Soil Musings

Happy snap peas in Dirtynailz' garden last summer

Here’s HerbDoc with some timely thoughts on preparing the soil in your vegetable garden:

One of the most important factors in establishing a productive vegetable garden besides a sun drenched site is good soil.  About 12,000 acres in Rhode Island are covered with “Narragansett silt” which supports not only oaks, white pines and American beech trees but also the agricultural community’s growing of crops.

Before a gardener takes on the amendment of the soil, s/he should have a soil test done.  A quick, free pH test is available from March through October on Mondays through Thursdays (10 am to 1 pm) at the CE Center on the University of RI campus.  Call for additional information – 1-800-448-1011.  A more thorough test should be performed if a first time garden is being sited.  Such tests are available at UMASS or UCONN as well as extension offices at universities throughout the United States, and will include valuable information such as pH, mineral content and whether the soil is contaminated with lead or other heavy metals.  Following the recommendations will optimize a gardener’s crop production and will save money by minimizing inputs which are not needed.  For a soil test form, log onto  A standard test will be sufficient for most gardeners.

Regardless of what amendments are recommended for the soil, my gardens get a yearly dose of compost either at the end of the harvest season or prior to planting in early spring.  When my compost was in limited supply, I added peat moss to existing areas.  Organic matter greatly improves the soil, and my goal is to allow about 50% of the total volume to be pore space.  This results in a loose, crumbly soil which allows the plants to sink deep roots and aids in the retention of air, water and nutrients vital for strong growth.

As I noted in a previous post, the addition of raised beds to the vegetable garden has been a boon!  The only areas receiving amendment now are the beds themselves and no tilling or heavy spading is required.  Overworking the soil can itself be detrimental since it breaks down soil texture.  Other positives I’ve noted:

  • Beds can be put anywhere and over any type of ground;
  • They drain well and don’t retain water;
  • There is no compaction because I’m not walking on the beds;
  • Beds warm up earlier in the spring.  They tend to be 8-13 degrees above ground level temps!
  • There are few if any weeds!

Although raised beds may cost more initially in lumber and bringing in soil, the results are superior with a lost less work!  As an aside, I purchased several of my beds at Job Lot – a RI discount chain.  At $25 each, they were a true bargain and survived the winter very well.


About dirtynailz

Writer for a daily newspaper, gardener, tree hugger, orchid-grower, photographer, animal lover, hiker, wilderness seeker. Proponent of clover in the lawn and a dog on the bed.
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9 Responses to Soil Musings

  1. cj wright says:

    I have a question about adding lime. I had my soil tested last weekend and the rep from Pennington seeds told me to add lime, but to wait till autumn. The pH is 6 now. I don’t grow veggies there, just some flowering shrubs (quince, forsythia, and a few azaleas, along with some bulbs). The azaleas are suffering. Do I have to wait until autumn? What will help till then?


  2. HerbDoc says:

    When lime is needed, I try to add it in the fall because it is very slow releasing. I don’t know why the rep told you to add lime; the 6.0 will meet the needs of most of the plants you have in that area. Azalea likes a low pH (4.5-6.0) and the bulbs are fine in the 6.0-6.5 area. Forsythia will tolerate 6.0 – 8.0 conditions. The only plant that would like a bit higher pH is quince (6.5-7.0).
    If it were me, I’d leave the area as is and recheck in the fall, but that’s me :). The Azaleas are probably not reacting to the pH of the soil, and you really don’t want to make it any higher than it is already. Good luck! BTW exactly what do you mean by “suffering”? Maybe we can help with that particular plant.


    • cj wright says:

      I transplanted four to that area two years ago and they became puny ~ spindly and not many leaves. One died. I’ve found that azaleas are usually an easy transplant. I have azaleas flourishing all over my yard, so this was a big surprise. This area has plenty of pine trees and lots of pine needles to keep the soil on the acidic side. They get a little more evening sun than most of my azaleas, but there are azaleas planted in full sun in my neighborhood that are dense and happy.

      I’m tempted to move them again into a shadier area to see if it’s a sun problem, but hate the idea of stressing them more.

      I appreciate any suggestions on how to make them happier.


  3. HerbDoc says:

    I’ll try to help, but remember you’re dealing with a Yankee gardener here who has little Southern experience 🙂 Generally, azaleas flourish in filtered sunlight and react adversely to full sun. Like rhododendrons, they’re an understory plant. They also aren’t fond of strong winds and need some kind of a windbreak. The soil has to be moist, acid and well-drained; when I transplant I always water them really well in the morning (both ground and foliage) until I’m sure the roots have taken hold. Watering in the morning lets the foliage dry and prevents problems. Hopefully your soil is full of organic matter as they also hate any clay type soils. If they are growing in the proper soil, they need little fertilizing, but when I do fertilize, I use a time released, acid based fertilizer like cottonseed meal or a specific azalea food. Fertilize in spring right after they bloom. If the leaves are turning yellow (chlorosis), you can apply iron sulfate or garden sulfur. I always pinch my azaleas after they bloom because I like a bushy plant.

    If there are other experienced azalea growers out there with more information that you think is helpful, please let CJ know!


  4. HerbDoc says:

    CJ, I was checking some of my books today and wanted you know that I came across some info on transplanting azaleas. Since I’ve only transplanted from pot to ground, it was new information to me with regard to azaleas. It was recommended that you cut a circle around the plant about one year before moving it to cut off any straggling roots. The radius of the circle should be slightly smaller than half way to the drip line. Move the plant when it is dormant and not stressed and be sure not to plant it any deeper than it currently is and give it plenty of water. He noted that the ground can appear to be thorougly wetted but the root ball is still dry and causes a rapid decline of the plant. Pruning of the top of the plant will help to relieve some of the stress of the move. Take off 1/3 to 1/2 (that sounds like a lot, but this was his remedy!)
    Hope this info helps!


  5. cj wright says:

    Thanks, herbdoc! Interesting about the root ball staying dry. That could be part of the problem, I suppose. I’ve always moved them with a big (larger than the roots) mound of earth, setting them at the same depth. I’ll prune them like he says and see how they do this year. It’s azalea bloom time here now, and I haven’t noticed any blooms on these 3 plants. Maybe dirtynailz’ Superthrive will help these little fellas, too.


  6. HerbDoc says:

    I love that stuff too! It actually rejuvenates the near dead and dying! The azalea guy said that the plants have very tiny shallow roots, but to tell you the truth I’ve never noticed!


    • dirtynailz says:

      Superthrive is amazing. I would not transplant or re-pot without it.


    • cj wright says:

      They do have very shallow roots. You can dig one up to move it very easily. And they’re so resilient, except for my little sickies (though they are hanging in there).


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