The Q&A Archives: Soil Preparation

Question: I am a first time gardener and would like to start with a small veggie garden. What do I need to do to get the soil ready for planting; extra soil, fertilizer, compost, etc?

Answer: To improve your soil, incorporate plenty of compost. In sandy soils, compost improves soil fertility, water and nutrient retention. In clay soils, it improves fertility and drainage. Add a 4-6 inch layer of compost and incorporate it about 12-18 inches deep. You can use manure if it is well-aged (6 months) or you won't be planting until it has lost it's heat and decomposed. Each planting season, add more compost. Incorporate a balanced fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10) or add organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion, bone meal, and seaweed/kelp. Follow package instructions.

After planting, add a 1-2 inch layer of mulch. Mulch is great to help retain soil moisture, reduce weeds, and as it breaks down it provides nutrients to the soil. Any organic matter can be used as mulch. Try compost, bark, wood chips, straw, or pine needles. As it breaks down, dig it into your soil and add more.

Here's some basics on fertilizer. You probably noticed that fertilizers have 3 numbers on the container. These numbers refer to the percentage of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) in the fertilizer. These 3 elements are referred to as macronutrients because plants need them in fairly large (i.e., macro) amounts to thrive. In general terms, nitrogen produces lush green growth, phosphorous helps strengthen stems and produce flowers (and eventually fruit), and potassium keeps the root system healthy.

Other nutrients that plants need, but in lesser amounts, are referred to as micronutrients and include: calcium, magnesium, sulfur, boron, chlorine, copper, iron, molybdenum, and zinc. These are usually available in the soil in sufficient amounts.

Organic sources of nutrients:

Nitrogen: alfalfa meal, blood meal, coffee grounds, cottonseed meal, fish emulsion, seabird guano.
Phosphorous: bone meal, rock phosphate
Potassium: greensand, seaweed, kelp

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