Even though it was planted somewhat late, my garden is looking pretty good at the moment. Some of the plants look less thrifty than they perhaps could though. Being new to the area, I knew very little about the growing conditions that prevail around this area of Connecticut. The key to finding that out is to get one’s soil tested to know exactly what kind of growing medium is existent for the garden. Normally this is done prior to planting anything so that the soil can be amended with any necessary nutrients, organic matter, and to alter the ph if needed. I did it after the fact of planting because I thought I would be gardening in a completely different place and only secured permission to dig up the landlady’s yard at an advanced date in the spring after the other plot fell through. In other words, I had to get stuff in the ground and hope for the best lest it get too late to plant.
I went to the Connecticut State Agricultural Extension Agency website to find out the procedure for submitting a soil sample for testing. Most states (and indeed many counties) have agricultural extension agencies that are a great source of information about all things garden, plant, orchard, or farm. These offices are tax payer funded (and sadly often corporate funded as well) so submitting a sample is “free”. The procedure I followed, which is pretty standard, was to get a small amount of soil from multiple spots throughout the garden beds, mix it all well and place in a bag with a seal. I chose to mail it to the office in New Haven and after a week I received the results.
The soil in Connecticut is often acidic according to the state’s soil test report and my garden’s soil is no different. I had previously asked at the local garden center if there was anything in particular that soil in Branford needed to be amended with. Unfortunately the store clerk failed to mention that soils here tend towards the acidic at that time. To bring up the ph of soil towards neutral (7.0) agricultural lime is used, again typically prior to planting so that plants are in soil as close to neutral as possible (with a few exceptions, such as some types of berries that grow best in acidic soils). My plants are planted fairly close together in often random ways to mimic nature, so it may be hard to get lime into the soil in the correct amounts at this point. I needed a more ‘gentle’ and fool-proof technique to neutralize my garden soil.
Compost is a good way to bring the soil into a better balanced ph and to help increase moisture retention in sandy soils like I have here. Unlike lime, it’s impossible to add too much compost to the soil. It also helps with mineral deficiencies as well which my soil also has. The test also revealed a low amount of organic matter, a result of my digging up the turf and composting it and the owner’s former yard maintenance program of removing all leaves in the fall. I shared the results of the test with the owner and fortunately she is receptive to doing things in a more holistic way such as building a compost pile and keeping the leaves here on site to replace lost nutrients into the soil. I built the compost pile without asking –sometimes its easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission. In this case, forgiveness was unnecessary, as she has already started to use it too instead of dumping her weeds off site. Little steps, BIG results!
I purchased two bags of compost made in Maine from lobster pieces. It is ph balanced and due to its constituent parts being full of chitin, it has a lot necessary minerals. Top dressing with compost is simply taking fully finished compost (hopefully from one’s own personal stash) and placing it all the way round the base of a plant. I top dressed all the plants in the gardens, except the tallest potatoes which are mounded with some of the inverted turf that was dug up to create the beds. In addition to top dressing with compost, I also added a mix of beneficial microbes that I purchased from a local organic garden center to a watering can and used it both as a foliar (applied to the leaves) and also watered it in around the roots of each plant. Lastly, I watered each bed to get the compost to soak into the soil a little. Hopefully these amendments will help the plants adapt to the acidic soil and will also bring the soil’s ph up towards neutral.
Soil testing is important as it helps the grower to know exactly what the soil needs and what is there in sufficient quantities already. Knowing this, we can prevent our watersheds from being polluted by agricultural/garden run-off of soil amendments (even organic ones can be a pollutant if too concentrated). Creating a compost pile closes an energy loop by keeping nutrients on site and allows for soil health and fertility to be maintained in a sustainable way. It also reduces the amount of “wastes” that enter landfills and helps to foster biodiversity by providing a home and food for countless microbes, worms, and beneficial insects. It would be fantastic if municipalities or neighborhood associations made it mandatory to compost all plant based food scraps, unbleached cardboard, leaves, green wastes, and newspaper. What a huge difference that would make to our soils and watersheds!