On Your Mark; Get Set; Garden!

Oh my friends it’s springtime again
Buds are swelling on every limb
The peepers do call, small birds do sing
And my thoughts return to gardening

― Dillon Bustin, Almanac

 
Prime gardening season has officially begun! The time is now for starting potato tubers, sweet potato slips, asparagus crowns, and many other vegetables. And there is still time to direct seed lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, kohlrabi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. But you must act fast! The season of spring is a fleeting one, and the window of opportunity to plant these vegetables is closing fast!

 

How did your garden grow last year? If your yield of fruits and vegetables was below your expectations, then now would be a good time to test your soil to see if it’s deficient in nutrients or too high or too low in pH. Depending on the results, you may want to work in some compost and organic fertilizer to replace the nutrients that were depleted by last year’s crop. Remember — feed the soil and the soil will feed your plants.


Now would also be a good time to lay down some mulch. Mulch will warm up your soil sooner, conserve moisture during those hot dry summer days, and reduce the number of weeds growing in your garden. Then you can spend less time weeding and watering, and more time enjoying the fruits of your labor.

straw-mulch
For those of you who, like me, started your tomato seeds late last month or at the beginning of this month, by now, your seedlings are growing strong and healthy. If you are bound and determined to get tomatoes before your neighbors do, you can begin transplanting them into your garden, but you must protect them with a season extending device such as a bell cloche, cold frame, or Wall O’ Water. Tomatoes do not handle cold very well, and without protection, a surprise cold snap could kill your tomatoes or seriously impair their yield later in the season.


So carpe hortus (seize the garden), before this prime planting time slips through your fingers!

Hydrogen Potential

Hydrogen_Tile

Hydrogen, We all know it as a highly volatile gas, but it is also a necessary element for life and growth. After all, hydrogen and oxygen together make water — and we all know how important that is!

 
In it’s ionic form in the soil, the amount of hydrogen present can determine how well your plants are able to take up nutrients. Too little or too much and the soil will become a toxic environment that will poison the plants.

 
The amount of hydrogen in soil can be measured and expressed as potential hydrogen or pH. Wait! Come back! This is a science lesson, but I promise that I’m not grading anyone! And my apologies if I’ve awakened anyone’s high school science nightmares.

 
The pH measurement scale goes from 0 to 15. A pH of 7 is considered neutral. Anything less than 7 is considered acidic. Anything greater than 7 is considered alkaline. The pH of chromic acid, for example, is around 1. If you got a drop of chromic acid on your skin, it would burn like fire, and I speak from personal experience (but that’s another story). Sodium hydroxide (household lye) has a pH of around 13.5, which is highly alkaline. Garden soil is typically at a pH of around 6.6-7.0 — between slightly acidic and neutral.

 
So what does this mean for us and our plants? At a soil pH of less than 6, plants are unable to take up calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium. In addition, micronutrients such as zinc, manganese, boron, iron, and aluminum will become so readily available, that the plant will take up too much, resulting in a toxic condition. If the soil pH is too high, iron and phosphorous also become unavailable.

 
The ability of our plants to survive depends in part on their ability to take up nutrients from the soil, and they do it best if the pH conditions are favorable. This can vary from plant to plant, but the majority of our garden vegetable do best at a pH of around 4.5-8.0. Potatoes, for example, do best at a pH of 4.5-6.5 — a slightly more acidic soil than is preferred by asparagus, which grows best when pH is 6.0-8.0.

 
How do we know if our soil is the right pH for a successful garden? Well, the best way to find out is to test your soil. You can do it yourself with soil test kits that can be purchased at nurseries or online gardening catalogs. Or if you want more accurate results, gather a sample of your soil and send it to a laboratory.


So what if your soil pH is too high or too low? Can it be adjusted? Yes. If your soil is too acidic, you can raise it by adding in ground limestone. If your soil is too alkaline, you can lower it with sulfur — either elemental sulfur, or as part of a compound such as ammonium sulfate.


So if your vegetable crops didn’t do so well last year, it may be due to the presence — excessive or deficient — of those critical hydrogen ions.