Whether you’re getting started on a home vegie garden, or a market garden (like Tino), it’s important to get to know your soil before you begin dropping plants into the ground. Taking the time to observe, dig a few holes and get your hands dirty before planting will save you time, money and grief in the long run. When Tino and his young family moved to their Tasman Peninsula property last year, Tino knew his first job was to get to know what lies below – the soil.
He spent time on his property on Paytirami Country, did a few simple tests, and chatted with neighbours to get a snapshot of his soil type and what he could expect from it.
Here are Tino’s tips on how to garden from the ground up.
1 Check your profile.
Dig a few holes to about 50cm so see how your soil profile changes. It’s usually made up of topsoil in the first 15cm, which is full of living organisms; subsoil below this without as much life but still important in making nutrients available and allowing drainage. At the base is usually clay. It’s important not to disturb this profile and bring the clay to the surface as plant roots and water won’t be able to penetrate.
2. Check for abnormalities.
Most of Tino’s land has black topsoil but one section has grey soil and tends to hold water; this is a sign the soil has been disturbed and clay brought to the surface. To fix this, he’s growing broad beans, which will be dug back through the soil as green manure to rehabilitate it.
3. Check the colour.
Soil colour is a great indicator of its drainage and nutrient levels.
• Black – high in organic material
• Red/Brown/tan – has organic matter and good drainage
• Pale soils – tend to be in high rainfall areas and show soil is leached of nutrients
• Yellow soil – has organic matter, prone to waterlogging, easily leached of nutrients
• Green-blue soil – low in organic matter, poor drainage, easily compacted
4. Have a sniff.
It should smell fresh; poorly drained soil is anaerobic and smells bad like rotten eggs.
5. Have a feel.
The best soils are a blend of clay, sand and silt, and are called loams. Put some in your hand, add a little water, mix it with your finger and test the texture. Sand feels gritty, silt feels like moist talcum powder and clay feels slippery.
• Too much sand and it drain well but not hold nutrients
• Too much clay will hold nutrients but not drain well.
• Too much silt and it is prone to erosion.
6. How to fix it.
Adding compost or other organic material is a great way to correct any soil; it improved drainage and helps retain moisture and nutrients. Tino and Joi make their own from a mix of coffee husks, charcoal and chicken manure.
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