Get your soil tested. How many times have you heard that bit of advice and thought why bother? Soil is soil. Well, I'm here to tell you that it is important. And I know this from the humbling experience of not heeding my own counsel.
I've been working on the vegetable garden at the Garden Home Retreat all summer. We've graded the slope, added retaining walls, built a series framed beds and filled the beds with a blend of compost, sand and soil.
By mid-summer we were ready to plant the framed beds. I wanted a lot of color for fall so we sowed seeds for cosmos, sunflowers, zinnias, and amaranth. The temperatures were so hot the seeds germinated in a record two days.
Unfortunately, those two days of sprouting were about all the seeds had to offer. They just never really took off. It was an "almost" garden filled with spindly, pale plants that never fully reached their potential. Certainly not the endless waves of blooms I had envisioned.
The stunted growth and chlorotic or abnormally yellow foliage were clear indications of a lack of nitrogen. That's when I knew that I needed to get the soil tested and eat a little crow in the process. I hadn't followed one of the primary rules of gardening: know your soil.
So with hat in hand I took three soil samples. Two from the beds and one from the compost pile. The samples were taken at a depth of about 4 inches with a cup or so from each location. Labeled and sealed they were sent off to a soil analysis lab.
Within a few weeks I had my results. As it turned out, the compost was the culprit. Healthy compost should be an equal blend of green, nitrogen rich clippings and brown, carbon rich material such as the autumn leaves. My compost was undercooked so to speak. The brown elements had not fully broken down, so it was an unbalanced blend. When I mixed it into the soil the compost needed nitrogen to complete the decomposing process, so it drew it away from my emerging seedlings.
So now I knew the problem, what was the solution? I had to apply an organic source of nitrogen. The consultants at the lab suggested pelletized blood meal at a rate of 10 pounds per 1000 square feet. Pelletized blood meal won't drift like standard blood meal, so there is less risk of inhaling it during application. The blood meal was broadcast over the beds and then raked into the soil.
As for the rest of the compost pile that was delivered, but not mixed into the beds; it fixed itself. Once the brown elements fully cooked, the material stabilized and now it is safe to use in the garden.
When I started this project I knew there would be plenty of lessons to be learned. What I didn't know was that I would be tested on some of the things I already knew!