Improving & Preparing Soil for a Vegetable Garden

Garden Soil Types and How you may Modify or Improve them for Vegetable Growing

Sometimes it is claimed that soil is no longer important because we know so much about the chemical requirements of plants that hydroponic growing using only water and a balance of chemicals and minerals is all that is needed for successfully growing vegetables. This may be so, but there are many of us who know that fresh home grown vegetables, where a good fertile soil exists, have a far better taste. The following notes have been prepared as a guide for preparing soil for a vegetable garden for those in the gardening world who like to be able to harvest and enjoy their own home grown vegetables, but happen to live in an area where the soil is what may be described as, a problem soil.

For vegetable plants to be able to take up their required nutrients, the ideal soil is a crumbly loam which is easy to work, retains moisture without becoming soggy and allows water and air to freely enter the soil. Nutrient laden water and oxygen in the soil are needed for healthy root growth. While such loams are relatively rare, with a little care and effort most soils can be modified to create a fertile loam that is suitable for growing your vegetables.

Soils can be broadly classified into clay, loam, clay loam, sandy loam and sand, with loam being the right balance of clay, sand and humus. Let us look at each of these in turn.

Clay. Pure clay is really only found in the subsoil, but for our garden soil preparation we are mostly concerned with the clay content in the top 10 or 12 inches. This is the surface growing soil and needs to have a balance clay, fine sand and coarse sand particles together with organic matter from partly decomposed plant matter or humus, but when there is an over abundance of the clay component the soil is tight and firm, and when wet it envelopes the roots of plants and prevents their ability to get to the nutrients and access oxygen. For a rough method of telling how "clayey" a soil is, take a small handful, wet and knead it to the consistancy of plasticine, and then roll it in your hands to make a cigar shape, keep rolling it to a pencil size and then to as thin as you can. The thinner that you can roll it without it crumbling and breaking, the more clay is present. A mixture of fine and coarse sand together with organic matter in the form of grass cuttings, weeds, vegitable scraps etc. added to this type of soil will bring it back to the crumbly structure that you need for vegetable growing. Naturally this crumbly soil structure is also what is desirable if you are growing flowers.
When preparing a clay soil for a garden, you need to add any correcting materials when the soil is just damp, not sticky, and try to mix them in as you dig. Two or three diggings may be required before satisfactory mixing occurs, but be careful, as working a heavy clay soil when quite wet will cause it to set hard again as it dries out.
Do not attempt to work clay soils when they are wet, wait until they have lost their stickiness - test by squeezing a handful - it should not hang togther like putty, but tend towards a crumbly state. One point to remember is that the soil may be drying out from the surface and appear to be ready for cultivation, so check the moisture content nearer the bottom of the depth that you intend to work, it may be much wetter there.
Sawdust may be used in moderation to assist in breaking down a clay soil, but it will rob some nitrogen from the soil and additional nitrogen should be added to aid plant growth. Lime can also assist in breaking down a heavy clay soil, but this will have an effect on the acidity level, and some plants need the correct acidity range to produce a good crop of vegetables. A good nursery person would be able to test the acidity level and give advice on how to correct it if necessary.

Loam.  The ideal soil for growing vegetables. It is a perfect balance of clay, sand particles and humus that retains moisture and remains in a nice crumbly state through a range of moisture content. This perfect balance rarely exists, most types of loams are of the clay loam or sandy loam families. Preparing soil for a garden where a good loam exists is relatively easy and the constant addition of humus and vegetable compost is usually all that is required.

Clay Loam.   This consists of a mixture of clay, humus, sand and other materials but has clay as the main component. Its advantages are that it can hold moisture for a reasonably long time, and is generally richer in nutrients. Its main disadvantage for growing vegetables is that it cakes after a heavy watering and sets hard when it dries out. If a clay soil is worked by digging or is walked on when it is in a wet and sticky condition, the crumbs will be pushed together to become a solid mass and will dry out hard and textureless. This is basically because clay is made up of extreemly fine particles that can pack close together, and as the amount of coarser material such as sand increases, the structure becomes more granular and crumbly. In a similar manner, if humus, grass clippings, leaves, in fact almost any vegetable matter, is dug into a clay loam it will help to keep the soil structure open and aerated until it decomposes.
So here are the main points in preparing soil for a vegetable garden if the soil is a clay loam.
a)Dig, cultivate or plant when the soil is just damp, not when wet and sticky.
b)Do not water with a heavy jet that gives a large volume of water in a short time. Water slowly to give the moisture time to penetrate down through the fine clay particles.
c)Apply a surface mulch to slow down the water penetration of rain water,and to lessen the caking effect as it dries out, and, this mulch will eventually improve soil strucure and add nutrients.
d)Apply lime or add sawdust provided soil acidity is not a problem to the plants that you intend to grow, and any nitrogen deficiency is rectified.

Sandy Loam. This soil is similar to a clay loam except that there is a greater percentage of sand than clay, that is, there is a greater percentage of larger grains and fewer of the very fine silt-like particles that make up clay. This explains why it is easier to work,even when quite wet, and has a more open, friable or crumbly texture, and why water will tend to pass through to the subsoil more quickly. Here, the work involved in preparing soil for a vegetable garden is basically keeping a supply of humus worked into the soil and applying mulch on the surface.

Sand.  Sand has been described as the the soil with the least back break but the most heart break. In this soil any water quickly drains through to the subsoil, and this washes the nutrients away from where the vegetable plant roots are gathered. It is however, possible to grow a wonderful crop of vegetables, almost without any garden soil preparation if soil moisture is given constant attention and an even supply of fertiliser is maintained throughout the growing period. This may be quite difficult in a raw sand, and would certainly be a time consuming job. One solution is to obtain some clay loam soil and work this into the sand to improve the granular size grading by adding the finer clay/silt particles that sand does not have. Alternatively, the addition of copious amounts of mulch, straw, grass clippings, composted vegetable matter etc. into the soil will certainly help. This improves the structure and the water holding capacity of the sand, provides organic matter to improve the chemical and physical properties, and provides a gradual supply of plant food as it decomposes.
Peat moss and vermiculite may be used in conjunction with compost as they are able to hold a considerable amount of moisture, but because they are inert substances which do not add nutrients to the soil, any need for additional fertiliser should be watched.
Peat moss should be given a good saturation with water before use as it is difficult to wet initially and may form dry pockets in the soil. These materials should be well worked into the sand to the anticipated depth of the roots of the vegetables thatyou intend to grow.
A sand soil should always have mulch applied to the surface in any location that receives direct sunshine as the surface can become quite hot which could then injure young seedlings, and even damage the surface roots of mature plants.

In conclusion,  these notes on preparing soil for a vegetable garden should be taken as a guide only, as soil quality ranges through the spectrum from heavy clay to light sand, has many different nutrient excesses and shortages, and exists in all climates. In time, with experience and experiment, you will be better able to continually improve your garden soil for growing vegetables.

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