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  • Writer's pictureHeidi

It All Starts With Soil

When I was 18 years old I moved into a house where the next door neighbor gardened the back yard. I got to know him and each year he gave me a bigger and bigger section of the garden to work. I learned so much from this 70 year old man; like sprinkling flour on the early morning, dew-soaked leaves of broccoli and cauliflower to kill the cabbage worms. And to not let these plants go to seed (aka flower)....those pretty "butterflies" that I was letting enjoy those flowers were actually cabbage moths laying the eggs that turn into the cabbage worms, duh!

Within a decade the neighbor had moved to a retirement home and I was managing the 5,000 sq. ft. garden on my own! I became pretty confident in my gardening skills, there wasn't anything I struggled with growing.

Crimson Clover seeds in fall of 2019

Little did I know that my successes had less to do with my abilities and more to do with the health of the soil. That neighbor had worked and cared for that garden plot for over thirty years and I had know idea what a gift I had been given.

The land at our current house is hilly and rocky so we are limited to raised beds here. In 2019 our neighbor agreed to let us dig up his flat, sun-exposed lawn to create a 1/4 acre garden plot (10,000 sq. ft.)!!! My naïve ass thought cover cropping with clover over the winter was going to be enough to convert this plot of grass on compacted clay into a viable garden by 2020. While the clover didn't cause any harm, it did little to remediate the health of this land.

We have spent the last three years applying various applications and methods to little or no avail.

  • Cover cropping: Involves broadcast planting of a crop to cover the soil to aid in erosion control, suppress weeds and improve soil fertility. We have over wintered crimson clover as it is known to grow down to 5 degrees and will break up clay soil

  • Chop and drop: We planted oats in the late summer and by late fall we chapped them down and let them drop to the ground. This creates mulch for the garden, adding nutrients to the soil and protecting from winter elements.

  • Composting: We get our eggs from the neighbors down the street and they are kind enough to collect their chicken poop into 5 gallon buckets for us. We mix this in with our kitchen scraps and yard waste to create a nutrient rich compost that we work into the garden soil.

Even with all these practices in place for the past three years, we are still struggling to yield a strong, healthy crop. We finally decided to get the soil tested so we can isolate the problem and work directly towards solving it. Our friend, Farmer Katie, warned me that test results from compacted clay soil may not show any signs of deficiencies as the problem is not always a lack of nutrients but rather poor drainage (water logged roots cannot penetrate the heavy soil).

Our results from My Soil test

Take a look at our test results. Not only are we plagued with heavy clay, our soil is drastically lacking in most of the vital nutrients it needs to feed plants, major bummer!

The website recommends applying a 3-4-4 fertilizer. These number combinations refer to the macronutrients in the blend; nitrogen (N)-phosphorus (P)-potassium (K). It goes on to say that we should apply a NPK of 3-4-4 at 8lbs per 100 sq. ft. Remember we are dealing a 10,000 sq. ft plot, that would be 800 lbs of bagged fertilizer!!!

Our site can also benefit a dolomitic lime application to raise pH levels; we would only need 400-500 lbs of that! And with low levels of sulfur, calcium, magnesium, zinc and boron, micronutrient applications would also be something to consider. While our NPK levels are the most important needs to address, these other factors are not to be ignored.

We are ready to take dramatic measures to aid our soil health, but adding in 1,200+ lbs of various products does not seem like the most cost effective or practical method to get where we want to be. I have a few ideas percolating, but still on the fence about which ones to implement. I am strongly considering take this plot out of production for the 2023 growing season; putting the focus on ways to improve the soil.

Example of a straw bale planting from

Another option I am seriously contemplating is creating a straw bale garden; lining each row of the garden with straw bales, watering, fertilizing and planting directly into them. This concept would allow for us to not miss a growing season while not relying on the soil for nutrients. The bales will also break down and decompose over the course of the year, adding all of those nutrients into the garden naturally. Ben is not convinced that straw bale gardening is going to be an efficient answer to our problems. It may prove to be a more labor intensive, costly concept. The jury is still out....stay tuned to see what verdict returns.

How does your garden grow? Is your soil healthy? Have any tried and true methods that you care to share with us? We are open to any and all suggestions as we pondering over the best solution to our situation. And remember, we are gardening on borrowed land; any ideas we have need to be cleared with the landowner.

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