Whoever coined the expression “dirt cheap” was a little misinformed. As we’ve gotten our hands dirty in the world of gardening (pun INTENDED) we’ve learned that all dirt is not created equal, and the good stuff that makes things really grow will cost ya. In fact, good and fertile dirt is so valuable Heath actually packed up the soil from our old garden and brought it along to the new house. That’s commitment.
The run-of-the-mill dirt you’ll find in the average backyard in Austin (zone 8b) is high in pH, or very alkaline. That’s not so bad for veggies, but it will make it difficult if you choose to plant azaleas or blueberries and other acid-loving plants. So if you want to get creative with you’re gardening, you’ve got to outsmart Mother Nature because “you don’t put a $10 plant in a 5 cent hole.” Sometimes, in Austin, our holes are lucky to be worth that much.
So here’s what we’ve learned when it comes to soil solutions.
- Get tested. Your soil, that is. This way, you can know exactly what you’re working with as far as pH, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and other elements are concerned. You can either send soil to a lab or buy a testing kit from a home improvement store. We did the latter and felt the results were trustworthy, and now I’m tempted to test a batch of fertilizer to see if the results read “full of crap.” (I laughed at my own “joke” there for far longer than I’d like to admit.)
- Count your blessings. And by “blessings” I mean worms. Worms are to soil what twitter users are to the Internet. They keep things fresh by constantly circulating and rotating the good stuff through, and their poo is dynamite fertilizer. (That is probably not true, however, of twitter users.) Finding 10 worms in a square foot of soil is like striking gold. We had 5. We are the 99 percent.
- Till baby till. There are two schools of thought when it comes to tilling. The first says you should till the soil to a depth of 8-10 inches to truly provide plants with the proper amount of aeration. The other says you really only need 6 inches of soil and you can experience good results by simply digging to that depth and adding compost. In Austin, with Blackland Prairie soil as thick and hearty as it is, double digging or tilling to a depth of 10 inches (the way we would do it in fantasy land) is not doable, at least if we want to use our back, legs or arms ever again. So we make do tilling what we can, which is still a whole heck of a lot of tilling.
- Compost counts. Decomposed organic matter is rich in nutrients, helps condition and fertilize the soil, adds Humic acid and acts as a natural pesticide. Is there anything sexier than a steaming, decomposing pile of compost? Besides being steroids for gardens, compost reduces the amount of trash we humanoids send to the landfill. Basically, if you’re not composting, you’re a bad person. I’m just joking. But not really.
- OK, but what the heck is Humic acid? It’s an important chemical to know about especially if you have clay soil because it improves the texture and can enhance water penetration resulting in better root zone growth and development. At the atomic level (impressed?) it frees up nutrients for plants to absorb. For instance: if an aluminum molecule is bound with a phosphorous molecule (impressed now?) Humic acid will separate the two, making the phosphorous available to the plant. This is very important for fruiting plants. So, in a nutshell, Humic Acid = Good.
You don’t win the Kentucky Derby on a donkey and you don’t grow quality plants without well-cared-for earth. Even if you’re starting with soil that resembles a miniature pony more than a champion steed, you can do a lot to improve your conditions and be a real contender. Test your soil, add compost and soil balancing nutrients (like the iron potassium silicate Texas Greensand) and you can easily be off to the races.