A gar­den’s suc­cess be­gins with care­ful prep of the soil

Star-Telegram - - Front Page - BY NEIL SPERRY

Your gar­dens in 2019 will be no bet­ter than the soils you pre­pare for them. Whether it’s flow­ers or veg­eta­bles, it all starts with the bed prepa­ra­tion, and the time to rev up those en­gines is at hand.

You say to your­self, “But Neil, you’re rush­ing things. It’s still the mid­dle of win­ter. How can it pos­si­bly be time to be work­ing the soil?” That’s be­cause more than half of our veg­eta­bles and many of our flow­ers need to be planted while it’s still cool – weeks be­fore the av­er­age date of our last killing freeze. Tim­ing is crit­i­cal, so let’s out­line the steps to suc­cess.

No mat­ter what type of soil you have in your neigh­bor­hood, be it sandy or clay, the best way to im­prove it is by adding sev­eral types of or­ganic mat­ter. It will help sandy soils hold mois­ture and nu­tri­ents, and or­ganic mat­ter will break heavy clay soils into small clods that al­low bet­ter move­ment of wa­ter and fer­til­iz­ers through the soil.

There are sev­eral good sources of or­ganic mat­ter. When I’m pre­par­ing my own gar­den soils I’ll add a cou­ple of inches of sphag­num peat moss and one inch each of well-rot­ted com­post, finely ground pine bark or hard­wood mulch and well-rot­ted ma­nure into the top foot of top­soil. Top­soil ven­dors have sev­eral blends of or­ganic mat­ter that they sell in bulk, of­ten from re­cy­cled yard waste.

If I’m work­ing with clay top­soil, I’ll add 1 inch of ex­panded shale soil con­di­tioner as well. It’s a clay-based ma­te­rial that has been heated un­til it has popped. Re­search from Texas A&M about 20 years ago showed it would loosen tight clays much bet­ter than the washed brick sand we used to rec­om­mend.

I found many years ago that a rear-tine ro­totiller does by far the best job of blend­ing all of these ma­te­ri­als to­gether into the top­soil. How­ever, as a side note, if you have tur­f­grass in the place where you’re go­ing to be pre­par­ing the soil you’re go­ing to have to get it out of the way man­u­ally be­fore you crank up the tiller.

There is no weed­killer to use at this time of the year. Use a

flat-bladed nurs­ery spade pushed in al­most par­al­lel to the ground to re­move the sod and around 1 inch of soil.

The prepa­ra­tion I’ve de­scribed will leave you with a soil mix that is al­most of the con­sis­tency of pot­ting soil. Rake out the roots, rocks and any other de­bris from the soil. If the area where you’re cre­at­ing this gar­den stands in wa­ter after heavy rains take steps now to im­prove its drainage. Build raised beds by mound­ing the soil with your rake, ta­per­ing it down to the edges. If you pre­fer fin­ished sides to the beds you can use edg­ing, river rocks, bricks or con­crete edg­ing stones as your bound­aries. If you can cre­ate 3 or 4 inches of el­e­va­tion above the sur­round­ing grade your plants will ben­e­fit greatly dur­ing ex­tended wet weather.

Since or­ganic mat­ter does de­cay over the months and years, you will have to re­plen­ish the sup­plies. You’ll have ac­cess to most gar­den plots at least a cou­ple of times each year – once in the sum­mer as your spring flow­ers and veg­eta­bles fin­ish, and once in the win­ter after the fall crops have been re­moved. Add in one-third to one-half the orig­i­nal amount of or­ganic mat­ter and ro­totill back to the orig­i­nal 12-inch depth. In­cor­po­rate ad­di­tional ex­panded shale ev­ery four or five years.

You ought to have your soil tested ev­ery three or four years to mon­i­tor the changes in re­tained nu­tri­ents, ac­cu­mu­la­tions of min­eral salts and other fac­tors that could im­pact the growth of your plants. Sev­eral lo­cal nurs­eries of­fer soil test­ing in the spring­time.

Texas A&M also has an out­stand­ing test­ing lab that is used by farm­ers, ranch­ers and com­mer­cial grow­ers. Luck­ily, it’s also avail­able to us home gar­den­ers at af­ford­able pric­ing as well. The form you’ll need to fill out is avail­able from their web­site (http://soil­test­ing. tamu.edu/files/ur­ban soil.pdf). See the form for com­plete sam­pling and mail­ing in­struc­tions.

I’ll warn you of one sur­prise you’ll prob­a­bly en­counter. Most Texas soils are al­ready high in the mid­dle num­ber of the fer­til­izer anal­y­sis, that be­ing phos­pho­rus. It dis­solves very slowly, so it tends to ac­cu­mu­late in our soils, es­pe­cially clays. Ex­ces­sive phos­pho­rus can af­fect how well our plants take up mi­nor nu­tri­ents, and in that process the phos­pho­rus can take on al­most toxic ef­fects. Phos­pho­rus is crit­i­cal to the pro­duc­tion of flow­ers and fruit, but if your soil al­ready has too much, there’s no point in adding more. So don’t be sur­prised if your soil test comes back show­ing that you should use a high qual­ity, ni­tro­gen-only plant food. Trust the ex­perts.

What plants get this level of bed prepa­ra­tion? An­nual and peren­nial flow­ers for sure. Veg­eta­bles for sure. Maybe ground­cov­ers and small shrubs, but re­mem­ber that they’re go­ing to have to grow in the orig­i­nal top­soil once all the or­ganic mat­ter de­cays and dis­ap­pears, so you may want to give them a re­duced ver­sion of the bed prep. Medi­um­sized and large shrubs and trees get the na­tive top­soil. You need to choose types that are adapted to it be­cause they’re go­ing to have to grow in it even­tu­ally any­way. There’s no point in baby­ing them early on.

Ex­cited by all this in­for­ma­tion on soil prepa­ra­tion? I doubt that you are. Hope­fully, how­ever, you can see its im­por­tance as you set your­self up for the gardening sea­son ahead.

PHO­TOS BY NEIL SPERRY Special to the Star-Tele­gram

Well be­fore plant­ing time for an­nu­als such as peri­win­kles, pre­pare the soil in the flower bed.

If you can mound the soil a bit, veg­etable plants will ben­e­fit.

A rear-tine ro­totiller does a good job of blend­ing ma­te­ri­als to­gether into the top­soil.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.