Thursday, January 14, 2010

From The Ground Up

A good garden begins with the soil and few of us have the perfect combination of equal parts sand, clay, and silt, called loam. I definitely have never experienced anything remotely related to such perfection and think of Iowa when I do. Whether that is right or wrong, I don't know. I'd guess you Iowans have your share of gardening woes too but you know that the grass is always greener on the other side.

When we were first married, we grew beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers and the soil was obviously pretty good. Then we moved----. Our next garden plot was made up of almost entirely sand. Sand doesn't hold water, or the roots of plants either. Nutrients, especially Nitrogen which is water soluble, leach quickly and your plants soon starve. I added lots of manure and got by pretty good especially enjoying how quickly it heated up, a bonus in the cold northern states like Wyoming. It was also easy to weed.

In my youth, I dealt with it's larger cousin, rocks. I'd just think I'd rid the garden of the larger ones and the ground would heave in the winter time bestowing upon me a fresh crop. I remember the beating my arms and shoulders took as the rototiller tines collided and the machine shot off in the wrong taking me with it.

Then early in our marriage, we bought home and what we've dealt with the past 29 years is what I've labeled as clay. This lovely plot of ground our town resides on was originally bought by a coal mine to start a community for its workers. They purchased it cheap, real cheap, because the rancher thought it the bane of his land holdings. We weren't privy to that little bit of information when we purchased our home and never thought we'd still be living in the same house 29 years later. The dream of growing enough vegetables and canning them to keep us off the shelves in the store has been my dream, so I've fought with this wretched soil admittedly incorporating more brawn than brain. Along the way, I've made a passel of mistakes and I can give you first hand knowledge how the homesteaders in the area build sod homes. I've cemented my vegetables into the ground using several different techniques. At one time, it was my specialty. It is a curse with clay soil that as you leave your raspberries or asparagus in a somewhat fertile plot, the clay quickly works to reclaim its territory. The earth never holds still. Nutrients leach and your plants are once more mired in a waste land. I'm a specialist on the don't, but I'm hitting the books hard this winter. I've had an increasing amount of success just because I've refused to be defeated.

I've been telling you that I'm gardening in clay and I'm sure that's what I started with but technically to fully qualify your soil as clay it has to be 50% clay particles. So I ran across these simple tests and I invite you to join me. No cash is require and it ought to be enlightening. Take a handful of damp soil in your hand and squeeze it. Does it form a solid clump and can you roll it into a log between your hands and form a ribbon. That's clay which consists of very fine cohesive particles.

On the other hand when I read about silt, the next size up of particles, that sounded a bit like our soil too for when our ground is wet its slicker than ___. Well you know what I mean. My backside can attest that after a rain, the ground is like walking on an ice skating ring with slick soled shoes.

Rub some of your soil between your fingers does it feel slick? Or does it feel rough, gritty and is hard to form into a clump in your hand when damp, instead falling apart. That's sand.

What loam feels like I haven't a clue and my research didn't inform me but I think if I ever experience it, I'll know heaven when I touch it. My back section of my garden came close one year. I could burrow my fingers down into the soil and pluck baby potatoes without dislodging the plant. It was awesome. Two years later it is isn't quite so pretty. I've work to do.

The next test requires a quart sized jar. I'm getting 6 or 7 and heading outside in few moments to take samples from numerous areas of our garden. I've increased the size so many times the ground varies greatly. Join me. Grab a jar of your own and fill it half full of a sample of your garden's soil. Top off the jar with water and one Internet site said add a teaspoon of Calgon, another recommended 2 teaspoons of salt. I'm using the salt. Shake vigorously. Within an hour or two, the clay will settle to the bottom, the silt will be next and finally if you've any sand that will be the next layer. Organic matter will be floating on top.

I want to hear your results so let me know and tomorrow I'll tell you mine.

The second test requires a shovel and it's winter so I'd recommend those of you in the north wait until spring. Some already know the answer. I do. At the best of times you can't dig a hole in this ground without soaking it and digging and soaking it and digging ... It even takes a pretty stout hydraulic post hole digger to do the job and I'm not digging a 1 to 2 foot hole when I already know the answer. If you don't know how fast your water perculates through your soil, it's important, so get to digging. Pour water into your hole and if the water drains out in less than 12 hours, the soil should be able to support plants that require well-drained soil. If it takes longer, you've got clay. Pick your plants accordingly.

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