The most important aspect to consider when planning for your garden or homestead is your soil rather than just your plant selection. This will increase your germination and yields very quickly. This includes resistance to pests and disease. Your soil is hands down your biggest priority when getting started. Spend a lot of time gathering information about your native soil framework. I’m going to save you a lot of time by showing you what I researched to figuring out what was ideal to grow in my climate. Remember, what works in North Carolina may not always be true for northern Texas, even if we share similar annual temperature ranges. In Organic Gardening the priority is to fertilize the soil, not the plant.
There are a few systems we need to understand about our context above all else.
What is your temperate zone?
What is your native soil composition?
(image credit: http://soilsensor.com/soil-types/)
Amending your soil with the right nutrients and composition will help you achieve ideal soil for your plants. Every plant is going to have it’s own soil structure preferences but if you are just starting out with Loamy Soil and have a lot of it, you should feel really lucky.
Mulching is a necessity to keeping your garden weed free. I have a huge variety of resources to take advantage of for composting and mulching needs on the property and hopefully you can find yours. Organic Mulching saves you work because it inhibits excessive weed seeds from growing. There are a few sources of mulching that can be located on the property for me, and I use them as much as I can. In Organic Gardening we want low weed pressure and we want no bare soil. Mulching increases fertility over time, and decreases weed pressure. Landscape fabrics and Wood Chips are two popular options in market gardening, as they are easily sourced and often low-cost.
pH and Water Retention
Before we speak about nutrients and fertility, let’s make sure your soil will be capable of holding on to the nutrients you want to apply to make your soil healthy.
The term pH refers to how acidic or alkaline the soil is and is referenced on a scale from 0 – 14 with 0 being highly acidic like battery acid, and 14 being highly alkaline drain cleaner. 7 is neutral, distilled water. Plants tend to like neutral with a few exemptions like blueberries, who love acidic soil, you may want to invest in the same pH meter as I did and run multiple tests as well as soil nutrient testing. I won’t get into nutrients or fertilizers in this article but realize that it takes some time to adjust the soil pH so you are going to want to figure that out before you start planting. Especially if you are trying to figure out why your soil isn’t healthy enough or if you want to produce more out of your space. A Nutrient test and a pH test should point you in the right direction and I have also found that pH amendments don’t work very quickly. Wait 40 to 60 days after amending before testing and adding more. In my experience, a supple amendment of well-finished bed mix and an adequate pH level is a great starting point for your raised beds. There are also crops that can be grown to fix nutrients into the ground. Dolomite Lime and Wood Ashes are known to help adjust the pH of your soil. Look into more resources about application rates for your soil type.
The idea of having Loamy soil is also to have soil that is durable, releases and holds water. Utilizing Peat Moss and Vermiculite you can change the soil consistency really quickly with these easily sources products. Here is an example of something you can get from Amazon at 18 quarts. I was able to find a 4 Cubic Foot bag locally at Southern States at a very reasonable rate.
In the early days, when French Intensive gardening was developing, people had high access to horses. They were the primary form of transportation and their droppings were abundant. It was easily obtained and utilized as a source to maintain fertility in the fields. Horse manure must be composted and never added directly to the bed. Horse manure contains 19 pounds of nitrogen per ton, 14 pounds of phosphate and 36 pounds of potassium. (1. Davis, 2004)
As with all composts and manure processes one must be very wary of the potentiality of spreading diseases and contaminating surrounding waterways with bacteria. This is highly important because of the nature of how much salt the manure has within it, the rate of which it can affect humans and disturb natural wildlife Eco-systems. Please compost properly, unfinished compost contains phytotoxic chemicals that prevent plants from growing. Horse manure in particular is best left in piles alone for over one year to be ready for use or composted with plant debris long enough for it to actually break down the salinity and phytotoxins.
I personally have been unable to find available horse manure. I haven’t even seen any horses since farming in Leicester so I will use Cow Manure for my beds. Grass-fed Cow is said to have the highest nutrient content available and it can be located organically at a hardware store for cheap or delivered to you since it’s highly manufactured. Same concepts apply, you want to age it, but the bags come aged, and odorless.
Strike a deal with an organic cow or horse farmer, maybe it can be worth both of your whiles. Save him some time and clean up while growing yourselves some food. Just be sure to age any and all manure properly!
I simply work the compost in to get a good mix with this 4 tine cultivator.
I also grabbed an extendable 3 tined Cultivator by Corona for quicker jobs. They don’t carry mine anymore so here is the closest one.
You do not want to over cultivate if you are growing using the raised bed method. The more you cultivate the more weedy the soil can become. Over cultivation also causes the microbes that form over a long time to break up, making cultivation an as-needed based maintenance. Once we get the garden amended and productive, we want to avoid cultivating and tillage as much as possible. Try to only cultivate the top two or three inches of soil right before you plant if it is necessary, otherwise apply compost and rake into place. Rakes are very essential for different types of jobs on the farm. Here is a simple Bow Rake by True Temper, I have one of these along with many other bed prep rakes.
How intensely are the plants going to feed on the soil? You can plan your crop rotation around your amendments or you can plan to amend once a year heavily and plant low feeders after high feeders. Growing Radishes after Tomatoes is a good rotation plan because you want to avoid growing the same families in the same spots. This will aid in fertility and reduce disease. One can fertilize with something like composted chicken manure between plantings or you can add some of your own well-aged compost before the season begins. I think the choice is purely up to context and how available your resources may be during the season. I chose to add chicken manure between plantings one time this season and it was enough for multiple harvests.
As you can see above, we are in a heavy clay soil. If this soil gets dry it can become really compact and inhibits plant germination. In the winter with dry soil, it becomes waterlogged from the lack of plant roots that properly drain the soil.
Here is a bed that was prepped from clay soil in a small raised bed. Starting small is very important!
When I first arrived to this site, it had been long neglected. The soil was bare and not rich or fertile. Various crop plants (as well as weeds!) were growing, but I had to clear them as the herbs had all developed some form of rot and were no longer viable. Here are some pictures of the beds when I first encountered them. the large cilantro herb had ‘suds’ from becoming a Spiddle Bug habitat. Suds are soapy or foamy places on plants that parasitic or pest insects are using as habitat. Adults and nymphs (a young insect) suck plant juices from crops. Spiddle Bugs come from conventionally maintained hay fields, which migrate to other areas after hay is harvested. Adults are oval and tan, and they are generally a 1/4-1/2 inch in length. We do not want to raise spiddlebugs on Earth Vale. Sorry little guys!
After amending the beds with Cow Manure, Mushroom Compost, Vermiculite, and a small amount of Peat Moss here was the germination rate of the late-season Arugula I planted in mid-September. Beds two and three were planted with long-term Marigolds, Purple Basil, and a few quick Radish harvests to test things out. Bed four was cover cropped all summer and fall with very similar amendments.
Bed 3; we planted Baby Belle Radish, Purple Basil, Tomato, and Marigolds. These plants all make very great companions as long as you plant the Radishes on the side of the bed to receive the most sun.
Marigolds make excellent butterfly homes!
So the end result was a massive harvest of Arugula, Spinach, Radish, Herbs and Flowers. We are going to cover crop them through next spring and do it all again. I hope this information helps you make a better decision with your garden next year!
Enjoy the rest of the pictures from the Summer Garden at Earth Vale.
The soil mixture we use for clay-based Raised Beds in Zone 7a is
- 1/3 Peat Moss
- 1/3 Vermiculite
- 1/3 Compost This is a 1/3 Mix of Composted Cow Manure, 1/3 Mushroom Compost, and 1/3 Chicken Manure
You can substitute your own garden compost for the mushroom compost, and you can substitute horse manure for the cow manure as well.
How much bed mix you need is up to you and how high you want your beds. It also will depend on the native soil consistency and how much you plan to grow in the season. How deep those plants need to be should also a concern.
Organic Mulching Options:
- Shredded Leaf Mulch
- Pine Bark Chips
- Grass Clippings
- Seedless Straw
You shouldn’t need more than an inch or two of mulch, as it will remain and break down over time. Reapply as you see fit and be sure they are coming from clean sources. Rotten logs don’t make good wood chips.
- Davis, JG Swinker (2004) Horse Manure Management from www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/livetk/01219.html