Many new vegetable gardeners start out with a handicap. A garden can produce only as well as the soil permits, and the soil they have to work with is usually rather poor.
This need not be hopeless. If the soil is well-drained and capable of producing grass or weeds, it can be developed into good garden soil. It isn't necessary to make a big outlay of money to start successful gardening immediately. But you have to work harder and wait longer before your soil becomes the rich black loan that soil scientists talk about.
Soil conditions needed for vigorous growth of plants - vegetables, flowers and fruit - are easy air and water movement in the soil, enough but not too much water in the soil, liberal but not too much fertilizer, and proper acidity for the crops that are to be grown.
After removing stones and trash, the way to improve your soil is to work organic matter into it. It is fantastic how much poor soil can be improved by addition of organic matter.
Organic matter includes barnyard manure, peat moss, compost, partially rotted leaves, sawdust, old hay - in fact, any criminal or vegetable refuse material where the softer parts have rotter.
Sewage sludge can be used for soil improvement. It is not advisable to use digested sludge on root crops or low-growing vegetables that are to be eaten raw. Mixing digested sludge with the soil three months ahead of planting leads to destruction of disease organisms.
Activated sludge does not have had odoer and pathogenic organisms are killed by the heat with which it is treated at the disposal plant.
Peat is a very effective form of organic matter because it lasts longer in the soil. It makes the soil lighter and easier to work. A 2-inch layer of peat with some fertilizer mixed with the top six inches of soil will get you off to a good start. Use one pound of 5-10-5 for 10 square feet of ground.
Be sure the organic matter is mixed thoroughly with the soil Research has shown that a mat of organic material can block the flow of water between the surface soil and subsoil.
Do not work heavy (clay) wet soils, especially with heavy equipment. Even regular walking over wet soil will compact it. This reduces the size of channels for water and air movement because the soil particles themselves do not get any smaller.
You can increase the organic matter in a garden soil by mulching between plants during the summer and then working the mulching material into the soil in the fall.
Although organic matter usually supplies fertilizer elements for plant growth, its chief benefit to most garden soils is as a soil conditioner. This conditioning action results from organic residues left after the easily decomposed parts have disappeared.
If the soil is too acid for best growth of the vegetables you want to grow, lime can be used to reduce acidity. A soil test will provide the necessary information about this. The soil test aslo will indicate the extent of the need for fertilizer.
Do not plow or spade the soil unless it is to accomplish one of these purposes: To mix organic matter, fertilizer and lime into the soil, to prepare a seed bed; to get rid of weeds; or to eliminate a crust on the soil surface.
Research has shown that soil compaction is not eliminated merely by digging the soil.After two or three rains, the soil goes back to its original condition. Improvement is accomplished by working in organic matter. That is the secret of soil improvement. Do it every year.