Preparing The Soil for your Open Pollinated / Heirloom Vegetable Garden

Good soil for growing Open Pollinated / Heirloom vegetables must be protected by proper cultivation, use of organic matter, maintenance of soil fertility, and control of plant pests. Properly prepared soil provides a desirable medium for root development, absorbs water and air rapidly, and usually does not crust badly.Tillage practices do not automatically create good heirloom garden soil. Tillage is needed to control weeds, mix mulch or crop residues into the soil, and alter soil structure. Unnecessary tillage increases crusting on the soil surface, and if the soil is wet, tillage compacts it.

Fertility requirements differ between long and short growing seasons and among soil types. In almost every State, the Extension Service will test soils and provide fertilizer recommendations.

Heirloom vegetable garden pests compete with garden crops and impair their growth. These pests include weeds, insects, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes. They must be controlled or the heirloom vegetable garden will not succeed. However, chemical controls must be used carefully to prevent damage to neighboring crops or subsequent crops. When mechanical and chemical controls do not work, vegetable crops that are resistant to the pests should be planted in the area for a season or two.

The time and method of preparing the heirloom vegetable garden for planting depends on the type of garden soil and the location. Heavy clay garden soils in the northern sections are frequently benefited by fall plowing and exposure to freezing and thawing during the winter, but when the heirloom garden is cover cropped, it should not be plowed until early spring. In general, garden soils should be cover cropped during the winter to control erosion and to add organic matter. Heirloom gardens in the dry land areas should be plowed and left rough in the fall, so that the garden soil will absorb and retain moisture that falls during the winter. Sandy soils, as a rule, should be cover-cropped, then spring-plowed. Whenever there is a heavy sod or growth of cover crop, the land should be plowed well in advance of planting and the garden soil disked several times to aid in the decay and incorporation of the material. Land receiving applications of coarse manure either before or after plowing should have the same treatment.

Garden soils should not be plowed or worked while wet unless the work will certainly be followed by severe freezing weather. Sandy garden soils and those containing high proportions of organic matter—peats and mucks for example—bear plowing and working at higher moisture content than do heavy clay soils. The usual test is to squeeze together a handful of soil. If it sticks together in a ball and does not readily crumble under slight pressure by the thumb and finger, it is too wet for plowing or working. When examining garden soil to determine if it is dry enough to work, samples should be taken both at and a few inches below the surface. The surface may be dry enough, but the lower layers too wet, for working. Soil that sticks to the plow or to other tools is usually too wet. A shiny, unbroken surface of the turned furrow is another indication of a dangerously wet garden soil condition.

Fall-plowed land should be left rough until spring, when it may be prepared by disking, harrowing, or other methods. Spring-plowed land should be worked into a suitable seedbed immediately after plowing. Seeds germinate and plants grow more readily on a reasonably fine, well-prepared soil than on a coarse, lumpy one, and thorough preparation greatly reduces the work of planting and caring for the crops. It is possible, however, to overdo the preparation of some heavy soils. They should be brought to a somewhat granular rather than a powdery fine condition for planting. Spading instead of plowing is sometimes advisable in preparing small areas, such as beds for extra-early crops of Open Pollinated / Heirloom lettuce, onions, beets, and carrots.

Organic Matter in your
Heirloom Vegetable Garden

Organic matter improves garden soil as a growing medium for vegetable plants. It helps release nitrogen, minerals, and other nutrients for plant use when it decays. A mulch of partially rotted straw, compost, or undecomposed crop residue on the soil helps keep the garden soil surface from crusting, retards water loss from the soil, and keeps weeds from growing.

Practically any plant material can be composted for use in the vegetable garden. Leaves, old sod, lawn clippings, straw, and plant refuse from the heirloom vegetable garden or kitchen can be used. Often, leaves can be obtained from neighbors who do not use them or from street sweepings.

The purpose of composting plant refuse or debris is to decay it so that it can be easily worked into the soil and will not be unsightly when used in the heirloom vegetable garden. Composting material should be kept moist and supplied with commercial fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, to make it decay faster and more thoroughly.

The usual practice in building a compost pile is to accumulate the organic material in some out-of-the-way place in the vegetable garden. It can be built on open ground or in a bin made of cinder blocks, rough boards, or wire fence. The sides of the bin should not be airtight or watertight. A convenient time to make a compost pile is in the fall when leaves are plentiful.

In building the compost pile, spread out a layer of plant refuse about 6 inches deep and add one-half pound or one cupful of 10-10-10, 10-20-10, or 10-6-4 fertilizer to each 10 square feet of surface. Then add 1 inch of soil and enough water to moisten but not to soak it. This process is repeated until the pile is 4 to 5 feet high. Make the top of the pile concave to catch rainwater.

If alkaline compost is wanted, ground limestone can be spread in the pile at the same rate as the fertilizer.

The compost pile will not decay rapidly until the weather warms up in spring and summer. In midsummer, decay can be hastened by forking over the pile so moisture can get to parts that have remained dry. The compost should be ready for use by the end of the first summer.

For a continuing supply of compost, a new pile should be built every year. Compost can be used as a mulch, or worked into flower beds and the vegetable garden.

When properly prepared and thoroughly decayed, compost is not likely to harbor diseases or insects. If the compost is used in garden soil where an attempt is made to control vegetable plant diseases, or if it is mixed with soil used for raising seedlings, the soil should be disinfected with chemicals recommended by your local Extension agent or State agricultural college.

Commercial Fertilizers

Commercial fertilizers may be used to advantage in most farm vegetable gardens, the composition and rate of application depending on locality, soil, and crops to be grown. On some soils with natural high fertility only nitrogen or compost may be needed. The use of fertilizers that also contain small amounts of copper, zinc, manganese, and other minor soil elements is necessary only in districts known to be deficient in those elements. State experiment station recommendations should be followed. Leafy crops, such as Open Pollinated / Heirloom spinach, cabbage, kale, and lettuce, which often require more nitrogen than other vegetable garden crops, may be stimulated by side dressings. As a rule, the tuber and root crops, including Open Pollinated / Heirloom potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, and parsnips, need a higher percentage of potash than other heirloom vegetables.

The quantity of fertilizer to use depends on the natural fertility of the soil, the amounts of organic matter and fertilizer used in recent years, and the crops being grown. Open Pollinated / Heirloom Tomatoes and beans, for example, normally require only moderate amounts of fertilizer, especially nitrogen; whereas Open Pollinated / Heirloom onions, celery, lettuce, the root crops, and potatoes respond profitably to relatively large applications. In some cases, 300 pounds of commercial fertilizer may be sufficient on a half-acre garden; in other cases, as much as 1,000 to 1,200 pounds can be used to advantage.

Commercial fertilizers, as a rule, should be applied either a few days before planting or when the crops are planted. A good practice is to plow the land, spread the fertilizer from a pail or with a fertilizer distributor, then harrow the soil two or three times to get it in proper condition and at the same time mix the fertilizer with it. If the soil is left extremely rough by the plow, it should be harrowed once, lightly, before fertilizing. For row crops, like potatoes and sweet potatoes, the fertilizer may be scattered in the rows, taking care to mix it thoroughly with the soil before the seed is dropped or, in the case of sweet potatoes, before the ridges are thrown up.

Application of the fertilizer in furrows along each side of the row at planting time does away with the danger of injury to seeds and plants that is likely to follow direct application of the material under the row. The fertilizer should be placed so that it will lie 2 to 3 inches to one side of the seed and at about the same level as, or a little lower than, the seed.

The roots of most Open Pollinated / Heirloom garden crops spread to considerable distances, reaching throughout the surface soil. Fertilizer applied to the entire area, therefore, will be reached by the plants, but not always to best advantage. Placing fertilizer too near Open Pollinated / Heirloom seedlings or young plants is likely to cause burning of the roots. The fertilizer should be sown alongside the rows and cultivated into the topsoil, taking care to keep it off the leaves so far as practicable.

Heavy yields of top-quality Open Pollinated / Heirloom vegetables cannot be obtained without an abundance of available plant food in the soil. However, failure to bear fruit and even injury to the plants may result from the use of too much plant nutrient, particularly chemical fertilizers, or from an unbalanced nutrient condition in the soil. Because of the small quantities of fertilizer required for short rows and small plots it is easy to apply too much fertilizer. The chemical fertilizers to be applied should always be weighed or measured.

Acidity/Alkalinity (pH)

Most plants develop well in soils that are slightly acid to neutral (6.0 to 7.0) provided the proper nutrients are in the soil. These nutrients are available to plants in this range of pH. Generally, soils in moist climates are acid and those in dry climates are alkaline. A soil with a pH lower than 7.0 is an acid soil and one with a pH higher is alkaline. A soil analysis will reveal the pH of the soil so that a decision can be made on whether to alter the pH or not. The county Extension agent can supply information on soil tests that can be performed for each locality. (Samples of soil should not be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)

Acid soils can be limed to bring the pH to the favorable range. Lime, ground limestone, marl, or ground oyster-shells on garden soils serves a threefold purpose: (1) To supply calcium and other plant nutrients; (2) to reduce soil acidity; (3) to improve the physical character of certain heavy soils. As a rule, asparagus, celery, beets, spinach, and carrots are benefited by moderate applications of lime, especially on soils that are naturally deficient in calcium. Dolomitic limestone should be used on soils deficient in magnesium. Most garden vegetables do best on soils that are slightly acid and may be injured by the application of lime in excess of their requirements. For this reason lime should be applied only when tests show it to be necessary. In no case should the material be applied in large quantities than the test indicates. Most garden soils that are in a high state of fertility do not require the addition of lime.

Alkaline soils may be treated with an acid producing material. Organic matter, sulfur, and some sulfur containing materials can be used. When using organic matter in the form of manure, care must be taken that the manure itself is not alkaline. Some manures are alkaline and contain high amounts of soluble salts which are detrimental to plants, especially when applied in alkaline soils.

With good drainage, plenty of organic matter in the soil, and the moderate use of commercial fertilizers, the growth requirements of nearly all vegetables may be fully met.