a Healthy Foundation for Fall Plantings
By Melinda Myers
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[September 10, 2018]
is a great time to start a garden or renovate an existing planting
bed. The soil is warm while the air is cool – a perfect combination
for establishing new plantings. It is also a great time to prepare
gardens for the next planting season. Investing time up front to
create a healthy foundation for your plants will pay off with years
of beautiful, healthy and productive gardens.
When you read plant tags and seed packets you’ll
find that the majority of plants prefer moist well-drained soil.
Unfortunately, most gardeners aren’t growing in plant-friendly
soils. Heavy clay, sandy and droughty soils are much more common.
Understanding what you have is the best place to start when creating
a healthy soil foundation for new and existing gardens.
Start with a soil test. Contact the local office of your Extension
Service or state certified soil testing lab for details. They can
direct you on how to take a soil test and where to send the sample.
The test results will tell you how much, if any, fertilizer, lime,
or sulfur is needed. Following soil test recommendations can save
you money spent on and time applying unnecessary soil additives.
Plus, following the results will increase your gardening success.
While waiting for the results you can do a bit of analysis yourself.
Soils are made of clay, sand, and silt particles. The feel and
cohesive nature of this sample will tell you a bit about your soil.
Take a handful of soil and create a ribbon by rubbing it through
your thumb and index finger to get a feel for your soil type.
If the soil easily forms a ball or rolls into a sausage shape, feels
slippery when wet and smoother when dry, you have a high percent of
clay in your soil. Soils with a high percent of the very small clay
particles are often called heavy soils. They stay wet longer and
hold onto soil nutrients. Clay soils are slow to dry out and warm up
in the spring. Avoid working them when wet. This leads to compaction
and clods you will be contending with all season long.
Soils with a larger percent of sand particles don’t form a ball when
moist and feel gritty to the touch. The much larger sand particles
create bigger pores in the soil for water and nutrients to move
through quickly. They tend to be nutrient deficient, fast draining
and dry. But they warm up and dry quickly in the spring.
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Silt feels smooth like flour when dry and soapy slick
when wet. They are the middle-sized particles that hold water and
nutrients longer than sand, but not as much as clay particles. Silty
soils drain slower and stay colder longer than sandy soils in the
spring. Overworking soils with a high percent of silt leads to
crusting and compaction, decreasing drainage and water infiltration.
Consult your soil test report when preparing your new garden beds.
Prior to planting is the easiest time to add organic matter to any
of these soil types. It increases the water-holding ability, the
infiltration rate so less water runs off the soil surface and builds
plant-friendly soil structure. Incorporate several inches of
compost, aged manure or other organic matter into the top eight to
twelve inches of soil.
Further improve your soil by using a slow release fertilizer with a
high percent of organic matter like Milorganite (milorganite.com).
The 85% organic matter feeds the soil microorganisms and your plants
as it improves all soil types. You get multiple benefits with this
type of fertilizer.
So, as you plan your new landscape additions this fall, include
testing and amending the existing soil into your plans.
Understanding your soil can help you create a strong foundation
important to the health, longevity and beauty of your gardens and
[Photo credit: Melinda Myers, LLC]
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books,
including Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to
Grow Anything: Food Gardening for Everyone” DVD set and the
nationally syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio segments.
Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms
magazine and was commissioned by Milorganite for her expertise to
write this article. Myers’ web site is