Gardening Failure: Could Be Chemical

By on 25 April, 2011 in Gardening, Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

A lot of people give up on gardening.

Maybe you don’t like the outdoors. Maybe you think it’s hot out there, or are afraid of a few mosquito bites. Or maybe it creeps you out that there are living things crawling around in the dirt. Or maybe you just honestly prefer food that has been shipped across the world, refrigerated, chilled, stored, radiated, and now tastes like a flavorless dishwasher sponge.

But if you aren’t some sort of effete and dainty debutante, afraid to get a little grime under your nails, you can, with a little effort and patience, tap into the world of creation that exists for the folks who want food that doesn’t come from the mega-industrial aisles of the grocery store. For folks who like the meditative experience of gardening, not to mention the organic and healthy items that can be produced, there’s still the little matter of, well, making it work.

And that’s really what causes most people to quit. It’s not that it’s a pain to do weeding (it can be) or that it’s too hot (it sometimes is), but it’s mostly that stuff just doesn’t grow right, even if you’re watering it and paying regular attention. And the problem may be that you’re trying to grow the wrong things at the wrong times. In addition to doing a little research on our growing climate here in Midtown Montgomery (which includes seasonal temperatures and rainfalls), you’ve also got to look at some basics: Is your garden getting enough sun? What’s the quality of your soil?

To that latter (and crucially important point) we offer some information about how to get your soil tested. We got ours tested around this time last year, and the process was so easy and fast we recommend it to anyone trying to grow anything. Even the non-growers among us might like to get their soil tested because it might help them get to know their property better. It could even be a cool science project for the young and aspiring Barbara McClintocks among us.

  • Step 1: Visit the Alabama Cooperative Extension Services website. More precisely, the Auburn University Soil Testing Laboratory site. There you will find comprehensive instructions about how to take a soil sample, the forms you need to fill out in order to get your sample processed, and helpful information about how to interpret your results once you get them back.
  • Step 2: Where do you want to sample? Even a modestly-sized yard can have more than one type of dirt. Each area of your yard you want analyzed will require a different sample. For example, the sample from your front yard should be sent in a different box from the soil in your backyard vegetable bed.
  • Step 3: Go get your sample. We wanted to know more about our vegetable beds out back. We tried to follow these instructions. We got a bucket and dug some soil out from about 15 different places around the bed. We mixed it up and dumped about a pint into a plastic bag. That, in turn, got sealed and shipped to AU in a cardboard box along with the soil sample request form and a check for $7 (that’s the per-sample cost).
  • Step 4: Get your report. About two weeks later, we got our soil test report back by email. The images below show what we got back. If you click on them, then again, you should be able to get them to a readable size. Alternately, download the PDF here to see a sample report.
  • Step 5: Interpret your report. This wasn’t immediately obvious to us. We don’t know from nitrogen and phosphorous. Fortunately, the report contains pretty detailed recommendations. The ACES site has several additional documents to help you learn from your report.
  • Step 6: Amend your soil. If you’re like us, your soil will need a little work. We learned from our report that our soil was very high in nitrogen but low in phosphorous. We needed cottonseed meal (this seemed less gross to us than fish or blood meal). We also needed potash. We went to the nursery and the hardware store, got some amendments, and dug them into the ground.

Tinkering with your soil won’t turn your barren and desolate yard into a lush Utopian Eden. There will still be bugs that will want to feast on your tasty vegetables. Alabama summers will still be hot. There will still be mosquitoes. You will still have to provide water for the things you want to grow.

And obviously, there are a number of environmental issues that we need to address as a community that impact our ability to grow healthy things on our properties: trucks spraying anti-bug chemicals indiscriminately, air pollution from industrial sources, and runoff from neighbors that coat their lawns with poisons because they want their yard to look like the one in the magazine.

But getting your soil up to par is a first step towards locally-grown healthy eating of items that you are intimately invested in, not to mention a hobby that is far more healthy than, say, watching TV. Soil testing is easy and affordable and a valuable service provided by public institutions.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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