Garden Soil

Lori-NC(7)July 14, 2012


I am excited to learn about this forum; this is my second year with my garden and I've lots to learn!

My question to you all is about soil preparation for next year -- I had a decent year with my crop garden (compared to last year at least!). My tomatoes, squash, beans and peppers are doing great. Corn - well not so much and I'm wondering if we missed something in the soil. We did do one of those soil test (little vials with colors and such) but perhaps we misread the results. Last year we did this:

1) In the fall/winter we burnt quite a bit of yard debris (leaves/sticks) on top of the garden.

2) Early spring we tilled.

3) We added compost/manure, some mulch, chicken poo, and blood meal.

4) We tilled again and then planted.

Most everything has done well, the ground has stayed fairly moist even with this heat we've had. But my corn has not -- they are green, but the stalks look skinny and some short and have not produced many ears at all and even then some of the ears are puny. I'm wondering where we went wrong on the corn -- we have about six 25 foot rows that I planted around mid April. Silver Queen and Sugar Pearl (didn't mean to have two different varieties, it just turned out that way) -- the Silver Queen seemed to do better than Sugar Pearl.

Looking for input. Here's what I'm thinking for next year:

1) I have a composter for our plant and veggie waste -- add that to the garden in the fall and till it.

2) Add lime for pH in the fall.

3) Fall/Winter: continue to burn our yard debris in the garden b/c we have leaves and sticks in our yard out the wazoo. (and I think it's good for the garden, no?)

4) Add manure again and till again in early spring.

5) And I may plant earlier spring weather permitting; looking around me I think others planted their corn a little earlier than I did.

Does this sound ok? Or am I missing something?


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edweather(Zone 5a/b Central NY)

Sounds like you are doing a lot of good things. IMO those soil test kits are pretty much usless. A decent soil test from your local farm office is a must if you want to know exactly what's in your soil. And the price, at usually less than $20 is a bargain. Ashes are alkaline, raises pH, so be careful with that. That was a mistake I made early on. I used to dump my wood stove ashes in the garden, but I dumped way too much.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 7:44AM
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Well, since most stuff grew fine, I think we can discount any problems like manure being too fresh.

Assuming that the NC in your screen name means North Carolina where I now live, it would be good to know which soil type you live in. Are you in the mountains, the piedmont (red clay) or the sand hills? Also, ALL Counties have agricultural extension agents that will answer home gardening questions and help you get multiple FREE soil tests with instructions for improvements. If you are in the piedmont, the lime is a must and its lack is likely the problem.

There is a Carolina site on gardenweb. Recently, activity has been low, but there are several very knowledgeable locals who still keep an active presence and would likely have advice for your specific region.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 8:23AM
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It's normal when you see corn fail to produce and jump to conclusions that your soils are all out of whack. Corn is an INCREDIBLY heavy feeder of N, and you must supplement and side dress your sweet corn with a decent amount in order to get it to produce. I side dressed my corn this year with aqueous ammonia, 36-0-0, and I had amazing sweet corn.

Watch your applications of lime, unless you really need to sweeten the soil and raise the pH (unlikely) then add lime according to the soil test, but take a soil sample and have it professionally tested this fall, because keeping the pH in the mid 6's is really important to keeping all the nutrients available to the plants.

Most garden plants will have the most nutrients available to them when the pH is between 6.2-6.8.

Also, be careful with burning things to add to the garden. I had the idea to burn a tree that fell on the farm to my garden this fall, but I read that burning wood may add salts to the soil. I haven't read much more on the topic, but I haven't really searched for information either.

For your plant and veggie waste, make sure you compost it well. It would be a disaster to add vegetable plant refuse that is not entirely broken down back into your garden. The whole idea of rotating the location of your crops is to keep disease, like fungus and viruses which may be particular to any one plant from building up in the soil.

I keep moving my tomatoes because I don't want to ever have to deal with bacterial wilt or blights. I won't replant tomatoes in any particular spot in my garden until 4 years of non nightshade plants have grown there.

With the composter, you want to make sure the bin cooks and gets hot enough to destroy the microbes and plant material that you put in. If you add your tomato plants to the composter, and it doesn't fully cook, and then you spread that to your whole garden, then you have just given a lovely invitation for nightshade diseases to come and take hold of every particle of tomato plant leftover that you spread.

To get the composter hot enough, 9 times out of ten most guys have to add nitrogen, to break down the cellulose in the mix and to reach those kinds of temps.

In fact, a lot of guys refuse to even take the chance, they will discard their garden plants when they are done, and either use a green manure, or till under a cover crop to make up for the difference. In their minds, a lot of things can be added to a composter, but not plants. (Just as an aside, I would not be among them, I would add the stuff to the composter and monitor it closely to make sure I achieved the temps needed for sterilization)

Lastly, keep in mind that even perfectly composted manure only has macronutrient N-P-K numbers like 1-2-1 or with chicken manure 3-2-1 (ish). You may have to add a supplemental fertilizer if you don't have enough. I have no idea what the size of your garden is, so if it's small, you're probably fine. With a larger garden you will need a lot more if you want manure to be your only source of fertilizer.

Figure out how much of which kind of manure and compost you need for the square footage of your garden and you'll be golden. And remember, organic fertilizers which come in a bottle or a granular form are always ok, and if you run short of nutrients during the growing season, they are perfectly fine to use. (sometimes I even cheat with miracle grow when I find myself in a pinch)

Here is a link that might be useful: My Garden

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 10:54AM
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The ashes from the burning do ZERO good for the corn, I found that out the hard-way.
Stop doing it.

Corn prefers blocks, not long rows- ever.

My corn is doing well this year EXCEPT where ashes were put, it did poorly- to simply did not germinate there.

NEVER lime unless you need it. I will be forced to put down Sulphur due to the ashes (they also screwed up part of my potatoes.)
The fact your corn did so poorly shows avoid the lime at least where it is planted.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 1:32PM
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RpR and chris_CL. I assume your comments about liming were in response to mine. I agree that in general your position is reasonaable. And it may be here as well if Lori-NC doesn't refer to North Carolina or if she no longer lives here; and my post essentially implied that. However, if the OP is a new gardener in North Carolina, may I refer you to the following: or suggest that you google soil acidity and North Carolina.

Soil Acidity and Liming
by Eugene J. Kamprath
Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, North Carolina State University
Surface horizons and most subsoils in North Carolina are inherently acid. The rocks and minerals from which the soils are formed contain relatively low amounts of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg). The soils have a low capacity to retain cations and since rainfall in the state exceeds evapotranspiration, Ca and Mg tend to be leached from the soil. In their natural state most North Carolina soils have pH values less than 5. Thus unless soils are limed crop growth is quite limited

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 8:52PM
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tdscpa(z5 NWKS)


Yes, you are missing something. Have a complete soil test done and ask for fertilizer and soil amendment recommendations.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 10:32PM
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Yes chas, but I assume nothing. She burned ashes and tilled in a lot of organic matter, and I can't imagine that her soils would be that deficient from anything after amending the soil like that, even if it is very acidic. She was absolutely spot on, and I just wanted to caution her not to go adding things to the soil until she has a soil test done so that she knows exactly where she stands.

She said her tomatoes, beans, squash, and peppers all did great, and her question was about corn, which leads me to suspect Nitrogen deficiency. It's quite common to have too little N, especially when gardening organically.

If her pH was less than 5 I don't think she could make tomatoes and beans, much less have a great year. Perhaps reading the Original Post might make your comments more relevant next time?

BTW, Lori, everything sounds awesome that you are doing, keep it up! Six 25 foot rows of corn is perfect for pollination, and the older varieties like silver queen are great all around producers. Try again, but this time add some N, and just watch them grow!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2012 at 10:54PM
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Wow, thanks for all the responses. Lots of information and ideas.

I am indeed in the Piedmont; right next to the SC border. I didn't know there was a Carolina site :) I'll check it out! My soil is red clay but we've added a few amendments to it over the last couple of years so it's not too hard now.

I suspect I need the lime (just because that's what several people around here tell me they do) -- and I didn't lime last year. BUT... I will use the co-op for a soil test to make absolutely certain what I have and what I need for next year.

I've since read about the wood ashes raising pH -- and read that tomatoes really like wood ash -- and perhaps that explains why I have 7 foot tomato plants. I dunno -- I had planted my tomatoes right where I burned a bunch of logs last winter (purely coincidence). Really, my tomatoes are taller than my corn for crying out loud.

For the corn, I did add some GardenTone in June -- but to be honest that was the only time I fertilized the corn this season other than a bit of miracle grow here and there. I shall try more Nitrogen next year. Even my puny corn taste fine -- though it's only about half of what a full ear should be.

About my composter: it's the black heavy plastic that is supposed to get hot inside, and we've had 90-100+ degrees day here. But, I actually have tomato plants growing out of the cracks at the bottom of the composter. So perhaps it's not really getting it as hot inside as it should be? I like the idea of adding Nitrogen to help break it down.

I like the idea of using blocks instead of rows for my corn; I had issues this year with some of the rain and wind knocking the stalks down. I think adding them more closely together in a block would help with that. I followed the packet instructions and planted my corn rows about 3 feet apart -- it took up too much room -- I believe if they were more dense (shorter 1 foot apart rows in blocks) that it would use less room and help with the wind issue.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 12:15AM
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Here's the best part of living in NC.

Soil tests are free. Get your samples in before the fall/winter rush starts for a quicker turn-around.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 2:03AM
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Regarding the wood ashes: sandy soils in the eastern part of the country where the rainfall is high can use quite a bit of it, provided that the OM content is also kept high. The mineral salts in ash are plant nutrients but they need humus to bind with. Still ash should be used judiciously even in sandy acid soils, adding with compost soon before planting time is the best strategy. If one could not procure calcium carbonate hardwood ash would be the only option for providing Ca and raising the ph (unless one had access to ground shells), and indeed that is how the colonists as well as the indians achieved it.

A more clayey/silty soil will need much less, that is for sure.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 7:52AM
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For the best all around corn growth, it should be fertilized after the corn has emerged, and the fertilizer should be split into 3 or 4 applications, with the first application of a balanced N-P-K right at the 2-3 leaf stage, about 15 days after the corn has emerged.

However, you can add all the N to the soil that you expect your corn plant will need in the spring before the growing season.

The last thing I should mention about the size of your ears, you might be losing nutrients to weeds, if you have grass growing IN the row with the corn, you would be stunned to learn how much nutrients the random weeds will steal away from the soil before your corn can use it.

I had a patch of corn this year that I fertilized well, and I wound up with puny small peckish ears, and I was lazy with that particular plot of corn and I skipped the last weeding I did back in June. It really does make a difference.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2012 at 5:08PM
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