HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (6/3/13) - There are a few scents that, while I find extremely satisfying, others may find odd. The smell of freshly tilled earth is one of them. It might not be the smell of the dirt itself that calls to me, but rather of what it signifies. It is a blank canvas yearning to become more. It is a reminder that in a few short months it will be the home to watermelon, sunflowers, onions and sweet potatoes. It is the anticipation of a summer spent canning tomatoes and cucumbers, and it makes my mouth water. It is taking charge and being self-sufficient, even if it is just in this small way.
As my girls kick off their shoes and explore the cool ground with their feet, I do the same. Maybe it is the kid in me, or maybe it is a way of spiritually trying to connect with the earth itself, but it is something that I have always enjoyed doing. As gardeners, we spend a lot of time worrying about what goes on above the ground. Carefully considering how our plants look, if they are growing the way they should and inspecting them for nibbles from various creatures that might want to eat them before we get the chance. I know this is true for me. I spend hours leafing through seed catalogues looking at pictures of striped tomatoes, purple carrots, and yellow watermelon. I like growing things that are unique and pick most of my harvest based on appearance. Once all is planted, I am vigilant to make sure everything is well-watered and the weeds are kept back. If truth be told, I think very little of what is going on beneath the surface, because “out of sight, out of mind.” However, lately I’ve been feeling like this line of thinking isn’t quite useful to my gardening experience. The soil is an essential part of the well-being of your plants; shouldn’t it be given more credit?
While it may sound like the title to a strange horror film, the soil is alive. Composed of vast root structures, bacteria, fungi, small mammals and reptiles and millions of insects, there is an entire world under the plants in your garden. This underground ecosystem is actually more diverse than the one above, and everything is working together to influence the health of the other. In fact, research published early this month demonstrates the important connection between underground activity and plant health. Researchers from the University of Aberdeen, the James Hutton Institute, and Rothamsted Research, have discovered that plants, communicating through fungi in their root systems, are able to “warn” other plants of aphid attacks. This warning signals the other plants to release a chemical pheromone that draws in natural predators of the aphid. The wasp arrives, preys on the aphids, and the plants are safe again. The fungus then continues to enjoy the nutrients released by the plant during photosynthesis, so it is a mutually beneficial relationship. Healthy fungi, healthy plant.
Even though it is difficult to tell by looking, the soil is bustling with activity aimed at sustaining the delicate balance of life above and below. The healthier soil you have available for your plants, the more apt they will be to produce a generous crop. The same goes for your little seeds. They will never reach their full potential if you plant them in lousy dirt. By providing a nutrient rich environment, you are giving your garden the upper hand against pests and potential diseases that might threaten your crop. You’ll find that you’ll need to use fewer pesticides if you’ll just take the time to pay attention to your dirt. Even if you are lucky enough to start out with nutrient rich loamy ground, chances are it will not stay that way. Plants expend a lot of energy and require a lot of nutrients to grow and produce the vegetables we love so much. They take from the soil, and unless we are ready to replace those minerals lost, they will not be there the next year. If your expectations for your garden involve a high yield, it will pay to spend some time thinking about what is going on beneath the surface.
Testing your Soil
How do we know if our soil is in ideal shape for planting? The most efficient way to do so is to contact your local extension office and have a soil sample sent off. There is a little bit of work involved and a nominal fee, but this is your best bet for the most accurate results. However, there are also at-home, DIY methods that you can use that will give you a ballpark idea of what you are working with.
The pH of your soil has to do with how readily your plant can take in nutrients. You are aiming for neutral soil, which is soil that isn’t too acidic and isn’t too high in alkaline. It’s baby bear soil; soil that is “just right.” (I rephrased this a tad bit) While it is true that some plants prefer a more acidic or alkaline environment, such as blueberries or clematis, the majority of garden plants will do fine in neutral soil. You can purchase kits to test your pH at any local garden center, but you can also test at home using vinegar and baking soda. Keep in mind that this method won’t give you an exact reading, but you’ll be able to get some idea of your soil’s pH this way. Typically, to help neutralize your soil, you can add in organic matter such as compost. This will help to shift away from the two extreme sides of the pH scale and bring your soil to a neutral pH level so your plants can thrive.
Supplies: You’ll need a few containers, vinegar, baking soda and a tablespoon.
Step 1: Go to the area you plan on gardening and scoop up a few samples of dirt from different areas throughout your plot.
Step 2: Mix all these samples together and make sure they are well incorporated.
Step 3: Take two tablespoons from your mixture and place them into two separate jars so you’ll have two jars with two tablespoons each of the mixture. Dampen slightly.
Step 4: Mix a tablespoon of baking soda with two tablespoons of distilled water. Pour this into one of the soil sample containers. If it fizzes, the soil is too acidic and ph is low.
Step 5: Pour two tablespoons of vinegar into the other container, if it fizzes, the soil has too much alkaline content and the ph is too high.
Step 6: No reaction, pH is neutral. Congrats.
The “texture” of the soil applies to what particles are most evident in its composition. The main particles are sand, silt, and clay, and it’s how much or how little these particles are present in the soil that will determine its ability to hold moisture and nutrients. You can tell a lot about your soil’s texture by simply touching it. The largest of the particles is sand. It is the easiest to determine because, well, it will feel gritty like sand. Silt is the next largest particle and has a texture similar to flour, whereas clay, which is the smallest, feels somewhat sticky.
Another way to test the soil’s texture is by using a jar and one tablespoon of dishwashing powder. Mix one cup of soil into a jar of water and shake aggressively for a few minutes. Set the jar aside and wait until the layers settle. This may take a few minutes to a few days depending on the makeup of particles in your soil. Sand will fall first, silt second, and clay last. Once everything has settled, measure the layers. If everything is pretty equal, you have what is called “loam”, which means your soil is made up of equal portions. Loam is the ideal soil to have.