Your neighbor's yard is basically perfect, but perhaps its perfection comes by all the wrong ways: pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and those terrifying plastic gnomes (I'm sure they're really nice gnomes!). Bigger and better plants can be yours--and no, you don't need to resort to the toxic methods your neighbor employs. In fact, your soon-to-be gorgeous yard can come from one simple thing: good soil. Lucky for your gnome-free garden, you can improve your garden soil naturally with organic materials.
First step: You need to do a soil test. (Go ahead and put on your best white blazer, I'll wait.) The results will tell you which organic material--amendments--to add to your soil for the best garden on the block.
Soil amendments are like Constitutional amendments--they're what you add to something to make it better. For soil these include, but are not limited to: lime, peat moss, gypsum, and vermiculite.
Your state's university system has an agriculture department or cooperative extension. Contact them to request a soil test kit which will cost approximately $20-25.
The test kit will come with instructions on what to do. This will involve taking samples of soil from various parts of your garden. You will send the soil you collect to the testing facility, and in a few weeks they will send you a complete report of exactly what is in your soil.
What's most helpful is that the testing facility will also tell you what to add to your soil to optimize it for growing. For example, if your soil is sandy then you will amend it by adding peat moss.
Why is this important?
Soil is a living, breathing ecosystem, and each patch is diverse. Just as your home is different from your perfect neighbor's, each patch of soil is different from its neighbor. You want to know exactly what your soil is made up of so that you can amend it to optimize its growing potential.
While you're waiting for your soil test results to come back from the lab, let's learn a bit about soil.
Your soil will fall into one (or a combination) of these types:
Clay soil is a dense type of soil. It doesn't have as much air as other soils, but that density makes it ideal for retaining water.
Silty soil is a smooth soil that also retains water well, but it isn't as nutrient rich as other soil types.
Sandy soil is going to require extra TLC. It is made up of large particles and has trouble retaining water. Also, it is difficult for roots to grow in this soil.
Chalky soil is another troublesome soil. It is made up of limestone and has a low water content. Because of its high lime count, if you don't amend it, this soil will cause plants to turn yellow and grow poorly. Like sandy soil, it is going to require extra attention.
Peaty soil is very dark soil--nearly black. It is one of the best types of soil for growing, but it may have trouble draining and retain too much water.
Count yourself lucky if you have loamy soil! This is a great soil because it is a combination of sand, clay, silt and humus. It retains both water and nutrients well.
Whatever type of soil is in your garden, the right amendment will turn ho-hum plants into gems.
There's no such thing an all-purpose soil amendment, but there are some organic materials that benefit all gardens.
You probably know about compost, but seaweed and manure are also useful amendments for any soil type.
Are you lucky enough to live near the ocean? Then throw the kids, dog, and a few plastic trash bags in the car and head to your nearest beach! Kids will love helping you to collect seaweed on the beach (and your dog will love sniffing sand and crashing waves). Bring the seaweed home and use it as a mulch for your garden. As it decomposes it will enrich the soil with vitamins, nutrients, enzymes, and amino acid.
Some folks worry about the salt in seaweed and how it will affect their garden. True, too much salt is not helpful, but anecdotal evidence suggests that most gardens thrive with seaweed in spite of the salt.
Those seaweed collecting kids (and dog) will also enjoy a trip to the farm. Stop by any farm with livestock and ask if they sell manure. Chances are they'll be happy to sell you some. But if not (or if you don't live near a farm), then any garden supply store will sell decomposed manure.
Just as we make healthy decisions for ourselves, organic gardeners make healthy choices for their soil. And just like self-improvement, soil improvement can take time and patience. Take baby steps, embrace the journey, and enjoy the bounty!
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Father and son in garden image via Shutterstock