Winter Chores: Preparing The Garden Soil

After last year, our first year having a garden, we determined to do things much better this year.  We kind of threw our garden together at the last minute last year.  On the bright side we did learn a lot out of our failures.  Not everything was a failure. We did get a better harvest than we expected from the haphazard way we threw our garden together.  But this year is going to be different, we hope.

We have done a lot of things to fix our pH, which we believe to have been a major problem with our garden last year.  In the fall, we burned a large pile of brush we had collected and spread the ash over the garden.  We also tilled in a bag of lime.  At last check, our pH was between 6.0 and 6.5.  A huge improvement over the 5.0 we had in the fall.

Next, we decided that we needed more organic matter.  Lots of compost.  We built a compost bin last summer and have done a good job of throwing in our waste in the bin.  Unfortunately, we had a lot more grass clippings and not enough leaves and vegetable waste to make a good balance for composting.  It also did not get turned as regularly as it should have, and the biggest problem I think was that it was not wet enough most of the year.  So, due to those factors, we have not gotten very much home made compost to add to the garden.
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Garden Lime

We have a serious issue with the acidity of our soil. All the pine trees we have do not help this fact one bit.  We did not even know we had a problem until after the growing season when we purchased a soil tester from Lowe’s (I think Lowe’s should sponsor our blog as we seem to mention it a lot).

While last year’s crop wasn’t a failure, I believed it should have been better.  So I set out researching to identify ways to make it more abundant.  During my research, I came across soil pH.  This had never crossed my mind.  While reading as much information I could find on the internet about soil pH, I read an article that said dandelions liked acidic soil.  We have a lot of dandelions.  Also, pine needles are acidic, and we have an abundance of pine trees.  This lead me to wonder if that had been part of the problem.

Upon testing the soil in the garden, I found our pH to be around 5.0. Way too low for most of our crops. Now, with a problem I set out on a solution

Most everything I read said use lime to raise your pH.  Everywhere I looked it said lime. Than I came across a little tidbit of very useful information. Wood ash also increases pH, and adds vital nutrients to the soil most fertilizers don’t.  Since we had a large brush pile from all the fallen limbs, tree trimming, and bush removal for the year, we just set it on fire right on top of the garden.  There is a post, Fire! Fire! Fire!, about that on our blog.

After the bonfire and the spreading of the ash around the garden, I tilled the ash in and retested the soil.  It had raised the pH from 5.0-5.5 up to 5.5-6.0.  I tested several spots on the garden so that is why there is a range of numbers.  That still left another half a point to go in places.  Our goal was to get the pH to 6.0-6.5.  Every vegetable we intended to grow was happy in this range.  According to the chart on the bag of lime and the approximate size of our garden, we needed 1.5 bags of lime to get that last little bump to the pH.  We figured it was better to be slightly under than slightly over, and we are cheap, so one bag of lime for the garden.

We bought plain old powdered garden lime.  The pelletized lime was just a touch more expensive and we are on a budget (read: cheap).  Next year we will spring the extra 40 cents a bag for pelletized lime.  At first the lime spread easily from our spreader.  After a short period of time it would cake up leaving a hole where the lime had gone out of the spreader.  A quick shake and everything would be working again.  The farther down the level of lime in the spreader would go, the worst the caking got, and the harder it had to be shaken.

And then there was the dust cloud I was creating.  Regular garden lime is very fine, so the dust cloud was expected.  To be honest, the cloud wasn’t that bad but my shoes may disagree.

All in all, it would have been well worth the extra 40 cents to go with the pelletized lime.  I think it would have made spreading much easier and I wouldn’t have spent five minutes trying to get the dust off of my pants and shoes.

The pH of the soil tests right at 6.0 to just a touch over in places.  Let’s hope that helps make a big improvement to our 2013 harvest.  The next step for the garden this winter is add as much compost as we can get our hands on, then we are ready to plant.

Wood Ash for the Garden to Raise pH Level and Add Nutrients

We gathered brush all year and placed into a pile in the corner of the yard.  We had no way to dispose of it, so we were planning to have a nice bonfire one cool fall evening.  We have quite a few trees in our yard that need the periodic trimming, and we removed a few large bushes so this brush pile had become rather large.

The pH of the soil in our garden was very low.  It was reading between 5.0 and 5.5.  While some of our veggies and bushes would be ok in that range, getting the pH around 6.0 would be appropriate for all of the veggies we plan on planting next year.  I had planned on getting a few bags of lime to spread on the garden to raise the pH.

I came across some information on the internet that said wood ash would also raise the pH of the soil as well as add some valuable nutrients that most fertilizers do not.  I verified this as best I could, not being trusting of everything I read on the internet.  I did find several sites that all seemed to agree on the usefulness of wood ash in garden soil.  It is very important to mention that you should not burn pressure treated wood or any thing that may contaminate your garden soil.  During a conversation with my brother-in-law it came up that a few years ago they had burned some brush on their garden and the next year things grew very well in the circle that they had burned.

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Location, Location, Location

Location is important not just in business, but also in gardening. Hopefully some of my mistakes will help someone.
It wasn’t until fall, after “the great harvest of 2012” did I test the pH of my soil. As it turns out, at least some of my problems stem from acidic soil, or a very low pH. Yes, if I would have followed the advice I had read I would have known this before I planted, but people only learn from their own mistakes, most of the time.
Pine trees, it seems, drop lots of pine needles. Pine needles are useful as mulch, and in compost, but do tend to be a little on the acidic side. So I guess, it wasn’t the best idea to plant a garden surrounded on two sides by very tall pine trees.
Why did we decide to put the garden there in the first place?
Before I explain that to you, I must go back to last year around Thanksgiving. We were trying to decide where to put the Christmas tree. After exhausting any option that did not require completely rearranging the living room (not even sure there was one) I suggested the front porch. Naturally, she didn’t find this as amusing as I did, but since then it has become an inside joke.
So, back to why we put our garden in a spot half surrounded by pine trees. Well, it was the most remote corner of the backyard, and we wanted to keep as much of our back yard as possible. When I suggested putting in the front yard (I am a bit of a smart-alack) the wife said that was too redneck. I suggested we could put a fridge on the front porch to make it match. “Right next to Christmas tree?” followed by something I will translate into, “We are not putting anything on the front porch but rocking chairs”.
So the garden went in the back yard. Surrounded on two sides by rather tall pine trees that make our soil rather acidic.