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What do you know about your garden soil?

July 13, 2008
By MICHELE ACQUARO, Sacandaga Garden Club, For The Leader-Herald

Everyone loves a green, lush lawn with a garden full of colorful flowers and healthy vegetables.

Did you ever wonder why some folks have them and others do not?

The nature of your soil is one of the most important factors in successful gardening.

Soil provides the water, air and nutrients needed for growing. Just a visual inspection of your garden soil can tell you what is good or bad about it. Dark soil indicates a bountiful supply of organic material (this is good). Brown or red soil provides good air and water. Yellow soil indicates imperfect drainage. Mottling or streaking in soil is produced by periodic water problems. A blue-green or gray color to the soil tells you that it is continuously wet and saturated (not good).

The water content in soil is important for mineral absorption, temperature control and microbial health. The soil texture influences the needed balance between water absorption and elimination. A coarse structure allows for the free flow of water and air, but if it is too coarse (e.g. sand) the water cannot be held and it percolates too quickly.

This condition allows water and nutrients to pass along too quickly. An optimal soil structure is called loam. It is a blend of sand, silt and clay. Loam allows water and air to pass but holds onto enough molecules to create a bond with the mineral nutrients. Clay can have a heavy mineral content, but it will not allow for a proper flow of air and carbon dioxide and will create water saturation of the soil.

Therefore, the garden soil must be amended to create the optimal conditions for plant growth. You can add organic matter (compost, manure, grass clippings and leaf compost) to increase water and nutrient holding power in soil. Organic material will also feed the microbes that help create a good soil structure.

Now that we have created the proper physical conditioning of the soil, it is also important to adjust the acidity. Just as the pool owner checks the swimming pool pH, so does the gardener check the soil pH. Most garden soil in our area will register a pH between 6 and 7. A pH reading lower than 6 will indicate acid soil and over 7 will be alkaline. Most plants can grow happily between a pH of 6 and 7. However, there are those examples of blueberries, azaleas and rhododendron that prefer a pH of 5.5 to 5 (acidic). How do we know what the pH of our soil is? Do a pH test. The master gardeners at the Cornell Cooperative Extension can test a sample of your garden soil for you. You can drop off a bagged sample at the extension office in Johnstown. (Call 762-3909 for information)

Nutrients are less available and beneficial bacteria are less active in soil that is too acidic. Plants will absorb different minerals at rates adjusted to the plant's pH compatibility.

Soil pH can be raised (more alkaline) by adding limestone or wood ash and can be lowered (more acidic) by adding ammonium sulfate or peat moss. Do not be afraid to add compost to any planting since compost is a neutral substance that does not affect the soil pH level. Hopefully you have become a more knowledgeable gardener. Take care of your soil and it will work for you.



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