Preparing the soil before you plant your vegetables goes a long way to having happy plants and a healthy harvest. Here are the things you need to know to get your soil ready for planting.
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Things to Consider
You know you need healthy soil for a good harvest, but what exactly does that mean? Here are the two main things you need to know about the health of your soil to prepare it.
For your vegetables to grow, they need to get nutrients from the soil. Before you can do anything to prepare the area you plan to plant in, you have to know the health of your current soil.
The best way to determine this is to test your soil. When you do, you’ll find out exactly what nutrients are missing and what you need to add to make sure the soil is ready for your seeds or seedlings.
What should you look for? The three main nutrients your plants need are potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen. You should also pay attention to other nutrients that improve the health of your plant, like iron, calcium sulfur, copper, and magnesium.
Soil pH tells you how acidic or basic your soil is. On the pH scale, 6 to 7 is considered neutral, so that’s what you should aim for. Again, the only way you can know for sure where your soil stands is to test it.
A neutral pH is essential to allow plants to absorb the nutrients from the soil. If your soil is too acidic or too basic, your plants won’t be able to use any of the nutrients that are available.
Getting to Know Your Soil
If the whole idea of preparing your soil for planting seems a little overwhelming, don’t worry. Getting your soil prepared ahead of time can help you avoid problems with the growth of your vegetables in the future. Plus, it’s not as difficult as you might think – just follow these simple steps.
1. Choose the right location
The biggest factor to consider when choosing a spot to plant your garden is the amount of sunlight it gets. Most vegetables need between six and eight hours of sunlight a day.
Find an area of your yard that provides this, then mark out the space where you want to plant your garden. Start by staking the four corners to give yourself a rough guide. For a nice size where you can grow multiple types of vegetables, aim for an area that’s at least 40 square feet.
2. Dig up the ground
After you know where you’re planting, it’s time to start digging. Loosen the top 10 inches or so of the soil, turning it over so the topsoil is underneath. Keep working the entire area until everything is mixed well and the soil is the same texture throughout.
3. Figure out what type of soil you have
The texture of your soil is important because it determines how it holds water and how easily the roots of your plants will be able to push through. To figure out the texture of your soil, start by squeezing it and trying to make it into a ball.
If the soil falls apart and doesn’t stick together, it’s sandy. If it forms a ball and then immediately falls apart, it’s loamy. If it stays in a ball shape when you let it go, you have clay soil.
Sandy and clay soil are not the best options for vegetables.
Sandy soil feels gritty and does not usually contain the nutrients plants need to thrive. It doesn’t hold water well, and it doesn’t usually contain enough of the beneficial bacteria soil needs to provide easy-to-absorb nutrients.
Clay soil is dense. Water doesn’t drain well in clay soil, and when it dries, it gets very hard. Clay soil doesn’t aerate well, and it doesn’t have many nutrients or microbes.
Loamy soil is ideal for plants. It’s an ideal balance between sandy and clay, allowing a good amount of water and air in and containing nutrients and microbes to ensure your plants get proper nourishment.
(Note that in this step, you’re only determining the type of soil you have. Later, you’ll learn how to fix it if needed.)
4. Do a soil test
As mentioned, a soil test is the only way to know the nutrients present in your soil and determine its pH. Testing your soil is the only way to know what you’re working with so you can figure out what you need to do to prepare.
To do a soil test, collect about ten samples from various places in your planting area. Mix them thoroughly to get a sample that represents the entire space.
Get a soil test kit from a garden center and follow the directions included in the kit to find out what nutrients are present, which ones you need to add, and the pH of your soil.
5. Do a drainage test
The biggest factor in how long it takes your soil to drain is whether it’s sandy, clay, or loamy. Sandy soil usually drains quickly while clay soil is slow.
To test this, dig a hole in your planting area that’s about a foot deep and a foot wide. Fill the hole with water, then let it sit overnight. Refill it in the morning, then monitor how quickly the water drains.
Ideally, soil should drain about two inches of water every hour. If it’s faster than this, it means your plants won’t get enough water. If it’s slower, it means they’ll get too much.
Preparing Your Soil
Now that you know what your soil needs, it’s time to make changes to prepare it for planting.
If your soil is lacking in nutrients, there are two things you can do.
The first is composting. Composting adds natural, organic materials to the soil. Not only does this improve the nutrient content, but in time, it can help the texture of the soil as well. To compost, you can use manure, leaves that you rake up from your yard, or collect food waste and other scraps.
For composting to be most effective, you should start adding it to the soil about a month before you want to start planting. Mix it into the top two inches or so. This method takes time and some prep work, but it really helps get your soil ready to plant.
Alternatively, you can use fertilizer, but make sure you get one with an NPK ratio that matches the needs of the soil. It’s very easy to over-fertilize, which is not good for your plants either. The benefit to fertilizer is that it has faster results than composting, though it is obviously not as natural.
If you determine that your soil pH is too low, it means that it’s too acidic. To adjust this, add limestone. You will generally need to add more to clay soil than to sandy soil to see a difference.
If the pH is too high, your soil is too alkaline. To fix it, you’ll need to add soil sulfur. Again, clay soil will need more than sandy soil.
To improve either sandy or clay soil, compost! Adding organic matter not only helps the texture but also adds the missing nutrients.
Preparing soil for planting vegetables may seem like an overwhelming task, but it really isn’t! The most important thing to remember is that you have to know what you’re starting with before you can make changes.
Get to know your soil by doing a soil test and determining its texture. Then, decide if you want to use fertilizer or compost, and take it from there.