The Secret of Great Gardening Soil

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A recent popular Facebook post shows a gardener starting to prepare her soil, despite being surrounded by mounds of snow. "Once spring is here gardeners start to get excited about planting; almost too excited," states University of Illinois Horticulture Extension educator, Kelly Allsup. Experienced gardeners know that working in wet soil is the worst thing that you can do and you should always take a soil test before a new planting. A soil test can give gardeners valuable information on what is needed to amend the soil.

Working in wet soil is not only difficult but it messes up the structure. Soil that forms clumps would not be very friendly to good root growth. If the soil falls apart after grasping it in a ball, then you are ready for tilling and amending. If the soil sticks together, then it is not recommended to commence preparing the garden.

Gardeners should always address the state of their soil before planting perennials, annuals, herbs or lawns. Soil is a dynamic substance consisting of minerals, organic matter, insects, fungi and microbes. If the soil is healthy and amended each year according to local recommendations, then anyone can grow vibrant healthy plants without lots of added fertilizer.

I always encourage the homeowner who has issues with plant growth, to take a soil test. A soil test gives information on organic matter content, pH, phosphorous and potassium. Contact the University of Illinois Master Gardener Help Desk for a list of soil testing labs, soil testing kits and instructions on how to take a soil test.

Investigate your soil. A dark color indicates high organic matter while a light color is an indication that you need to add organic matter. Organic matter is decomposed plants and animals that adds plant nutrients in the soils. It also improves soil structure so air, water and roots can penetrate easily. Organic matter is essential for productive gardens. Typically, most Illinois gardens could benefit from adding organic matter. The average soil test reveals an average of 1-2 percent and should be around 5-6 percent. Only composts made out of animal-based manure adds nutrients like nitrogen. Your compost pile does not add nutrients, but only improves soil structure. A mix of plant and animal compost materials is suggested.

If a soil has too high or low pH then it may be unable to absorb some nutrients despite how much you fertilize. The soil testing facilities will give recommendations to bring you pH to a desired level. Most plants prefer a soil pH of 6 but Illinois water can raise the pH. For example, if your soil is too basic, the recommendations may be to add elemental or ammonium sulfate.

Typically, phosphorous and potassium additions are of no concern unless you are starting a new garden plot. Phosphorous and Potassium are included in most fertilizers.