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East Texas Ag News: Gearing up for spring planting

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Published: Jan. 7, 2022 at 10:37 AM CST
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LUFKIN, Texas (KTRE) - If you are reading this, it is obvious that your interest lies in your garden or landscape. Be it your lawn, flower beds, or vegetable garden, you couldn’t wait until nice weather days to get outside and work.

It was a week ago that, at last, our region had its first killing frost. Now, I’ve heard many say that we had a frost at the beginning of December. While that is true that we saw ice crystals on the windshields of our vehicles as well as some on the ground, rest assured that our tropical plants saw none of this.

It was this past weekend, fully into the new year, that temperatures got low enough to kill tomato plants that were still producing, as well as knockback tropical plants like banana trees and Canna lilies.

While agricultural producers watch and discuss the weather, they don’t have any control over that. What we can affect is our soil.

For the purpose of gearing up for spring planting, let us focus on the soil. Preparing your ground to grow vegetables can be an intimidating task. The soil you walk upon and dig in is full of minerals, nutrients, microbial activity, living organisms, and more.

Good garden soil needs to be well-drained, amended with organic matter, and possibly limed.

First, well-drained soil has everything to do with how quickly water will percolate through the soil. Many homeowners think that a sloping ground area that sheds water is well-drained. Not so. Water must be allowed to move into the soil and then move throughout below it.

A deep sandy soil, by nature, is very well-drained. Shallow topsoil over clay subsoil will often hold water for a while.

The question is often asked, “Can I just dig out a deep hole, fill it full of good soil and create a well-drained soil that way?” Digging a hole like that will only create a big bowl of clay that will still hold water quite well.

The solution is a raised bed. Whether in rows down your garden or landscape beds edged with timber, stone, or other items, raising the level of the soil, in which the desired plants will grow, should aid greatly.

Secondly, gardens always benefit from the addition of organic matter. That is so important that it bears repeating. All gardens benefit from the addition of organic matter.

Organic matter should be composted material. This compost can be from manure, lawn clippings, leaves or anything natural you can find. Many seasoned gardeners will till in leaves, pine straw, or other raw material into the soil months before it is to be used. This allows the soil to create its own compost. At this writing, I would advise new gardeners not to till in a batch of oak leaves as they may not have enough time to break down before your early planted crops.

Organic matter really is the miracle cure for bad soils. Is your soil too sandy? Add organic matter. Is it nothing but clay? Add organic matter. The benefits of organic matter to soil are too numerous to extol here. Suffice it to say, composted organic matter adds nutrients, increases water-holding capacity, improves soil structure, has numerous beneficial microbes, and prevents erosion.

Earlier this week I was visiting with my buddy Robert. He has a nearly three-acre garden in which he wanted to build up the organic matter. He asked me first about where he could cheaply purchase quality organic material by the 18-wheeler load. I countered that for a site that large he needed chicken litter and then simply grow a cover crop that he could till in.

First, chicken litter is a locally sourced, nutrient-rich, recycled, and natural product that could be used to build the nutrient levels in any soil. Honestly, any manure would work but savvy agricultural producers know that they can purchase chicken litter by the ton and have it applied to their land for a very reasonable price.

Second, planting a cover crop, at this time of year, implies planting a winter-hardy crop such as mustard greens, radishes, turnips, spinach, Austrian winter pea, or some other freeze-tolerant crop. The purpose of a cover crop is to grow a crop that is meant to be turned into the soil. This process simply takes the mineral nutrients that are present, converting them into organic matter, and then incorporating them back into the soil, thus building the organic matter in the soil.

Few gardeners have a three-acre garden, but the principles still apply. Build up the nutrients and organic matter. Then always keep something growing in your soil, regardless of if you even plan on harvesting it.

Let’s get outside and start messing in the dirt this new year.

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