bad soil?

shawnalynn3(5b)May 14, 2012

Hello all, This is my first year and Ive been working on my garden area. Yesterday we tilled the soil and Im scared that it may be mostly clay. Im just not sure, it clumps easily when wet and gets really hard when its dry. I bought a ph testing kit at home depot also and Im hoping I did somthing wrong because the pH came out as around 8, the potassium came out as high and the nitro and phos came out clear, not even a tint! Im so worried now that all of my plants will not make it once they are transplanted there. I hope I did it wrong, does anyone have any advice????

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I live in SE Michigan I should add and when we were tilling, it went smoothly. Ive read so much contridicting info only regarding clay in soil that I am absolutely confused :)

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 7:26PM
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Nothing wrong with clay soil except that it should not be worked wet. You get lots of clods that way. Soil test kits are notorious for giving false readings. Get a soil test done by your local ag extension agent if you are concerned.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 8:34PM
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You can do an informal assessment of your soil by digging out a scoop about 6 inches down, putting it in a jar, adding water, and then shaking it. When the particles settle, you can see layers of what your soil is composed of. You can also contact your local agricultural extension office for information. The link below is from California, but the information is for soil in general. The good news is that clay soil has a lot of nutrients.

Here is a link that might be useful: soil

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 8:34PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

Organic matter will help loosen tight soil which you seem to have. If your tests are kind of accurate, I would add fertilizer to get some essential food into the soil for this year at least. I have had quick success in loosening soil with peat moss.

As far as the high ph result you got, I would try to confirm it before adding lime [calcium only if you do add lime].

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 8:37PM
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I did a test at MSU of the soil of a candidate orchard site here in SE MI. It was clay, pH 7.7, P 7ppm (extremely low), K 100ppm (low), Mg 200 ppm (high). Ca was high. All this to let you know your soil may be typical of parts of MI, that you want confirmation from a real test, and then that you need correction.

In this case (the site is 1/4 acre), I took a trip to Wilbur Ellis, bought 25 lbs of 10/50/10, and 50 lbs of S after testing that there was no free lime. I bought 2.5 gallons of foliar spray with micros(way too much, but the smallest they had) for the first two years. I then added 50 cubic yards of wood chips to the site. It will be good soil in two years. In your case, you can use leaves (one bag per square yard) and go much faster than me.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 8:58PM
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Thanks for the advice, I think Ill get it tested. But for this year, is it possible to get anything to grow? I have so much stuff started. If I use some good fertilizer, will it help out this year until I can attempt to fix it in the fall (if it needs to be fixed) Also Im a total newbie (obviously) but what do the numbers mean? I always see them here when talking about fertalizer ex: 10/50/10 ??? Thanks again!!!!!

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 9:31PM
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Any soil can be used to grow things, even dreaded clay. I agree with most of the posts here that many of the test kits that you can buy are ambiguous at best, just what SHADE of color is it?? Get a soil test done by a local service, you can usually find it on google.

What part of the world do you hail from? I have several garden spots for isolation requirements and rotation needs, and my soils range from deep black prairie to thin paeleosol, clay that you find after erosion has occured. The solution to any soil is to boost the organic matter as high as you can get it. Start saving any scraps you can, eggshells, cardboard can be burnt to release potash (potassium), just about anything you throw away into the trash can be put in a compost pile (with the exception of meat, I don't like attracting coyotes)

For this first year though, without having had time to add amendments, dif your transplant holes deep, and mix in some potting soil with them if you feel inclined. Heavy soils are doughty, they dry up fast so you'll need to keep a close eye on moisture levels, water weekly, and if you can't find a decent source of organic fertilizer you can use the dreaded (bum bum bah dummmm) miracle grow. I use it from time to time, when I want plants to take in nutrients NOW.

You should also think about soil compaction, I'll put a link to my garden where I talk about it.

Bottom line you can ABSOLUTELY grow your seedlings in your garden, if it isn't well tilled you'll just have to water more.

Here is a link that might be useful: My corner of the world

    Bookmark   May 14, 2012 at 9:55PM
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There's also a soil forum here. You'll find lots of good information there.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 12:38AM
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jean001a(Portland OR 7b)

Don't plant this year until you mix in at least two inches of compost, 4 inches would be better for this first time ever addition.

Then mix in an additional two inches each successive season after that. You'll soon have an outstanding garden.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 1:00AM
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The different numbers mean percentages of current nutrient levels for the big 3, Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorous. So something that is 10-10-10 has 10% of each of those numbers, and always in that order, N-P-K. Nitrogen promotes leafy growth, Potassium help grow strong cells (strong stems), and Potassium helps the plant carry out photosynthesis.

If you look on a package of miracle grow, they also lay out some of the micronutrients in MG, but honestly any decent organic source of fertilizer will have everything your plants need.

On a soil test from your local ag extension, one of the numbers they will report is % of organic matter. Think peat moss, thats kind of the feel you want to your soil. It's been a week since it last rained for me, and the ground that I just broke this year that I haven't ammended is bone dry 6 inches down, while my other garden that has had a few tons of horse manure (the stalls were bedded with sawdust.. perfect for breaking down in the soil) is still wet an inch under top.

The organic matter will act like a sponge, holding onto water, thats why people will tell you that you can't have enough. I'm watering my new garden right now, while my old one is still wet :)

It's ok that you don't have any amendments though, nothing wrong with that, you just have to keep a closer eye on your plants.

Sry, I reposted because I thought my first post was a little unclear.

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 8:52AM
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We did just add 8yrds of topsoil/peat/sand mix onto the top of the tilled ground. So were working that into it and hoping that will help. it is dry though, we tilled it right after it had rained (not having any idea that it could be clay) So Im hoping that if I mix the new dirt in, add fertilizer and dig deep as sugguesed that it will work out this year. I;ll also add peat into the wholes I dig and keep a close eye on moisture levels. Ill get the soil tested and go from there at the end of the season to improve it. If I do these things, it should work out this year right??? I seriously tore up a huge part of my yard and have a hundred seedlings plus a good 100 new seeds to add. Id hate to waste them this year, Im just to excited!

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 9:57AM
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Oh I know how you feel, I was chomping at the bit this year to get my garden going. Here we had 90 degree high temps in march, and I said "Crap it's LATE in the growing season!"

April cooled off quite a bit, and we had a frost on April 10th. I got to watch sweet corn that had been frosted off pop back up, it was a learning experience for me.

As for amendments, be careful with adding things like peat moss to the soil, peat is on the acidic side, and if you add too much to a transplant hole you can wind up with slightly "sour" soil, acidic, as opposed to "sweet" soil, or alkaline. I know it's a lot of information, just just keep in mind that things need to be in balance.

Vegetables will adapt to a range of conditions, and if your pH is off a little it won't hurt them, so don't think that my caution should deter you. It sounds like the topsoil/peat/sand was a perfect mix to add.

One of the rough things about gardening is that you're constantly second guessing yourself, I know I am. If you till a garden when it is wet you'll get clumps and clods, and they will be hard to break apart. It's nothing you can't overcome.

The perfect time to till is when the ground is "fit", when the top inch is mostly dry, and underneath has moisture to it.

What are you using to till with?

Here is a link that might be useful: Garden

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 10:06AM
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Thanks for all of your help! Well my test showed my soil to be more alkaline so maybe just a little topsoil or somthing in the whole will help? Im so indecisive and I second guess everything, Im in southeast mich so Im with you on the confusing weather. My husband went to home depot and got the biggest tiller he could find and just rented that, I figured we might have to buy one eventually to do it every year. But we didnt know what we were doing haha so now I do have some big clumps Ill be breaking up :( Im kinda hoping that Im just worried for no reason and everything will just grow perfect :) Ive been "planning" this for years and thought I knew what I was doing, guess not ;)

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 10:17AM
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Test it as soon as possible. But if it is really 8, your tomatoes for example will suffer, they will have trouble absorbing iron or phosphorous. That is why I recommended foliar spray for this year. The mix that you bought is not as good as straight leaves, or any other seed free organic amendment. I know you all like the look of soil, but really good soil is started by making a mess, then let the worms and time turn it all in. So, in winter get some loads (or just walk down the street and collect bags of leaves. I collect 50 for maintenance of a 2000 sqft garden). Decaying leaves will break your soil, moderate the pH, and add nutrients.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 12:01PM
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Hi, shawnalynn. Your home soil test sounds a lot like mine was. I thought I had clay for years until I did that little soil-and-water-in-a-jar shake test. I actually have silty soil, which behaves a lot like clay... but isn't. Our subsoil is clay, though. We had neglected our soil for a few years (when the kids were tiny) and my nitrogen test water was also completely clear. We live in Saskatchewan, one of the largest producers of potash in the world. My potassium test is always darker than the darkest colour on the chart. My pH test started out darker than the darkest (most alkaline) colour on the test as well; alkaline flats (white salt deposits) are common on the prairie here and our well water was practically liquid rock. All my tests (despite being lowly home tests) have made a lot of sense. I had a long chat with a local greenhouse owner and he confirmed that it sounded about right. As a result of our chat, I went home with some sulphur and we applied it to the garden last spring to lower the pH. Not only did it work, but it's held over the winter and we're pretty much neutral still this spring (our soil must buffer well). The greenhouse guy said sulphur usually has to be applied annually because lowering pH (with sulphur) is more difficult than raising it (with lime). Time will tell.

There's no reason you couldn't grow a garden this year in that soil. We certainly have! It'll just be a lot more work because your soil is heavy and dry and tends to clump and crust plus you'll have to fertilize. Until the soil is healthy again, we just feed the plants directly, like one might do for a container garden. When the soil is repaired, we can continue to feed the soil instead of the plants. Our garden was greatly improved last year and I attribute much of it to the lower pH, which allowed the plants access to nutrients that were already in the soil but unaccessible at the high pH. Lime is something I probably will never need to purchase for our main garden. ;)

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 12:02PM
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Don't feel so bad, when I started my garden I planted corn in rows that were 6 inches apart, and the seeds were 2-3 inches apart. They were crowded like crazy, and only the outside rows produced any corn. We all start with missteps.

Let me give you a little bit of background on why all of us are saying these things, and maybe all of the above posts will fall together.

When you till up the soil, you are essentially loosening it, allowing roots to grow through it easier, and helping air to circulate through the soil profile. Soil that has been tilled will dry out MUCH faster than untilled ground, allowing you to plant several days earlier.

If you till the soil when the ground is too wet, you will wind up with clumps like you describe. It takes an enormous amount of patience and restraint for me to make myself wait to till until 1 day after I think it's fit. So far that rule of thumb has served me well. "Fit to till" is where the soil appears dry on the surface and moist, but not wet a few inches down.

If you get clumps, dont worry, just work the dirt in your transplant hole. Eventually the pitter patter of rain will break the clumps up and the soil will return to a flat surface.

When guys talk about pH, they are really talking about the availability of nutrients in the soil to certain plants. The best example is blueberries. Blueberries need iron, a micronutrient that is usually in abundance in most soils in the US, BUT when the pH is high, above 6.5, the iron is insoluble, it is not in a form that is readily available for the blueberry to absorb.

A good analogy would be people trying to swallow food without chewing, our systems aren't designed to process food without first being chewed.

Each vegetable plant has a perfect pH for their optimum yield, and for most plants that range is somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.5-7.5. Most gardeners stay in that range, and see good results from their plants. pH is only a problem when there are extremes in the soil, IE a pH over 8 should be fixed. The easiest solution is to add a soil acidifier, like sulphur, and sulphur is available at most sores like Lowes. The bag will tell you how much to apply per square feet for such and such a drop in pH.

The home test kits need to be taken with a grain of salt, because if you used tap water, and not distilled water, then the pH of what came out of your tap could affect the results. Tap water tends to be a bit higher than 7.0 pH, depending on where you live. So take that and add to the above, and make sure you trust the pH test before adding acidifiers.

As far as composting and amending the soil, the goal is to take what soil you have and improve it. Vegetables will grow in any medium (think hydroponics - soil-less gardening). The improvements come in adding micronutrients, and the big 3, N-P-K. Adding leaves, vegetables which are done growing, peat, sawdust, manure, and grass clippings will all improve the soil. Organisms in the soil will break down the fibrous elements of the above organic matter, giving a soft feel to the dirt, and organisms will break down the nutrients that are also stored. Without those kinds of conditions in the soil, IE high organic matter to hold onto water, and an abundance of nutrients to feed your growing veggies, you will have to water more and fertilize more.

I am very blessed in my gardening career to live on a horse farm, with plenty of space to garden. The horse manure is perfect because the horses eat grass, and compress it. Horses only absorb about 20-30% of the nutrients they ingest, and most of it goes out the back end. Manure is nothing but fiber and nutrients. Our stalls are bedded with sawdust, and microorganisms break the sawdust down into organic matter, fiber.

The other thing I will mention is weed control. Last year I used my roto-tiller to knock up the soil in between my rows to keep the weeds down, and I hand weeded between plants in the row, and it was constant work keeping the weeds down. Also last year we had a terrible 3rd cutting of hay, and most of it was poor quality. I have been using that hay to mulch around my plants, and mulching really helps with retaining moisture and keeping the weeds down. Once the growing season is over I can turn the mulch into the soil and there will be more organic matter next year. You can mulch with anything, newspapers, grass clippings, wood chips, if it keeps the sunlight off of the dirt and acts like an insulator, it can be a mulch.

Mulching also helps with cool weather crops like lettuce and broccoli and cauliflower. Cool weather crops like to bolt and set seed in the hot summer, and I just read this spring that the reason they bolt is not because of hot air temperatures, but hot soil. This spring my broccoli bolted before ever really setting a head, and I was scratching my head. I read online about soil temps, and I added a thick layer of hay around all of my broccoli. Ever since then I have been rewarded with nice tight heads of broccoli.

Gardening is a constant learning experience, and anyone who thinks they have gotten it figured out just needs to wait for next year's problems. We are all constantly learning about our hobby, no matter how long we have been gardening.

Here is a link that might be useful: My Garden

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 2:27PM
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How large is your garden?

If nothing else, use foliar feed this year to carry your garden through any short comings, then this fall turn your garden over with a shovel so there are large clumps. Like a plowed field minus the furrows.
Then cover it, I mean cover heavily, with semi-composted manur, farm not bagged, or another eight yards of the previous mix plus Azomite or greedsand or one of the bagged items available to farmers for micro-nutrients.
Next summer turn this under with the largest roto-tiller available.
Get that mix tested and go from there.
That should give you a fairly good base.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 3:47PM
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One thing you can do is take a look at the plants around your yard/area of tilling. If you have healthy trees/bushes/shrubs than you probably have decent soil in the yard. You should mulch because that will always improve the soil, regardless of the condition it started in.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2012 at 11:25PM
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I think you should be more optimistic. Perhaps no one has gardened there for awhile so all the nutrients haven't been used up. If you really have clay (and if it isn't slightly slippery when wet like you could make pottery, then it probably isn't) then it holds water and nutrients VERY well. It would need more compost though. Anyway, you already have the plants. See what happens, things don't always go well for any of us.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 9:31PM
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Thanks everyone for your help!!!! I just dug deep and realized I think it is clay about 8" down its red. But I dug a good foot deep and around and broke up all the dirt and put little chunks of the clay all broke up in there to for now. Hope it works :) I bought a 8-0-0 fertalizer that I will use diluted to help out

    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 9:49PM
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