Soil Amendment-Improving your garden soil should be the first step you take when you begin to prepare your garden site. Soil amendment is the process of incorporating organic matter into your soil. You are adding various materials to the soil to improve its physical or chemical properties. This may also be called soil conditioning.
According to Wikipedia.com a soil conditioner is a product which is added to soil to improve the soils physical qualities, usually it’s fertility (ability to provide nutrition for plants) and sometimes its’ mechanics.
These materials or soil amendments you add to your garden soil can come from many different sources which we will discuss later in greater detail.
Soil amendments can also improve the permeability and water retention characteristics of your garden soil.
So, let’s learn what there is to soil amendment, and improving your garden soil so you will be ready to plant and grow a beautiful garden in your amended garden soil or what some gardeners refer to as “garden gold”.
HOW IMPORTANT IS GARDEN SOIL?
Soil is the most important element of your garden, as a gardener you want your soil to be in the best condition possible which in turn leads to plants that grow vigorously and naturally resist challenges from pests, diseases and stressful weather.
It is rarely you are lucky enough to have soil that is of perfect quality. That is why amending and improving our garden soil is so important.
WHAT IS SOIL?
To understand about Soil Amendment: Improving your garden soil there are a few things you need to know. First, you need to know what soil is composed of. Soil is composed mostly of mineral particles, air, water, and organic matter in varying quantities. As you can see your soil is very much alive, and your plants need all these things to live.
Next you should know that your garden soil is constantly changing as plants come and go, taking up nutrients and leaving behind there remains, which is then broken down into organic matter by microorganisms in the soil.
And finally, different areas of the U.S. have different types of garden soil. Depending on where you live, and the type of soil you have will determine what additives need to go into your garden soil. Understanding what soil type you have is the first step in soil amendment and improving your gardens’ soil.
WHAT KIND OF SOIL DO I HAVE?
As we learned earlier, soil is composed of mineral paticles, air, water, and organic matter in varying quantities. The amount or portion of each of these determines the type of soil you have.
Below is a breakdown of different soil types and their characteristics.
You can test your soil by grabbing a hand full of moist garden soil and lightly squeezing it. Observe the characteristics of the soil, and determine which type of garden soil you have.
- Sandy soil feels light and drains rapidly
- Clay soil feels heavy, sticky, and becomes waterlogged.
- Medium loam is moisture-retentive yet drains well. This type of soil is considered the best garden soil for growing.
After you determine your soil type you will want to know the texture of your garden soil.
Soil texture is determined by the size of soil particles:
- Sand, which has large particles, does not retain water well. Also, sand is easy to dig in, but is low in fertility.
- Clay soil is moisture retentive and drains slowly. Clay is harder to work but usually very fertile.
- Medium loam is a good mix of the two, (sand and clay) and makes the best garden soil.
The Ideal Garden Soil
Medium loam is the ideal soil. Its’ texture is fine and crumbly, it retains water well and does not become waterlogged. Also, the balance of nutrients found in medium loam makes it a fertile growing garden soil. A good garden loam feels mealy, and it may contain about 50% sand, 25-30% silt, up to 25% clay, and 5-10% organic matter.
After you have determined your garden soil type and texture you will want to know what the pH level of your soil is.
WHAT IS SOIL pH?
The soil pH is the level of acidity or alkalinity measured on a numerical scale of 1-14. A soil with a value of 7 has a neutral pH level. Anything from 1-5 is an acidic soil and anything above 7.5 is an alkaline soil. Most plants will adapt to a garden soil that is in the range of 5.5 to 7.0 pH level. In a high alkalinity,, 7.5 or above, plants have a harder time taking up nutrients, so they fail to thrive. The same goes for plants that are grown in an acidic soil with a pH level below 5.
You may be asking yourself, how do I know what my garden soils’ pH level is? You can determine this with a simple soil test. There are different types of tests.
The pH determines the solubility of nutrients, indicating which nutrients are in the soil and which may need to be added. You can determine this by doing a soil test. There are a couple of different ways you can test your soil. You can send a sample off or take it somewhere that can test it for you, or you can purchase a test kit and do it yourself.
Testing the Garden Soil Yourself
Testing yourself is a pretty simple procedure. There are several tests kits out there. Although, most fall into two categories:
- Liquid based kits-These kits have tubes of liquid test solution. Yo will add your soil to the solution and follow the directions to get your results.
- Powder based kits-These kits requires you to add the powder with distilled water and your soil then follow the directions to get your results.
There are home remedies you can try if you like they include:
- Cider vinegar test-To test the alkalinity of your garden soil add a few drops of the cider vinegar to a soil sample. If it fizzes, the soil is quite alkaline. This may not be precise, but it will give you an idea of your garden soils pH level.
- Baking soda test-To test the acidity of your garden soil wet a soil sample and ad a pinch of baking soda. If the mix fizzes, it may be too acidic for planting.
Once again, these two tests are home remedies that give you a idea of the pH level of your garden soil but to get an accurate reading you should purchase a test kit or have a proper test done.
The Test Results
Your kit should come with a color guide that will tell you what your pH level is. To help you understand I have included a general color guide to give you and idea of what to expect.
- Acidic soil will have a yellow-orange color that indicates a pH level below 7.
- Neutral soil will have a bright green color indicating a pH level of 7.
- Alkaline soil will be a dark green color which indicates a pH level above 7.
Much of eastern North America has slightly acidic soil. This type of soil is especially prevalent in areas with high rainfall because natural leaching by rain contributes to acidic soil conditions. Leaves, pine needles, and fallen trees are all acidic materials, which lead to the formation of acidic soil as they decompose.
Amending Acidic Soil
When amending your acidic soil, you will want to add lime to it, which is basically ground rock. Lime is available in several forms with each having a different application in the garden. The form we will be discussing will be the use of dolomitic limestone in the garden soil. The limestone is used to provide calcium, decrease soil acidity, and condition heavy clay soil. Before adding lime, you will want to know your soils pH level. If the pH level is below 6.0, liming is necessary to help plants take up all the nutrients they need.
The best choice to lower the acidity in your garden soil is to apply dolomitic limestone in small doses. Dolomitic lime is a mixture of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate. The calcium and the magnesium in the limestone give it an advantage over ordinary lime because it is also adding these essential plant nutrients to the garden soil.
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT LIME
Remember that all forms of lime are caustic, so as a safety precaution you will want to wear gloves to protect your hands. If your skin comes in-contact with the limestone, wash off immediately. Also, you will want to wear a dust mask to prevent breathing in particles when handling the lime. As another precautionary measure, be sure to work on a still day so the lime can settle into the soil and not be carried away by wind.
Pelleted or granulated limestone is easier and safer to handle then the powder limestone because it releases fewer airborne particles.
Most commonly found in warm, dry climates where low rainfall levels rarely rinse through the soil, thereby dissolving accumulated salts. Instead, scant soil moisture evaporates away, leaving behind salts and other chemicals.
Having limited natural vegetation also contributes to alkaline soil conditions because very little natural decomposition occurs. As a result, dry alkaline garden soils host fewer soil-borne diseases than rich, moist soils, which have more biological soil activity.
Amending Alkaline Soil
When amending alkaline soil, you will want to add acidic materials such as peat moss, Sulfur, or aluminum sulfate to your garden soil.
There are other way listed below that you can reduce the alkalinity of your soil:
- Improving drainage which will help reduce alkalinity by allowing water to wash through the soil ad carry away alkaline salts. Also, adding plenty of shredded leaves, compost, or other organic matter such as coffee grounds will reduce the alkalinity of your soil.
- Adding a blanket of organic mulch such as, straw or shredded leaves prevents water evaporation, reducing the buildup of alkaline salts.
By adding organic materials to your garden soil, it will help to neutralize your soil regardless of what your pH level is.
ENRICHING YOUR SOIL WITH ORGANIC MATTER
The number one way to improve all soils is by adding organic matter. Any organic matter should be worked into the soil. The best way to do this is to till the garden soil. This combines the materials with the soil and it also aerates it providing oxygen to the microorganism that breaks down organic matter and releases nutrients. To give you an idea of what organic matter is you can find a list of additives below.
Organic Materials Checklist
Here are some good organic mulch additives:
- Newspaper-Who would have thought you could use newspaper, but it makes a great mulching material. Discard any color printed paper and use the black and white pages. You can add it to compost or lay it directly on the ground.
- Rotted animal manure
- Chopped leaves
- Corn cobs (chopped)
- Grass clippings
- Peat moss
- Saw dust
- Wood ashes
Another place to collect organic materials for the garden soil is in the kitchen. In a covered container collect items such as:
- Vegetable peelings
- Fruit skins and cores
- Used tea bags
- Coffee grounds
- Other scraps
Just A Note
Be sure to keep bones, fat, fish, and meat scraps out or they will cause a smell and will attract critters if added to your garden soil.
Apply your scraps by scattering directly into your garden soil or add them to your composting bin.
To find directions on building a homemade compost bin check out this one from Wikihow.com-how to build a compost bin. Or if you would rather purchase one browse this list of compost bins.
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By learning about soil amendment and improving your garden soil, the type and texture of it and how to determine your pH level you will know how to get your garden soil in top shape for planting.
Adding organic matter will help your soil to become as neutral as possible while adding the nutrients that your plants need to thrive. This will help you to grow a beautiful and productive garden.
If you would like more gardening tips check out my article on 19 Gardening tips-Do these before you plant. Find out some important steps you should take before you plant your garden.
Thanks for reading, see ya again soon!