Learning about Soil Health the Hard Way

The EAC’s Food Connections summer intern, Alison Froese-Stoddard, tells her story of learning about soil while trying to grow the perfect tomato.

I’m a rather lazy gardener, always looking for short cuts and a cheaper way of doing things.  As with many things, I have to learn the hard way not to cut corners when it comes to the soil mix in my container garden.  This is my somewhat embarrassing story of learning about soil the hard way.

My poor soil actually made an appearance in this blog last summer.  It was our first growing season in Nova Scotia, and I was excited to fill up our large raised bed garden.  I did very little to the garden soil before planting, apart from mixing in a bit of commercial compost, because I figured that the earthworm rich soil should have lots of nutrients.

The tomatoes on the left grew in the EAC’s office garden from plants I had started. The tomatoes on the right are the same variety of plants in exhausted soil in my own garden.

Not nearly enough, apparently.  Combined with very poor spring weather, my tomato crop was incredibly pathetic, and apart from two plants in my front yard planted in better soil, my harvest was almost nil.  This year, I did end up purchasing a few cubic yards of compost enriched garden soil, and topped up my garden considerably, along with adding nitrogen heavy bloodmeal , extra compost (homemade this time!), kelp meal, and potassium rich greensand.   At the end of June, many of my plants are already larger than they were at the end of August last year!  Lesson learned!

However, I’m still learning about potting soil the hard way.  Last year I ended up buying a lot of commercial potting soil for my various containers of tomatoes, potatoes and other things.  At the end of the summer, I put it in a big Rubbermaid container to get it out of the way.  This spring, I pondered what should become of my old soil mix.   I checked online, and there seemed to be quite a bit of debate as to how one should proceed in this situation, with some pragmatic folks saying it’s fine to reuse as long as you add a bit of compost, and other people swore against reusing it and suggested throwing it in the compost to bulk it up.

I did end up re-using it, and figured that if I added a few handfuls of compost to each container when I was potting up my plants, it should do the trick.  After a month or so, it was obvious which containers had gotten fewer handfuls of compost – some of my plants had barely grown at all!  I decided to re-pot the most pathetic of my container plants with extra compost, bloodmeal and greensand.  This time, I mixed my old potting soil with lots of compost, and added my amendments at the suggested rate, and once it was all mixed well, I repotted the plants.

It took a few weeks for my plants to recover from the transplant shock, but in the end I’m really glad I did it.  The above picture shows two of my tomato plants – the one on the left was the plant that originally was thriving due to the extra compost in the mix.  The plant on the right was the repotted transplant with the extra compost, bloodmeal and greensand.  What a difference!   After I took this photo, I made sure I top dressed the spindly plant with more nutrients as well, and I’ll periodically add some seaweed fertilizer to my watering schedule throughout the summer.  I did realize a bit too late that I should have used a  larger pot when I moved it the second time, because the small pot will ultimately stunt its potential growth.  However with some luck, these plants  – along with the others in my garden –  will grow enough tomatoes to put away for winter!

Container Gardening 101

One of the best things about gardening is that you don’t really need a garden! You can adjust to virtually any amount of space using containers for your plants. Plants can thrive in containers of many shapes and sizes and make anything look pretty. Containers can be tires, food buckets, pots, old sinks, baskets, kettles, shoes, bags, cans and more. You can really be as creative as you like!

When container gardening, be sure to provide your plants with adequate sunlight and water, healthy soil, proper drainage, and love! Keep in mind that containers tend to dry out much quicker than garden beds, so keep an eye on your pots/tires/buckets to make sure they have enough to drink.

You can also check out this post on how to construct a self-watering container. We built one for the first time this week, it went really well for some first timers! These containers are really handy for those of us who might me over- or under-attentive to potted plants, they do all the watering themselves! Pretty cool.

My Little Container Garden

I finally moved, this spring, into an apartment with lovely south-facing balcony, and a shared backyard. This has allowed me to expand my horizons from indoor herb and house plant gardening, to extensive container gardening!

I was extremely lucky to score several beautiful terracotta pots from a good friend and avid gardener. I also scavenged several 4 gallon ice cream buckets from a local ice cream shop to plant in. The ice cream buckets were a little gross when I first got them, but nothing baking soda, vinegar and a little elbow grease couldn’t take care of. After I cleaned them, I used a hammer and nail put some holes in the bottom for some drainage (next time I might add a little gravel at the bottom), I also placed little pieces of brick to lift them off the deck to ensure water can escape. And voila! There you have a free and sturdy container to put your plants in! In mine, I have tomatoes and kale! They are flourishing and my tomatoes are about to bloom. 

In the terracotta pots I have leeks, herbs, peppers, cherry tomatoes and greens. I have noticed that these pots tend to dry out much quicker than the ice cream buckets, and I find myself watering them more often. The plastic of the ice cream buckets seems to hold water a little bit better.

I also have some nasturtiums in baskets that a farmer friend gave me, they have a special place in my back yard because they’re just so darn pretty.

Thus far, this has been a wonderful and easy experiment; everything seems to be growing extremely well. My biggest expense was soil and compost; I burned through almost 2 bales of potting soil, as many of my containers are pretty large. Hopefully next year will be a little better on the pocketbook, as I intend to employ some tricks to extend the lifespan of the soil (stay tuned for the next post!).

Written by: Mhari Lamarque