Soil Preparation For Vegetables.
It goes without saying – healthy soil means only one thing, healthy plants and vegetables, but what is the perfect soil preparation for vegetables and plants?
When the soil in our gardens is in a healthy state there’s less need for pesticides and fertilisers. Organic soil is packed full of humus which is formed by decayed materials like leaves, compost and grass cuttings. Although this type of soil holds moisture it still drains any excess water away really well.
Healthy organic soil is very fluffy, loose and full of air which is essential for healthy plant and vegetable growth. Healthy soil is also packed full of minerals and living organisms. Such organisms include fungi, worms and bacteria all of which benefit the soil in their own unique way.
So, is your soil healthy? How do you know if it’s healthy or not? What do you do if it isn’t?
How Healthy Is Your Soil?
We believe there are 17 (or so) elements that are essential for vegetable and plant growth but the main 3 are phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. These are known as the main 3 because plants take these elements in the largest amounts.
As these elements are taken in the largest amount they are known as primary or macro-nutrients and fertilisers which contain all these 3 ingredients are labelled ‘complete fertilisers’.
Other elements which are really important to vegetable and plant growth are – Magnesium, calcium and sulphur. These are known as secondary nutrients but are still crucial to healthy plant life.
Micro-nutrients, which are considered to be of lesser importance, include – Iron, copper, manganese and zinc. Another really important factor in determining how healthy your soil is, is the acid/alkaline balance or pH readings.
All this, and the correct texture, makes for very healthy soil indeed. To get your soil preparation for vegetables correct you must know how healthy your soil is.
If it’s an extensive soil test you’re looking for then you will have to have a professional do that for you. If you click here the Soil Association have put together a small list of companies that will happily test your soil for you. The tests carried out by such companies usually tell you things like –
- pH Balance
- Magnesium Levels
- Phosphorous Levels
- Calcium Levels
- Nitrogen Levels
Occasionally these tests will also show you the micro-nutrients contents but this information isn’t really important as you should be adding plenty of organic matter to the soil, anyway, regardless of the results of these tests.
You don’t have to going all out and having a pro test your soil you should definitely pick up a do-it-yourself soil testing kit like the one on the right of this page.
With the Morthan 2019 4 in 1 soil testing probe (pictured in the image on the right) is ideal for getting your soil ready to plant all your vegetables.
It’s the perfect but of kit to check many factors in the soil, but most importantly the pH levels. The pH levels need to be correct in order for your plants and vegetables to be able to fully absorb the nutrients in the soil.
pH levels of between 6.5 – 6.8 are perfect because most minerals will be available to plants at these levels.
If your soil is too acidic – at or below 6.0 = low pH , or alkaline – above 7.0 = high pH – it would be irrelevant how nutrient rich the soil is as your plants and vegetables simply won’t be able to take the nutrients in.
This is why the pH levels are really very important so a pH meter is highly recommended. Your soil preparation for vegetables won’t be complete if you pH levels aren’t correct.
Soil Type And Texture
As discussed above you need to test the pH, nutrient and mineral levels within your soil. As well as those things you need to examine it’s texture, because the texture can also indicate many things within the soil.
The texture of your soil will indicate the amount of clay, sand and silt. If you want to know a little more about these elements in soil or you want an easy test to determine your soil type head over to this page at NASA’s Soil Science page.
Sand is the biggest particles in soil. You can tell instantly that sand is present because it feels gritty to touch. Next comes silt. Silt is slippery when wet yet very powdery when dry.
The smallest size particles in soil is clay. These are flat and and stick together like wet tissue paper. You don’t need to be a soil expert or scientist to determine your soil type. Just go and pick up and handful of soil and start feeling it.
- Gritty = Sandy Soil
- Wet/Powdery = Silty Soil
- Slippy/Sticky When Wet = Heavy Clay Present In Soil
Nearly all soil will fall into one of these categories.
What Do These Soil Types Mean?
Soil rich in sand tends to be very poor nutrient soil. This is due to the the water and nutrients draining away rapidly between the large spaces between the grains of sand.
Silty soil will be dense and it will not drain excess water away well, at all. Out of clay, sandy or slit filled soils it will be the silty soil which is more fertile.
Heavy clay soil very dense, won’t drain water and will split and crack when dry. Because there’s no space in between the particles of clay there won’t be much life or organic matter in there. As they clay is very hard and dense the plant roots will struggle growing in the hard material.
How To Improve These Soil Types
The best thing to do to improve your garden soil is add organic matter. Compost, manure, or mulch will help prepare poor quality soil for planting. If you add a chemical fertiliser you will, no doubt, replenish some nutrients but it will not help maintain healthy soil.
Good quality organic matter is the best way to put nutrients into soil whilst maintaining it’s health.
Humans need air and plants are no different. They need air in 2 places – above and below ground. They need air above ground for photosynthesis and below ground to their roots.
As well as plants needing soil oxygen lifeforms within the soil also need oxygen to survive. The organisms within the soil are crucial to the well being of vegetables and plants, too.
Adding organic matter in the form of compost will help balance the air to the perfect level. The correct level of air should be around 25%. Also, don’t walk on the soil. Compacting the soil will make the particles close up tight and the oxygen will not have room to get in and around inside the soil. If the soil is very wet do not work the soil because, that too, will have a negative effect on the amount of oxygen within the soil.
Plants, vegetables and lifeforms need water, too. Don’t over-water and don’t under-water the soil, though. Healthy soil should be made up of around 25% water.
You may be thinking it wouldn’t be a problem if the soil was over-watered, but it would. This is because the root of the plant or vegetable will suffocate leading to the plant dying.
Improving the structure of your soil grains is the best way to improve the way in which your soil drains and holds water. Adding organic matter will help the soil form aggregates helping the water to drain when necessary. On the other side of that sentence – organic matter helps hold on to the water when the weather is that bit dryer.
If you want healthy soil you need to have bugs. The critters found in soil really are amazing and help out your soil no end. They create nutrients in the soil and chew up the soil making it fluffy and light thus aerating the soil for you veggies.
Some of the bugs you want present in your soil are – Earthworms, Springtails, Nematodes, Fungi, Bacteria, Mites, Protozoa and many, many others.
Do not underestimate the power of soil life. The creatures in your garden are some of the best little helpers you’ll ever want or need.
Adding organic matter (compost) will improve every soil type out there. It will improve the nutrient levels, how it drains and holds water and the texture.
All soils improve by adding compost on the top annually. It’s up to you how you get your compost. You can either purchase it or make your own but because we’re in an age of recycling, making your own is the best choice.
We’ve included an image you can click on the right hand side of this page. The image will take you to the best kitchen composter in the world. It’s compact, cute and does a great job. Go click the image and check it out >>>>
Making your own compost is very rewarding and pretty simple to do. It really is as simple piling green layers and brown layer on top of each other and turning it often.
Brown layers are – leaves and straw etc.
Green layers are – live stock manure, food waste and grass cuttings etc.
We do strongly recommend a compost bin. With a compost bin there is no mess and no chance or rodents etc getting at the waste materials.
Mulch – Organic and Non-Organic
Organic mulch is made up of hay, shredded bark, grass clippings and straw etc. This type of mulch will cover the soil protecting it from extreme conditions such as heat and cold.
Mulch also deters weeds from growing whilst also preventing too much water loss. It slowly breaks down over time nourishing and enriching the soil.
Non-organic mulches are made up of things such as black plastic, landscape fabrics, small pebbles and gravel. These prevent weeds growing and insulate the soil, very much like organic mulch. Unlike organic mulch, however, non organic mulches won’t need to be replace every year but they will not add any nutrients to the soil, either.
Because they don’t breakdown and offer any nutrients to the soil a non organic mulch will do nothing in the way of improving the soil you have.
If you’re looking to improve the soil texture and nutrient levels then you’ll need to add organic mulch.
Dry or liquid fertilisers add nutrients into the soil that are likely never to get there in other ways. It’s up to you, however, which you chose to use. Here’s why –
Dry fertilisers are usually a little slower at working than synthetic fertilisers but their nutrients will be released for a longer period of time. That being said, synthetic fertilisers can be bad for the environment and maybe have a negative effect if they kill off the microorganisms living in your soil.
Organic (dry) fertilisers are mixed directly into the soil as per that bags instructions and then watered. They may take a little more time to work than liquid fertilisers but they will work for a greater period of time. There are many different fertilisers all with a variety of different ingredients.
Some ingredients include – rock phosphate, bat guano and molasses. They will all contain different levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus so decide which element your soil requires the most and chose which fertiliser suits you best.
Liquid fertilisers will be applied directly onto the soil or plants. Because they are easy to store and simple to use many people prefer them to solid organic fertilisers.
If you need to change the pH levels within your soil don’t expect to buy a wonder product and have that happen with one application. Changing the pH in your soil should take a season or two – see this post here.
After you have the pH levels in your soil correct there will then be a little maintenance each year to keep the levels good.
No matter if your soil is acidic or alkaline, adding organic material to it each year will surely balance out.
Lime can be added to acidic soil to balance it out. This is best done in the Autumn as it will take a few months to work.
Some plants like blueberries prefer acidic soil so do be aware of this before adding lime. That being said the vast majority of plants do not like acidic soil so you will most probably be fine.
Limestone isn’t the only element you can add to reduce your soils acidity you can also use wood ash. You must be careful is using wood ash because if you use too much this can result in a higher pH reading and nutrients can actually be taken for your soil.
Alkaline soil needs the acidity level bringing up. We would do this by adding things such as – sawdust, conifer needles, sulphur and oak leaves.
Whichever of these elements you chose to use to raise the acidity level in your soil be sure to follow the instructions on the label.
If you have sandy soil then you need to add organic matter, compost is best. Use straw, bark, hay leaves or wood chips to mulch around your plants then add good amounts of organic matter yearly.
Silty soil can be improved by adding organic matter, too. As with sandy soil add good amounts of organic matter each year and you will see a big improvement is soil quality.
Heavy clay soils will also benefit from having organic matter mixed into it. After that add more compost to the topsoil yearly.
Soil Preparation or Vegetables – Conclusion
Hopefully you enjoyed out soil preparation for vegetables post and hopefully you got some valuable information from it. If you have any questions, or you just want to leave a comment, then please do so below.
Thanks for reading and happy planting 🙂