Garden Variety: Chemical Dependency

By Jennifer E. Beaver

Though it’s only February and technically more than a month till spring, fresh garden ideas are singing their siren songs. They trill from seed catalogs, beckoning you to grow some oddball lettuce. They waft hypnotically from nurseries and big-box stores and you suddenly find yourself contemplating some frilly six-pack or a five-gallon citrus.
Okay, stop a sec and stick in the earplugs. Don’t buy another plant or seed pack until you read this. Unless your garden is producing near-perfect produce and show-stopping blooms, it’s time to think about your soil. Why? Unless you know what your soil needs, you’ll never get the garden results you crave.
It pains me to say this, it really does. When it comes to gardening, no one is a bigger sucker for immediate gratification than yours truly. I really don’t want to stop and figure out my soil needs, which is why I have Lilliputian beets and lackluster roses. And the supplement part? That potentially involves chemistry, which is so not my favorite subject. I thought I had left that all behind in my junior year of high school when smitten lab partner Dave Lubar kindly walked me through a jungle of test tubes and Bunsen burners. I owe my passing grade more to miniskirts than to an understanding of the subject matter.
Soil analysis and supplementation is a long and complex story, but we’re going for the Cliff’s Notes version here. There are two relatively simple ways to go about it.
Don’t want to analyze? Go straight to compost, a nutrient-rich mix of decayed organic matter that also improves drainage. It’s impossible to use too much of the stuff, but it may be hard to get as much as you’d like. Long Beach offers free composting workshops and discounted bins every third Saturday (longbeach-recycles.org). Homemade is superior to store-bought, which may be moldy, ineffective and lacking in nutrition.
The second alternative is a soil test kit like the highly rated 1601 Rapidtest Soil Test Kit from Luster Leaf ($13.48 on Amazon). This one is simple and has enough stuff to let you test your entire yard for levels of ph (alkalinity/acidity) and NPK, those mysterious letters listed on fertilizer bags. NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (the K stands for kalium, Medieval Latin for potash). Nitrogen greens leaves and helps them grow. Phosphorous nurtures roots, blooms and fruit while promoting disease resistance. Potassium adds strength, color and flavor. The kit includes instructions for amending your soil.

Jennifer E. Beaver, a Wrigley resident, is a master gardener and author of Container Gardening for California.

Garden Variety

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