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Living - Home & Garden

Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014

Gardening | It’s too early to dig, but not to treat soil

- Gardening
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It is still too early to dig into many garden jobs. However, our soil stands ready for improvement – especially on occasional warm sunny days.

“Feed the soil, not the plant” is not just another hackneyed gardening dictum; it is essential to building a healthy, thriving garden. Planting in less than well-prepared soil does not serve plants well. Beyond that, it is difficult to properly amend soil during the growing season. That means late winter the last opportunity to improve your garden soil before the growing season starts.

First, a note of caution: Don’t try to work wet soil. Just walking across it when it is wet can compact it. Turning over wet soil results in the formation of dense clods of dirt that are difficult to break up once dry.

It is never too early or too wet to pull weeds. Don’t let them get ahead of you. They are easier to pull when the ground is moist. Pull them when they are young, while their root systems are still shallow. Remember, they suck water and nutrients out of your soil, outcompeting your ornamentals, fruits and vegetables for the nutrients and water they need to thrive.

Two of the best things you can do for your soil are to manage its pH and add compost.

PH tends to revert to its original level. If your soil has not been tested in a few years, do it now. It is easier and more effective to amend soil before you plant. Soil pH ranges from acid to alkaline. The acidity and alkalinity control the chemical reactions that take place in soil. Those reactions determine the availability of plant nutrients by transforming them into a form plants can take up and use.

To remain productive, our highly leached coastal soil is best replenished regularly with organic matter. Compost is the most useful amendment to add to any type of soil. Rather than dig it into the soil right away allow it to work into the soil while it dries from winter rains. Compost loosens the soil, enhances aeration, holds moisture and aids drainage.

Don’t pass up the availability of partially decomposed leaves. If you find wet leaves under other garden debris, leave them in place and dig them into the soil when it dries. Decomposed leaves add slow-release nitrogen and potassium to your soil.

There are a number of good organic fertilizers (along with the compost topdressing you have already applied) that can be worked into your garden soil once it dries. Choose fertilizer based on your soil’s nutrient deficiencies and what you will grow.

Blood meal provides high nitrogen in a long-lasting form.

The addition of bone meal to soil is an excellent way to provide calcium and phosphorus. Use it in gardens where you will plant bulbs and root crops.

Cottonseed meal is a good source of nitrogen and it adds organic material to the soil. If you can’t find pesticide free cottonseed meal you may want to pass on this fertilizer because it contains pesticide residue resulting from the numerous pesticide applications used on cotton crops.

Fish meal adds nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and many micronutrients in slow-release form. Be aware that your gardens may smell a bit fishy for a few days after application.

If you are inclined to recycle sawdust and wood ash in your soil, do it with caution.

Sawdust aids drainage. It also lightens soil. However, fresh sawdust ties up nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes. It is also acidic, which can be detrimental to plant roots. Decomposed sawdust is preferable to fresh for garden use.

Wood ash adds potassium, calcium and phosphorus to soil, but it also raises soil pH. Wood ash is alkaline; consequently, it has a neutralizing effect on acid soil. Avoid using wood ash around acid-loving plants like azaleas, camellias and gardenias.

If you have raised beds they likely initially contained excellent garden soil, but soil is constantly depleted by plants and weather. Soil in raised beds needs ongoing rejuvenation, just as soil does in conventional gardens.

As usual, you don’t need to look far to find something that needs to be done in your garden.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at
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