Get Your Garden In Gear For Spring Planting

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Get Your Garden In Gear For Spring Planting

If you feel the urge to jump into your garden, spade out and ready to dig into the early Spring’s ground, stop for a moment and ask yourself, Is my garden quite ready? Before you pour seeds into the soil to your heart’s content, you should take some precautions to be sure you’re going to get the best results from the new year of planting.

A new garden should be placed in an area that gives you the best guarantee of a prolific harvest. Choose a location with reasonably level ground, a nearby water source, plenty of sunlight for at least 6 hours in the day, and protection from winds or debris. Drainage is an important factor as well, make sure water can drain out of your garden without trouble.

Basic Cleanup and Maintenance

Start cleaning your garden area about a month before planting so the rest of your work can go on smoothly.  Be sure your tools are clean, and in good condition. Lots of everyday gardeners are unaware of the fungus or insect eggs that can spread when they use dirty tools. It is also essential to keep your flower beds clear of fallen branches and leaves. If you compost, go ahead and throw those leaves in! Any remaining live weeds should be your main concern though, they need to be burned or added to a compost pile before their seeds have a chance to germinate.

Late winter/early spring is a prime time to prune back any overgrown shrubs or trees because you have direct access to the branch structure before any buds break dormancy. This gives you the opportunity to shape up your plants so they can grow nicely. Cut away all decayed and dead wood and remove any withered foliage that has been hanging on from the past year. This is also a great time to transplant trees or shrubs that need relocation before they begin to bud, they’ll be able to flourish gracefully with a fresh, neat start. To reiterate, make sure your shears are clean as to not spread any diseases around your garden! Some isopropyl alcohol and a wash rag can sterilize them.

Preparing the Soil

Once your soil is workable and the frost of the previous season has lifted, you can begin working with your garden beds. Soil tends to become compacted in the winter, so you can till it or turn it with a sharp spade or a tiller tool to loosen it back up if you are not using “no dig” techniques. Any well-composted leaf litter or mulch can be mixed in but be sure that none of it is too fresh. If you don’t make your own compost, you can buy bulk compost from nearby suppliers. We recommend our garden compost or planters mix. Remove any remaining bits of weeds, debris, or any large stones that may have rested there throughout the winter until you have soil with a crumbly, soft texture.

Soil testing is important for understanding what your pH and nutrient levels are; this information can tell you what kind of composting material you might want to add. Poor quality soil should be given a layer of healthy compost for improved moisture-retention, nutrient content, and overall texture. Make sure to rake the soil and water it lightly afterward to release air pockets and help it all settle.

Early Planting

You may have to keep yourself from planting directly into the garden right away, though it can be hard to resist. Many plants struggle to grow if they are simply planted right into the soil.  They can be started indoors in the weeks leading up to spring to ensure their health. Hardier plants like potatoes, onions, and other vegetables are ready to be planted now. Make sure you do your research for the best care of your plants.

Mulch

A freshly mulched garden gives your yard a beautiful and tidy look and it’s also an effective way of keeping weeds from becoming established in your garden. Not only that, mulch serves many other purposes in a garden; it helps feed your soil and vegetation with organic matter, improves the drainage of the soil, improves fertility, and gives the soil a great texture. Don’t be afraid to apply a generous amount of mulch wherever you can. Cover any bare spots and try to build a 2-3” layer before the weeds have a chance to sprout. If you’re worried that planting any seeds under this layer might be risky, starting your seeds indoors is a surefire way to avoid this issue. An important point to remember is to not mulch your garden too early in the year. If any frost is still covering your soil, give it a few weeks as the weather begins to warm up as to not trap the cold moisture and prevent the soil from properly drying in the spring, it could also delay the sprouting of your young plants.

Fertilizer

There are three primary nutrients that plants take in. These are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Garden fertilizers are meant to provide a healthy amount of these nutrients to ensure healthy growth and development for the coming seasons. It is vital for every gardener to understand how their plants benefit from fertilizer.

  • Nitrogen promotes a healthy green color with strong leaf and stem growth as desired in most herbs and vegetables.
  • Phosphorus benefits early plant growth and healthy roots, including developing fruit, seed formation, and new blooms. It is essential for any edible that grows after a flower has been pollinated.
  • Potassium enhances the flavor of edible plants and promotes root strength while also developing the resistance of disease and stress.

Chemical or synthetic fertilizer is what you will most commonly find in your nearby garden supply store, just avoid applying an excess amount of either of these types. It can reduce the availability of other elements and damage roots, not a great start to your garden’s year. Organic fertilizers aren’t as potent and release their benefits slower than the alternatives, so they are less likely to burn your plants. Organic fertilizers can also improve the overall soil structure and encourage any microorganisms that will benefit the soil’s health.

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Early Spring Soil Preparation: When and How?

While everyone loves the arrival of spring, gardeners rejoice. The sun feels warmer, flower buds begin to swell, and early bulbs like snowdrops, winter aconite, and crocus are in full blooming glory. Early spring is many gardeners’ favorite part of the year. Patiently (or impatiently) you have been waiting for winter’s end, so you can get your hands dirty again. You may want to start raking and digging in organic matter and soil amendments given that spring is a great time to improve your soil for the upcoming season. Before you begin working on your garden beds and soil though, it’s critical to be sure everything has thawed and dried.

When is it ok to work your soil?

So how will you know when it’s the right time to begin working in your garden? Since it’s different for each region, we recommend an easy test you can do with just your hands to determine if your soil is ready. Pick up a small handful of soil and form it into a ball then try to break it open. If the ball of dirt breaks apart easily, then it is dry enough to begin working, but if it is soft and squishes instead of breaks (or is visibly moist), it isn’t ready to be worked just yet.

Working dirt when it is still wet can be devastating. It often leads to wet, rock-like clumps that will dry like cement and become cracked soil. Plant growth is best when the soil is healthy, and not compacted with a small amount of air around the roots. You will also want to wait for the soil to dry out before adding any soil amendments like compost, lime, and gypsum

If you are ready to get working even though your dirt isn’t quite ready, you can try raking only the lightest soil on the top (if it’s dry enough), but make sure not to disturb the wet subsoil underneath. Why? Raking only the top layer will help to remove any tiny weed sprouts before they become a nuisance. When you rake them up and leave them exposed, the roots will dry in the sun killing the weeds and adding organic material to the soil.

Soil building in the spring

If you believe your garden beds need a thicker layer of soil, you can try soil building in the early spring. Add compost or purchase garden soil then lay a thick layer of wet newspaper or weed cloth, then mulch. The purpose here is to build healthy dirt that releases nutrients as it breaks down, providing your plants with these nutrients without disturbing your garden’s natural soil ecosystem with a shovel or rake. If you are adding new plants to newly built soil, push back the mulch where you want to plant then replace it afterward.

Nutrients.

While you’re waiting for your soil to be workable, it is a great time to test the soil for pH and nutrients. When the soil is ready to work, it’s time to make any needed adjustments. The levels of nutrients and minerals in your soil are in a constant state of flux. Plants use the nutrients, and some are simply washed away in the rain. Nature, of course, will replenish them through the decomposition of organic matter, atmospheric deposition (rain and dust storms), and the breaking down of rock into its mineral components. Some of these processes can take decades and won’t be able to maintain the necessary equilibrium in your garden. This is particularly true if you grow nutrient hungry plants like fruits, vegetables, sunflowers, lilies, and daffodils. Their productivity and vitality will decline season after season without the addition of nutrients.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) are the principal nutrients used in a plant’s growth and development and are the nutrients most likely to have an adverse effect on your plants if they are deficient.

N, P, and K can be found in a variety of natural and processed fertilizers, both independently and in combination. You can also make organic mixes yourself by gathering the nutrients from natural sources. Organic amendments that are high in nitrogen include guano, chicken litter, urea, fish emulsion, and cottonseed meal. Phosphorous can be found naturally in bone meal and phosphate rock. The minerals sylvinite, glauconite (greensand), langbeinite (Sul-Po-Mag), and wood ash, are all common organic sources of potassium.

Micronutrients and pH.

Micronutrients are rarely deficient in garden soils since they are used in such small amounts. Usually, the annual addition of compost or manure is enough to replenish them. There are some plants however that can become chlorotic (yellowed leaves with green veins) which comes from a lack of iron and could require foliar treatments of iron and magnesium nutrient sprays to correct the problem.

The acid-base balance is a little more complicated. Simply put, a soil’s pH is a measurement of the acidity in the soil. The pH level affects the nutrient uptake by the plants. You can obtain an inexpensive pH test at your local garden center, and it only takes a few moments to perform the test. The lower the number the test shows, the more acidic the soil, and the higher the number it shows, the more basic. As an example, sulfuric acid has a pH of 1, water should be neutral at 7, and lye is around 13.

Ideally, you will want a pH reading of 6.5 for garden soils, but anywhere between 5.2 and 7.6 is acceptable to most plants. Outside of that range, certain nutrients can bind to the soil and become unavailable to your plants. Products such as ammonium sulfate will lower the pH, while products such as dolomite will raise it.

Organic Matter.

While there is no magic potion for improving all soils, it’s safe to say organic matter is the next best thing. It’s not quite magical, but it is efficient and practical. Organic matter includes animal manure, compost, pine needles, hay, seaweed, grass clippings, and shredded leaves. Availability, of course, depends on your region. You can also buy in bulk from your local supplier. You can find garden compost by the cubic yard which is great for your existing garden, or a planters mix of topsoil, compost and a small amount of sand for expanding your garden into untouched dirt. Both are great for packed clay and silt type soils.  Regardless of what’s available to you, use organic matter into your garden because of it:

  • Helps protect against pH problems
  • Provides nutrients as it decomposes
  • Improves the texture of heavy clay and compacted soils
  • Increases water retention of sandy and rocky soils

Professional soil testing every few years will help you maintain the proper level of nutrients required by your plants. Between professional tests, an electronic soil tester will be a handy guide for correcting any significant soil deficiencies. While urban soils are most often the worst to deal with, all gardens will benefit from added nutrients and organic matter.

Make it all easier with mulch

All this work every spring runs a risk of becoming bothersome, depending on your tolerance. One sure way to make it easier and avoid a lot of the work is to add mulch to your garden every fall. Mulch helps regulate soil’s moisture and temperature throughout all seasons. It works with compost to help build good soil, so you’ll have fewer amendments to apply each year, and helps prevent weeds from sprouting. We recommend using layers of thick, wet cardboard, brown grocery bags or newspaper over good compost, then topped with a layer of chipped wood mulch in the fall. These natural mulches help build soil as they break down, unlike plastic or landscape cloth.

 

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How to Build Soil in the Winter

It’s difficult to have a conversation about the requirements of a thriving garden without beginning with the soil.

A garden with low-quality soil may produce flowers and fruit and vegetables, but the flowers won’t grow to look as healthy, and fruit/vegetables won’t contain all the nutrients, nor will they taste as good as when grown in good soil. Not to mention, plants grown in good, healthy soil will have fewer issues with disease and pests.

Autumn is the Ideal Time to Start Building Healthy Soil.

While there is no wrong time to start building healthy soil, autumn is ideal for several reasons.

  • Leaves are falling from the trees in abundance, which are useful to mix with wood mulch for a winter mulch layer
  • Your garden plants at the end of their season provide a great source of organic matter
  • The weather is cooler (which is preferable for physical labor)
  • The coming winter months will provide time for decomposition.

The outdoor gardening season is ending. You’ve harvested the fruits of your labor (pun intended), but if you want to maintain or even improve your garden next year, don’t become complacent by thinking your job is done. What you could do now to help the soil building process will do wonders for your garden next spring.

No Digging!

Gardeners traditionally tilled their gardens in the fall. The idea was to bury plants, mix in soil amendments, and expose overwintering insects. There is now an almost unanimous opinion that it may be better for your soil to be left untouched. No digging, no tilling. Breaking up the dirt in any way exposes organic matter already in the soil to the air which speeds up breakdown and decomposition. It also disrupts the natural water channels leaving it at the mercy of erosion. Tilling will kill the earthworms your garden loves so much. Dig by hand, only as needed to remove weeds, debris, and old plants.

Sheet Composting

Sheet Composting (also called lasagna gardening) has been around for a long time and works well to build your soil organically. It works by forming layers of organic matter on top of the dirt which will start to decompose over the winter as well as protecting the soil from erosion and weeds. Sheet composting takes work but is much easier than tilling and requires only simple yearly maintenance. It’s also handy if you want to expand your garden next spring since you can build it right on top of the grass which will itself, decompose and add nutrients to your garden.

Sheet composting can be done a few different ways, but here is the basic idea:

  • Remove the old plants from your garden by cutting the stems down to the ground instead of pulling them from the earth. The roots are then left to break down adding to the organic matter in your garden.
  • The plants you removed can then be added to your compost pile for next year.
  • Lay down a layer of cardboard, brown paper bags or newspaper to choke out weeds and grass.
  • For the next layer, use about an inch of finished compost and/or It’s ok if the manure is fresh since it will have time to decompose over the winter.
  • The last layer is wood mulch with or without shredded leaves mixed in with it. Mulch has much to offer since it assures the soil will be protected from erosion from rain or. It also decomposes, adding valuable nutrients to the ground. A layer of about two inches of wood chips will work. If mixing in leaves, be sure they are chopped or shredding to avoid matting and to jumpstart decomposition.

While you can mix up the above ingredients a bit based on availability, try to keep the main ideas in mind. You want both green and brown materials. Green materials include grass clippings, vegetable compost, and manure which provide the nitrogen your plants crave. Brown materials are hay, straw, and leaves provide necessary carbon. Hay is also high in potassium which plants also love.

A Special Note About Wood Mulch

You may have heard that wood mulch robs your soil of nitrogen. While it has been found that there is a nitrogen deficiency right at the point where wood and soil meet, the mulch isn’t absorbing nitrogen like a sponge. Plants take root below this thin layer of nitrogen deficiency and suffer no ill effects from it. It is essential, however, not to till or dig wood mulch into the dirt for this reason. If you are sheet composting, the wood mulch will likely not lay on the soil in any case. Wood mulch is the best option for erosion protection, maintaining the temperature of the ground beneath, adding nutrients as it breaks down, and aesthetics.

A Note About Leaves

Leaves mixed with wood mulch is ideal for building a healthy soil. When leaves are added to soil, they help improve its structure making heavier soils more manageable to work with and create the best conditions for beneficial insects and organisms. Composted leaves also help the soil hold water during those dry summer months reducing stress.

Ultimately, you are preparing your garden to rely on nature to do what it does best. The layers of compost and mulch encourage the growth of microorganisms and worms while adding nutrients to your soil. This method even works if your soil is hard clay (it just takes more time), but be sure to add manure to the compost should this be the case as it will encourage more worms that do the work for you.

That’s it!

Come springtime, your garden will be ready to plant without the need for any other preparation. Any mulch that has not decomposed can be pushed aside just enough for planting seeds or seedlings. Once the plants have grown sufficiently, the mulch should be pushed back to prevent weeds.

If this is your first time using the sheet composting method, be sure to test your soil in the spring with a simple pH test kit obtained from your local garden center. If you checked it in the fall, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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Making the Best Garden Soil

 

Some gardeners are blessed from the beginning with great garden soil,  that’s great! This article is for those of us that must work at it. And, while we’re talking about it, keep in mind you can buy bulk garden soil which is great for those in a hurry, waited too late in the season, or simply want to go straight to planting. Our planter’s mix is a great option to jump-start your garden this year!

 

Now for you DIY’ers.

Examine the soil you are starting with, sandy, stony, or mucky clay? Is your soil acidic? How is the ecosystem beneath the surface (microbes, insects, and worms)? Building healthy soil isn’t difficult once you understand what you have to work with and what makes soil “healthy.”

 

Soil Texture

There are three main types of soil. Sand, which has a very loose, grainy texture and provides excellent drainage. Silt has a medium texture and is less grainy than sand but more so than clay and provides less drainage then sand. Clay has a very fine granular texture and drains very poorly. Chances are your soil is a mixture of these in varying proportions. These proportions will affect how well your plants grow due to drainage and the availability of nutrients. Fortunately, you don’t need to hire a professional to determine the texture of your soil.  

 

Determine Your Soil Type

The quickest way to have a general idea of your soil type is to grab a small handful and make sure it’s damp (not soaking wet) take a pinch and rub it between your fingers. If it feels slimy and slippery, it has a high clay content. If it’s gritty, it’ll have more sand. Silt feels smooth like wet talcum powder.

If you want to feel like a scientist, you can do the jar test. Take a dry sample of your soil and crush it into as fine a power as you can manage. Fill the bottom of a clear glass jar (quart size) with about an inch of your powdered soil sample and then fill it two thirds with water, finally, add a teaspoon of liquid dish soap to help the particles separate. Shake it up! Once you set it down, the sand will begin to settle to the bottom, the silt will take a few hours, and the clay could take days. You will be able to see a visible difference in the layer of sand compared to the silt and clay. Now grab a ruler and do some math. You used an inch of soil, so if the sand layer is a half inch thick, your soil is 50% sand. The ideal proportions are 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay, but if your soil falls short of this don’t worry. Using organic matter, we can manipulate your soil to exactly what you need.

 

Organic Matter

Organic matter is the decomposing remains of vegetative matter and soil organisms. This includes grass, leaves, trees, mulch, peat moss, animal manures, etc. You can also use compost. Soil organisms include worms, springtails, mites, protozoa, bacteria and fungi and other tiny creatures. These organisms can be your best friend as they consume and convert organic matter and minerals in the soil into the nutrients your plants need to grow. And, don’t forget that earthworms till your soil for you.

 

Improving your soil

Once you’ve determined your soil type, you can follow the directions below to build the soil you need for your plants.

To improve sandy soil, you will want to add three to four inches of organic matter like compost, peat moss and/ or manure. Work the organic matter you’ve chosen into the soil about 6 inches deep. Once you’ve planted, be sure to mulch around your plants to helps retain moisture by cooling the soil. You’ll want to add 2-3 inches of matter each year.

To improve clay soil, which tends to pack too tightly and blocks out nutrients and organisms, add 2-3 inches of organic matter like decomposing grass, leaves, peat moss, and compost. Work it 5-6 inches into the soil and add another 1-2 inches each year.  Repeating this process is both the Spring and Fall gives you the best benefit. Try to avoid foot traffic or anything that can compact your soil after you’ve worked it. Keep tilling to a minimum letting the worms do their job. Add worms as needed.

Silty soils are usually fertile, but they do have poor drainage, so you’ll want to add one inch of organic matter each year working it mostly into the top few inches. Like clay, try to avoid anything that will compact your soil like foot traffic or tilling to often.

 

Soil Acidity

The acidity in your soil affects the availability of the nutrients to your plants. If the acidity is too high or too low, the nutrients can become chemically bound to the soil and unavailable for your plants to absorb as food. Acidity is measured on a pH scale with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8 being the best range for your plant’s growth.

To test your soil, you need a pH tester similar to what you might use for a pool or hot tub. They do make testers for soil which you can likely find in your local garden center or online for less than twenty dollars.

Changing the pH of your soil doesn’t happen overnight. It may take one or two seasons to get in the range you want, then you maintain it thereafter. Keep adding that organic material though as it will continue to add nutrients and help moderate any pH imbalances.

To improve the soil with high acidity or pH less than 6.5 you can add powdered limestone. It will take several months to alter pH levels so you’ll want to add it in the fall. Alternatively, you can add wood ash which works more quickly, but it’s easy to use too much which will swing the pH too far in the other direction. A good rule of thumb is two pounds per one hundred square feet. In sandy soil use three to four pounds of limestone per one hundred square feet. In well-proportioned soil, use seven to eight pounds and in mostly clay soils use eight to ten pounds.

To improve the soil with too low acidity the common ingredient is sulfur, but you can also use high acidic organic matter like peat moss and pine needles. In sandy soil, use one pound of sulfur per one hundred square feet. In good soil, use one and a half to two pounds. In mostly clay, use two pounds.

 

Long-term planning.

Do keep in mind that different plants prefer different soils. Blueberries and azaleas, for example, prefer more acidic soil than the 6.5 – 6.8 range that most plants prefer. Some plants require better drainage than others that might prefer a consistently water-laden soil. The above guide will certainly get you started, but always best to learn about the needs of the plants you intend to grow and alter your soil from there.

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Preparing Landscape Beds for Gardening

When you invest in a new home or business, one is generally focused on structural or decorative projects, not the condition of the soil and how it affects future landscaping projects.  Landscaping helps with curb appeal, but without healthy topsoil; flowers, grass, trees and shrubs simply won’t mature properly. We believe that topsoil is an essential part of landscaping and guarantee it will increase longevity for your lawn and landscape. Here are guidelines to prep landscape beds for spring gardening.

Do you know if your soil is healthy?

Topsoil contains vital organic nutrients homeowners and landscapers know are necessary for plant growth. You can determine the condition of your soil with a soil test, which will confirm if your soil has all the organic matter and nutrients your plants need to grow.  

Soil analysis will measure the quantity of nutrients in your lawn—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are natural elements mixed in soil and a life source for plants. Checking the balance of these elements is important, here’s why:  

Phosphorus: promotes plant maturity and seed development

Nitrogen: feed tree roots to aid leaf growth and produce green leaves

Potassium: nurtures plant strength and boost plant color

Potenz Hydrogen: pH balance measures the acidity of a solution in your garden’s soil

Avoid neglecting your soil’s natural resources on your property, especially malnourished areas that require more attention. Testing your soil will reveal its strengths and weakness. Soil testing kits are found at any local gardening retailer.

Types of soil

The types of topsoil your lawn needs depends on the requirements of your landscaping project. Topsoil sustains life in flowers, grass, shrubs and trees with roots reaching deep into the soil. Testing your soil or conducting a soil analysis will affirm the condition of your lawn:

Pulverized Topsoil:  Put on a fresh layer of topsoil to rid the soil of clods and rocks. Pulverized to a fine consistency, pulverized field soil is perfect for your general landscaping needs.

Organic Black Peat Based Topsoil:  Is substantially rich in organic matter with a neutral pH balance. Loaded with humus, hydrated with a high degree of water and nutrient retention capabilities.

Compost: A blend of animal waste, leaves and mulch fines. Aged like a fine wine; compost gets better with age. Turning compost at regular intervals will aid the decomposition process. Not recommended for direct seeding.

Planters Mix:  A combination of pulverized topsoil and compost with a small amount of sand and bark fines for permeability. Planters mix will give your soil the little extra boost that it needs.

Visit a reputable topsoil retailer near central Indiana for topsoil that is rich with all the resources your garden needs to grow. McCarty Mulch and Stone is devoted to providing topsoil all year so you can have a healthy, beautiful outdoor space. Contact us and ask about our delivery options or visit us in Greenwood Indiana and we’ll help you reach your maximum green thumb potential with our premium soil products.