Early on in my gardening years I thought gardening began with planting in the spring. Later, I thought gardening began with sketches of landscape plans in winter. But my long-time gardening and scientist husband has long known what it took me quite some time to truly understand: gardening begins with the soil and even the best-laid plans will not come to fruition it you do not understand your soil and amend it accordingly. Soil, not a season, is where gardening begins.
Getting the soil in your yard analyzed is the best first step to gardening effectively and efficiently. Not only is it easier than it sounds, but it is worth the time, for you will have fewer failures if you know what your soil is like and change it to meet the needs of your plants. Just go online to find out whether your state cooperative extension offers this service and follow the instructions. Virginia, for instance, offers this service for a nominal fee to gardeners in and out of state.Testing your soil is also a great opportunity to teach kids more about scientific processes: together you can hypothesize about the soil, collect samples to send in, read the analyses, and learn about soil chemistry. I can imagine an entire interdisciplinary project for kids based on discovering the complexities of soil and its crucial role in backyard ecology.
In addition to getting your soil analyzed, the best thing you could do for your soil right here right now would be to start composting. April is bringing higher temperatures to zone 7 where I live (finally!), which means the compost is breaking down faster and is almost ready to put into the garden. You can buy organic compost at the store, but it ends up costing a lot over time. Composting at home takes an up front investment, but it is a crucial first step to having rich organic matter to add to your soil to feed your plants. Moreover, composting your food waste means you are not throwing it in the trash; you are reducing your footprint by reusing this “trash” to create compost “gold” for the garden.
Composting with worms
No matter how big or small you want your garden to be this year (even if you plan to grow a single tomato plant in a pot) it would benefit from your composting. Whether you live in a one-bedroom apartment or a 5-bedroom house on some land, you should consider going out and buying some worms and a worm composter. Worms, you say?! Yes, you heard me right. Worms. Right now, we are taking a break from composting with worms, but we have in years past. I am seriously missing the rich compost tea they produce and they are on my mind because I hope to get more soon.
You can find worm composters (and worms!) online. I highly recommend a composter with a spout through which to release the liquid compost. Even if you live in a small apartment, you can store your worms under the sink and use the “tea” on your potted plants year round. The rules? Occasionally feed your worms light amounts of food scraps. Do not feed them meat, fish, cheese, or oily foods. Also, don’t put in really tough materials like avocado seeds and skins. It may take some experimenting. (We started worm composting do-it-yourself-style using a bucket from Home Depot and all the worms died. (Insert guilty sigh.)) We have also overfed worms. I recommend reading the material that comes with your worms with care, paying a fair amount of attention to how the worms respond to the feedings early on, and soon you will get into a simple rhythm. It will take very little time and energy before you will have your own worm farm. Kids also LOVE working with worms and can learn a lot in the process.
A composter is a receptacle where you put a combination of green material (like grass clippings) and food waste that break down together over time and become rich compost. Once it is totally decomposed, you mix it in with your soil. The compost does not have a foul odor if it is in balance and we have had no problems with critters in the compost.
We have a medium-sized garden (as well as 10 fruit trees, many berry bushes, and some flower beds), so we need a lot of compost and use a ComposTumbler. You should choose a composter that makes sense for the size of your garden, your budget, and your available space. (This company does make other sizes. My only complaint about ours is that I wish it were lower to the ground, but it is designed that way to save your back when turning it.) Other options include building your own. (This Old House has do-it-yourself instructions here and there is much more detailed information from the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s brochure “Making Compost from Yard Waste.” While we had good luck with this type of homemade composter in northern California, where we used to live, we are skeptical about how well it would work in the colder fall/winter months in northern Virginia.)
Now is a great time to start composting; spring is here! Before you know it you will be keeping trash out of the landfill, enriching your soil, and growing healthier, happier plants!