Soil Prep for Vine Crops
Vine crops are particular when it comes to their place in the garden, but they're quite flexible when it comes to the soil itself. They'll flourish in sandy or clay soil, or just about anything in between.
Till or spade the soil several times before planting day. The first time should be to a depth of six to eight inches. Improve the texture of your soil by working in plenty of organic matter at that time. This can be old leaves, hay, grass clippings or composted kitchen garbage. The more organic matter you add to your soil, the more food you provide for the earthworms and soil organisms within it. They, in turn, break down the organic matter into humus, a nutrient-rich substance. Humus is the garden miracle worker--it will transform problem soils into productive ones.
If your soil is so sandy it just doesn't hold moisture, humus binds the sandy particles together to create a more sponge-like texture. However, if you're plagued by clay soil that never dries out, or bakes as hard as concrete when it does dry, humus wedges itself between the clay particles. This allows air to circulate and water to seep down through the soil naturally, making the soil a fine growing medium.
After the initial deep tilling or spading a week or two before planting, stir up the top two to three inches of soil every few days, using an iron garden rake, hoe, cultivating tool or tiller. Every time you disrupt a soil section, you bring hundreds of tiny weed seeds out into the open where they die. The more you work the soil, the less weeding you'll have to do later.
Work the soil one last time just before you plant, regardless of how often it's been worked previously. Your seeds need fresh oxygen and loose soil around them to properly germinate and grow.
Most vegetables grow best in slightly acid soil, and vine crops are no exception. You can measure your soil's acidity or alkalinity by determining its pH with a soil test. Soil pH is measured on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 indicating neutral. Any reading above 7 is considered alkaline or sweet, anything below is acid. The further the reading is from neutral 7, the greater the degree of acidity or alkalinity. A pH range of 6.0 to 6.8--slightly on the acid side --is best for the home garden.
You should check your soil pH every two years. Do this by sending a soil sample to your local cooperative extension service if they do tests, or test your own soil using an inexpensive soil testing kit, which is available at most garden centers.
If the test results indicate that your pH is too high or too low, follow the accompanying recommendations to remedy the situation.
Hearty Appetites and Fertilizer
Vine crops aren't exactly gourmets--their favorite food is compost or stable manure. But any balanced commercial fertilizer will also provide the nutrients needed for good production.
On planting day provide them with a hefty dose of food to start them growing quickly. It doesn't pay to broadcast fertilizer widely, because the plants will be spaced at fairly good intervals and they only use what's directly around their roots.
Place composted manure or fertilizer directly in the furrow or hole underneath the seeds (or seedlings, if you use transplants). If you're using composted manure, a heaping shovelful for every five feet of row or per hill, is fine. For a balanced commercial fertilizer such as 5-10-10 or 10-10-10, use about a cup per hill or for every five feet of row. Cover the fertilizer with two to three inches of soil to keep the seeds from being burned by the nitrogen.
The numbers on the labels of balanced commercial fertilizer refer to the percentages by weight of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) contained in that particular mixture. The letters are always listed in the same order, N-P-K, for 5-10-10 or any other combination. Vegetables need all three major nutrients. Nitrogen promotes leaf and vine production, phosphorus builds strong roots and potassium conditions the entire plant.
Photography by the National Gardening Association.