Testing, testing

Let’s face it. Our gardening efforts have thus far produced results that are, shall we say, less than spectacular. Last season, a good half of our tomato plants simply refused to grow. The cucumbers produced a few gnarled, yellow specimens. The collards were obliterated by some unidentified green-eating insect. I believe we totaled six butternut squashes from a squash patch the size of Rhode Island.

I could go on, and tell you about the mealy beets, stringy fennel, and sour raspberries, but I’ll stop now.

We have long suspected that the culprit is our soil. Our property is uniquely ill-suited for gardening. We’ve got a large (110 acres) kettlehole pond on one side, and the land slopes up from there. Then it slopes down again, to a small (800 square feet) kettlehole marsh in our backyard.

The garden and hoophouse are about midway between the two, and we’re pretty sure that any nutrients that were in that soil eroded down one hillside or the other back when mastodons still roamed the earth. What’s left is a gardener’s nightmare – a heady mixture of sand, rocks, and decomposed pine needles.

We’ve amended like mad. We’ve probably put five yards of compost out there, as well as various NPK fertilizers. For specific plants, we’ve used kelp and bone meal. But what we need is good, old-fashioned dirt.

Or at least that’s what we think. And, this winter, I’m going to find out. Since October, when we decommissioned the garden, I’ve been planning to send samples to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which runs a soil testing lab. For $15., they’ll test for pH, nutrients, heavy metals, and a few other things I don’t fully understand the purpose of. They’ll make recommendations for appropriate amendments.

It sounds like just the thing to do, but I somehow haven’t gotten around to it. Other things intervened, I put it off, and now, of course, the ground is frozen.

I don’t think that’s just garden-variety procrastination. I strongly suspect that my subconscious has a hidden agenda. If our dirt passes its tests with flying colors, or even turns out to be better than expected, I will have no choice but to conclude that responsibility for our lackluster garden lies with us, and not our soil. But I’m going to face the music. I can already take soil out of our hoophouse, where the ground isn’t frozen, and the next week or so may warm up enough so we can get a sample from the main garden.

We’ll send in our samples, we’ll act on their recommendations, and we’ll have high hopes for a better yield next year. But I’ll have a few excuses on the back burner, just in case – I did hear they’re predicting a banner year for slugs.

19 people are having a conversation about “Testing, testing

  1. It all sounds a bit doom and gloom, but barring some extreme pH imbalance or pollution, the solution is nearly always the same thing: compost. Spread it on thick. Even seaweed too.

    I planted two rows of corn this summer, one was fertilised with processed, pelletised, chicken manure (to manufacturer specification). The other was done with the original product, simply bagged, bought and spread. I cant give a definitive result, since the kangaroos ate 80% of one row, and 60% of the other. But the row fertilised with composted pure chook poo grew much much better than the other. Given they were only a few metres from each other I doubt a soil difference.

    If I were you (and it’s probably a good thing I’m not, since I’d spend 90% of the blog bitching about the weather), I would get your chicken coop mobile, and leave them to scratch-up (and fertilise) the garden bed for a month or so, before moving them on-top of the next bed.

    The best tomatoes we got this year were self-seeded from kitchen scraps given to the chooks in their pen.

  2. Margaret Fisher says:

    You are echoing my Cape Cod gardening experience (mine in Centerville, but same lousy soil). Raspberries were the only success I had, and their untimely death at the hands of a zealous neighbor kid cutting the lawn put an end to it. My suggestion: dig down 18″ in your garden, removing all soil. Then import the finest dirt or loam you can find and fill up your hole. Then start amending at your pleasure. OR, move somewhere where good soil is a given – VA, or NC. Either choice is horribly expensive, so, perhaps try constructing a few raised beds and importing great soil. Or try gardening in pots. Cape soil is nasty. Good for growing scrub pine and oak, beach grass, and a variety of ferns. It converts your amendments to more bad soil. BTW, Oregon’s soil is not much better, so I love love love my raised garden.

  3. I second the raised bed suggestion. Our Cape garden last summer was spectacular…and my in-law’s was just outrageous. They had 3 large (probably 4×8) raised beds and feasted on their bounty all summer and well into fall. My father-in-law builds a mean garden bed if you need suggestions. 😉

  4. This is only a guess. My telepathic soil testing skills are not what they used to be. But if you have lots of pine needles, could be your soil is a bit on the acidic side. If so, a few sacks of lime might help. And, since you seem to do a fair amount of fishing, maybe the Squanto system would be worth a try. Or at least lots of left-over heads and innards? But your test will tell a story.

  5. Hi Tamar, Masha and I have built half a dozen gardens in our time together and we too swear by raised beds – if for no other reason than they save your back. But also because it gives you great control over what goes into the soil – you have to fill them up. 2 by 12’s screwed together with all weather screws will last 4-5 years before the boards rot out and need to be replaced (don’t use pressure treated). Simply put newspaper down to kill the existing grass, then build the bed on top of that. The newspaper and dead grass will compost underneath the bed. Consider putting in soaker hose underground. You can then put the whole watering thing on a timer – we’re lazy gardeners. The very best garden we ever had we built at my mothers one summer. I built the beds in the fall and then went to the local chicken farmer who slaughtered his own birds and sold on the farm. All the guts, heads, feathers from the abattoir and chicken poo from the coop went into a giant pile out in the back field to compost. One end of the pile was several years old while the other was new and stunk like hell. We filled the back of the station wagon several times (from the old end). I filled the beds and let the compost “age” over the winter. By rotating beans with heavy feeders we had a bounty for several years till my mother moved. Have fun. One of our local vegetable farmers keeps rabbits because rabbit shit is so hot. He swears by it. Best, Kim

  6. Bumper Crop is an amending soil my Dad and I use. Not sure if its available where you are. But I agree with the above about the raised beds. The soil can be easily tilled in much smaller areas than an entire spread, easier on the back, contains the nutrients…. blah, blah, blah… it just works. Also, have you tried to find out which varieties of vegetables/fruits do best in your zone?

  7. Don’t fear the soil test results. I’ll tell you why. Even if the soil test comes back saying you have premium soil, the cheap soil tests run by the state ag schools only test the basics. And I’m not criticizing here, I use our state ag school for soil testing. It could be that your soil is missing a critical micronutrient, one that is not routinely tested for. There are other services that offer more comprehensive testing, but of course they’re much pricier. I’ve been tempted a few times to have the more expensive tests done, but have never been able to justify it, since our garden seems productive enough to me. But it’s something to keep in mind if your tests don’t show anything obvious. And if you’re using the cheap tests, maybe it would be worth it to send in a sample of the areas you’ve amended, and one from the unamended soil, so you know what you were starting from. And finally, not to sound lecturey, but do be sure to dig all those holes they recommend in order to come up with a single sample. PITA, but really necessary. Borrow a soil sampling tool if you can; makes things so much easier.

    By the way, is your “pond” seriously 110 acres?? We’d call that I lake where I live. A small lake, maybe, but a lake. Your property must be huge.

  8. I love the science part of gardening, and look forward to hearing the results of your soil test. We just sent ours away too. Getting a soil test makes one feel very professional and commited about agriculture.

    Take heart – all those decaying mastadon bones are a good source of phosphorous…

  9. I’ve just worked out the size of your pond in km2, and I agree, that’s definitely a lake!

    I think Al’s telepathic soil testing skills are spot on. Most veg (except brassicas) like slightly acidic soil, but all the pine needles will probably be lowering the pH too far. I use composted pineneedles and coffee grounds to grow blueberries in regular peat-free compost. Combined with a sandy soil that won’t hold nutrients, it won’t give you very happy vegetables, so that’d be my guess too.

    I think it will take several years of adding organic matter (eg compost, manure; that type of organic, small ‘o’) to improve the soil. Do you have access to spent mushroom compost? That would increase the alkalinity of the soil at the same time, and as long as you rotate it with other composts wouldn’t give you the opposite problem of a high pH.

    I agree with the raised beds suggestion. I’ve raised eyebrows amongst the Old Guard on our allotment site by putting them in, but with a mixture of lasagne mulching and large amounts of compost I’ve just found a source for (Municipal garden waste composting site about 8 miles away), I can concentrate my efforts where they’re needed rather than improving the soil I’ll be walking on. (I have the opposite problem of gardening on clay).

    I’d go for the raised beds and compost rather than importing top soil, which is expensive and anyway dead when it’s been shipped from wherever, so you’d still have to build up soil life and bring back the worms and micro-organisms. I’ve been reading my ‘no-dig’ book again, can you tell?! It raises the Old Guards’ other eyebrow, and then when I say the O word…

    BTW, this is an excellent book on vegetable gardening which covers pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know on the subject. http://www.amazon.com/Grow-Your-Own-Vegetables-Larkcom/dp/071121963X/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1297586318&sr=8-2-fkmr0 She’s British, but the book is written deliberately to apply to any where in either hemisphere, so it’s worth having a look at it.

    Good luck!

  10. @Hazel: as bonafide lazy gardeners we whole hardily agree with “no dig.” When you dig you destroy the soil’s structure. We’ve actually found that after the raised bed is made that the soil improves with time as the structure is rebuilt by worms and mycelium.

    Want to recommend three books for your winter reading pleasure: “Liquid Gold” by Steinfeld; ” “The Humanure Handbook” by Jenkins; “Mycelium Running” by Stamets. I actually tried to build a separate system for “black water” vs “gray water” when we built our house. But local building code forbid it!

    • Thanks Kim. The more I read about it, the more I agree with ‘no-dig’, at least in principle. I can see I’ll end up doing a kind of modified version, but I reckon gardening is like childcare- do whatever works for you! (Within reason, obviously…) Having a rather dodgy back also makes the idea of no winter digging appealing.

      The back part of my allotment is rather…weedy (ie it looks like a field!) so this year I’m doing no-dig potatoes to clear all the couch grass. Thick layer of manure (handily I have a friend with lots of chickens and some horses), put the seed potatoes on top, cover with straw. Continue to mulch with straw and then mulch with lawn clippings. It should kill the couch grass roots, and then I can use the space to make more raised beds for next year. Sounds good to me!

      Thank you for the book suggestions. I own Liquid Gold, and have used some of the suggestions (10 year old DS is a very enthusiastic contributor to the compost heap!) I’ve downloaded the Humanure Handbook, but haven’t read it properly yet. I’ve never heard of the Stamets book, but will look it up on Amazon, thanks.

  11. I don’t know what I did to deserves such a well-informed readership, but I very much appreciate all the suggestions.

    I’m conflicted on the no-dig strategy. It appeals to me because it doesn’t involve digging, which we all know is hard work, and I understand the utility of not breaking up the mycelia and soil structure. But I think you have to start with fairly healthy, nutritious soil for that to work. We’re at the stage where we’re composting and amending like mad, and I don’t see any choice but to mix everything up.

    We’ve also talked about more raised beds (we have them for our strawberries and asparagus). We may convert part of our garden in the spring. We’ve also talked about terracing the garden (it’s on a slope) properly, which is almost like making it one giant raised bed — you don’t get the advantage of not stooping over, for the most part, but you get to simply fill in the terraced box with proper soil.

    We have a whole barrel of well-composted chicken poop from when we cleaned out the coop last spring, and we’ll be incorporating that into the garden as well.

    As for pH, we have had that tested, and it is actually not bad — 6.8ish.

    For those of you who commented on our “pond:” Yes, it’s really a lake. Cape Cod, for some reason, calls almost all its lakes “ponds.” And, just to be clear, we don’t own it. We’re one of about 25 houses that border it. It’s a beautiful, deep, clear lake, and we’re very lucky to call it home.

    Kingsley — I love the image of the kangaroos eating your corn, and spoiling your experiment! Not that I don’t feel your pain, having, as I do, vast experience both with lost crops and spoiled experiments. It’s just … kangaroos!

    Kim — I’m going to put more things like guts in the compost. I’ve tended not to, because I figure they just get raided by animals, but if I bury them a little it should work.

    Brooke — We try not to make our job harder by growing things that don’t grow well here. (Don’t ask me about that little watermelon experiment.) It’s standard-issue squash, greens, tomatoes, roots, for the most part.

    Kate — I’ve read about the micronutrient strategy. We talked to a guy who made the case for testing for (I think) 13 nutrients, any one of which could be the bottleneck for plant growth. I’ll admit to some skepticism about it, because I think it’s awfully hard to determine what an adequate level of a particular micronutrient is for a given plant in a given climate. Hell, we don’t even really know how much vitamin D people need — do we really understand how much chromium winter squash needs?

    I’ve been making my living writing about food and nutrition for a good decade now, and the first thing I always say is that there’s one crucial idea to keep in mind as you think about what you eat: What we know about nutrition is dwarfed by what we don’t know. Micromanagement of nutritional intake is a bad strategy for people because there’s no hedge against what we don’t understand — you want a wide variety of healthful foods. I don’t know that we have enough information to micromanage soil for optimal plant growth. Has anyone done the experiment with winter squash where they grow them in fifteen kinds of soil, and vary only the chromium level?

    I’m very glad you raised the issue. It’s something I haven’t done enough research about, and I think I need to know more. Now I’m thinking I’ll post about it …

    Hazel — I don’t have access to spent mushroom substrate, although if I start Round Two of the grand oyster mushroom experiment (see spoiled experiments, above), perhaps I will. Thanks for the suggestions and the link.

    Jen — I love that you always look on the bright side.

    • Tamar- The mushroom compost was only an idea. Here it’s relatively cheap if you can get it from the producer. As a side benefit from oyster mushroom growing, it’s got to be even better though! Good luck with Round Two of the experiment.

      I can understand wanting to dig in any soil improvers, and as I always seem to do my own modified version of any system, I have done it sometimes, but the principle is that the worms will always do a better job of incorporating any organic matter, given time. Now if you don’t have the time, or don’t think you’ve got any earthworms to start with, maybe it does need digging in initially…

      I’d still say keep incorporating whatever you’ve got, whenever you can. And I’ve a feeling I may be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here- sorry!

  12. Tamar, I think you’re right that what we know about human and soil nutrition is dwarfed by what we don’t know. And here’s the thing, if your soils are deficient in a critical micronutrient, it’s almost certainly not just your soil. There were soil tests done in every county of the US, and quite extensively in the northeast. You can literally look up the soil type for your backyard at:

    At the very least, I would expect the agricultural extension agent in your county to be aware of any deficiency, even if that deficiency obtains in only a small part of the county. If the soil survey doesn’t tell you what you need to know, then in lieu of the more expensive testing, you could just call the extension and ask. You realize that those extension agents are there to be helpful, and that their salaries are paid by your tax dollars, right? Even if you’re not dealing with a nutrient deficit, an extension agent should be able to give you some advice pertinent to your locale.

  13. Hi Tamar,

    One of the reasons we’re so high on raised beds is that by definition vegetables are non-native to almost wherever you plant them. Our feeling is that it’s a hard battle amending your soil so that non-native plants will thrive. The lazy gardener way is to avoid the battle by making a defined place for veg with raised beds or pots. It’s work up front, long term it’s much easier. And then you can practice “no dig” on the raised bed knowing quite rightly that you have good soil to start with.

    Regarding guts in the compost: We compost everything. Everything that was once alive (including all bones, meat, fat, bacon drippings, cheese, etc goes into a covered pot we keep in the kitchen. That pot then goes into a critter proof garbage can up by the compost pile. During the winter that can freezes and just gets filled up – it’s used in the spring to start then next pile. But during the summer it gets pretty ripe in just a week. At the end of the week I mix it with the chicken poop and shavings and rebuild the compost pile. So I end up putting a “pre-composted” mix into the actual compost pile. I then piss on it, and twice a day whenever I’m passing by, just to let everyone know that this is *my pile. So far we’ve had no raids by critters. No tracks in the snow, nothing. I also piss on the “critter proof” can just to claim that as well. All the carbon (wood chips from the chickens) mixed with all the poop and food waste make for a pile that has no smell. So maybe that’s why we have no visitors. But so far, so good.

  14. The thing that stops me with raised beds is the initial cost. I once had a discussion with my father (who dug the hole for his swimming pool by hand), it went something like this:

    Me: “I’m planning to hire a rotary hoe for the weekend to start some garden beds”
    Him: “Oh. How much is that”
    Me: “About 150 dollars”
    Him: “150 dollars is an awful lot of vegetables!”

    So since then I now think about the cost of everything added to the garden in terms of kilograms of broccoli. Raised bed “systems” can cost many many broccoli-kilograms (BRO-K). You typical gardening magazines, TV shows, hardware stores are full of them. They range from 230 BRO-K to well over 1500 BRO-K. Of course these are pre-Queensland-flood prices. The floods caused a huge appreciation of the value of the BRO-K in supermarkets, although I’m not sure that Broccoli is grown much in Queensland anyway. Funny how supermarkets work like that. A side effect of all this, is that it makes the cost of raised bed systems much cheaper when thinking in BRO-K, so I guess it’s not all bad. Now /something/ has to hold up those raised-beds, I’m yet to find a something that isn’t expensive, poisonous (treated pine), or both.

    My virgin soil (or so it tells me) has been baked hard by thousands of years of blistering sun, and the pounding of marsupial feet. If you didn’t dig it, it wouldn’t grow. Even the weeds barely survive. It’s a pretty large area (think quantity over quality), and it’s just too expensive to replace the topsoil, and/or raise it all up. If I could get a truckload of manure cheapish, I’d be all-in. Perhaps that’s the solution – 14 truckloads of manure, then cover with straw. On a more serious note, I think no-dig is really only for soil that was dug previously. At very least to provide proper drainage.

    I wonder how high I would have to raise it to keep kangaroos at bay… ?!

    • Kingsley, If you follow no-dig to the letter and you have enough patience, the worms would create their own drainage channels in the soil from dragging the truckload of manure into the ground, so you still wouldn’t need to dig. However, I don’t think I’m that patient and it sounds to me like all the kangaroos and wallabies will have had a worm charming (ancient British pastime) effect and brought any worm up to the surface to be eaten by a… kookaburrah? Do they eat worms?

      Anyway, as well as the BRO-K, which we use in our garden too, I also operate in the CA-H. This is that given a trailer load of *free* non-poisonous used scaffolding planks, how many cakes do you have to make/feed your husband to persuade him to help you make the raised beds? Especially given that he doesn’t like gardening much and didn’t particularly want an allotment anyway. Raised beds were rather high in CA-H, but definitely worth it.
      (He quite likes doughnuts, but that made it the DO-H! altogether too Homer Simpson!)

  15. When we took our pasture management classes last year everyone had to test their soil. That way we would have a baseline of where we started. It also would tell us what we needed to work on soil wise. Then when we test the soil a few years out we will be able to see what has changed.

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