Sunday, September 29, 2013

OK, OK, I'll get a soil test

After seven years of gardening in my current spot, four years of blogging about it, and two years with the Master Gardeners, I'm just now getting around to getting my soil tested.  Why now?  Truth be told, my veggie garden wasn't very productive this year at all. The only crops that produced anything of substance were chard, cantaloupes and Juliet tomatoes. Cucumbers, corn, beans, squash, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes and big tomatoes were all a bust.

There's lots of factors to consider when a veggie garden doesn't produce well, including but not limited to soil fertility, the variety of vegetables planted, timing and spacing of crops, pesticide contamination and irrigation.  A soil test can help sort out some of the fertility issues, but not all.  We can't test soil for microbial diversity, for example.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), the three major macronutrients in soil, are what most of us think about when we think about fertilizing our veggies and ornamentals.  You'll see N-P-K listed as percentages on labels of commercial fertilizers (10-10-10, 8-2-4).   But there's more to soil fertility than just N-P-K. Micronutrient content, salinity, structure, texture, soil biology and pH all play important roles, too, among other things.  It's complicated!

soil test

Though a soil test won't answer all my questions, it should give me some clues as to what might be going on, and at the very least, end the guessing game of what nutrient might or might not be missing. So, I've decided to test two types of soil in my garden:  the soil in the back yard that's been untouched for about a decade (possibly more) and the soil in the veggie garden beds that I've amended numerous times.  (Not sure why I wrote "Lawn" on that first bag -- it's mostly weeds and horseherb back there!)

To collect the samples, I carefully dug out ten divots of soil from each area, at least six inches down, after scraping the live plant matter off the top.  I mixed the divots together in a clean bucket and removed any visible rocks, weeds, roots, and mulch before bagging the samples.

What's striking to me is how similar the two dry soil samples look.   The unamended soil on the left is a little stickier (due to a higher clay content and less organic matter) and a little grayer in color. Otherwise, I can hardly tell the difference from the amended soil on the right.
soil samples

However, when wet, the difference is clear.  The unamended soil (this time on the right) has the texture of modeling clay, while the amended soil (on the left) is soft and crumbly.
soil clods

Clearly I've improved the soil structure and texture by adding store-bought garden soil, compost, manure, and mulch to my beds once or twice a year for the past seven years. But what about the rest? Time to find out.

More to follow...stay tuned!

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - September

Happy GBBD from Central Texas.   At this very special time of year, heat-stricken Hill Country gardeners start seeing welcome signs of fall's approach.   Our last run of hundred-plus degree days broke on September 5; early mornings and late evenings are noticeably cooler, and high temps have fallen back into the nineties.   We've had a few spotty showers; humidity is high, and high mold counts are driving allergic Austinites crazy.  Drought-weary gardeners are crossing their green thumbs for rain from Mexico's Tropical Storm Manuel and Hurricane Ingrid, and I've heard more than one gardener wish we could build a pipeline from Boulder, Colorado to the Highland Lakes. Although we've had worse summers here,  most of us have had enough of the heat and drought and are ready for fall's arrival.

Anticipation is in the air.  It's still too dry and warm for cool-season bloomers to flush into bloom, and the summer stalwarts have picked up on the subtle seasonal changes and have started to shut down bloom production.  Although few plants are blooming right now, make no mistake: it's gardening prime time in these parts.  Now's the perfect time to plant perennials, shrubs and trees, divide irises, move established plants to new locations, seed wildflower patches, and plant fall vegetable gardens. With time, rain and luck, October should be spectacular.

Here's what's blooming in my garden today.

Purple bindweed, a native morning glory (Ipomoea cordatotriloba). It pops up everywhere. Some find it to be a nuisance.

Esperanza or yellow bells (Tecoma stans).  I plan to prune this in winter to keep it small, bushy and shrub-like.

Blue cape plumbago.  After two years, my one-gallon starter plant is starting to form a nice big mound.

'Sugar Pie' Pumpkin.  The rule of thumb is to plant pumpkin seeds on July 4 for a Halloween harvest roughly 100 days later.   The pumpkin vines start really taking off around mid-August; male flowers appear a couple of weeks later followed by female flowers and fruit set in early September.  With enough pollinators, water and fertilizer, pumpkins should be ready for harvest around Halloween -- theoretically.  Like Linus from Peanuts, the Great Pumpkin has yet to appear in my pumpkin patch, thanks to the drought. Hasn't stopped me from trying, though.

Along those lines, my 'Hearts of Gold' muskmelon patch is still going strong, thanks to the shade cloth I installed last month. Although they're not blooms, I'm posting this photo of baby cantaloupes, because I'm pretty darn proud of them.  Looks like persistence may have paid off this year.

An unidentified varmint made a meal of my biggest melon, so I'm off to the store to get some hardware cloth to fashion cages for the remaining five babies.

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Visit her GBBD page to see what's blooming in gardens all over the world.

Words and photos © 2009-2013 Caroline Homer for "The Shovel-Ready Garden". Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited.