The Food Sustainability Project: Bad Soil? No Problem – Part 2

HoopHouseIn late October of 2013, some  youth volunteers with the Southport Presbyterian church along with their ministers came to my home as part of an FHL Kindness Day and helped  me on this idea I had of getting more self-sufficient and less dependent on commercial food production.  Along with a compost bin from some free pallet wood, they built me a raised bed and hoop house so that I could expand my container garden, both in space and season through the winter.   Now that I had more room to grow, where was I going to get viable (and affordable) soil?

What kind of soil do you have to start with?

We filled it with  some compost I had started, leaves from trees that were cut to expose the area to more sun, and finally layered it with dirt and top soil from the surrounding forest ground to about a foot deep.  I’d had experience in previous years trying to grow with the soil there “as is” without much success.  Its one of the reasons I switched to container gardening and using store bought bags of top soil – some of which I had gotten at a discount as the bags had been torn open.  I knew that the problem with the soil I  had, had  a lot to do with the pH level.  And I was aware there were kits to test the pH. Beyond that, I thought it was going to be a huge cost to gets bags of top soil (or having a truck dump some in ) and bags of manure compost to “fix” the soil problem.  Needing to keep costs down, this time I was determined to find out what I could do to improve my chances of having a better growing season using the soil I already had.  What did I actually need to  put in the soil I already had to make it work?

What can a soil report tell you?

That’s when I decided to call our Purdue Extension agent which you can read about here and get some guidance on what to do.  From the fact sheet Julie provided, I decided to contact A&L Great Lakes Labs out of Fort Wayne, IN.  It only took a few days to get my soil tested and the report back.  Below is the detailed report (with my notes).


As you can see by the panels, the soil is analyzed for the components it already has in it both numerically and graphically to make it easier for lay persons to read.  The “what’s missing” panel is the Annual Nutrient Requirement panel given both in pounds per 100 sq ft and 1000 sq feet.  These labs do testing for both home gardeners and large scale farmers.   In the panel below that is what you “need to add” – the Suggested Fertilizer Application – your NPK ratio.  NPK stands for the three elements that make up most fertilizers: Nitrogen (Urea), Potash, and Sulfur.  All of these elements are graded or given 3 numbers to indicate the application amount needed.   For my soil, I needed a 46 -0-0 application of Nitrogen and a 0-0-60 application of Potash.   That didn’t sound so bad, but then I started reading the comments section below that.  It turned out that I also needed that third element in the NPK fertilizer trio: Sulfur.  Why?  Because my soil pH was high meaning that it was too alkaline for the type of garden I was going to plant.  Most vegetables love the ground to be slightly acid.  So a pH of 7.0 or less is going to be a very friendly environment for them.

Wanting to do this up right, I called our local Worm’s Way rep, Mike, who suggested I bring the report along so he could take a read and get exactly what I needed.  The total cost of getting what I needed was a bit more than I had anticipated (about $37) but it was explained to me that I could get numerous applications out of the purchase – my garden would only need cups instead of pounds of each.

Math (not included)

Once home, I was anxious to get going!  But after reading the bags more closely, I discovered the application rates were not quite the same – they were close enough though that all it would require was a little math.  Its always good to get another pair of eyes on these things so –  I called A&L labs back, this time getting Jamie (see note at top of report) who helped me calculate out precisely what I needed for my garden plot: 2 lbs of sulfur, 1/2 lb Nitrogen, and 1/4 lb of Potash – as you can see from my notes and the dimensions of the garden plot. Recall that I was told I wouldn’t need pounds but cups and that’s why there’s a pound to cup ratio on each bag.

So now our Food Sustainability Garden plot soil is prepared and the nutrients are working their way into and enriching the soil so that when planting season begins in the late spring it will be ready!

Next time we’ll cover how to train your flock to forage and come back to the coop so you can get some work done. Also, we’ll cover ducks and their care as well as finding ways to improve chicken housing with what you have on hand.

One Response to “The Food Sustainability Project: Bad Soil? No Problem – Part 2”
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  1. […] remember that last year I started with a brand new plot with not so great soil.  But with help from the lab, the soil was improved and I got a bumper harvest of turnips, […]

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