How Does Your Garden Grow? A Question About Soil.

Back in February we planted about 225 tomato seeds for our garden this year; of which, about 200 tomatoes actually germinated and are thriving! The little seedlings have taken a tremendous growing spurt over the past two weeks and are now ready to be transplanted into bigger containers with some high quality nutritive potting mix. Sam and I are very excited about the way in which our garden seems to be coming together (and all the money we’ve just saved ourselves on plants) but have you ever tried to transplant 200 tomato seedlings in a single day? No you have not! If you’re working alone as I am, it’s not possible I tell you. So far, I’m on day three and I think I’ll finally be able to get it knocked out – I’m down to my final tray of 75 plants. This is slow and back-breaking work but it will be highly rewarding come July.

~tomato seedlings in desperate need of a transplant~

One of the big questions we hear a lot from people just starting out in gardening is what kind of soil to use? Is potting soil better than potting mix? Do I have to buy organic soil, or can I save a few bucks and just use fill dirt? How good is the soil that’s on the ground where I live?

Depending on what type of gardening you’re doing is really going to determine overall what kind of soil you use. If you live in a place that has really fertile soil you should thank the Lord and then head out and buy a good rototiller and a few bags of compost. However, if you live in really extreme climates or in a place where the soil is full of rocks and clay (like Georgia) you’re going to want to try your hand at container or raised bed gardening.

~a sea of tomato plants~

If you’re really new at gardening and you’re not sure how to tell good soil from bad – don’t feel bad at all – we were all there at one time or another! But what I’d encourage you to do is to go online and look up your local/state agriculture extension office. These guys are the pros, and their websites are always helpful and informative. Most of the time they have maps that break down the soil content in your state by region, as well as give you tips on ways in which to amend your soil, watering needs, and even a listing of what types of plants grow best where you are.

However, if you’re anything like I am, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the wide variety of plants available in your area. In this case, I’d advise you to talk with the staff at your local gardening supply stores and nurseries – they are usually the best source of information as to what varieties of fruits and veggies are going to grow best in your area. Pretty much any kind of vegetable can be grown in every state, but your state my have a longer or shorter growing season than mine does, and that can determine what variety of plant you can grow. For example, when we lived in Maine, there was no way for us to grow heirloom tomatoes as they generally require a growing season of 90-130 days. Maine has a growing season of about 70-85 days, so we had to stick with veggies that required a much shorter time period like Early Girl and 4th of July tomatoes, which only take about 55-62 days from transplant. If you keep in mind your area’s growing season length when you’re picking out your garden vegetables you can’t go wrong.

So let’s talk about soil. In our raised beds, we use a soil that is purchased in bulk at our local landscape supply called Organic Planting Soil (OPS). This stuff is black with organic materials – composted leaves, some twigs, manure, etc. It’s beautiful and rich and quite lovely. However, every year we have to add more compost to it and keep working the soil as it will pack down if we’re not careful.

In contrast to the raised beds, we use Miracle-Gro Potting Mix in our Earth Boxes and other containers. You don’t have to use Miracle-Gro brand potting mix as there are several different companies that make potting mix, but you need to make sure that when you’re gardening in containers, that you use potting MIX and not potting SOIL. And yes, there is a difference – a big difference.

Potting MIX is a specially formulated blend of peat moss, organic composted materials, perlite and sometimes a tiny bit of fertilizer – this mix allows the soil to both retain moisture without becoming soggy. The potting mix also allows for the soil to wick moisture up to the roots when you feed your plants from the bottom – placing water at the base of the pot instead of dumping it in the top of the pot. Potting mix is also less likely to be come completely compact over the growing season. In your garden (or your houseplants) compact soil is not a good thing.

Also the science involved in blending potting mix has changed drastically over the past 10 years. Before, you’d have to purchase many of the components separately and then undergo a trial and error process until you found the right blend for your plants. Now, it’s much easier to find special blends of potting mix that are already scientifically and specifically formulated for certain types of plants. Things like Cactus & Succulent blends include more sand and grit, Orchid blends contain the right balance of organic material so your orchids can thrive; there are also blends formulated for Citrus & Fruit/Nut trees, Azalea blends, Seed Starter blends, African Violet blends, and several others.

Potting SOIL is comprised mostly of soil, organic planting material, and occasionally some peat and fertilizer is tossed in the mix as well, but no perlite. This soil is fine for general planting of trees and shrubs and things that have a more hearty and vigorous root system than your tender garden transplants. Potting soil will generally become compacted with just a few watering’s, which restricts the amount of water and nutrients that will flow down to the roots, thus inhibiting (and sometimes even killing) your tender plants.

Also potting soil dries out very quickly because it does not have the addition of perlite (the little white beads that resemble Styrofoam) so it does not have any way to retain and disperse moisture to the roots over a longer period of time. Also, most commercial potting soil has large amounts of organic material in it which has a tendency to become very acidic over time. This is fine for things like azaleas, rhododendrons and hydrangeas (these require more acidic soils to flower heavily or turn blue), but in the case of your gardening soil you want it to be fairly nutrient balanced – allowing the stable growth of roots, foliage, and flowers/fruit.

In short, potting soil is not the way to go for garden seedlings or container gardening.

~T2: Early and Often tomatoes~

Next time on How Does Your Garden Grow? we’ll be talking about herb gardening. If you have any questions or comments about herbs that you’d specifically like for me to address, leave them in the ‘comments’ section and I’ll be happy to oblige.

Happy gardening!

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