GARDENING HAS ALWAYS offered many metaphors for life, and hereís a basic one: for seeds to take root and plants to thrive, they must have good nutrition and a healthy environment. If you want growth, you have to nurture it. Itís all about the soil.
And if itís backyard soil youíre talking about, it has to have the right chemical makeup, the proper amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The alkaline/acid content (pH) has to be in balance. The soil must not be densely packed. It must be able to hold onto water when needed and to let it drain when not ó quite a tricky business.
Fear not. Help is at hand, in the form of the University of Rhode Islandís Cooperative Extension Hotline (800-448-1011), and inexpensive soil tests offered by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest). The extension hotline, open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., is staffed by volunteers who can answer a wide variety of questions, covering topics from lawn care and vegetable gardening to houseplants and fruit culture. "If it has something to do with gardening, weíll get the call," emphasizes Roseanne Sherry, the coordinator of the Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program since 1988. "Anybody who wants to grow anything, from a handful of things on a windowsill to containers on a balcony or deck to a full-fledged home garden ó if youíve got a plant, then youíre a gardener."
Hotline volunteers do not handle calls about commercial gardening, because they arenít familiar with all of the products and crops that might be in use for such endeavors, and they canít be held responsible for a businessís success or failure. But they are very knowledgeable and patient with home gardeners, and can send callers brochures and pamphlets on many topics.
Sherry noted that the extension advises people to get a soil sample approximately every other year. That will determine what kind and how much fertilizer to use, how to correct the pH, or whether the soil is doing just fine as it is. The results of soil testing will be different for every yard and the recommendations will vary depending on the crop, be it grass, veggies, or blueberries. "If the pH is below 6.0, we recommend that you use lime to Ďsweetení the soil, to raise the pH," Sherry explains. "An ideal pH would be 6.5. If itís too acidic, down into the fives or fours, a lot of things we like to grow, like lawn and vegetables, donít like it that low. Whatís really happening is that the nutrients get locked up, regardless of whether theyíre already there or added in fertilizer. Theyíre just not available to the plant. On a chemical level, once the pH is corrected, the nutrients become water-soluble, and now the plants can absorb them."
Sherry frequently tells classes to think of the soil pH number as something akin to a cholesterol indicator. "A good gardener should know whatís going on in their soil and what they need to do to make it more ideal," she says. "It will definitely make your gardening easier." Thus, gardeners might be advised to apply lime in the spring, and again in the fall, and maybe one more cycle in the spring to bring it to the proper pH level. Oak leaves or pine needles in a garden or on a lawn are a guarantee of acidic soil. "You can tell a lot by looking at the plants," Sherry adds. "If theyíre looking greener, taller, producing better, the grass is growing in, seeds are germinating quicker and getting off to a good start, then the plants are happy. They are now open to the fertilizer and can utilize it."
Mike Merner, founder and owner of Earth Care Farm in Charlestown, would agree. "Plants do not have a sense of self; theyíre one with the soil," he notes. "The soil is the digestive tract of the plant. Theyíre only going to be as healthy as the soil theyíre grown in."
He disagrees, however, about the long-term effects of using lime, pointing out that, in organic farming circles, thereís a saying that "lime is the farmerís friend and the grandchildís curse." What he means is that when youíre adding lime, and not adding organic matter ó such as compost ó you may end up having to add lime every couple of years because the soil in Rhode Island is notoriously acidic. "Itís not necessarily a sustainable practice," Merner observes. "Youíre better off to add a long-term source of calcium that will help to neutralize and buffer the soil. Thatís why the clamshells are in our compost. We havenít had to lime our farm in over 25 years."
Merner grows organic fruits and vegetables on his farm, and he has raised many kinds of animals, but the largest part of his business is producing compost. Every year, Merner sells 2000 cubic yards of compost, which takes up to 10,000 yards of organic matter to create. At Earth Care Farm, they start with farm animal manure, such as horse, chicken, cow, sheep, goat, and rabbit, along with whatever bedding material was used with each animal. Then, they get deliveries of elephant, camel, and other exotic manures each week from Roger Williams Park Zoo; fish and shellfish scraps from Galilee; seaweed from local beach clubs; food scraps from supermarkets and bakeries; and leaves, wood chips and landscape trimmings from local towns.
These ingredients are mixed and turned in an aerobically managed compost system for 18 months before they are considered properly cured, mature compost. The compost is sifted through a three-quarter-inch screen, but some small bits of shell, fish bones, or twigs can manage to sneak through, so Merner advises his customers to "handle with due care." Bags of Earth Care compost are sold at garden centers, such as the Good Earth Center in Cranston, and farmersí markets, such as the South County Farmersí Market (starting May 1, on Route 138). A better buy is to get Mernerís compost by the cubic yard ($45 plus tax) right at the farm (401-364-9930). Bring your own pickup truck Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. until noon. One cubic yard will just fit on an average pickup truck, and thatís the minimum sold by Merner at the farm.
"Compost is the most complete way to amend all aspects of the soil," Merner maintains. "It improves the physical characteristics, such as texture; the chemical characteristics [the nutrients] and the biological characteristics. Itís a complete way to improve your soil, though not all composts are created equal. It depends on what materials they were made out of and how it was managed. When itís done properly, there are no weed seeds or disease spores. But for those who donít have enough of their own compost, or donít want to deal with bulk, there are natural organic fertilizers in lieu of chemical commercial fertilizers. Many of the chemical fertilizers carry acid along with them."
That would obviously disturb the pH balance even more. Soil pH can take three to four months to correct, maybe even longer, according to Sherry. But without doing that, Sherry and Merner agree, youíre almost pouring any kind of fertilizer, be it composted manure, organic fertilizer or bags of 5-10-5 (5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus, 5 percent potassium) down the drain. The UMass soil test will also make recommendations of how much fertilizer to use and which nutrients are most needed.
"Whether itís an organic fertilizer or manufactured, the plants donít care," Sherry believes. "You can still be starving the plant, even if youíre giving it compost. I donít look at it as fertilizer. I think of it as improving the quality of the soil, allowing the soil to retain moisture near the roots. By holding water, itís holding nutrients in the root zone. Compost also improves the texture, allowing it to be loose or aerated, so that roots can grow through it without so much difficulty. When itís hard and compacted, they canít."
Another factor in aerating the soil is its worm content. If you donít see any of those small wriggly worms (redworms, Eisenia fetida) anywhere in your soil, you can contact the folks at Scent of Roses Farm, in Rockville (401-573-9407). They sell worm bins for making compost, worms by the pound, and worm castings, a soft, odorless organic soil that the worms have passed through. Ron and Patti Reposa swear by the beneficial effects of putting worm castings at the bottom of transplant holes, top-dressing row crops with it, or even spreading it on lawns to stimulate soil activity and plant growth. Theyíve found West Coast research showing that, in addition to all the benefits to soil of worm castings, use of this worm compost can even ward off white flies and aphids.
So, there you have it. Get down and dirty with that soil by adjusting its pH, upgrading its nutrients, and loosening and lofting its components. Whether you use lime and chemical fertilizers, organic compost or worms and their castings, youíll be laying the foundation for more tomatoes, bigger blueberries, and thicker grass. Your plants will love it, and youíll love them even more. Maybe the literal manifestation will lead to a metaphorical parallel, and youíll grow too.
Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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