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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Throwing caution to the wind, and digging up the ‘dirt’ on what’s really in the soil

“Teaming with Microbes” and “Teaming with Nutrients” are two books that provide valuable information about soil condition. (Photo provided)

Mother nature is playing tricks on us. It’s the end of February and it’s sixty degrees outside! This is a cruel carrot to dangle.

I want to go outside and start doing things. But, I’m afraid it will be a premature effort that will result in a waste of seed and time. I think I’ll throw caution to the wind and tempt fate anyway. I’m going to try to start some lettuce today. I’ve done dumber things that weren’t nearly as enjoyable. 

Visiting a friend’s house a couple of days ago, I was shown the arugula that he had started already.  This is not a surprise as this household has a deserved reputation for pushing the season. It’s in a raised (literally off of the ground) box and covered with plastic. It is starting to germinate! Why can’t I do that? Well, I’m going to try. This will help with some of the angsty anticipation that plagues me in the winter months.

If it fails, so be it. It’s one more lesson that I always value learning. I know I’ll figure out something if it goes wrong, and there’s always a good chance that it will. The quest for garden perfection continues and, of course, will never be achieved.

Since this warm weather has awakened the gardening beast in me, I have fortunately (it’s never a guarantee) turned my attention to the most important matter involving gardening — soil preparation.  Planting lettuce is just an “amuse-bouche” to the real business of getting all of the right ingredients together for a satisfying main course (OK, you farm-to-table people, I’ll dispense with the culinary imagery).

This brings us to the very important matter of soil-testing. I know this is not a sexy topic. It is essential, though, that you try to get yourself worked up about it. It took me a few years to get to this point. I can’t explain why it took so long. I AM embarrassed about it.

Sample of a commercially prepared soil report (Click for full size image) (Photo provided)

Soil testing can be done several ways. You can buy a kit and be your own junior scientist, or you can be lazy and just take a few soil samples to a soil analysis lab for a charge, or you can take it to your local county extension office where free testing is available. Visit the Kenton County Cooperative Extention office website for more information.

Being a lazy sort, I’ve never tried to test soil samples myself. I had a full range of samples tested at a professional lab a few years back, and it spoiled me.

The company provided a very detailed analysis of the levels of phosphorous, potassium, magnesium and calcium. Along with nitrogen, these are considered macronutrients. The pH was determined. The percentage of organic material was also given. These levels were detailed and compared alongside what preferred levels might be. In addition, recommendations were provided regarding how to go about amending the soil to achieve these optimums. It is all very useful information.  

A sample of the Kenton County Cooperative Extention office report (Click for larger image) (Photo provided)

My initial reaction, “My, this is very useful information”, was followed by, “What the hell does this all MEAN?”

Well, gardening friends, I am still trying to figure it all out. It is not enough for me to just take the recommendations and follow the recipes. I want to know more. And, since I am not a professional scientist, this is a slow, slogging pursuit. I get a little more of a handle on it all of the time.

And there is so much to learn! In my quest to become more knowledgeable, I am alway looking for new books to read. I think I’ve found a pair of books which will either make me incredibly well-informed or kill me with boredom.

“Teaming with Microbes” and “Teaming with Nutrients” by Jeff Lowenfels are two titles that I am SURE are will grab your attention. These are my two latest pot-boilers in the world of garden-geek literature.

I just started reading Teaming with Nutrients. It starts off with plant cells, some basic Chemistry, Botany, water movement through plants, etc… Wish me luck. The sustaining motivation I have for going through with this is that the book promises to give me a solid foundation and understanding for why soil-testing is absolutely necessary for a successful garden. I’m not sure exactly WHY I need this understanding, but I’m in it too far now. From what I gather at this point, “the idea is to understand that there’s a force in the universe that makes things happen and all I have to do is get in touch with it and BE THE PLANT,” to paraphrase a line from the movie “Caddy Shack.” I can do that. I think.

After getting a handle on the macronutrients, I focused on what I call the big three, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, there’s the issue of MICROnutrients. These are boron, copper, iron, chloride, manganese, molybdenum and zinc. Oy vey.  Mercifully, compost, grass clippings, and leaves generally provide these elements. A gardener generally never has to give them a second thought.

You may have noticed that nitrogen was not mentioned in the soil test report. Nitrogen is a very important element for healthy plant life. Plants use it heavily (and therefore deplete it) and it is an important part of breaking down carbon (newspaper, straw, last season’s plant trash) in compost piles. Because of this, in soil testing and the consequent amending, it is always assumed that you will need to add nitrogen. You will be provided with a recommendation for this amount. 

Here are a few basic observations about nitrogen:

• Have you ever noticed how much better plants do after a good rain?  Even though you have kept the garden sufficiently watered, a good rainfall dispenses nitrogen, and this is the reason for those happy plants.  Nitrogen is also released into the atmosphere by lightning.

• Nitrogen is referred by green, leafy vegetables. Kale, spinach, Swiss chard and lettuces all like Nitrogen.

* Do not over-apply Nitrogen to tomatoes. Excessive Nitrogen causes tomatoes to drop their blossoms. If you have over fertilized your tomatoes with nitrogen and are thrilled by how healthy and robust the vines are, your hopes will be dashed as you watch each and every little blossom mysteriously drop to the ground. No blossoms mean no tomatoes! I speak from personal grievous disappointment.

• Blood meal, made from the dried blood of critters (yes, you read right), is an easy-to-use organic source of Nitrogen. You can find it at any garden store.  Always use ANY fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide or herbicide according to the directions. Be responsible and be precise. You will need a tape measure to calculate your garden area square footage and measuring cups and containers to mix accurately. Keep a separate set of measures for this purpose. There is no reason to be afraid to use garden chemicals whether they are organically certified or not. The decision to be 100% organic is a personal one. And having grown up on a full-production grain farm, I swing on both sides of that aisle.  The key is to be informed, knowledgeable and responsible, whatever your personal convictions.

Get in touch with your county extension agent and find out what they need from you regarding your soil test report. It’s the first step in a very important direction if you’re interested in getting serious about this gardening business.

And also, after I have endured my self-imposed education (I DO have a Calvinist streak—I cannot account for it) regarding microbes and nutrients, I hope to pass on a few pointers on how to ‘BE THE PLANT.’  


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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