The buds are starting to pop on the trees and whether you’ve noticed or not your garden has started to wake up and is working to get ready for the season ahead. Here is a short to-do list to help it along its way and boost your soil fertility this season. Love your soil and it will love you back.
1. Nutrient Test: Know what you are starting with
Start with a simple home nutrient and pH test of your garden, as this will give you a good starting point of what your garden needs this summer to be healthy and productive. It is really best to test in the fall, especially to get an accurate reading of your soil pH levels. If you didn’t test your soil last fall, wait until the end of this season before you make any decisions to add lime to change your soil pH.
You can buy an inexpensive home soil testing kit at your local gardening store (such as Halifax Seed). This test will tell you what your soil pH is and where your levels of your 3 basic nutrients are namely: Nitrogen, Potash and Phosphorus. This isn’t essential, but if you don’t feel like you have any guideposts, or having trouble getting to know your soil, this information can be helpful.
If you just brought in nutrient rich soil the previous season your pH will likely be just right and you’ll simply need to add a bit of compost. However if you are gardening in the ground, or your soil has been in production for a couple of seasons its quite likely that your soil is a bit on the acidic side and that your nitrogen levels are running a bit low (nitrogen is water soluble and so often gets washed out with the ice thaw and spring rains).
2. Add Amendments
Your soil test will give you a great idea of what you will want to add to your soil before planting. You will want your soil pH to be around 6, having neutral soil is important to making the nutrients in your soil available to your plants. If you are adding lots of compost and organic matter to your soil, you don’t need to worry much about your soil pH and compost is a great neutralizer. If your soil is slightly acidic you can add large quantity of eggshells to your garden. This is a great option if you think your soil is acidic but aren’t sure or want a more gentle approach than using lime. Collect your eggshells in the freezer or get them from your local bakery for a great alternative. If you know your soil is really acidic and you want something to work a bit faster than eggshells use calacidic limestone, or even clean wood ash, put on a week or more before you plant.
When you are trying to change the pH of your soil you need to take it slow (i.e. change the pH over multiple growing seasons). Be careful not to add lime and animal manures within a couple of weeks of one another as they don’t react well to each other.
It is also likely that your nitrogen levels are low. If this is the case there are a few options to build up nitrogen:
- coffee grinds and/or coffee chaff
- chicken, sheep and horse manure (do not add with your lime)
- grass clippings
If your potash (or postassium) levels are low you can add:
- woodash or
And if your phospourus levels are low you can add:
- rock phosphate
3. Digging In
If you planted a cover crop such as fall rye or used sheet mulching last autumn, now is the time to dig it into the soil. It is good to dig in any of your organic matter (this includes cover crops, mulches, leaves, straw etc.) and then leave it for two weeks or so before planting. You don’t need to dig deep (in fact this can disturb your soil life), think of it more as a turning action, giving air to the mixture. Giving it a week or two to start breaking down will wake up the microbial life in your soil and start making nutrients available to your plants.
If you haven’t added any of these things in the fall then add in some compost to your beds, and some well rotted leaves if you have them (this is called leaf mould and is wonderful and fungi rich).
4. Wake up the Microbial Life
There is a whole world in your soil, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, worms and more. They all have their role to play in making your soil healthy and nutrient rich. When you add organic matter you are feeding this microbial community and building up the resilience of your soil.
As a final step to preparing your garden bed, consider taking it one step further this spring and adding a batch of compost tea to your garden. This will add a great boost to your mircrobial soil life and will help break down all that organic matter you just added to your soil, making it readily available to the plants you are about to add.
If you can’t get your hands on a compost tea brewer, then add a layer of worm castings to your garden instead. Fish and seaweed fertilizers are also great microbial foods, and kelp meal helps replenish lots of micronutrients, giving your soil a well rounded support system for the season ahead.
Your plants will thank you for the prep work and you’ll be happy to see your harvest’s bounty this year.
Written by: Garity Chapman