For gardeners, soil is the base and starting point of all the bountiful crops they hope to yield. Making sure the soil is garden-ready is an important first step to growing that bounty.
According to the Purdue Extension Office, the most important step in preparing your soil for a garden is to know what you have.
“Before adding amendments, take the soil you will use and have it tested,” said Hans Schmitz, Gibson County Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator.
Schmitz was named Purdue Master Gardener Coordinator of the Year in 2012. “Once a proper sample is taken, it should be sent as soon as possible to a soil testing laboratory.”
Once a person has the soil results back from the lab, someone at the Purdue Extension office can help interpret the test results. After the soil results are interpreted, the next step is to crosscheck soil test results with plant-specific needs.
“If a soil has a low pH, but the plant requires a low pH to thrive, application of lime is unnecessary,” Schmitz said.
This is why Gene Matzat, La Porte County Purdue Extension Educator, encourages gardeners to have a plan as to what they want to raise and get some publication on those plants.
“In Northwest Indiana, usually the pH is above seven. Some folks may want to add sulfur to lower the pH, but it depends on what you are raising. Blueberries like a pH of five and Rhododendrons flourish in acidic environments,” Matzat said.
If the soil results are low in organic matter, addition and incorporation of a peat or compost may be desirable, Schmitz said. But he cautions that compost products and manures have nutrients that may make a garden high in a particular nutrient too susceptible to nutrient runoff or leaching, or create a toxic environment for plants.
Matzat explains that most people add organic matter to their garden which has many benefits: it helps water move through the soil, it stabilizes the soil structure so it is resistant to wind and water erosion and helps soil hold moisture. However, if too much is added it could make your garden high in phosphorus.
“Sometimes you can get too much of a good thing,” Matzat said. “Organic matter breaks down over time, so the amount of phosphorus that is incorporated into the soil is not much of a problem. But if it’s at high levels on the surface, it could runoff and get into water and cause algae blooms and other toxic types of conditions.”
Nikki Witkowski, Lake County Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator, agrees that compost, if used in the correct amounts, is beneficial when added to soil.
“This can be organic or not. It adds nutrients to the soil as well as water holding ability. Worm compost is great as well, but will come with a price tag. If it is your desire, I would suggest worm composting at your home. I personally have a small bin in my kitchen and had it in my office and no one noticed a smell. It shouldn't if done properly,” Witkowski said.
Liz Yost of Valparaiso is gardening for the first time this year and is excited about experimenting. “We got compost from the city of Valparaiso's parks department," she said. "You have to call and verify that it’s available, but if you if you pick it up and shovel it yourself its free."
Yost said she mixed it with peat moss and organic soil with organic fertilizer.
“My husband is building me a compost bin so that we can have our own compost to add to the beds in coming years,” Yost said.
The city of Valparaiso works in conjunction with Porter County Recycling and Waste Reduction District to produce compost and mulch from the leaves, brush and logs collected by Public Works.
To get soil analyzed, the Purdue Extension office outlines proper procedures for soil testing in this Purdue publication found online at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/HO-71.pdf and provides a list of labs in the Midwest at https://ag.purdue.edu/agry/extension/Pages/soil_testing.aspx.