From garden dirt to garden gold

Spring is here and the enthusiasm for gardening is blossoming right along with the crocuses, tulips and plum trees. Yay! Spring!

Before you run into your garden with seed packets in hand there is something we need to chat about, your soil. In my early (and very thrifty) days of gardening I utterly ignored my soil, treating it like dirt. Guess what? The plants protested and refused to grow well.

You may have overheard an organic farmer or two say this: a good farmer’s job is to grow the soil, not the plants. I finally get it.

Healthy soil is the secret to:

  • more success from your gardening efforts
  • a zillion worms for your kids to dig up
  • the best tasting food
  • going from garden plot to ecosystem

kid holding worm

2015 is the International Year of Soils. Treating your soil like dirt is so 2000’s. So, let’s get to it!

The right soil conditions start with your seedlings. You might wonder why there are so many different bags of ‘dirt’ available. Plants need different things during different stages of their life and different kinds of plants have different needs too. If you want to start seedlings inside (and that is so much fun for kids) it’s worth investing in a seedling mix. Seedling mixes are soils blended to be lighter in texture to make it easier for roots and shoots to move and do not dry out as easily so you don’t torture your baby shoots with drought if you miss a day of watering.

For your basic garden soil you are again faced with a lot of choices—bags of compost, fertilizer and who knows what—what does a smart gardener choose? First, here’s the rationale from Westcoast Seeds for why chemical fertilizers are not as good as organic:

Chemical fertilizers combine other byproducts of the petrochemical industry and other chemicals to supply intense amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium to the soil. They do not feed soil biology or build healthy soil. Organic fertilizers combine naturally occurring materials and minerals to supply safe amounts of N, P, and K to your crops so that they grow vigorously, but at a natural rate. Meanwhile, they feed microbial action in the soil and contribute to a more healthy and diverse soil biology.

Let me add that if you’re gardening with kids avoiding chemicals makes gardening safer for everyone. But buyer beware. Unlike organic labels on food items “organic” is not well regulated in the garden world and misleading claims are rampant. You can look for the OMRI seal, this means a product has been okayed for use in certified organic operations in the US or Canada. A great start. Staff at a trusted garden shop are also a good resource.

What you want to add into your garden will depend somewhat on where you live. Here on the west coast our gardens tend to get acidic from all of the winter rains, so while adding Nitrogen (N) to your soil through composted manure is a good start you will also want to add lime (to reduce the acidity) and something with Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K), bone meal or rock phosphate are popular choices.

An all-purpose complete organic fertilizer is a good choice to bring nutrients (N, P, K) into your soil along with micronutrients that will build up the health of your soil. This also ensures the fruit and veggies you grow will be nutrient-packed too.

Stop treating garden like dirt

If you want to mix your own garden cocktail the tried-and-true recipe for west coast garden soil love comes from the pioneer of small plot vegetable gardening in the Pacific Northwest, Steve Solomon.

4 parts seed meal (i.e. flax or cottonseed)
1 part rock phosphate OR 1/2 part bone meal
1 part lime
1/2 part kelp meal

Delicious! Well, delicious if you’re a garden bed waking up from a long winter’s nap.

Now it’s time to dig in the dirt and prepare for sowing seeds. Do you have a secret ingredient for garden success? Please share 🙂

’til soon.

PS. Want to become a soil ninja? Cultivate your inner scientist and take a free online soil course with FutureLearn.

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