Cappers Farmer

The Dish on Dirt

I was spoiled as a child. I grew up in the middle of the most glorious soil region of practically anywhere on this planet. After the great ice sheets receded during the last ice age, they left the amazing Midwestern soil that is still mostly there. It was in danger of going south with the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico before it was mostly saved by changed practices of contour plowing, waterways and cover crops. I suppose people from Iowa get a bit of a swelled head about their soil. I just took it for granted. When I moved to California, I got a rude awakening. I wasn’t prepared for it in the least little bit. In the neighborhood I moved into, the builders had bulldozed off what little topsoil there was to make way for housing foundations. What was left was hard pan clay.

For the next 22 years, and even to this day, I am on a continuous quest to understand that which lies beneath our feet and from which our food grows. It’s been an interesting journey. It hasn’t always been easy. A lot of trial. And more than a modicum of error. Now I am a soil connoisseur. I love dirt. Just not on my floors. But make no mistake. I am not a card carrying expert. I’ve just paid attention to what was presented me and I learned a few things.

If you happen to be blessed with fertile soil, you’re lucky. When I was a kid practically all you had to do was throw seeds in the ground, wait for the rains to come and things grew like gangbusters. I remember only once was I outgunned by the beetles that overran my Brussels sprouts.

Out here in California, I am outgunned on every single level. But I don’t give up. My husband says, “Where there’s a Renee there’s a way.” My first challenge was not being able to double dig for my life. It took about two seconds to figure out what was going on. The aforementioned clay. Then came the years of trying to amend on a budget. It’s slow going, folks, when you don’t have rototiller, tractor or the budget to buy compost or gypsum.

For those of you embarking on your first gardening efforts, let me tell you a bit about soil (forgive the pun) from the ground up.

What kind of soil do you have? Look into this before going out and spending a lot on seeds and sets.

Do this: A few days after a rain, grab a handful of your soil and see how it feels in your hand. If it’s sticky, heavy, feels slippery or forms clods easily, it’s clay. Clay is good. It’s a rich mineralized soil. It’s just that the particles are so fine water tends to pool and not soak in, and plants’ roots don’t have enough room to breathe and move. If you have the budget for a rototiller and some soil amendment. you can add gypsum and lots of organic matter when the clay is moist. Properly amended clay is a good soil to plant in.

If you grab a handful of soil and it feels gritty, loose and it dries out real fast after a rain, you have sandy soil. Again, the remedy is to add lots of organic matter. Sandy soil is the opposite end of the spectrum from clay. The particles are very large or coarse. Again, not a bad thing. Just better for your plants if you can add a lot of organic matter to hold moisture. Just think of all those marvelous Idaho potatoes grown in their sandy soils. Yes, properly amended sandy soil is a good thing.

If your soil feels loose, moist and crumbly, you are lucky to have loam. It’s soft, neither gritty or sticky. This is the friendliest kind of soil and the kind of soil I was used to and took for granted as a child. It stays loose, it drains well, but it also holds moisture and plant roots are comfy. The loam you see here is the product of amending my soil for two years. First I made compost and then I incorporated it into the clay.

Of course, you could and are likely to have a combination soil. I have straight heavy clay soil. It’s so heavy you can dig a hole and three days later you’ll still have water in it and it will not have drained away. Maybe some native person saw this and it gave them the idea for clay pots. OK, so that’s all well and good but I didn’t have pottery in mind when I came here and I need to grow food anyway. So you deal with what you have.

Good soil helps keep plants strong and resistant to disease and predatory insects. When you want a big healthy garden this is the place to start. Once this is in place and you take care of your soil with sound principles and dedicated effort, you will be way ahead of the game and the rest will be a lot easier. The saying “well begun is half done” was never truer that when considering soil.

  • Published on Jan 5, 2015
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