Digging in the dirt

Before you plant, make sure that your soil is ready for the growing season

Before you plant, make sure that your soil is ready for the growing season

February 28, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

For other Herald-Mail stories about gardening, see:

"Plotting your garden"

"Table scraps + grass trimmings = gardening gold"

"What to add to the compost mix"

Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series about vegetable gardening.

One of the most common mistakes beginning gardeners make when starting a vegetable plot, horticulture experts say, is just throwing additives into the soil without checking to see whether the soil actually needs them.

That's why getting a soil test is important before you start mixing in fertilizer, experts say.

Soil is important to plant growth for two reasons, says Annette Ipsan, horticulture educator for the Washington County office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension. Soil provides food and water, she says, and it holds the plants up


"Good soil grows good plants. That's the bottom line," Ipsan says.

Soil testing

Home gardeners should get their soil tested about every three years, Ipsan says.

Tri-State-area residents can get information about soil testing, including kits, at their local extension office. (See sidebar below.)

Labs, public or private, usually test for levels of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium; sometimes, they also test for nitrogen. Not all labs check nitrogen levels, because the amount of nitrogen in the soil can fluctuate based on moisture and temperature, says Steve Bogash, regional horticulture educator for the Franklin County, Pa., office of the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Each nutrient has multiple effects on plants, but according to a Maryland Cooperative Extension pamphlet about soil tests, basically:

o Nitrogen is used by plants for all aspects of growth and development.

o Phosphorus helps with root development.

o Potassium, referred to as potash on fertilizer labels, is needed for plants to grow. It also helps plants tolerate drought and disease.

o Magnesium is a component of chlorophyll, the green plant pigment essential for photosynthesis.

But gardeners shouldn't try to overload on any one nutrient, such as phosphorus to strengthen roots, because what's important for healthy plants is the balance of nutrients, Bogash says.

Starting a garden plot

To start a vegetable garden plot, pick a spot that receives full sun and has easy access to water. Dig up and remove grass, weeds, and rocks to create a topsoil depth of 6 to 8 inches, Ipsan says.

While there is some soil variety in the Tri-State area, many residents are going to run into rocky soil that is mostly clay, Ipsan says.

One way to remove the grass is to slice off the top layer of sod with a sod cutter or shovel and turn the soil underneath to loosen it.

Another option, ideally done in the fall, is to turn everything over using a garden fork or shovel and allow six weeks for the grass and roots to break down, Ipsan says.

The other option is so-called lasagna gardening - a layering method - in which gardeners create a raised bed of organic matter. (More on that in the next story in our series.)

Ipsan says it's a safe bet most soil doesn't have enough organic matter or compost in it. Compost adds nutrients, Ipsan says, and improves the structure of soil, allowing pore space for air and water to reach plant roots. Compost can contain 40 plant nutrients.

People can use compost from their own compost pile or buy compost, such as Leafgro, Ipsan says.

If you have an existing garden, weed it and loosen the soil. Then mulch the garden with newspaper, grass clippings or straw, or a sheet of black plastic to suppress weeds, Ipsan and Bogash say.

If you are growing blueberries, create a separate garden plot from your vegetables.

Blueberries prefer more acidic soil, with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5, while vegetables prefer a neutral pH in the range of 6 to 7, according to information from the Maryland Cooperative Extension's online Home and Garden Information Center. Soil tests usually check for pH levels, too.

Getting your soil tested


Go online to the Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center, www, for information about soil testing or stop by the extension's Washington County office at the Washington County Agricultural Education Center for a free soil-testing kit. The price range is $5.50 to $27; independent labs conduct the tests. For information about soil testing and a list of labs, go to; hover the cursor over Publications, then click on "Online Publications." Call 301-791-1604.


A $9 soil test kit can be picked up at any Penn State Cooperative Extension office. The cost of the kit includes the cost of the test; postage is not included. Contact the extension's Franklin County office at 717-263-9226.

West Virginia

A soil test kit can be picked up at the Berkeley, Jefferson or Morgan county offices of the West Virginia University Extension or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Service Center on Edwin Miller Boulevard (near the Division of Motor Vehicles) in Martinsburg, W.Va. The test is free; postage is not included. The test will be done at the West Virginia University Soil Testing Labs in Morgantown, W.Va. Contact the extension in Berkeley County at 304-264-1936, in Jefferson County at 304-728-7413, and in Morgan County at 304-258-8400. Soil test kits will be available at the Berkeley/Jefferson Master Gardeners' booth this weekend at the Home Show at the Martinsburg Mall. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.

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