Fall is the time to improve soil for next year and get testing kit

Fall is the time to improve soil for next year and get a testing kit

By Nancy Szerlag / Special to The Detroit News

My tomato plants are struggling. Part of the problem was the cold, wet spring. Now, cool nights are slowing the ripening process. Tomatoes like hot weather, and they pout when nighttime temperatures fail to climb into the 60s.

I could chalk my tomato trials and tribulations up to poor weather and pin my hopes on next year's crop, but the plants don't look as robust as I would like. I think part of the problem is in the soil, so I'm preparing the new planting bed now.

Fall is the best time to improve the soil because it takes time for Mother Nature to process organic soil amendments into forms plants can use. And in fall Mother Nature delivers, at no cost, an abundance of organic material in the form of autumn leaves.

The soil I'm digging in is heavy clay that contains very little organic material. Adding lots of organic material in the form of shredded leaves, Canadian sphagnum peat, and compost will loosen the soil and provide food for the soil dwellers. This also works magic on sandy soil.

But what about the soil's nutrient level? In addition to organic matter, fertile soil contains the proper amounts of the 16 elements plants need for proper growth.

My tomato plants get carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen from the atmosphere. But the other 13 nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micro-nutrients such as sulfur, magnesium, iron, and zinc come from the soil.

How much is in my soil? I haven't a clue. But I want to find out before adding any soil amendments and fertilizers because too much of a good thing can spell disaster for my tomatoes. An overabundance of one nutrient can cause other critical nutrients to be bound up in the soil making them unavailable to the plants.

"Test, don't guess" is the mantra of avid gardeners and commercial growers because that's the only reliable way to determine what's in the soil and what's needed to grow a healthy garden.

So, to get the straight skinny on what's happening below ground, I'm getting my soil tested. Test kits are available from the county extension office (look under county offices in the phone book).

The soil collected from my planting bed will be sent to a soil testing lab at Michigan State University and the results will be passed on to a horticulture agent for interpretation. I'll designate I'm growing tomatoes so the agent can make recommendations based on that particular crop. If I was putting in a lawn or restoring worn out turf, I would designate grass as my crop.

At a cost of $12.50, along with the current nutrient content, the soil test will tell me the percentage of organic matter and the soil's pH, two very important soil health indicators.

The test results will include fertilizer recommendations based on the use of chemical fertilizers, but I garden organically so I'll use the information to convert to natural organic sources.

"Secrets to Great Soil: A Grower's Guide to Composting, Mulching and Creating Healthy, Fertile Soil for Your Garden and Lawn" by Elizabeth P. Stell (Story Publishing, $19.95) is a great reference. I would recommend it to any gardener interested in soil fertility. The writing is clear and concise, reader-friendly, and gives recommendations for both organic and synthetic amendments. It also includes plenty of tips, good descriptions of products, including when not to use them, and quick reference charts.

Garden centers specializing in customer service will help you interpret your soil test and assist you in selecting the best products.

Uncle Luke's Feed Store in Troy, (248) 879-9147, is one such establishment. It carries all kinds of fertilizers and soil amendments, natural and synthetic -- but organic gardening is their specialty.

The Garden's Alive catalog, (513) 354-1482, www.GardensAlive.com, specializes in environmentally friendly organic products for the lawn and garden.

They are offering Perfect Balance customized fertilizers formulated specifically to balance the nutrients in your soil according to the needs of the plants you are growing and the current condition of your soil. For the cost of $99.95, you get a container of fertilizer that covers 500 square-feet and a soil test taken from a soil sample you send to them. (In addition to the fertilizer, you receive the results of the soil test.) When ordering, you tell them what the fertilizer will be used for -- vegetables, flowers, trees, shrubs fruit trees, or nuts. Perfect Balance fertilizer may be applied in spring or fall. Allow two months of processing and shipping time. Garden's Alive is currently offering a $20 discount on any catalog order, so mention the discount if you place an order by phone. The offer expires Sept. 24.

At first glance, this product may seem expensive, but you're also paying for a service. If you custom blend your own fertilizer, chances are you will end up buying several products and have to spend the time calculating and mixing. With Perfect Balance, you spread and go.


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