To determine the type of soil in your garden area, a soil test is recommended. The test will aid in determining the plants most suitable for your garden as well as indicate the lacking nutrients that desired plants require. The test will indicate the pH level in the soil (alkaline or acidic pH) as well as levels of nutrients and minerals. There are basically two ways to have the garden soil tested: 1) a home test kit, or 2) Send a soil sample to your local County Extension office or a private lab. The home test kits are simple to use, however, the lab test may be more reliable. The County Extension office or private lab can give you the necessary details on collecting a soil sample, but the technique is generally done in this manner:
- Dig several holes, 6-8 inches deep, within your garden area.
- From each hole, take a thin slice of soil from the inside wall and place in a clean bucket.
- Mix all the soil together well.
- For accurate results, a dry soil sample is important. If the soil is wet, allow it to dry.
- Place some of the collected soil into a clean container and mark the container with your name, address, and date of collection and send to the lab.
To help plants grow faster, become stronger and healthier, and become quickly established, it is important to improve the soil. The best way to improve the soil condition is to add organic material such as straw, grass clippings and leaves. It may be necessary to add a fertilizer with more nitrogen, as these non-composted materials will take nitrogen from the soil as they break down. Ideally, already composted material should be added to the soil for improvement. In the spring or fall, these organic materials should be tilled into the soil. For proper root development, approximately 16 inches of the soil should be loosened and all large clumps should be broken up.
The garden area should be free of weeds. A thick layer of mulch should be placed on top of the soil to retain moisture and help prevent weed germination.
Solarizing destroys soil-borne diseases and sterilizes the soil. If beginning a new garden in an area that has been previously gardened, solarizing is a recommended solution to ensure a lack of plant disease. To use this technique, In early spring place a sheet of black gardening plastic (available at local nurseries) over the garden area and hold the corners down with rocks or mounds of soil. Leave the plastic on for a few weeks to two months. The sun heats the black plastic, the heat is transferred to the soil under the plastic, and the temperature of the soil is raised – destroying any soil-borne disease. After a few weeks, the plastic may be removed and the soil planted.