Assessing Your Soil For the Growing Season

Assessing Your Soil For the Growing Season

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The growing season is upon us. Preparing your garden beds every spring is crucial for growing great vegetables all season long. This includes building up soils with amendments and compost, and preparing a loose, aerated seed bed.

Our soil is depleted every year as vegetables and weeds leach out nutrients. Professional growers keep this in mind every season as they re-assess their crop rotations–we try not to plant heavy feeding crops twice in the same place in our fields. Instead, we do our best to alternate between heavy feeders, light feeders, and legumes, which give nitrogen back to the soil. We take into consideration the needs of our crop plan for the upcoming season and amend our soils accordingly (for instance, we might add more fertilizer before planting broccoli than we would for kale). Steve Solomon, author of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and founder of the Territorial Seed Company, breaks vegetable needs down in the following categories:

Low-demand vegetables:
arugula, beans, beets, carrots, chicory, collard greens, endive, escarole, fava beans, herbs (most kinds), kale, parsnip, peas, Swiss chard

Medium-demand vegetables:
artichoke, basil, cilantro, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, okra, peppers (small-fruited), potatoes, pumpkin, radish, rutabaga, scallions, squash, tomatoes, watermelon, zucchini

High-demand vegetables:
asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe/honeydew, cauliflower, celery/celeriac, kohlrabi, leeks, onions, peppers (large-fruited), spinach, turnips

Winter weather can be tough on soils as well. With heavy rain and snow all winter and early spring, soils can erode and lose valuable nutrient content. Cover cropping can assist in preventing this to an extent, but the best course of action is always to add at least an inch of compost to the garden bed each spring.

If you’re concerned about the nutrient content of your soil, it is always a great idea to have your soil tested at the start of every growing season. Soil tests can tell you what nutrients your soil is lacking as well as the pH of your soil. The numbers on an organic fertilizer label refer to the concentration (percent) of three major nutrients in the material: nitrogen (or N), phosphate (or P), and potassium (K). For example, bone meal has an N-P-K of 6-12-0, meaning it contains 6% nitrogen, 12% phosphate, and 0% potassium. At Schoolyard Farms, we amend our soil with compost, feather meal 13-0-0 (high in nitrogen), and limestone (neutralizes the pH and adds calcium) every season. Other organic fertilizers we recommend are blood meal, kelp meal, and bone meal.

When incorporating amendments to the soil, it is important to mix them in with a rototiller, hoe, or a shovel, then rake it smooth. Through this process of mixing your garden bed, you will also provide it with much needed aeration and loosen your soil for healthy root growth. One last gardening tip: by preparing your garden bed a couple weeks before planting, you can allow weed seeds time to germinate before you put your first crops in. This technique of eliminating weeds before they threaten your garden is called stale seed bedding.