Published on 12/29/02

Spring garden preparation starts now

By Wade Hutcheson
University of Georgia

Ready or not, another year is gone. It's time to start thinking about the spring garden.

Specifically, think about soil-testing. Right now, your garden spot is at its lowest in regards to fertility. Soil-testing now will allow you to correct some problems in advance.

One problem with most gardens is acidic soil, or low pH. There is a scientific explanation about what pH is, but I'll forgo that and say that pH determines whether the plants can take advantage of the nutrients present.

If the pH is low enough, you can fertilize all you want but the plants can't take advantage of the nutrients. If it gets too high, the soil can become toxic to plants -- but that's rare.

Rule of thumb

A good rule of thumb is to keep the soil pH within a range of 5.8 to 6.5. This will work for most garden vegetables.

Low pH is a factor of our soils, environmental conditions and fertilizers. It's easily corrected by adding lime to the garden. But you need to know how much lime to apply, and soil-testing will provide that information.

The soil-test results will be only as good as the sample you submit, so take the time to collect a good, representative sample.

To do that, first determine the sample area. The vegetable garden should be one sample area, but you may want to sample turf areas, landscape and flower beds separately. Combine like areas such as front and backyard turf into one sample.

Collect the sample

Once the sample area is defined, you're ready to collect the sample. For each sample area, take eight to 10 samples and combine them in a clean, plastic bucket. Each sample should represent the same amount of soil from the surface to a depth of 4 to 6 inches.

Think of it as driving a pipe into the ground to the proper depth. What goes into the pipe is the individual sample. A shovel or trowel will work, but slice away the sides so an equal amount from surface to sampling depth is represented.

Mix all the samples together, discarding any rocks, roots or other debris, and break up large soil pieces. From all that, remove a large pint to submit as the sample.

Add some info

That, along with $5 and some information (name, address, crop grown) is all you need. Drop the sample by your county UGA Extension Service office, and the results will be mailed back to you, usually within seven to 10 working days.

The results are written in a user-friendly format and will indicate if any lime is needed and specific fertilizer information.

If it recommends lime, apply it as soon as possible, since it takes several months for lime to react with the soil and cause the desired change. Wait until planting before adding fertilizer.

Agricultural lime

Agricultural lime is widely available. It comes in powder or granule form. Either will work and can be broadcast using a spreader or the old-fashioned way, by hand.

The soil-test results are given in pounds per 1,000 square feet. Figure square feet by multiplying the sample area width times the length.

It may seem as if spring planting is a long way off, and by the calendar, it is. Preparing for spring planting, though, starts now.

By the way, if your tomatoes, squash, okra or melons suffered from blossom end rot last year, using lime will help prevent that this year.

Liming acid soils is one of the best things a gardener can do to improve yields. Soil-testing lets the gardener know how much to add. So don't guess. Soil-test.

For more information, contact the county UGA Extension Service office.

Wade Hutcheson is a county Extension agent with UGA Cooperative Extension serving Spalding County.