Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
December, 2010
Regional Report

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Composted organic matter enriches the soil and helps form the foundation of a great garden.

It's Soil Season!

According to an old saying of unknown origin, "Man-- despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication, and his many accomplishments-- owes his existence to a six inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains." Now THAT will give you quite a point to ponder!

Whenever I give a talk on the basics of gardening or speak to a group of new gardeners I make it a point to spend a considerable amount of time talking about soil. Soil is the foundation of any good garden and most people start with something less than good soil.

We all get excited and motivated when plants arrive at the local garden centers in the spring. At that time of the year practically everyone is a gardener! However, in too many cases those precious new plants are plopped into a plot of soil that was not prepared well beforehand. The result is disappointment and less-than-dreamed-for results.

Maybe you don't get excited about soil like I do. The fact remains that your soil is the single most important factor in your gardening success. Too sandy, too clayey, a lack of organic matter, poor structure, poor internal drainage, nutrient poor and on the list goes. All these conditions limit a plant's ability to thrive.

In my opinion, 75% of your gardening success has been determined by the time you plant a seed or transplant. Some of this is in the suitability of the cultivar that you chose. But most of it is in the soil's condition. Once the plants are in, the stage has been set for success or failure.

Of course this is not new news! The Greek historian Xenophon, writing four centuries B.C., stated, "To be a successful farmer one must first know the nature of the soil." Yet we still tend to take soil for granted and often rely on a special fertilizer or miracle potion to make up for mediocre soil and avoid poor plant performance.

The science of soil is a fascinating thing, but most amazing is the diversity and complexity of the living things that inhabit a rich soil, giving it qualities that promote healthy plant growth and production. Soil, by design, is meant to be rich and teaming with microbial life, along with various other creatures, including insects and earthworms.

Organic materials start a process that in essence fertilizes your plants. When you feed the soil organic matter you feed the microbes, and they in turn feed your plants. They are already there, although perhaps in less than ideal numbers and diversity, ready to undergo a population explosion with the arrival of dead plant materials and moist conditions. Like the line from the movie, Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come."

Add some organic matter and a dense, poorly drained soil slowly develops a better structure with improved aeration and internal drainage. Incorporate compost into a drought prone, nutrient poor sandy soil and its water and nutrient holding capacity is increased.

Maybe all this stuff about soil structure, microbes and organic matter doesn't excite you but trust me; your plants get absolutely giddy when they hear such talk!

Soil building can happen at any time of the year, but late fall and winter are especially good times to focus on it. This is a slow time in the garden, and there are often fallow plots that can be improved by mixing in some compost. Leaves are plentiful now for use as a surface mulch or garden pathway material that will slowly decompose over time to enrich the soil.

You can also employ the practice of "sheet composting." Spread a thin layer of leaves over the soil and rototill or spade it in. Then repeat with another layer of leaves. Do this now and by spring planting time the leaves will be decomposing and enriching the soil.

If you are fortunate enough to live near a source of livestock manure, or if a friend has rabbits, this is a great time to mix those nutrient-rich materials into the soil. Composted manure makes a good surface mulch that adds nutrients slowly over time.

In low lying areas or when drainage is poor due to a tight, heavy clay soil, it makes sense to build up raised beds to ensure that plants are not left in oversaturated soil conditions during extended rainy periods.

Take advantage of these winter months and make it "soil season" by building and improving your soil. Next spring you'll look like a professional gardener when your plants thrive it the fertile soil conditions.

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