By Cynthia Brian
“As I farm the soil which yields my food, I share creation. Kings can do no more.” Chinese proverb
“Dirt - $5.00!” the sign read in a corner shop in New York City. At age nineteen, this was my first trip to the mega metropolis paved in concrete and blacktop. Hard times had hit our farm in California because of the drought combined with the low prices wineries were paying grape growers. I ran to the nearest pay phone to call home. “ Daddy”, I shouted in the receiver, “I found the solution to save our ranch. DIRT! Here in New York City, five-pound bags of dirt sell for $5.00. We have 368 acres of the brown stuff. I think we hit pay dirt!” My Daddy chuckled. “There’s dirt and then there’s soil, “ he responded.
Potting soil, topsoil, peat, compost, mulch–all are different compositions of soil mixes that can be purchased in garden centers to increase the texture, aeration, and nutrient concentration of your own backyard dirt. The best soil is a loamy soil because it contains a balance of sand, silt, clay, and humus. Without good soil, you’ll never have a great garden, no matter where you buy your plants or how much you spend. I like to compare soil to building a house. You can design the most beautiful structure, but if you have not built a strong, solid foundation, the building will not endure. Even with excellent construction, a house still needs regular upkeep including painting, cleaning, re-roofing, gutter cleaning, water-proofing, termite inspections, and more to preserve its integrity. Our precious dirt requires the identical maintenance.
After years of growing, the soil in our once lush gardens is depleted of nutrients. Crop rotating, mulching, composting, amendments, and soil replacement are necessary. Fall is a great time of year to determine what kind of soil you have. Fill a small jar with soil samples and leave it settle overnight. The next day you will see distinct layers with sand staying on the bottom, silt in the middle, and clay will be on top. Once you see what percentage you have of which type (and in our area, most likely you’ll have mostly clay), you’ll be able to purchase the correct “dirt” to fix your garden. The optimum is a consistency that when rolled in the palm of your hand will be a bit gritty, smooth, sticky, dry, soft, crumbly, and dark like chocolate cake. As soon as you start increasing the health of your soil, you will start seeing results.
Since I focused on soil amendments and cover crops in my last issue, you may wonder why I am again preaching the benefits of nutrient rich dirt. Many readers contacted me after that article was published to complain about the lack of a bountiful vegetabler harvest. The number one question was “Should I replace my soil?”
One gardener with a bushel of practical knowledge when it comes to maintaining great soil to reap great crops is publisher of The Lamorinda Weekly, Andy Scheck. His tomatoes and zucchinis are so plentiful that he cans twenty pounds in an evening, drinking the sweet juice as he goes. I finally caught up with this busy man between videotaping the politicians, printing the latest newspaper, and, of course, puttering in his garden.
Interview with Andy Scheck
Cynthia: What is your secret to growing a great garden?
Andy: As you know, Cynthia, working the soil is the most important work you can do for your garden. We compost and maintain the compost regularly to “harvest” soil twice a year.
Cynthia: Can you explain how you compost?
Andy: When I came to California from Germany I bought a chipper for composting. Kitchen scraps, weeds, flowers (except for roses because they have thorns), leaves, and grass are chipped. I water it occasionally and then let it sit for four or five months. Before I use it, I add chicken manure, Monterey beach sand, and two bags of regular gardening soil. It makes a nice mix. When it looks and feels ready, we “harvest” this new soil and spread it around the yard. I get about twenty-four cubic feet each time.
Cynthia: Have you always gardened, Andy?
Andy: I did a little gardening when I was living in Germany. When I was nineteen, my uncle bought land and he taught me to garden. We grew mainly lettuce, potatoes, and strawberries.
Cynthia: Tomatoes are one of your favorite crops and you grow ample amounts. Lamorinda isn’t the best area for tomatoes, how do you do it?
Andy: First of all, as I already stated, I compost and enrich the soil twice a year. I irrigate with drip, which helps to keep down the weeds. For my tomatoes, I keep only one stem, letting the stem grow tall, breaking off any leaves that are close to the ground to keep the plants clean and disease free. If a leaf turns brown, I cut it off. Lots of sunshine and air circulation are key to success. My gopher barrier has also been successful because gophers are smart. It’s important that every corner is wired. We harvested over two hundred pounds of tomatoes this season and we’ve been eating them from July through November. There is nothing better than this!
Cynthia: What about your giant sunflowers?
Andy: I can’t take credit for the sunflowers. Last year Eric Dausman gave me some plants he had grown from seeds. I planted them and grew gigantic sunflowers. I was lucky to capture a photo of a squirrel dining on the sunflower “balcony”.
Cynthia: Any final tips for our readers?
The best part of gardening is being in nature. Everyday we spend at least twenty minutes walking around the garden seeing what’s new and changed. We become one with the garden. Gardening is a huge pleasure. We eat berries for breakfast, add cucumbers to our salads, eat tomatoes right off the vine, and experiment cooking zucchini in many different ways. Everything is healthy, and tastes better fresh. And I like being green, knowing we are doing our part to keep pollution at a minimum.
Cynthia: Thanks Andy for all this useful information. All gardeners enjoy sharing their bounty and we benefit from your experiences.
How does your garden grow? Follow Andy’s tips and you’ll be smiling this time next year.
Happy Gardening to You!
The Goddess Gardener
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