By Catherine Winter
Just about every person who’s tried to grow vegetables or herbs has had to deal with “failure to thrive”, whether it’s from seed failure or seedling death. It’s disappointing (even devastating if someone’s dependent upon gardening endeavours for their food), and there are a number of different reasons why it happens. One of the most common reasons is that the plants haven’t been cultivated in the right soil, so it’s important to determine what type of earth your plants need so you can give them the most optimal conditions from day one.
You’ve undoubtedly noticed that you’ll find different plants in different areas. On my land, there’s a ton of coltsfoot and mullein growing in the sandy soils around the creek, but I’m not going to find those plants tucked in amongst stands of birch in the loamy forest soil. They’re growing in the areas that are best for their development, and will fizzle out and die if forced to swap spaces.
Radishes, peppers, and potatoes all thrive in acidic soil. You can add sphagnum peat moss into an all-purpose organic seed-starting mix, and the sphagnum will increase the soil’s acidity and increase the chances that your plants will germinate successfully.
Sphagnum is a good option for container gardening, but if you’ll be planting a large garden’s worth of food, you can get sulphur at your local garden centre and work that into the soil you’ll be planting into.
Here’s a tip: If part of your land is naturally acidic, take full advantage of that area and plant a bunch of perennial berry bushes. They’ll grow really well there, and you won’t have to put any extra effort into making the soil a happy place for them to be.
Brassicas, peas, beans, and most leafy greens (like chard, lettuce, and spinach) prefer alkaline soils, but can do just fine in pH neutral soil as well. If the earth in your garden is on the acidic side and you’re really keen to have a ton of broccoli and beans, you can add some pulverized limestone to increase alkalinity.
If you’re uncertain as to just how acidic or alkaline your soil is, you can test it with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and plain white vinegar: take two samples of soil, and add a bit of baking soda to one sample, and a bit of vinegar to the other. If the sample with baking soda in it fizzes, then your soil is acidic. If the vinegary one fizzes, it’s alkaline. If nothing happens at all, it’s neutral.
You can, of course, also use pH testing strips, but this is an easy way to test your soil using items you likely already have at home.
Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and beets tend to do best in sandy soils, as do aromatic culinary herbs like thyme, summer and winter savoury, oregano, and sage. Just like amending your soil with sphagnum, you can work sand into your soil prior to planting your seeds.
*Note: root vegetables can also be stored in sand in a cool, dry place over the winter. If you have a root cellar or cool, dark basement, try this method after you harvest them.
Squashes, pumpkins, zucchini, melons, broccoli, and cucumbers are heavy feeders that suck up a lot of nutrients from the soil, so it’s important that whatever they’re planted into is very nutrient-dense and rich. Work aged compost into your seed-starting mixture, and work a good fertilizer into the soil they’ll be planted into about 3 weeks before transplanting them. Once they’re in the soil, it’s good to re-fertilize every few weeks (compost tea is ideal for this), but along the “drip line” (around the edges of your plant) so you don’t burn or damage the plant itself.
Many seed companies (especially organic and heirloom dispensaries like Baker Creek) have in-depth information on the backs of their seed packets: they’ll tell you exactly what type of soil is best for your plant, as well as their sun and water requirements. If your seed packets don’t give you this information, a quick Google search should work wonders. We’re in the process of compiling a rather large database of information that will let you know exactly what each species needs, but it’ll take us a little while to get all of that sorted out.
Have you had to amend your soil to suit different plants’ needs? Which techniques did you use? Please let us know in the comments section below!