NEIGHBORHOOD GARDEN FOR APRIL 2, 2016 *************************************************************





          We fuss about clay year round because water runs off, digging is hard, and roots have trouble going through it. So what are we going to do? For me, compost is the answer. NOT SAND!!! In small spots I dig a trench and fill it with compost or in many cases just frosted plants in the fall and then cover with soil, and then give it a good watering. By spring it has settled down and some decay has occurred which will continue as the roots of a new plant go down into the improved soil.  Some times I add a little nitrogen from a lawn fertilizer on top to speed the process. The next time I dig there the soil is much better, looser, and easier to work with. Called trench composting it works for me.

          Clay soil is made up of tiny particles but those particles contain and hold nutrients for your plants much better than sandy soil that drains so fast. The compost holds water and nutrients as well as air space for roots to go through. But we must not add sand to break clay soil down as clay and sand is the formula for making concrete unless you have almost as much sand as clay in your mixture. The more you can do with your soil in the fall the better your crops in the spring. Some people do not like bulbs that have to be dug every fall but after years of adding compost the digging gets much easier. 

          Have you noticed that some “potting soils” do not contain soil at all? I still like soil based potting or container mixes as they are heavier and help to hold the pot down and thus not as likely to tip over. Some plants, such as ORCHIDS prefer loose chunky soil and naturally live in the “V’s” made where branches join the tree trunks. Their food and more soil blows in every year. A few house plants you can buy now are not in pots but fastened to a board or a limb in MOSS, and tied in place so you can dunk the plant to keep it moist.

          A good soil is 50% soil particles and organic matter, 25% air pockets, and 25% water pores. The parent material was rock. Climate then determines how it breaks down. Rain and snow help the process but are responsible for working it deeper. Alternate freezing and thawing breaks the rocks down and then the tiny soil organisms continue the process. Animals and plants release material by decay after they die or as manure while living.

          In town there can be a great division of soil types from the digging of basements, moving of rocks, and then moving the soil back mixed differently. Do you have sand, silt, or clay? Think of the surface space occupied by each granule. Clay can provide thousands more area surface to hold on to the fertilizer and water than sand. Loam is a balanced mixture of sand and clay, making it ideal for our flower and vegetable gardens.

          You can check your drainage by digging a hole on foot by one foot and one foot deep. Fill it with water. Refill the hole with water.  If you have well drained soil the water will run out at the rate of about 1 inch per hour.  If it runs out too slow or too fast, add organic matter.  If you have added compost and it feels crumbly but the water drains slowly, you may have a hard layer of clay (hard pan) or a layer of rock, just under the top soil.  The only way to correct this is to dig deeper and break up that hard pan that keeps the water from draining or remove as much of the rock as you can. One cause of “Hard Pan” is running a tiller at the same depth year after year.  The tines beat down on the soil and cause it to compact at that level. One of our best friends here is the earthworm who digs tunnels that aids in drainage so encourage your worms.

          Compost worked into your soil is the best way to improve your soil.  Mulching is a slower way but has many good things going for it. It keeps your soil from drying out so fast, and keeps the roots cooler as it breaks down into food. I do both.

Copyright 2016