Garden Site and Soil Prep

Many of our garden friends are anxiously awaiting the first crop of our veggie starter plants.  A good bulk of them should be available by MAY 4th and we will be posting an availability on our website for you to order from for curbside pick up* as soon as they are ready for sale.  Please remember that many of these vegetables plants are warm crops and can NOT be safely planted outside until the risk of frost has passed.  In our area this can be mid to late May.  The crops that can be planted earlier still need to be slowly acclimated to the outdoor environment as they have been growing in our warm, sheltered greenhouses.

*curbside pick up is intended for immunocompromised individuals and those over 60.  Our greenhouse is open for shopping, please follow CDC guidelines while in our greenhouse for your safety and the safety of others.  Thank you 🙂

For the newbies there is some information below about preparing a successful garden site.  Our friends at UNH Cooperative Extension are also a wonderful resource for gardeners of all levels!  Please visit their website for helpful blog posts and informational handouts:

Here is a great article specific for those interested in starting a Victory Garden:

Garden Site and Soils

There are several important factors when considering a site for a vegetable garden. The site and soil are the most important. Preparing a garden bed before you plant will greatly improve your garden’s performance, and promote healthy vigorous growth from any plant you choose.

Most often, preparing for planting is done in the spring, and involves tilling or turning the ground, and at the same time adding generous amounts of organic material and some type of fertilizer.

The goal is to break up and loosen earth that has become compacted over time, and to replenish vital minerals and nutrients.

Conditioning, or reconditioning the soil as it is sometimes called, is best done after the winter rains or frost have passed, but before the summer growing season has started.

Taking time to choose the right plants for specific conditions in your garden will greatly improve your garden’s overall look and feel, and will cut down on both overall maintenance and watering requirements. Try to select plants that fit your gardens natural growing conditions.

The amount of sun an area receives is measured in hours. For instance, a “full sun” area would receive 6 or more hours of direct sunlight per day. Partial sun would be about 4 hours of sun per day. Also, there is a difference between morning sun and afternoon sun. (Morning sun areas tend to provide a cooler environment, and afternoon sun is generally much hotter).Filtered sun is an area with both sun and shade in roughly equal amounts. An example would be areas beneath large trees that have open canopies. Partial shade, will receive about 1 to 3 hours of sunlight per day. Full shade, are areas of your garden that never receive any direct sunlight. The north side of fences or walls, or areas beneath trees with heavy or dense canopies would be considered full shade.

Most vegetables require full sun to perform optimally.

Water should be readily available, and care should be taken to plant the garden where there is easy access to water.

Plants, Soils, and Water

When water is applied to the soil it seeps down through the root zone very gradually. Each layer of soil must be filled to “field capacity” before water go down to the next layer. This water movement is referred to as the wetting front. Water moves downward through a sandy coarse soil much faster than through a fine-textured soil such as clay or silt.

If only one-half the amount of water required for healthy growth of your garden or landscape is applied at a given time, it only penetrates the top half of the root zone; the area below the point where the wetting front stops remains dry as if no irrigation has been applied at all.

Once enough water is applied to move the wetting front into the root zone, moisture is absorbed by plant roots and moves up through the stem to the leaves and fruits. Leaves have thousands of microscopic openings, called stomates, through which water vapor is lost from the plant. This continual loss of water called transpiration causes the plant to wilt unless a constant supply of soil water is provided by absorption through the roots.

The total water requirement is the amount of water lost from the plant plus the amount evaporated from the soil. These two processes are called evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration rates vary and are influenced by day length, temperature, cloud cover, wind, relative humidity, mulching, and the type, size and number of plants growing in a given area.

Water is required for the normal physiological processes of all plants. It is the primary medium for chemical reactions and movement of substances through the various plant parts. Water is an essential component in photosynthesis and plant metabolism, including cell division and enlargement. It is important also in cooling the surfaces of land plants by transpiration.

Water is a primary yield-determining factor in crop production. Plants with insufficient water respond by closing the stomata, leaf rolling, changing leaf orientation, and reducing leaf and stem growth and fruit yield. To determine if irrigation is needed, feel the soil in the soil zone where most roots are located. As you gain experience feeling the soil and observing plant symptoms, it will help you time watering.

Soil is not just a mixture of inert minerals – sand, silt, and clay; it is a community of organisms that live in a soil mass, and it is the keystone of successful gardening. The minerals are the mechanical structure. A handful of loam from your garden contains more living organisms than there are human beings on the earth. Soil is alive and must be treated as a living substance.  Coast of ME  and Vermont Natural Ag offer organic options for amending your soil.

Types of soil have to do with mechanical makeup of soil. The type of soil does not give much clue to the value of a given soil for growing plants. We associate loams with rich soils, yet some loams may be poorer than some clay or sandy soils.

The types of garden soil concern you in three ways. First, recommendations for applying fertilizer, (2) treatments to adjust pH (acidity-alkalinity), and (3) for other applications of chemical substances give different rates for clay, sand, and other types of soil.

Second, knowledge of garden soil types gives some clue as to how well a soil will hold fertility. (Fall feeding is possible for a lawn on clay loam soil, for example, where this would be unsuccessful on a light sandy loam.)

Third, knowing your types of soil will often tell you in advance whether it will drain well, if will puddle, or wash under heavy rains.

Soil pH, or soil acidity, is one of the principal influences of good or bad in soil. Soil pH is the key to proper plant growth, and a reading of soil acidity can tell you much about what is going on beneath the surface of your garden.

Effects of Soil pH

Effects of soil pH are both direct and indirect. Direct effects can be critical. In the case of a soil that is too acid or too alkaline, there can be toxic effects on the plants themselves, and an unfavorable balance between acid and alkaline elements needed by plants.

Indirectly, soil acidity can have an effect on one or more of the following:
(1) Availability of essential elements
(2) Activity of soil microorganisms
(3) Solubility and potency of toxic elements
(4) Prevalence of plant diseases
(5) Competitive ability of different plant species
(6) Physical condition of the soil (when lime is used to raise the pH)

The pH scale:

The pH scale is a measure of balance between acidity and alkalinity of soil solutions. The scale is a series of numbers starting at 0.0, the most acid, and running in tenths up to 14.0, the most alkaline. The neutral soil reaction on the scale is 7.0, the mid-point where acid and alkaline elements are in balance. Soil reaction refers to the degree of acidity. Gardeners do not use the entire pH scale, since reactions from 4.0 to 9.0 are just about the limits for plant growth.

Each full step, or unit, up or down on the scale represents a tenfold increase or decrease in the degree of soil acidity. For example, a soil solution with a pH of 6.0 is ten times more acid than one with a pH of 7.0.

Lowering soil pH can be important when growing a limited number of plants (acid-loving species like blueberries, mountain laurel, hollies, camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons, certain conifers, arborvitaes, etc.). You should strive for a soil reaction somewhere between 6.0 and 6.9. Ordinarily, a reading of 7.3 is as high as your garden soil should be allowed to go if you are growing the usual mixture of annuals, perennials, vegetables and shrubs. For many plants, even this is high. To lower soil pH of light sandy loams one full point (i.e., from pH 6.0 to 5.0) as a guideline the use of sulfur, 10 pounds of dusting sulfur per 1,000 square feet, should be about right. In medium loam soil, add 15 pounds, and to heavy clay loam, 20 pounds.

You can raise soil pH by applying agricultural lime. Here are some suggested amounts: to raise soil pH of light sandy loams one full point (i.e., from 5.5 to 6.5) add 35 pounds of ground lime to 1,000 square feet. On a medium loam soil, apply 50 pounds, and on a heavy clay loam, 70 pounds.

Organic matter, a vital soil ingredient, has an important effect on pH. When present in the soil in generous amounts it “buffers” the bad effects of soils that are too alkaline or acid. For this reason, plants growing in a soil high in organic matter will often do well even though the pH reading is a point either way from the ideal range. Most plants commonly grown in gardens do best within a pH range of 6.0 to 6.9. Only those which require an acid soil require a lower soil pH.

The key to better plant growth – keep the soil pH between 6.0 and 6.9 and keep up the organic content.

Soil pH test kits give the gardener rapid results cheaply, which can mean improvements to your garden.

Soil pH test kits which use a special liquid that, when dropped onto a crumb of soil, changes color according to the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the sample are good kits to use. This can then be compared with a color chart to get the reading. A low cost unit which uses strips of paper is satisfactory.

Your first step in making a pH test is to get a uniform sample of the plot being tested. Don’t use surface soil (roots rarely grow there) but dig down six inches. Avoid large lumps of organic matter.  The soil should be moist for several days before you test it. (Drought affects the pH by killing off large numbers of bacteria and releasing organic acids which result in a false reading.) If the sample of soil used is allowed to dry for an hour or so in a shaded spot, it will give a clearer reading from soil pH test kits when the liquid is run through.

This is a good practice when testing the soil yourself or sending it to a lab to be tested. (Most Land grant (such as UNH) universities offer testing for a small fee.)

Our friends at UNH Cooperative Extension are also a wonderful resource for gardeners of all levels!  Please visit their website for helpful blog posts and informational handouts:

This is a great article for those interested in starting a Victory Garden:

Happy Gardening!