Monthly Archives: March 2011

The First Time Gardener: Getting to Know Your Soil

There’s no doubt that our soil is an incredibly important part of our gardening success, and there’s a lot that you can learn from your soil by doing a couple of simple tests. You can also learn a lot just by going out, feeling your soil, and paying close attention to what you feel! Here are 4 simple tests you can do in your garden to get to know your soil better.

Simple Test #1:

Pick up a handful of moist soil and form it into a ball. (The soil shouldn’t be dry or muddy to do this test.) Then gently squeeze the ball of soil. If it crumbles gently, it is probably a loam soil. If it doesn’t crumble at all, it probably is some type of clay soil. If you can’t get it to form a ball, it is probably either very sandy or too dry for the test.

Simple Test #2:

Take your ball of soil and moisten it a little more if need be. Now try to flatten it into a soil “ribbon.” Can you make a ribbon? If so, estimate how long it is. The longer your ribbon, the more clay in your soil. A loam soil will form a very short ribbon or no ribbon at all. A sandy soil…well, you couldn’t even make a ball, right?

Simple Test #3:

Take your ribbon/ball of soil from the first two tests, and break off a small piece. Pour a little water into your hand and massage the soil into a muddy thin paste (almost watery). Feel the thin paste. Does it feel gritty? That’s sand. Does it feel sticky? That’s clay. Does it feel smooth (but not sticky)? That’s silt. Depending on how much you feel one characteristic, that indicates how much of each of those 3 components is in your soil.

Simple Test #4:

Take about 1 cup of your soil and put it in a quart jar. Add a teaspoon of granular dish detergent if you have some. Fill the jar about 3/4 full with water, and put on the lid. Now shake the jar thoroughly so there isn’t any soil on the bottom. Set the jar down and set a timer for 2 minutes.  When the 2 minutes is up, measure the amount of sediment in the bottom of the jar with a ruler and write it down. After 2 hours, measure the amount of sediment again and record it. In 24-72 hours (whenever the water is mostly clear again), record the amount of sediment in the jar again.

The measurement you took after the first 2 minutes is the amount of sand in your soil. The amount of sediment that accumulated after 2 hours minus the first number is the amount of silt. The last measurement (minus the earlier measurements) is the amount of clay. Use those 3 numbers to calculate the relative percentage of sand, silt, and clay in your soil.

From there, you can plug your percentages into the Soil Texture Triangle to get an idea of what type of soil you have.

Using this chart, I would classify the soil pictured above as a Sandy Loam, with quite a bit of organic matter as well!

So why is it important to know what type of soil you have? What difference does it make if you have lots of sand, lots of silt, or lots of clay? You’ll have to check back next week to find out!

Planting Tomato & Pepper Seeds

Today was the day that we planted the tomato and pepper seeds for the Demonstration Garden. Thanks to the Pepper Garden, there are LOTS of peppers this year.

16 varieties of peppers, 12 varieties of tomatoes, 132 pots, 8 flats, almost 5 cu. ft. of potting mix.

Step 1: Fill the pots with potting mix, all the way to the top. I chose to use 3″ pots this year. It gets hard to keep everything watered as it is, without using smaller pots.

Step 2: Write out your labels and put them in the pots. We are using one label per pot this year. All the other systems always result in plants getting mixed up.

Step 3: Make small divots in the center of each pot (as deep as they need to be), and drop the seeds in. Cover the seeds gently and lightly.

Step 4: Water the trays gently several times to make sure that each pot gets thoroughly wet. (Sometimes it is easier to get the soil wet first, and then plant. That can make the seeds stick to your fingers though.)

Step 5: Place in a warm place under lights (or where light will be available in 2-5 days).

Step 6: Watch, wait, and keep the soil moist (not wet!).


It may be cold and drizzly and just downright nasty outside right now, but I for one am not going to complain.

According to the National Drought monitor, most of Kansas is either abnormally dry or into a moderate to severe drought. I’ll take any rain we get right now!

Friday PhotoEssay

We have things growing again in the garden, so it’s time to get back into the rhythm of doing a regular Friday PhotoEssay!

The warm temperatures pushed the crocus from leaves to blooming to finished blooming in a pretty short period of time this year.

I pulled up all those leeks and onions that we had planted in one of the raised beds over the winter. There was quite a bit of variation in size, as you can probably tell. They aren’t white (blanched) as high up as you would typically find, because we didn’t hill them up or mulch them. That’s rather difficult to do in the raised beds, and I really just wanted to see how they would do. I’m happy with how well they did!

The French Tarragon has really taken off and started growing fast. I think it came through the winter without a hitch. Mmm…Tarragon Chicken….

Some of the mint escaped from it’s semi-containing pot and is popping up elsewhere in the garden. Why am I not surprised?

Most of the radicchio that I planted earlier last fall and transplanted has recovered from the abuse of the winter. (It was under the plastic row cover.) It is showing some color, but not as much as I’d like to see. Maybe it will develop more color as it gets colder next week.

In contrast, this radicchio was planted about a month later and was under the fabric row cover all winter. It shows much better color development, but it’s going to have to grow fast to mature before it gets too hot/we need to plant something else in that spot.

Have a great weekend!


Planting Onions & Potatoes

We finally got the onions and potatoes planted in the Family of 4 Garden yesterday.

We planted 3 kinds of onions: Yellow Granex, Red Candy Apple, and Super Star White onions. All of the onions planted were transplants, so there’s a little bit of instant gratification in seeing more things growing in the garden right away.

The rumor that I’ve heard here is that you plant onion transplants if you want big onions and you plant sets if you want green onions. I’m not sure where that idea came from. I suspect that it may be easier to get large onions from transplants because our spring growing season can be so short. However, I think it is perfectly possible to get full size onions from both transplants and sets.We always planted sets growing up.

We planted the onions in rows about 4-5″ apart and the plants were 3-4″ apart within the rows. That means that in a 2 ft x 4 ft area, we have about 72 onions planted.We also put down a little bit of fertilizer, since onions need phosphorus to thrive.

Our potatoes are ‘Yukon Gem.’ This is a new variety that isn’t widely available yet, but I managed to find some seed potatoes from an online catalog. ‘Yukon Gem’ is an improved version of Yukon Gold. It supposedly yields higher than Yukon Gold and has better disease resistance. We don’t have any Yukon Gold to compare it to, but we will see if it turns out to be productive.

Planting potatoes is one of my earliest gardening memories, and generally a pleasant one. (Much more pleasant than the memory of hoeing potatoes, although that’s not really too terrible either.) The first step in planting potatoes is cutting your seed potatoes into pieces. If you look closely at the end of the potatoes above, you can see the divot in the end – that’s the eye of the potato. Each seed piece needs to have at least one eye, because that’s what will sprout.

It is also important that there’s a decent sized piece of potato along with the eye, because that will help feed the plant as it begins to grow. Yukon Gold and apparently Yukon Gem too are a little bit wimpy in the potato eye department. Other varieties have lots more eyes. We didn’t cut the pieces up as much as we could have, since we had 2 1/2 pounds of potatoes to plant a 4 x 4 foot area. Some people say that you have to let the seed pieces “heal” awhile before planting to prevent the seed from rotting. I’ve never done it that way and we very rarely had a problem with rotting. Your choice!

The seed pieces were planted about 4-6″ deep and 10-12″ apart. The rows were also about 12″ apart. If you do the math, that means we should have about 16 potato plants in the Family of 4 Garden.