with. When soil is waterlogged, carbon dioxide can't escape and oxygen can't enter the soil. This causes compaction and diseases. When soil is too dry, it can have a good gas exchange, but plants and soil microorganisms can't thrive. This also causes compaction and diseases. Keep in mind that good water management equals less stress for plants, which equals less insect damage and disease. Using soaker hoses or drip irrigation along with a thick layer of mulch helps the soil to maintain a good balance of moisture.




The next cultural practice that improves soil is planting green manure crops and cover cropping. The terms green manures / cover crops are often used interchangeably. The difference between the two is the type of plants used and the length of time that they are grown before being tilled into the soil. Both green manures and cover crops contribute to the care and feeding of soil in the same ways: - protecting against erosion - helping to retain nutrients and water in the soil - smothering weeds - bringing nutrients up from lower layers of the soil - enriching the soil (especially legumes, by leaving nitrogen behind) - adding organic matter, which can mean an additional 10% moisture retention ability There are no disadvantages to using cover crops and green manures. Some examples of good green manure crops are: -Winter annuals (planted in the fall): such as crimson clover, hairy vetch, and winter rye - Summer annuals (planted in late spring) such as cowpeas, buckwheat, or soybeans - Biennials and perennials such as alfalfa, red clover, crown vetch, and sweet clover are generally thought of as good cover crops, because they can be grown without re-sowing for extended periods of time.


Last but not least of the cultural practices that help to improve soil is crop rotation. Simply put, crop rotation means not planting a crop family in the same place two years in a row. This way, the soil has time to recover the particular nutrients that a certain crop has used before making the same demands of it again. Some simple rules of crop rotation include: -alternate crops that are not related botanically -alternate crops that have different nutritional demands -alternate crops that have different diseases and pests. A simple crop rotation would be to divide the garden in half; plant half of the crops on one side and half on the other, switching the next year. If you have the room, it would be really great to follow a four-year rotation; for example, in year 1 plant leafy plants in bed #1, fruiting plants in bed #2, root crops in bed #3, and legumes in bed #4. In year 2, move each crop one bed to the right, in year 3 move again one bed to the right, and so on. The legumes following the leafy plants will help to replace the nitrogen taken out of the soil before that bed is used by another crop.



Remember I said that the second step to help achieve and maintain soil fertility is with supplements. The first soil amendment that I always use and recommend is Compost - as much as you can get your hands on. If you can do only one thing to help improve your soil, add compost. Why is compost such a wonderful soil amendment? Because it is made up of things that came out of the soil, either directly from the plants, or indirectly from the manure of animals that ate plants. Compost is rich, it's dark and crumbly, it smells wonderful, it holds moisture, it breaks up hard soils and gives body to light soils, it holds minerals up where plant roots can use them, it gives a good home to earthworms and microorganisms, and maybe best of all, it's free if you make it yourself! Compost is not only good for your soil; it's good for your soul. I mentioned earlier the web of life that connects all living things. Birth, growth, reproduction, death and decay are all part of the circle of life - for all life. When you allow your plants to return their nutrients back to the soil as compost, you can turn the sadness of an ending into the joy of a new beginning. I'm not saying that making compost is the answer to all questions, but I find it comforting to take part in the process. It helps to make sense out of a lot of things.


Leaf mold is another wonderful soil amendment. It is easy to make, simple to use, and it has a huge impact on soil health. Leaf mold can increase water retention in soils by as much as 50%, while it provides a great habitat for earthworms and beneficial microorganisms. Again, this is a free way to have instant impact on your soil health. Leaf mold is essentially leaves that are piled up in a contained area (to keep them from blowing away), dampened, and left to decompose for a year or so. You can speed up the process by shredding the leaves and keeping the pile turned and moistened every so often, but it isn't really necessary. So, please stop burning your leaves in the fall - make a leaf mold pile instead. Minerals can also be used to help replenish lost soil fertility. But, before going to the expense and work of adding minerals to your soil, listen to what your soil is saying about what it needs to stay healthy. Soil language can be a tricky one to learn quickly, but there is a handy soil language translator available to everyone at a reasonable price - it's called a soil test.



For around $14, you can get a good basic soil test through the University Extension office. Additional tests for micronutrients bring the price up to around $46, and I don't know if they will make recommendations for organic amendments. For around $50, you can get a comprehensive soil test done by an independent laboratory that will measure the micronutrient levels of your soil and will give you recommendations for organic amendments. A comprehensive soil test is not, in my opinion, an unnecessary expense - it is an investment in the healthcare of your soil. Some of the organic amendments that your soil test may recommend can include mined materials such as lime, gypsum, rock phosphate, greensand, granite dust, or other rock powders; animal products such as bone meal, blood meal, fish emulsion or fish meal, feather meal, or composted manure; or plant products such as alfalfa meal or pellets, soybean meal, kelp meal or seaweed, or dried herbs such as nettle, comfrey, and yarrow. Each of these amendments can have a different effect on the microbial life and even the minerals that are already in your soil, so it is very important to have your soil tested before using them. It is also important to note that, just because something says that it's organic, that doesn't necessarily mean that you'd want to use it in your soil. You've heard me say organic amendments a couple of times and I should explain that the reason you want organic amendments when working to improve your soil is that petroleum-based chemicals only contribute to the problem of soil depletion. Your soil's health won't benefit from or be improved by dousing it with fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, or insecticides. Ever. The word "organic" simply means of, relating to, or derived from carbon-based organisms. Municipal or industrial sewage sludge (called "biosolids") is technically "organic," but your soil really won't benefit from possibly having heavy metals and pathogens mixed into it, and you really don't want to eat any food grown in soil containing it. (You may see this product sold as "peat dirt" or under some other term.) When looking at something that prominently uses the term "organic" on its labeling, look at the ingredient list. Be sure that it says "Certified Organic" and has the name of the certifier listed. If it doesn't have those two things, I assume that the manufacturer is taking advantage of unwary consumers, and I don't buy their products. Unless you are striving for organic certification, most of the organic amendments that you will use to improve your soil will be simple, everyday things that you can make yourself (such as compost and leaf mold), or that you can shovel out of your neighbor's barn, or buy at a local feed store, from gardening catalogs, or over the internet from reputable companies.



I like to use the KISS method of deciding what amendments to use - Keep It Simple, Sunshine!


Just as with the food we eat, the simpler the ingredients that you feed your soil, the better. Alfalfa meal contains - alfalfa. Kelp meal contains - seaweed. Gypsum contains - powdered rock. And so on.... If you're like me, you will find that some soil amendments that you need to buy from out of town can be prohibitively expensive, mainly because of shipping costs. I have found that the most affordable way for me to add amendments such as rock powders to my soil is by putting them in my own homemade potting soil.


At the end of the season, I either cut the plants off at the base, composting the tops and leaving the roots in the soil, or simply let the plants decompose where they are over the winter. I've been doing this for 20 years now, and my soil tests remain really good. Why do I make my own potting soil? When I first started gardening, I bought the pre-made bags of potting soil, and it was okay. But, as I began to make conscious choices about the way that I wanted to garden, I realized that I wanted to make my own potting soil so that I could have some control over what I was growing my plants in. The recipe that I use has evolved over the years, and some years it's tweaked according to the ingredients that I have available. (See recipe at the end of this document.) Please note that, as an organic potting soil test costs around $80, I've never had this recipe tested, but I don't have any complaints about it. Also, please keep in mind that this is potting soil - a growing medium, not a seed-starting medium. Seeds don't want, and sometimes can be harmed by, starting them in a medium with food ingredients in it I use plain peat moss or vermiculite to start most of my seeds, and transplant them into the potting soil after they germinate. I expect that, if you decide to make your own potting soil, you will adjust this recipe to suit your own needs.


The main things to consider when making potting soil are the physical properties, the chemical properties, and the biological properties of the ingredients that you use. The physical properties of the ingredients include: -is the particle size is appropriate to containers (will the soil pour out of the drain holes in the pots as fast as you put it in? If using plug trays, are the particles too big to adequately fill the cell?) -consider the density (will the mix hold plants up?) -you want good aeration and water-holding capacity (it would be best to have at least 10%-20% air space and 40%-60% water-holding capacity when moist) The chemical properties of the ingredients include: -low to moderate nutrient levels -pH near 7 (this means that the pH of ingredients such as sawdust or wood ashes should be tested before using) The biological properties of the ingredients include: -no plant pathogens (don't compost diseased plants!) -decomposition rate should be low (this means that your compost should be completely well-cured and no longer heating) -adequate supply of organic nutrients for growth


I recommend making your potting soil in the fall and letting it sit and mellow until spring. I also recommend testing your potting soil by growing something in it. In the fall, I pot up a few things like turnips or beets to have fresh greens over the winter, and I also bring in a few herbs and pot them up. If they are still alive in the spring, I figure the potting soil is doing its job. So, how do I make potting soil? I start by making sure that I'm taking care of my health. I don't pick up those huge bales of peat moss - I fill 5-gallon buckets from the bales and carry the buckets to my mixing container. I do my mixing outside, and then carry the finished potting soil in the buckets to the storage containers in the greenhouse. Most importantly, I wear a dust mask. These materials are perfectly harmless and I have actually had every one of them in my mouth at one time or another - by accident, of course - but it is best to avoid breathing any dust that you don't have to. I like to use my bare hands to mix potting soil for the same reason I garden without gloves - I don't use chemicals and I believe that any minerals absorbed by my skin can only do me good.



Depending on the amount of potting soil you want to make, you can get a nice container with a lid from almost anywhere. I know that plastic is a petroleum product and we all hate the petroleum companies these days, but there are a few reasons that I use plastic containers: It is relatively inexpensive, it is lightweight, it won't rust out, and when it becomes unusable for some reason, it can be recycled. ***I start by putting the perlite in the container, and wetting it down a bit, just to keep the dust down. I put the perlite in first because I know that when the perlite is distributed evenly, it's all mixed pretty well. Next goes in the minerals and other amendments. Because I fell heir to a bunch of nice frozen yogurt containers with lids, I like to pre-measure the amendments into the containers and store them ready for use. The amendments I use in my potting soil are: Gypsum, Lime, powdered Rock Phosphate, Feather Meal, Kelp Meal, and Greensand. The Gypsum that I use is sold under the brand name "Nutrasoft" and is found at most garden centers. Gypsum is considered to be a good source of calcium and sulfur, and it has a neutral pH.


Lime is the one soil amendment that I use only in my potting soil these days. My soil pH has stayed at a steady 7 for the past 3 years, so I only need to use gypsum for calcium. I do use lime in potting soil because peat moss is acidic. Powdered Rock Phosphate is a highly soluble source of the element phosphorus, which helps plants with their most vital functions, including photosynthesis, respiration, and moisture retention. Feather Meal is made of processed chicken feathers. It works with bacteria in the soil to provide a nice slow, consistent release of nitrogen to the soil. Kelp Meal is dried seaweed. It contains over 70 vitamins and minerals, and has a high Potassium level. Kelp can grow at a rate of 3 feet a day, and is considered an abundant, renewable resource. Greensand is an ancient seabed deposit that is composed mostly of glauconite. Greensand is more of an unusual clay, rather than sand, and it helps soil to retain nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and many micronutrients. ***Next I put in the peat moss, and plenty of water. Finally, the compost goes in. Mix and mix, making sure there is plenty of water. Again, I like to let this mix sit for a couple of months to let it mellow before using it. I cover it with the lid of the container, only because my cats would use it as a potty if I didn't, but every once in awhile I take the lid off and give it a stir, making sure it's plenty moist and gets some fresh air. I'd recommend covering it with a screen of some type to allow it to have good air flow (if you don't have cats). I keep it moist always. Allowing it to dry out could harm some of the beneficial microorganisms that live in the compost.


That's it! I hope that this has been helpful to you, and that you are now inspired to go home and start up a meaningful conversation with your soil.



Some sources of amendments: Compost - Stan Berkbuegler, Green Gardens Compost (573) 547-8256 Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss - Plummer's Hardware in Farmington Nutrasoft - Plummer's Hardware in Farmington or MFA Alfalfa Meal – MFA or Miller's Feed & Pet in Farmington, or Certified Organic from Morgan County Seeds Greensand, Feather Meal, Powdered Rock Phosphate, etc. - Nitron Industries : www.gardeniq.com Morgan County Seeds: www. morgancountyseeds.com (good prices, nice people to deal with)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Windrush Farm Potting Soil Linda A. Williams Windrush Farm This is the recipe for the potting soil that I make and use on Windrush Farm. It is a TOP SECRET recipe, so commit this recipe to memory and compost this page!


I use buckets and scoops to measure the ingredients, but have listed them here in units called “parts” so you can decide for yourself the amount of potting soil to make. For example: if 1 part is a gallon, one fraction-part would be about a scant tablespoon.


1 part Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss (NOT “peat dirt” – Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss) 1 part mature compost or composted manure (cow, horse, rabbit, goat, etc.)

1 part Perlite 1 fraction-part each of the following: Pelletized gypsum (I use brand-name “Nutrasoft”) Lime (calcium carbonate) Powdered Rock Phosphate Feather Meal (or fish meal or alfalfa meal) Kelp Meal Greensand Plenty of fresh water (rainwater or snow water is best!)


I make my potting soil in the fall and keep it moist all winter. By spring it has mellowed and smells heavenly. Please note: This is a growing medium, not a seed-starting medium. For seed starting, use something very plain with no soil food materials in it. Plain vermiculite, sphagnum peat moss, sand, or a combination of these will work best for starting seeds. Potting soil contains ingredients that may contribute to damping-off disease or may inhibit seed sprouting. Another note: If you can’t find or don’t want to use the fraction-part ingredients, a terrific simple potting soil would be made of equal parts Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, Compost, and Perlite. The extra ingredients are just gravy – don’t let a lack of them stop you from making your own potting soil!


The information provided here was previously presented by Linda A. Williams in a series of Continuing Education Organic Gardening classes.

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