Reading a soil test -- 4-15-14

(This week’s wildflower is the Corn Speedwell. To enlarge the picture, please click on it.)

Most of us are not farmers, so the chances are good that we do not appreciate how crucial the weather is to the effort to grow things. Anyone who’s grown grass or vegetables for any length of time remembers the winters that seemed to come to a screeching halt, followed almost immediately by scorching summers. First it was too cold to get out and work outside, then too hot to do much until just after sunrise or an hour or so before sunset.

This year, after what seemed like an endless winter, we have had a real spring, cool enough to clean up the branches that winter’s harsh winds knocked down before the grass begins to grow. Our luck might not hold, so whether you believe in Mother Nature or a Supreme Being of your own choice, it might be well to give thanks now for the good weather.

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As you may remember, my oldest son Michael, who does the close-up photography for this blog, asked for my help with his garden (near Greencastle, Pa.) this year. Last week, we went over the choices he’s made for his salad garden and looked at planting dates and growing methods. This week we’re going to look at what he needs to do in the way of fertilizing.

To do this, we are not relying on hunches, fertilizer bag labels or TV commercials, but soil test results from the Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory at Penn State. Because my son has two large raised beds on opposite side of his yard, we sprung for two tests. The results were good, for the most part. They include:

-- The soil pH, a measure of how alkaline or acidic the soil is, were 7.2 for Bed No. 1 and 7.1 for Bed No. 2, both in the optimum range. A soil’s pH determines whether essential nutrients will be available to the plants and/or the lawn that you’re trying to grow. In our case, Penn State didn’t recommend any measure, such as adding lime, to correct pH.

-- Potash and calcium were also in the optimum range for both beds.

-- For both beds, the amount of magnesium was in the “above optimum” range. How to fix “too much” is not something I know how to do, so I called on the experts at the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center. (https://extension.umd.edu/hgic.) Their answer: You can’t do anything. Just don’t add any more.

-- Phosphate was in the “below optimum” range. The soil test information said that to remedy that, we should apply 0.5 lbs. of UREA (nitrogen) per 100 square feet and 1.0 lbs per 100 square feet of 0-46-0 per 100 square feet. Since we’re not likely to find 0-46-0 on the shelf of the big box store, we’ll need to go to a farm supply store or fertilizer supply company and get a batch made up.

The next step will be planting on schedule and watching for insect pests that can attack transplants or crops grown from seed. As a horticulturist I once knew said, you didn’t do all this work just to feed the bugs, did you?

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Since a large garden is out of the question (this year) for the Maryland portion of the Maginnis family, my wife decided that she wanted to try an Earthbox, a container garden system that (its company says) is impossible to overwater and frees gardeners from dealing with the need to remediate poor garden soil.

We’d heard they were available at Sam’s Club, but when we stopped by to get one, we found that the device they carried was a Keter Elevated Garden Bed -- an Earthbox-type planter, with its own drainage system and four legs. The means that we can weed, harvest or water without getting down on our knees.

We started with three bags of Miracle Gro potting soil and then planted transplants of spinach, cabbage, leaf lettuce, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts. The drawback, as with all raised-bed systems, is that the soil will dry out much quicker than it would in the garden. The plus is, unless those rabbits and groundhogs have stilts, our harvest should be safely out of their reach.

(Did you like this column? Please send suggestions and constructive criticism to bobmaginnis@myactv.net.)

 

 

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