Gardening Articles: Care :: Soil, Water, & Fertilizer

Soil Preparation for Root Crops

by National Gardening Association Editors

This part of gardening is the key to healthy root crops - you need to prepare a foundation for your plants just as you would for a house. If your foundation is weak, your house falls down. Your plants can fail, too, but you won't have to worry if you get your soil into good shape before you plant. Here's the formula for success:

First . . . pH

You should check the pH of your garden soil at least every couple of years. The most accurate reading is taken in the fall. pH is the measure of soil acidity or alkalinity, with 7 indicating neutral on a scale from 1.0 (most acid) to 14.0 (most alkaline). Root crops and most vegetables prefer slightly acid soil, with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8.

To test your soil pH, you can buy an inexpensive testing kit at a garden center, or send a soil sample to your County Extension office if it offers that service. The test may indicate that you need to add lime to raise your pH or sulfur to lower it. Just follow the recommendations accompanying the test results.

The Wonders of Organic Matter

Root crops are harvested for what grows down, not up, so they really need the best possible growing quarters - preferably soil that is loose, rich and loamy.

To achieve this ideal soil condition, work into the soil plenty of organic matter such as leaves, compost, grass clippings, garden residues or easy-to-grow cover crops like buckwheat, cowpeas or annual ryegrass.

Most of us have less than perfect soil, ranging from light, sandy soil that drains too quickly all the way to heavy clay soils that take forever to drain and warm up in the spring. Whether you work on a garden-wide basis or just improve the spot where your root crops will be, here's how adding organic matter to the soil will help:

Organic matter feeds the soil life that will in turn break it down into nutrient-rich humus. In sandy soil that doesn't hold moisture, organic matter will make the soil act like a sponge, holding moisture to nourish the expanding taproots. On the other hand, with a heavy soil that doesn't drain well, the particles of organic matter wedge themselves between the tight soil particles so that air and water can circulate better.

A word of caution about adding manure to your soil: try to get dehydrated or well-composted manure, because even aged manure contains some weed seeds. By spreading it over your garden, you may be planting extra weeds, and that just doesn't make sense! The heat process of dehydrating or thorough composting kills most of the weed seeds. If you can't get well-aged manure, use what you have, but stay on the lookout for weeds.

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