The Dirt on Dirt

Let's talk about your garden soil. You can't grow healthy plants unless you've got healthy soil, and there's more to it than haphazardly adding a bag of fertilizer or some half-baked compost. I'm going to walk you through the basics of garden soil management from soil testing to fertilizers to crop rotation to cover crops to composting. It's a lot to talk about, so I'm going to break it down into a few parts.

So let's dive in! First up, soil tests. 

If you're serious about growing anything, you need to get a soil test. If you don't know what's in your soil, you're flying blind. Your local agricultural extension office should be able to provide you with a small box for gathering your soil sample along with written instructions. (If you don't know what an extension office is, Google your county name and "agricultural extension." A wealth of knowledge is available to you there!) You'll probably have to mail your sample box into a lab specified in the test directions, along with a check for the test fee. They usually cost in the ballpark of $10. You'll want to gather your test sample when the soil is dry and before you add any fertilizers to your soil. Fall is the best time to get a test, but any time is better than no time. 

There are definitely soil tests that are better than others, but your basic soil test should show you your pH and nutrient levels. If you can get one that shows you your level of organic matter, that's even better! The soil tests will come with recommendations about what kinds of amendments to apply and at which rates in order to achieve optimum nutrient levels. 

So, let's say you've gotten your soil test back, and it has the recommendations for how much of each nutrient you need to add to your soil. How do you know how much fertilizer to apply? Well, you could get out your pencil and paper and practice your basic arithmetic, but I love a shortcut. This calculator from Texas A&M is great. You can enter the numbers from your soil test that show how many parts per million of each nutrient is present in your soil. You'll also enter the numbers from the fertilizer grade of your preferred fertilizer. (The grade is the numbers that you find on the front of your fertilizer bag. It might say "4-3-4" or "20-20-20." Those numbers indicate how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is in the mix.) The calculator tells you how much of your specific fertilizer to apply per 1000 square feet.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

Your animals will thank you for using animal-safe fertilizers.

So which fertilizer should you use? Lucky for you, I have a strong preference to share. For generic garden fertilizers, I highly recommend Mighty Grow. It's organic, processed poultry litter that slowly releases over a 90 day period. I've used it for a couple of years now, and it's my favorite. I particularly like it, because it's considered pet safe, and I have a dog that will gladly roll around in and lick the soil when it's extra-fragrant from fertilizing. In my raised beds, I add 13 lbs of Mighty Grow per 1000 square feet. My beds are about 72 square feet, so I need just under one pound of Mighty Grow per bed. (Three cups of Mighty Grow fertilizer equals one pound.) I top dress with the Mighty Grow, meaning that I just use a scoop to scatter the pellets right on top of the soil, then water it in thoroughly. I fertilize with Mighty Grow every three months. 

Alright, you've made it through the tedious part of garden soil management! Stay tuned; we've got cover crops, crop rotations, and composting ahead of us. Do you have a favorite fertilizer that you like to use? Any questions about soil tests? You can drop it in the comments below!

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Getting Ready for Garlic

Garlic is one of my favorite crops to grow. It's a crop that doesn't take a lot of time or maintenance, but the payoff is huge. Who doesn't love fresh garlic? No one. I wouldn't trust someone who doesn't love garlic.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

Two fertilizers and the view from my kitchen window.

I order my garlic every year from Peaceful Valley. I typically grow both hardneck and softneck garlic. I like the scapes that the hardneck garlic provides, but I like to be able to braid my garlic for storage, like you do with softneck. Back in early October, I planted two beds of Music, a hardneck variety, and three beds of California Early White, a softneck variety. I planted an extra bed of California Early White, because I plan on harvesting one of the beds early before its bulb fills out to use as "green garlic." (I'm serious about my garlic, okay?)

Like I said, garlic doesn't require a lot of maintenance. I weed the beds fairly regularly. It likes to be mulched over the winter. It does require a little bit of fertilization, though, and that's what I spent this balmy, 78 degree President's Day doing. 

My rule of thumb is to fertilize garlic three times: once in planting, once on Valentine's Day, and once on St. Patrick's Day. (I'm a little bit late this year, but that's alright.) Garlic likes a lot of nitrogen when it's still in its leafing stage, before it starts growing its bulb, so I use a 50-50 blend of worm castings and blood meal. Once I combine my fertilizers, I side dress each garlic plant with a small scoop of the mix and try to work it down into the soil an inch or two. I'll do this exact same thing again in a month, but then after that, I stop fertilizing and let nature do its thing. If you fertilize too late, it would encourage the plant to continue a vigorous leaf growth when you want it working on growing a bigger bulb. 

As I keep saying, it's been a bizarrely warm winter, so I'm guessing that my garlic is going to be ready earlier than usual this year. I can typically harvest green garlic in April, scapes in May, and bulbs in June. If the weather keeps this current pattern going, I'll be about a month ahead of that schedule. If the bulbs start filling out early, I'll adjust my fertilization schedule. Good growing is all about watching what nature brings you and adapting.


Short sleeves and short dresses in February. 

Short sleeves and short dresses in February.