Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Part 1 in Soil Testing: This sounds boring.

Is it just me or does the process of soil testing seem like a swift pain thy ass?

See. I knew it. It does. Seem like it.

And, to be truthful, it is. But it's so worth it. At least it's proven to be worth it for the past few years that I've been doing it.

But, for whatever reason, I've gotten a lot of questions about this soil testing stuff despite its boring outward appearance, so rather than give you all random answers when you email me all separate like, I thought I'd offer up my soil testing process and experience here so you know what I'm doing back there when I say I'm doing The Science known as soil testing.

Be warned though, this is just how I do it. So, probably, it's not 100% perfect or right or legal or PC or safe to show children under 13 or feed to your gremlin after midnight and so on. So, like, don't get all, "That's not how you do that, Finny!" because I'll just be, like, "Um, actually, that's exactly how I do it, so stow it." and all.

You know how I am.

But really, I do want to share with you the importance of soil testing and the process by which a normal human person does it so that, if you have the yearning in your soul to do so, but have always felt like OH MY GAWD THIS SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE you can know that it is, in fact, not impossible at all and that you can totally do it because, hello, dummy over here can do it, so there you go.


Let me paint a picture for you:

Once upon a time five or so years ago, Bubba and I moved into this house. This house did not have any vegetable garden to speak of, but it did have a big blank canvas of weeds from which I could dutifully carve a few raised beds for the requisite tomatoes and watermelons that spread out to take over the entire property and move in our neighbors' domain.

Into these two 3'x8 beds, which - let's not kid ourselves - were built by Bubba's talented hands, I poured a 50/50 mixture of garden soil and compost and then proceeded to plant with two tomatoes, some cucumbers and, from what I can recall based on its final growth, the world's most ambitious watermelons.

These plants grew and grew until I was afraid that we'd be lost forever under a sea of vining melons and tomato shrubbery.

It was a glorious time and much produce was had by all.

Then fall came and I took down the waning plants and constructed what we called, Mini Moffett, out of small gauge wire fencing and a lot of stabs in the hand, for a Winter Garden. Keep in mind that I'd never had a full fledged Summer Garden before these two beds, so a Winter Garden was just me being ridiculously over-ambitious and, I'll say it, a little cocky in the way of gardening.

Anyway, Mini Moffett went up successfully - again thanks to much help by Bubba's talented hands - and off I went merrily, and naively I might add, into the deep and murky waters of winter gardening. I think I grew somethings along the lines of carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and who knows what else.

It went fine. I didn't get a ton of stuff out of it, but it was winter and I wasn't expecting too much - just a year round garden that's all.

When winter finally passed and it was time to start thinking tomatoes again, I promptly tore out what was remaining of the winter crap (by March, anything remaining in the garden is considered by me to be crap), and went ahead just slamming new plants into the ground. Things like tomatoes and squash and things.

To say that summer crop went badly is to understate things greatly.

Firstly, the squash bugs arrived. And they devastated my squashes and melons and cucumbers the likes of which I've never seen. They even took down a mighty pumpkin and for that I will never, and have NOT, forgiven them.

Then, OH THEN, my tomatoes sucked ass. I don't know what their deal was but they just didn't do much. I mean, yes, I got some tomatoes, but nothing on the order of the previous year's bounty. And, come to think of it, plants from which I'd seen a huge success the previous year (cucumbers, peas) were also sucking asses.

Even though they were planted in the same spots as the year before, in the same soil conditions, same sun conditions, same water, same same same...

Let's let that last part sink in.


That's when it dawned on me.

OH - Hi, have we read Grapes of Wrath? Haven't we heard of the Dust Bowl? Crop rotation? Soil depletion? Completely uneducated garden asses running amok planting crap without paying attention to the most important thing - the soil?

Yeah. Despite my best intentions, which really just focused on making tomatoes happen year after year, I'd neglected the most crucial part of the garden - the soil.

I'd made the same mistakes that they made back when we started raping the Midwest for crops every year without moving the crops around or amending the soil. I just went on planting as though the soil was going to replenish itself after giving everything it had to my little plants' roots all summer and winter and summer again.


I'm so rude sometimes.

And so, that is when I decided it was time to suck it up and test the soil.

Like, really sit down with the test kit (order capsule refills here) and a pencil and paper (can you believe those things still exist?) and water and capsules and a dropper and everything, and see where we stood with the condition of the soil.

Y'all - it was not pretty. In fact, it sucked ass pretty hard. I had sucked the life out of the soil by putting plants in season after season without adding anything back. I felt like a horse's ass. And a bit mean. And quite retarded.

So, with my shitty test results in hand (oh, high school - how I've missed thee), I marched off to the hardware store/nursery/place where you can get keys made to buy the amendments suggested on the soil test kit.

Which is when I ran into Awkward and Confusing Moment #783 - What is Muriate of Potash anyway and, my, that doesn't sound organic and healthy at all. Something about the word "muriate" made me nervous. Maybe because it sort of sounds like, "urinate"? I don't know. Well, turns out that it's, in fact, quite scary. Like, it's the 3rd drug (potassium chloride) in the three drug cocktail they use for lethal injection executions.

Yay! Let's grow our food in this!


So, even though I was at the store with the intention of buying the soil amendments listed on the soil test kit to "fix" my soil, and I hate to go to the hardware store and not leave with every single thing on my list (we'll get into our reputation at the hardware store another time), I turned around and went home - to do some research.

See, despite all the "just use MiracleGro" advice I was getting, I still wanted to do this up all organic-like. I didn't want bizarre pee-sounding chemicals all soaked up in my food, doing untold damages to myself and the soil and the bugs and things. I didn't know exactly what would come from Miraculously Growing our vegetables, but I really didn't want to find out.

And, fine, I was being an obstinate hippie about it. FINE. Say the words, it doesn't hurt my feelings. I *do* live in California after all. Whatever.

Well, after some research online and with other organic gardeners and me mum and the good old Rodale's Guide to Organic Gardening, I found that I could amend soil with things that didn't involve horrifying chemicals that are 1/3 of the magic behind snuffing out our unsavory citizens.

I also found that a lot of these things were really fucking confusing (soybean meal). Or hard to find (feather meal). Or sort of ridiculous to source based on the small amounts I would need (well-rotted horse manure).

So, what I ended up with were the following:

To amend for nitrogen, I overwinter the beds with either fava beans or nasturtium, and then use organic dried blood to bring the measurements up to snuff.

To amend for phosphorus, I use organic bone meal.

To amend for potash, I use a combination of wood ash from our fireplace and this E.B. Stone Sure Start mix that includes the illusive feather meal as well as other organic ingredients that aren't creepy like muriate of potash.

I also started composting leaves, clippings and kitchen scraps so I could side dress the plants with the homebrew once they were established and during the winter when the beds were sitting around doing nothing.

Which is mostly what they do now in the winter, nothing. Because I am still so scarred by that total garden devastation summer to go whole hog back into a winter garden - testing or not. Though I did put some garlic and peas in the ground this winter and I'm really hoping it doesn't come back to bite me in the ass.

But you know that I've tested that bed already, and as soon as I tear out the garlic (soon, so soon), I will amend it appropriately, give it a neem oil bath for horrible insects and plant up its healthy soil with this year's allotment of black tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapenos and cilantro.

But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. We still have to test. Next time I'll show you how I do that.

Know that as I go through this, however, that this is how *I* do this, so it's not all professional and official and shit. This is just *my* way of gardening as organically and healthfully I can with the brainpower, resources and patience at my disposal with the goal of harvesting as many tomatoes as our mouths can handle in a year long period. Which, incidentally, is a lot.

So, just take that as you will. And then test your soil because, really, it's worth it.

Next time, step-by-step testing. Which, WOW, sounds boring. Sorry.

Part 2
Part 3


  1. Holy Cow Finny. This sounds like just way too much work. That's why you hippies are so skinny.
    Miracle Gro.
    It's what's for breakfast.

  2. Oh, hey, horse manure isn't all that hard to get. Check the yellow pages for stables in your area, call 'em up, ask if you can have some. Many will be only too happy to let you take it away for them.

    You may need to compost it yourself, since often stables will have it carted away to be disposed of, so they don't have much that's old. FYI, after about a day, horse manure has no smell; by the time it's in a pile, it's not smelly. But some may actually have composting piles that you can dig into.

    I give away composted horse manure, myself, and use it in my own veggie garden. Or at least, I did. Until I was rear-ended last summer and I stopped being able to pick the manure out of my pastures :( It's fantastic, fantastic stuff for growing veggies.

  3. Oh how I love this blog! :)

  4. Whoops...meant to say I give away manure via Craigslist and freecycle. More good places to go looking for locals who have horses and will happily help you acquire horse manure.


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