Healthy Soils Equal Bountiful Harvest!

by Fred Davis


Spring will be upon us before you know it, and it's about time to give some serious thought to the quality and content your garden's soil—that literal foundation for all things happening in the garden. Soils are at the heart and soul of successful gardening. Yet soils are almost universally the single most neglected "key" to gardening success!

Who in his right mind would even think of building a home without first providing a strong and reliable foundation for it to rest upon? Just as the man in the New Testament who built his house upon a bed of unstable sand soon lost it to wind and rain, the gardener who builds a home for plants without a good foundation—neglecting to thoroughly prepare the soil and become aware of its nutritional content and capacity—is destined to witness the rapid decline and demise of his or her hard work!

To be honest, if not downright blunt, if you don't do a real bang-up job of preparing the soil (the "foundation") before you plant, you'd probably be better off seeding it in wildflowers or green-tinted asphalt. That's how important soil preparation really is. Remember: it is a vital, yet widely neglected, key to successful gardening.

How do you achieve the almost perfect, deep, rich, dark and loose soil? It takes a full-size spade, plenty of elbow grease, usually a considerable amount of organic matter, and an almost infinite amount of persistence and patience.

Some prefer to prepare their garden plot with a small rototiller, but little tillers simply cannot get the job done right. Most tillers are made to scratch the surface down to about four—maybe five—inches deep. A home garden sized machine that'll cut six inches is a rarity. Tillers do have their purpose but it usually comes later, after the real work is done.

Most shovels cut eleven or twelve inches deep...and that's what you should do: drive that shovel straight down right to the hilt and turn the soil completely upside-down. Pick out any weeds, stones, roots or anything else that doesn't belong. A good sharp edge on your shovel helps cut through tree feeder-roots. Break soil lumps into small particles. Watch for destructive soil insects—wireworms, grubs and cutworms, for example—and send any you find into eternal oblivion.

A few gardening authorities suggest what's called "double-digging" which involves digging another ten or twelve inches below that, into the subsoil. While it may work in the Great Plains states, that kind of soil-depth luxury isn't seen very often in the shallow, stony topsoils of Northern New England. Do the best you can.

Continue turning the soil over until the whole plot is upside-down, cleaned up, and broken into little pieces. Now comes the fun part: add a healthy layer (two to four inches) of rich, dark compost or well-rotted animal waste. If your soil is clay and tends to be dense, "sticky" and easily compacted, an additional inch or two of coarse organic material like shredded leaves or straw will help loosen it up. It's not a good idea to add sand to clay may end up with something like concrete. Peatmoss will help to loosen clay soil, but may strain your early spring budget. (A common misconception, widely encouraged by the peatmoss marketing industry, pronounces that this very old organic material adds health and vitality to just about any soil. Not so: peatmoss, as it comes out of the bag, is as close to nutritionally and biologically dead as it can possibly be. Don't rely on peatmoss to add life and plant food to your garden. . .it can't do that.)

Now turn and mix it all loosely into your topsoil. Once again, cut in as deeply as you can with a good spade. Avoid walking on it after that—if you've done your job well, you'll sink past your ankles and compact your soil. I keep a couple of old 12-inch-wide boards handy to walk on while planting or doing any raking or furrowing.

One final important "key" completes the story: we use a lot of bonemeal in our fields and gardens. Bonemeal is high in phosphorus (usually 12 or 16). Bonemeal encourages and promotes flowers and fruit, strong stems and roots, foliage that can handle most summer abuse and, most importantly, is a wholly natural form of fertilizer. It is a little expensive, but once applied (then thoroughly mixed in, not left on the surface) it provides a constant source of phosphorus for about three years.

There is a down side, however: even the so-called deodorized type of bonemeal will attract skunks, raccoons, and the neighbor's little digger-dog for about two weeks following application. The solution: either mask the faint odor with something stronger, like a "tea" made from "blenderized" garlic, or prepare your soil a few weeks before you plant so they can dig (cultivate!) to their hearts' content without doing any real damage.

Now you're ready! Well, almost. The final step before planting is another very important "key"—a soil test so you'll know exactly what your soil has and precisely what it needs to make your garden more productive of healthier plants and harvest...and you a better (certainly better-informed!) gardener.

Your state's Cooperative Extension Service has free collection/mailing containers and detailed instructions. Samples are then mailed to the State Soil Testing Lab., and it usually takes about two to three weeks to get your results back. Cost is in the range of $10 - $12. Fairly economical "success" insurance!

Visit Fred's website to view more of his gardening articles:

Fred Davis is a Master Gardener, Master Composter, lecturer, and long-time nurseryman. He and his wife, Linda, own and operate a popular perennial nursery in Palermo, Maine, and maintain a no-frills gardening information website at:, where you'll find answers to your gardening questions.

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