In the Garden:
Lower South
August, 2012
Regional Report

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Solarizing harnesses the heat of the summer sun to kill pests and weed seeds in the soil.

Summer is for Soil

Summer temperatures can be brutal, driving many gardeners indoors in search of air conditioned relief. The early morning and late afternoon to early evening hours become our "gardening time". This summer intermission is a time when the "to-do" list gets a little shorter. One item that moves to the top of the list is soil building and care.

Soil Building Strategies
There are several ways to build the soil over the summer months. Growing a cover crop of southern peas is one way. These legumes add nitrogen to the soil and the above-ground parts can be mowed down and rototilled in to add more nitrogen and organic matter.

Mixing organic materials into the soil is another way to build the soil during the summer. Manure, leaves, pine needles, old spent hay, grass clippings, or any organic materials that you have stockpiled or can get your hands on can be incorporated into the soil now. Mix it in a few inches at a time and then water the area well by applying an inch of sprinkler irrigation. In the moist, warm soil conditions, microbial activity will quickly turn these materials back into soil, releasing their nutrients over time.

By adding the organic materials now they will be mostly decomposed by the time the cool season crops are planted. Your fall gardens will thank you!

Finish your soil preparations by laying a surface covering of leaves, pine needles, or other mulching materials over the surface. This moderates soil temperature, avoids surface drying and crusting, and protects the soil from erosion should a heavy summer rainstorm pass through. When fall planting time arrives you can simply pull back the mulch in the planting area and the soil will already be prepared and ready to plant.

Solarizing the Soil
The blistering summer sun that turns your steering wheel and seat belts into branding irons can be put to use in the garden. Solarizing is the practice of covering the soil surface with clear plastic mulch to heat the soil and kill weed seeds and some of the disease organisms, nematodes, and insect pupae in the surface few inches of soil.

Prepare the soil for planting since you won't want to rototill or spade the soil after solarizing. This would just bring more weed seeds to the surface. Water as needed to moisten the prepared soil to at least a 6 inch depth. Water holds heat well. Then cover the surface with a wide sheet of clear plastic and cover the edges of the plastic with soil, boards, or bricks to prevent heat from escaping.

Now sit back in the shade with a glass of iced tea and imagine that you can hear the screams of a multitude of weed seeds, insect pupae, root knot nematodes and disease organisms as they cook to death in the heat!

It takes about four to six weeks of hot sunny weather to effectively solarize a section of soil. When it's time to plant, remove the plastic and set out your transplants and seeds, taking care to avoid unnecessary mixing up of the soil.

A little early morning work in the garden can go a long way in preparing your soil for a very fruitful fall season. Take advantage of the summer heat and put it to work for you in improving your soil!


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