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Preparing Garden Soil

Healthy plants and good fruit are no accident. It all starts with good soil. As the old saying goes "plant a $50 plant in $100 hole." How do you know if you have good soil? Making good soil is more of an art than a science. However, understanding the components of soil gives you a good place to start.

Soil structure - Soil is classified in three basic particle sizes- sand, silt, and clay. To test the particle content is a simple as grabbing a handful of wet soil and squeezing it. If the ball falls apart it is sandy. If the ball holds together but cracks it is silty. If the ball formed by squeezing retains it's shape then it is clay. The ideal soil structure is somewhere in the middle between clay and sand.

Sand in the soil keeps it loose so that roots make good progress in their quest for nutrients. It also drains quickly and prevents root rots. Clay in the soil helps to retain the moisture but has a tendency to keep roots bound up. Too much clay will also affect the absorption of certain minerals. The best way to balance the soil structure and provide nutrients is to condition the soil with compost.

Soil nutrients and pH - A soil test is is a valuable tool to determine the available nutrients in the soil. This can be done with a home test kit available at most garden centers, or a soil sample can be sent to to your local university or extension service for a nominal fee. The advantage to submitting your soil sample is that you will receive not only the results of the test, but also measures to correct any problems.

The three primary nutrients plants need are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen is needed for stems and leaves; phosphorus for roots and fruits; potassium for cell structure and as a catalyst for phosphorus. The plants themselves can serve as a litmus test to deficiency in these three primary nutrients.

Yellowing leaves shows a lack of nitrogen. Dark green leaves with purplish cast may be deficient in potassium. Sickly plants slow to produce fruit which have scorched leaves could indicate the soil is deficient in potassium. If you are new to gardening, observe the performance of your plants but back it up with a soil test before correcting deficiencies.

Soil pH is the second critical factor in plant health. The pH scale refers to the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, and is measured in units on a scale of 0 to 14 with 7.0 being neutral. Different plants prefer different pH ranges for optimal growth. The correct pH in the soil will assure the maximum absorption of nutrients for the plant. If you have plenty of N-P-K in your soil, but the pH is off, you could misinterpret your plants needs and damage your plants by over fertilizing. PH can only be measured with a soil test.

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