Building the Soil

Curtis’ post a few weeks ago was interesting and I thought it would be nice to review what Chris and I do here in our neck of the woods at our community garden. We’ve only been here since mid-August, not even a year yet. When we arrived we found semi-raised beds with pine straw mulch. Initially we thought the pine straw mulch was going to be too acidic but we’ve come to realize our fear was pretty much unfounded. We’ve not had any problems thus far with the pine straw mulch and it works pretty well for weed control. It is much better than buying cypress or cedar bark, especially the cypress bark—very unsustainable. (Oh, and please don’t buy peat moss.)

Just by feeling this soil above I would say it was a sandy-loam. It felt sandier than a straight loam instead of a loamier-sand. I haven’t had a ton of soil experience but I’ve had enough doing wetland delineations so I have a feel for what it is, but you too can figure it out just by handling various soils.

What is loam? Purdue gives a great explanation. Since my soil felt sandier than a straight loam I can guess that it will drain even faster and not hold moisture nearly as well. So, to gather more information I can go to the NRCS Web Soil Survey and zoom to my location to find out exactly what soil type I have. Please note that developments and areas that were formerly wetlands (Florida and coastal locations, I’m talking to you) more than likely you don’t have the native soils in your area, or at least not on the surface. Our place in Florida was a mixture of some soils and limestone fill material—we lived just a couple of miles from the Everglades, and 50+ years before it had indeed been wetlands.


So, I’ve zoomed into my area to find out what my soils are and you can see the orange outlines with a code. To the left is a list of the codes selected in the Area of Interest. So it says CoC is Conroe Loamy Fine Sand, 0 to 5 percent slopes. Ok, I was close, it was a bit more loamy than sandy. But, our beds are also made up of soil that was brought in from other places too, so it isn’t perfectly native. I wanted to find out more about the soil so I clicked on the link for the soil in my garden to find out more.


The link gives you much more information on the soil itself, including a further profile of what it is further down, to about 80″. Just think of this as a tool to give you a little more information to build your garden and soil.


The biggest thing in our garden is composting. Chris and I never saved our food to compost until moving here. We’d thought about it previously but it just wasn’t feasible for us before now. When we have our own garden in our own yard it will definitely be something we do, but for now we save vegetable scraps, egg shells and anything compostable (tea bags, coffee grounds) to throw into the compost pile. Our garden coordinator will sometimes put a call out for horse manure and grass clippings to help get the compost going even more. Because of various reasons our compost isn’t really ready for 8-12 months, which isn’t ideal. The compost piles don’t always get watered frequently, the right amounts of materials aren’t always there, and sometimes the pine straw is put on it and that takes a very long time to break down. If the ratios are right and everything is balanced 3-6 months would be a good turn around time.

When planting a new bed we try our best to put compost on it when starting or at the very least in the places where the plants or seedlings might be going.


In addition to compost we have been utilizing cottonseed meal and fish oil. The fish oil we’ve been using has been used as a foliar spray, though Curtis used it as a dilution in the water while watering his plants. Either way will work, we’ve just found good results this way. To be honest, we haven’t tried it Curt’s way yet.

As you can see by the bottle the %s of Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium are 5-1-1. A little more on the NPK rating. Since it is weighed more towards nitrogen, the plants are going to benefit mostly by putting out more leaves and growing better. I have definitely noticed a big difference in the growth of plants within a few days of spraying the fish oil. Read the directions on the bottle and follow them appropriately if using fish oil. Oh, and don’t get it on anything—it will stink to high heaven!

On a whim we put in six catfish carcasses (sans meat), that Chris caught, at the bottom of a hole of one of our tomato plants. I am definitely interested to see what occurs once the roots reach the level of the fish!


The other fertilizer we use is cottonseed meal, something that Chris had some difficulty tracking down around here but finally found a feedstore to order it for him. It is also heavier chemically on the nitrogen but is a slow-release type of fertilizer. We use a little bit in the hole where a new plant or seed will go but not as a general all over fertilizer. I read a few things that cottonseed meal isn’t necessarily considered ‘organic’. Since we aren’t trying to be listed as an organic food seller I’m not too worried about that.

Well, I could write more about this but I think I’ll leave it at that. A few other links are below that might aid you in getting your soil up to par!

Other Resources:
NRCS Web Soil Survey
DIY Soil Ammendments: Calcium via Renee Garner
Improving soil with chemical exudates” via NW Edible Life
How to Start a Compost Pile via Mother Earth News
Winter Gardening & Cover Crops via Chiot’s Run
Making a Complete Organic Fertilizer
Macro and Micro Nutrients for Plants

Comments 2

  1. Erin wrote:

    This is one of my favorite things about gardening! I’ve been using the pine straw mulch since I started my community garden bed, and it’s worked well for me all along. All your other tips are great, I’ll be using them when I amend before planting the next round :)

    Posted 30 Apr 2012 at 11:46 am
  2. Donna wrote:

    I sure wish we had something besides this terrible clay. :(

    Posted 30 Apr 2012 at 4:31 pm

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  1. From Sprout - Organically Thinking on 07 May 2012 at 7:08 am

    [...] to the plants throughout the growing season instead of in one big lump. Really, you should be building your soil over time and improving your conditions so your plants can thrive. I can’t say that there [...]

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