Thursday, December 18, 2014

Good Soil Takes Time

I've received emails from beginning gardeners and homesteaders who have been having trouble with their new garden sites. Their first crops have been failures or very disappointing. I've discovered in my own gardens that the first year is often pathetic because the soil is lacking somewhere along the line. The soil on my homestead is naturally somewhat acidic, low in nitrogen, extremely low in phosphorous, and low in potassium. That's the N-P-K that's listed on fertilizer bags. But my soil also seriously lacks magnesium, manganese, calcium, and boron. All these deficiencies show in the plants the first year. Here is an example. 
Although its difficult to see in the above photo, the bean plants in the foreground are "bleached" looking, not robust, and a good 6"-8" shorter than the bean plants in the rear. Here's a closer look at the foreground plants.........
They have numerous leaves that are pale, their green leaves are not a deep or bright green, and the plants look stunted. They are small. Why? They are growing in soil where I haven't grown vegetables before. I had removed the weeds, flipped in some ash, coral sand, crushed bone, rabbit and horse manure, and good quality compost. Even though I added soil amendments, the nutrients simply aren't available to the plants that quickly. Time is needed to build a population of soil microbes that will "feed" on the amendments, thus eventually after a complex cycle, end up with nutrients that the plants can utilize. 

To avoid the first year blues, I could have resorted to commercial fertilizer. A hydroponic fertilizer would have given immediate results, but even something like Miracle Gro or Peters, or just about any lawn fertilizer without a herbicide, would have been better than nothing. But going with the more natural cycle like I did takes a number of months for soil improvement. Thus first time crops using don't perform well.

But here's what the plants in the rear of the row look like close up. Green. Bushy. Growing real well. Pushing blooms. The difference is that this is the second crop at this site. The first time around was pathetic, but this second planting is doing far better. The soil has had the time needed to process the initial amendments. Thus the plants are using the nutrients. 

The third crop on this site will even do noticeably better. I'm finding that it takes three crop cycles for my soil to really get good enough for vegetables. But that means that between each crop I'm testing the soil pH, then adding ash if needed, coral sand, bone, lava sand, inoculated biochar if the soil tends to get too dry, volcanic cinder if the soil stays too wet, manures, and plenty of compost. Plus I till in the old mulch too.

I've started out with reasonable, though deficient, soil. My results would have been different if the soil was pure sand, pure clay, muck, gravel. Each person's soil requires a different approach to make it productive. But regardless of soil type, the first crops planted won't be wildly successful until the soil deficiencies are addressed.

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