The first detail to address when discussing the first stage of soil fertility management is pH. Why? Because the best time to amend pH would be during this initial stage.
At this point, the land is undergoing land preparation or earthworks (namely plowing and opening new land from sod or field).
But What Is pH?
pH is a measure of the soil’s acidic or alkaline nature. It plays an important role in determining which plants can grow in a given soil.
Most garden plants prefer a fairly neutral soil (around 6.5 to 7.5 pH). On the other hand, some annuals (like potatoes) like their growing environment more acidic. Same with some perennials, such as blueberries.
You can take an acidic soil and make it more alkaline through various amendments. Lime is particularly popular.
Overall, adding organic matter to soil helps buffer soil pH and will keep it more constant and balanced. If your soil is very acidic (under 5 pH) and you want to garden in it, you may very well need to amend your soil.
However, my main advice on this for the small plot grower is three-fold.
1. Do a Soil Test
First, do a soil test before you buy or open new land. Determine what the pH is, as well as the soil texture and fertility availability for macro and micro nutrients.
2. Amend & Adjust
Then, you can easily amend for nutrient availability, and adjust the pH slightly to bring it into an ideal range.
A great way to do this is with composted manure, cover crops, composts and micro-nutrient blends.
3. Work with Your Soil
It is best not to fight your pH. If you have very acidic soil, then use that land to grow crops that are suitable to that pH. Otherwise you will amend it forever and never really win the battle.
Grow what your land wants to grow, not what you decide it should grow. If you have your heart set on growing certain crops, then find land with suitable soil.
It’s way easier than trying to force random land and soil to be what it is not.
Other Factors in the First Stage of Soil Fertility Management
The first stage of soil fertility management occurs when we open new ground for the first time. This stage offers a few opportunities that I recommend growers take advantage of!
Use Manure (but Plan Ahead)
First, I advice you apply a less expensive and much more fertile manure. But know that you’ll be working with ground that won’t grow any vegetables for at least 365 days. This meets the wait time needed for regulations between spreading manure and growing food.
Also, if you bring in weed seeds (which is likely) on fresh manure (or even one- to two-year-old manure), then you will also have ample time to cultivate or cover crop the area.
This will remove weeds before forming garden beds in stage two.
Manure is rich in nutrients, many of which are soluble and plant-available. Not so with many dry compost mixes that are lower in nitrogen, with more mineral nutrients mixed in. These soluble nutrients can be put to good use in stage one by activating decomposition rates of the new sod or field plants that have been plowed under.
Now’s the Time to Cover Crop
Adding cover crops will smother the weeds, as well as actively uptake nutrients available in the manure. In turn, this “fixes” the nutrients as cover crop roots, stem and leaves. The process can contribute a lot to the newly forming soil organic matter.
This conversion is highly beneficial. The organic matter is a great long-term source of nutrients that are stable—they won’t be lost to the atmosphere, leached into ground water, or eroded in heavy rain. Organic matter is also easily converted into soluble nutrients available in the soil water solution.
It’s All About Holding & Releasing Nutrients
The increased micro surface area of well-formed soil aggregates with good amounts of organic matter contributes greatly to the soil Cation exchange capacity. What’s that? Basically, it defines how well soil can hold onto many different nutrients (calcium, potassium, phosphorous, iron, nitrogen, zinc, etc.) and then release them into the soil water for plant to use.
So, essentially, stage one is great opportunity to use manure as a soil fertility amendment because we can maximize its soluble nutrients to build great garden soil from the get go. And we can avoid any pathogenic dangers from animal waste, which wedon’t want on lettuce.
Also, we can deal with weed seeds that we don’t want to proliferate in our finished garden beds.
Both of these obstacles are managed easily through time, cover cropping and cultivation before and as we enter stages two and three of garden transition and fertility management. (We’ll look at these in my next article.)
A Good Time to Fine Tune Your Soil
You can also address major discrepancies in certain trace nutrients at this stage. For instance, many soils are devoid of Zinc.
You can improve this with amendments that, at this stage, balance nutrient shortages in sync with adding composted manure and cover cropping.