April 5, 2013
By: Dayle McCarthy
Intro by: Alex Stavitsky-Zeineddin
Dayle McCarthy is a new contributor to Green Gaithersburg.com. Dayle is our March/April Environmentalist of the Month. She is a leader in her community, having established a community garden in King Farm in Rockville. Dayle works with school age children throughout the year to teach them about planting and harvesting in an organic garden. Her story will be up in the next few days, Meanwhile, learn from the master how to prepare soil for planting and all about composting!
Well, we’re at the beginning of April and spring is still a bit elusive. Some gardeners have gotten English peas or lettuce in by now; others may have just begun to prepare the soil. Some of you may never have considered enhancing your soil. Well, I’m here to dish the dirt.
I’ll be explaining how easy it is to create your own soil amendment, or what we gardeners refer to as “black gold” with very little time and hardly any money. One important thing to note is that while creating healthy soil, you’ll also be eliminating the need to ship your kitchen waste off to a landfill. Besides growing beautiful healthy plants to enjoy or eat, another primary goal is to grow healthy plants without adding chemical fertilizers to lawns and gardens that may be harmful to our wonderful Chesapeake Bay.
Whether you are growing vegetables, fruits or flowers, the best way to improve the soil quality is to determine what kind of soil you’re dealing with. There are some inexpensive soil kits that you can find in local garden shops; however, the best way to determine your soil content is by sending a sample away to a soil lab.
To take a soil sample, follow these simple guidelines:
- 1. Take separate samples from different areas – front or back yard, or specific garden area.
- 2. Use a spade or trowel to take 10 or 12 small samples from the given area
- 3. Samples should be taken from a depth that will contain plant roots – 3” for turf; 6-8” for garden or landscape beds.
- 4. Mix together all samples in a clean bucket (no rocks or other debris)
- 5. Send a minimum of 1cup or maximum of 2 cups of the soil in a zip lock baggie to your chosen lab.
Following is a list of labs that perform soil tests*
A&L Eastern Agriculture Laboratories, Inc. in Richmond, VA
AgroLab, Inc. Milford, DE
University of Delaware Soil Testing Program in Newark, DE
If you send your contact information to the lab -with a relatively small fee- usually $10 to $15- they will send you a graph representing the amount of nutrients in your soil.
*Taken from University of MD Extension “Regional Soil Test Labs For Home Gardeners”
If you are working with virgin soil, you’ll find most plots in the D.C. area have an abundance of clay. In order to improve the drainage and aeration, what you’ll need to provide is organic material. This is especially important as we experience more drought-like conditions during the summer months. You’ll need to water much less frequently if your soil is rich in organic material.
I encourage all gardeners to keep a compost pail beside their kitchen sinks. You can make one yourself using a large covered tin with a few air holes, or buy one any number of places. These come with filters to eliminate any odors. I often keep a week’s worth of fruit and vegetable scraps in the pail before transferring to my compost bin.
You can compost even if you live in an apartment with a balcony. One way to accomplish this is to compost with worms, or vermiculture, an easy and fun project to do with children.
Basically, you need a worm bin, which can be a plastic container with a top. Make sure to put small air holes (you can cover these with gauze) so the worms get air. You’ll need to control how much kitchen waste to add to the bin at a time.
Before adding your worms, you’ll need to provide them with some bedding – shredded black and white newspaper strips work great and, again, you’ll be repurposing your trash. Just spray them until moist, mix in a little soil and you’re good to go. One pound of worms to start would be good. One place I’ve ordered worms is: “Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.” He’s not my uncle, so feel free to purchase from any source listed on various websites. I’d start off with about a pound of worms.
You can add all kinds of fruit and veggie scraps, coffee & tea grounds, egg shells, but avoid meat, dairy, and oils. Bury the scraps in the soil so they don’t smell. The worms will do the rest. If they’re leaving uneaten scraps, feed them a bit less at a time. In 3 to 6 months you should be ready to harvest your compost – primarily worm castings. To do this you’ll need to gently push the compost to one side of the bin, and add new bedding to the other side along with some veggie scraps. In a few weeks the worms will make their way to the other side and you can use the compost from their newly vacated area.
You can sprinkle this “black gold” on your houseplants or any other plants, such as tomatoes or peppers that you’re growing on your balcony. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, place these valuable castings (they’re fairly expensive to purchase at garden shops) around your crops.
Composting in a regular compost bin is not much different. You’ll need to either build or obtain a bin (some types can be obtained free from Montgomery County) or purchase one. There are six important things to remember when using a compost bin:
Chopped (ideally smaller than 6”)
Water (just enough so that the mix feels like a damp sponge)
Brown materials provide the carbon (fuel)
Green materials provide the nitrogen (fire)
I’m including this handy chart for you to see which kinds of ingredients to add
|Common Compost Ingredients
(high-carbon materials)corncobs and stalks
paper (newspaper, not glossy)
sawdust or wood shavings
(high-nitrogen materials)coffee grounds
tea bags without staples
feathers or hair – save the clippings from your haircuts
seaweed – gather some at the beach
kitchen scraps (except citrus & onion)
rotted manure – local farms have this
It’s also important to keep your compost bin in the sun as much as possible so that it heats up and the components decay much faster. Turn your compost regularly with a handle to mix thoroughly and you’ll have another way of creating that “black gold.” If you follow these directions, you should have great organic compost to add to your flower or vegetable beds in approximately six weeks. You’ll want to stop adding to this particular bed a few weeks prior to using so that any new materials can decompose. In the meantime, you could freeze your kitchen waste until your new compost bed is ready to re-start the process.
You can use this compost when first planting or as a “side dressing” around your plants during the growing season. Your plants will hold water much better in organic soil than soil that hasn’t been fed a yummy dose of black gold.
I encourage you to keep your good “rotten” stuff out of the trash and begin feeding it to your happy, healthy plants.
Best of luck.