It’s early January, and all avid gardeners know what happens in January! The seed catalogs start filling the mailbox. I’ve spent a few evenings looking through these catalogs and planning for my next garden! It’s not time to start planting…but, there are a couple of tasks that can be done now that can yield benefits in the coming gardening season, namely, a garden site evaluation and drawing a garden plan. In this column, we’ll consider the garden site evaluation.
For beginning vegetable gardeners, a site evaluation should cover basic aspects such as hours of sun, water source, slope and soil texture. A good garden site needs at least 6 hours of sun a day and 10 to 12 hours is better. An easily accessible source of water is important, remember that occasionally we have a summer drought! How will the watering be done? Will you have to carry buckets of water, or can a hose or sprinkler be used? It will probably make a difference in how diligent the gardener is to keep the garden watered. A level to slightly sloping garden site is ideal, but if the slope starts to get over 2-3%, the gardener will have to think about measures to control potential soil erosion. Those measures could include mulching, raised beds or even terracing with steeper slopes. With regard to soil texture, many of our White County soils have a lot of clay. Clay soils tend to have poor drainage, which can cause problems for garden plants. If this is true of your garden site, begin making plans to amend your clay soils through use of compost, green manures and cover crops.
As long as we are on the topic of soils, gardeners should periodically get a soil test on their garden site. A soil test will provide the gardener with information about the organic matter content, soil pH, soil phosphorous level and soil potassium level of the garden site. Soil organic matter is important to soil health, containing beneficial microbes and a bank of macro and micronutrients needed by plants. In addition, soil organic matter helps increase soil structure and soil drainage. Many of our soils are very low in organic matter, below 2 percent. Soil phosphorous levels should be in the 20 to 30 parts per million (ppm) range while soil potassium should be in the 125 to 170 ppm range. Many vegetable plants do well in a soil pH range of 6.5 to 6.8. White County soils tend to be acidic, with pH values below this range. Increasing soil pH requires applications of lime, and following the application, it takes time! It is often 6 to 9 months after an application of lime before a significant increase in soil pH is measured. This is another reason for the gardener to evaluate the soil condition before the spring planting season. A little time spent in garden site evaluation at this time of year can pay some dividends during the growing season.
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