Down the Garden Path
Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator
The snow continues to melt and rains have begun to rinse away the dirty grunge of winter from the soil that piled up everywhere. While we wait for the last of the snow to go and the ground to warm up before we can plant even those cold and cool loving vegetables, we can do some garden strategizing.
If you got the garden soil tested, did you consider how you are going to add those amendments or adjust the soil pH? It is not too late to make sure that happens. Soil pH is very important. pH controls how readily your vegetable plants can take up the nutrients already in the garden soil during the growing season. The ideal pH is between 6.2 and 6.8, yet any reading between 6.0 and 7.0 will grow you some great looking and tasting vegetables. pH changes occur over time if you add either a sulfur based product if the soil is becoming alkaline (testing at pH 7.0 or above) or a limestone product to move the pH reading closer to 7.0 if the soil test level was reading below ph 6.0.
If you notice how quickly the garden soil cracks during brief dry periods, then those organic soil amendments will really help. Organic matter conditions the soil to improve water-holding capacity, soil structure and as it continuously breaks down, releases nutrition into the soil for your vegetable plants. You can think of organic matter as mother natures very own slow release fertilizer. That water holding capacity makes growing cucumbers, summer squash and root crops much easier as the fruits and roots will not be impacted by a brief drought. Good organic matter can be found in pre-packed bags and will be available very shortly, so you can stock up and be ready when you can get into the garden. If you were one of the lucky ones that got the garden soil turned over last fall, adding the amendments becomes easier. Add a layer of organic matter and turn the garden soil over again to mix it into the soil profile. If you are waiting to turn the soil over for the first time, do so and then leave the soil very rough, cover with organic matter and turn it over again.
Other activities you can do indoors include cleaning and sanitizing any seed starting flats and locating your soil-less seed starting media. If you can figure out when spring is really going to get here and then read the seed packet label, you will know when to start your seeds. This spring it might be a good idea to stagger your seeding for each variety you sow to allow for what might be a late or at least one of our start and stop springs. Planning the garden layout at the kitchen table is always easier than standing in the garden the day of planting. Consider wide row gardening or double cropping a short season and long season vegetable in the same row. A great example is sowing radishes and carrots together. The radishes come up quickly marking the row and are grown and harvested long before they would get in the way of developing carrots. Wide rows are often used for leafy greens.
About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.