Part 1: Building Quality Soil
Q:Why doesn’t everyone just plant seeds in the ground like they did in the old days? A: People didn’t start communities in areas with poor soil back then. The settlers would make decisions on soil quality just as they made decisions on the availability of fresh water.
Unfortunately, in today’s world there are many communities that exist where the soil is not conducive to growing crops. Many of us now live in urban centers where space is limited. Additionally, many areas with poor soil that were previously sparsely populated, such as South Florida, have seen an influx of people because of advancements in climate control. Raised bed and container gardening is a great solution for those in the above circumstances that want to grow food.
In tough times, the ability to grow your own food is not only handy, but essential. For those that have been preparing for an uncertain future, the act of stocking up on long term food items is a standard strategy, but it may not be enough. If you run out of the food storage and the grocery stores are still empty, it will be too late to plant that first seed.
The learning curve for container gardening, or any gardening for that matter, is steep. So, just like getting your body in shape, it’s important to get that garden in good shape PRIOR to a major disaster or societal breakdown. In this way, the mishaps that will likely occur will be lessons already learned. The word “mishap” does not imply that you necessarily made those mistakes due to ignorance or negligence.There are many unforeseen natural issues that can ruin your food production. Too much or too little rain, storms, plant disease, and pests are just a few that come to mind.
The first step in growing a vegetable garden is planning. Learn what grow zone you live in: Each area of our country is divided into zones, and almost all vegetables have a better likelihood of a successful harvest if grown within the correct zones. A helpful website to find that information is http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/. This is a critical step when planning what vegetables you would like to grow. If you want to grow bananas, I would suggest not trying to do it in Montana.
The ideal pH for growing most vegetables is pH 5.8-7.0. Container or raised bed gardening gives you the ability to control soil conditions so that you will get the best yield for your efforts. Other benefits of these gardening methods include: initial control of soil additives (also called “amendments”) like organic fertilizer and compost, better drainage, control of water, and finally, less weed problems. Food production in containers or raised beds has been shown in studies to be 2-4 times as much per square foot when compared to ordinary garden beds.
The next step is choosing your type of gardening and obtaining the supplies. There are so many choices for container gardening, and you are only limited by your imagination. Containers which do not have to be moved around should be as large as your growing area will fit, which provides the root systems lots of extra room for growth. The most important component of a container is drainage. Drill several 1/4 inch holes into the bottom and sides of your containers for drainage, if possible. If your rainfall is heavy, watch for overly saturated soil and drill additional 1/4 inch holes until adequate drainage is obtained. Muddy soil or standing water left in a container will kill non aquatic plants. It’s important to understand that good soil has beneficial living organisms that help you maintain a healthy environment, and they need oxygen to survive.
Next, fill up your containers with quality gardening soil, peat moss or coconut coir, and compost. Here is a step by step formula for my container soil:
Begin with 1 brick of Coconut coir, put this into a large container and begin adding water. It will start to break down as you add more water. It takes an incredible amount of water to turn it into a fluffy consistency so don’t give up, just keep adding more water until it is all broken up.
- Then add 1 bag of ORGANIC garden soil. Mix well.
- Fill ½ of a 5 gallon bucket with pine straw. This provides some air pockets for proper drainage.
- Add as much compost (cow manure, etc.) as the container will hold and mix it all up.
NOW YOU HAVE THE BASIC MIX FOR ANY CONTAINER.
Next, mix in natural amendments such as worm castings (excrement) and/or green sand (ground-up marine sediment). You can add this in liberally; it won’t hurt or burn the plants like “chemical” fertilizers. This will add micronutrients and make your soil more fertile. Remember, your primary focus is feeding the beneficial soil organisms (like mycorrhizal fungi), in turn, feed the root system. Depending on the plant’s pH requirement, you can “drop” the pH with azalea organic soil acidifier; a little or a lot may be needed, depending on the plant’s optimal pH range.
Do not add anything to the bottom of the container, it is a myth that rocks or gravel in, the bottom of a container help with drainage. The truth is that those fillers may actually hinder water movement. Fill up the container to 3/4 full with your amended soil. In this manner, when it rains you won’t have water splashing out of the container or flowing over the edges.
be needed, depending on the plant’s optimal pH range.
Now, add and mix in a balanced organic fertilizer to the top 6 inches of soil. It will “seep” down over time, so don’t worry about it getting to the bottom of the container. This will add the “macro” nutrients, N-P-K: Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium that all plants need. Here is a description of N-P-K and the function of each component:
N= Nitrogen is essential to proper functioning of plant metabolism. It increases the protein content of food crops and is needed by most leafy vehicles, foliage plants and grass. Nitrogen gives plants their dark color and helps the growth of leaves and stems.
P=Phosphorus is the most important nutrient in root formation, creating good fibrous root stems, it encourages blooming and seed formation helps plants resist disease and increases and vitamin content of plants. Lettuce, potatoes, and carrots, for example, require good reserves of phosphorous.
K= Potassium (Potash) simulates lowering and makes fruit tastier by converting sunshine into starches and sugars. Tomatoes, strawberries, beans, peas, and other flowering plants require especially high levels of potash.
In addition to these macronutrients, also add some soil amendments with “micronutrients like boron (B), copper (CU), iron (Fe), chloride (Cl), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), and zinc (Zn). Micronutrients are generally less available in very low pH soil and micronutrients are less available in a soil that naturally has a high pH level.
If you’re working with soil that you suspect has few beneficial organisms, you can obtain them commercially. For example, blends of Mycorrhizal fungi can be found online or in local nurseries. These organisms attach to the root system in a symbiotic relationship (they help each other). The roots “feed” the fungi carbohydrates and, in return, the Mycorrhiza “feed” the roots water and nutrients that the roots ordinarily could not reach. As an additional benefit, the Mycorrhizae also compete for nutrients with “harmful” microorganisms, keeping your plant healthier.
Another helpful soil amendment is Humic Acid. Humic acid is broken down organic matter that “stores” the water and nutrients until the roots decide that they need it. It is the “storage facility”. Humic acid holds water and nutrients and prevents leaching during heavy rainfall.
Mycorrhizae and humic acid work together to help the plant become:
- More drought tolerant
- Less watering dependent
- More disease resistant
After doing all this, and I admit it’s a lot to do, you will have the healthiest soil possible to get that container and raised bed garden growing. In our next article, we’ll talk about planting seeds efficiently, weed and pest control, optimal watering strategies, and the benefits of growing heirloom crops versus genetically modified hybrids.