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How does your garden grow?

April 10, 2013

Spring starts in early January at my house when my husband starts planning his Fedco seed order, reading aloud the enticing descriptions of leeks and lettuces from the catalog. By the time spring officially arrives, the seed trays on the back porch are full of tender shoots that will soon be transplanted to the 30-by-30-foot garden he has nurtured for the past 15 years.

The prospects for that patch of earth were not favorable when we moved here in 1998. The ground was so hard a shovel bounced off it. In fact, our first soil test revealed a nearly total absence of organic material; we didn’t have dirt so much as compacted dust, highly acidic and inhospitable to earthworms and other beneficial organisms.

We couldn’t afford to truck in topsoil and anyway, imported soil would eventually become depleted and need rehabilitation, too. The most practical choice was to rehabilitate the soil we had by building it up with the necessary minerals and organic matter and using it in such a way as to replenish its fertility through organic techniques.

We chose a soil testing company that would make organic recommendations, and learned that what we needed most were calcium and potassium, both readily available from Fertrell. Calcium, in the form of lime, raised our soil’s pH to a healthy 6.5, good for growing vegetables. We added Jersey Greensand to improve our soil’s water retention. Most importantly, we began composting all of our vegetable kitchen waste and yard waste such as leaves, chips and pine needles. Even the ash from our wood stove is recycled as a pH-correcting soil additive, good for vegetables and for shrubs and trees as well. We learned we could also enhance soil fertility by rotating our crops and growing “green manure”—soil replenishing ground covers.

These strategies have enabled us to avoid chemical pesticides because healthy soil pH and crop rotation prevent the creation of habitat for pests and diseases. By contrast, chemical gardening creates the never-ending need for fertilizers and pesticides because it does not address longterm soil health.