Vegetable garden planning is always exciting, with so many options and possibilities to choose from. You can decide on the location, the design, and what to grow in your garden. For best results, you may want to amend your soil as well.
How to Know if Your Soil Needs a Little Help
One of the ways you can find out if your soil is healthy enough to grow a good garden is by observation. Once you've decided on the site for your growing area, then you should watch to see what happens when you water this area.
Does the water puddle up and sit there for more than a few minutes? (Conduct this test when it hasn't rained in the last 48 hours).
If it pools there and is slow to penetrate, then you might have clay soil.
If it drains away and looks dry an hour later, it might be too sandy.
If it soaks in and stays moist, you probably have a good amount of organic matter.
Next, dig up a small area. Grab a handful of dirt in you hand and squeeze it to form it into a lump.
If it forms a hard clod, that doesn't want to come apart, then you most likely have clay.
If it is so loose it won't clump, then you might have silt or sand in too large of a quantity.
The right kind of texture should form a clump, but be loose enough for the clump to fall apart if you lightly push on it with one finger.
This is the kind of texture you want. It should also smell earthy, and is usually a dark brown or black color. This would be considered a rich loam soil, and that's what you want.
How to Help Your Soil
For anything less than a rich loam, an addition of compost will make a big difference. Other plants growing there will give you an idea of the fertility of the soil.
If things grow readily and have good green color, it is probably fine. If plants have spots, are grey-green, or have yellow leaf tips, you might have some mineral deficiencies.
Another way to check for organic matter is to put about 1/2 cup of dirt into a medium jar of clear water. Shake it up well, and then let it stand.
It should settle into layers after several hours. The organic matter will most likely be at the top, or floating. If it is at least 5% of the total, then your soil should be fine.
Most mineral deficiencies can be compensated for with fertilizer, as long as your don't have either an alkaline clay or a very acid soil.
Some clues that you may have clay soil:
Clay cracks in heat.
It's very hard to dig, almost like concrete.
There may be a solid layer (hard pan) a few inches down that won't let water through very well.
Too much alkalinity makes it very hard for plants to survive. Not only do they get water logged, but the alkaline PH locks up the nutrients so that the plants can't use them.
Very acid soil also has this effect on nutrient availability, just on different minerals. No matter how much fertilizer you use, the plants can't access it.
For clay, compost will help to separate the fine particles and make it more porous. For sandy soil, it will give some body to the soil and help it retain more moisture.
Adding compost at a rate of about 3 parts dirt to 1 part compost can make the difference between a struggling garden and a productive, healthy garden.
Adjusting the PH of Garden Soil
If the problem is high alkalinity, you need an acidifier. Ammonia sulfate (also a fertilizer, high in Nitrogen) or soil sulfur can help with this problem.
If you have acid soil, the addition of some dolomite limestone will help bring the PH up.
These should be sprinkled on top of the soil and then worked in with a tiller or shovel before planting. Actually it's even better to do it in the fall, to give it time to work on the PH level, before starting your garden.
If you suspect a PH problem, you can do a soil test to check. County extension offices will often do this test for you as well.
The quickest way to find out is to ask someone with a garden, or a farm, in the area about the local conditions. If they are experienced, they will be able to tell you what might be a problem in your particular area.
Another advantage to a soil test is that you can check the levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. This will tell you what ratio to look for in your fertilizer to correct any imbalances. It's quite helpful to know what you need.
If you have alkaline and clay soil, the addition of some sphagnum peat moss, along with the compost, will also help acidify the soil. The more organic matter you add, the better your garden will thrive. A small amount of gypsum can also help to break up the clay.
For specific amounts and products, you can use this information from the University of Minnesota: Adjusting Soil PH
Don't use peat moss if your area is already too acid. It has an acidifying effect, and that's not what you want. It will just make your problem worse. Gypsum should be avoided as well if you have acid conditions.
If your vegetable garden planning includes organic gardening, then you will need to spend more time and effort on your soil. The premise behind organic gardening is that you build up a very healthy soil to ensure healthy growth and from that you also get disease resistance in your plants.
Natural organic fertilizers take a longer time to break down and work. It will mean mixing some of them into the soil before planting, while others will be added as a top dressing.
The details are beyond the scope of this article. For more information on organic gardening, see that section on the menu bar at the left.
Vegetable garden planning does not all have to take place the first year. Sometimes it is simpler to start with what you have and gradually work toward building up the soil enough to be completely organic.
One sign that you are very close is finding a lot of earthworms in your soil. If the worms like it, then the plants will too.