8

We recently purchased some land that is on the bench of the mountains covered in juniper trees and has a PH of between 7 and 8. We have cleared a good size area and I would like to amend the soil for a vegetable garden. I have read some interesting facts on Aluminum additives, sulfur, sulfate, epsom salt, a whole lot of blueberry info, and some random ideas for amendments. I have read that pine needles will lower the PH, and then later read that they won't if they're dried out and dead....and that it will take a long time. I have also read that lowering the PH is a waste of time and can't be done. However, I'm a firm believer in 'where there's a will, there's a way', and I don't give up easily. So...my question is, how can I immediately amend the soil for planting basic garden vegetables in the next few weeks? We just plant the basic tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, peas, beets, onions, and squash. I realize each of those has their own PH happiness level, but if I can learn how to adjust the PH, I believe I can make happy plants....hopefully.

Also, how can I test the soil for nutrients? Since this soil has been more or less untouched since the dawn of time, would my nutrient level be high. There is some native grasses that grow, sage brush, and, of course, juniper trees.....lots and lots of juniper trees.

Any suggestions would be great!

7

There's no particular reason to think the nutrient level would be high - the only way to know is to do a soil test - contact your local agricultural extension office and get a soil test kit, follow the instructions for collecting samples, send it off, then you'll know what you have and what you don't, and how much.

While blueberries are definitely out, many things should be OK, particularly if pH is nearer 7 than 8. If you want to tilt at blueberries you'll be committing to a serious acidification program.

Large quantities of animal manure (Horse is most often free in my area, others you may be able to get for money) is my go-to ingredient, especially if the pile of horse manure has been sitting for long enough that you can go dig from the older end where it's pretty well composted already. If it's fresh, take it home and pile it with any additional compost ingredients you can lay hands on to compost there. If you can find spoiled hay it's another good ingredient, though it can have weed seeds. Some folks go as far as buying alfalfa hay, cubes, or meal and use it directly as a fertilizer (bypassing the horse, as it were.)

If you are planning to remove the juniper trees, consider turning them into charcoal to use as a soil amendment.

If you have any areas you'd like to expand the garden into but not this year, plant cover crops there to till in and build the soil. If you have otherwise uncommitted ground, consider growing your own alfalfa (which likes slightly basic conditions) to cut and use as mulch/fertilizer on your garden areas.

  • Thanks so much for the input and as it turns out, I have 7 horses that happily provide a more than yearly supply of fertilizer. My only concern was adding weeds to an area that otherwise didn't have those, but I may give it a shot anyway. We also currently grow alfalfa, so I have some of that laying around as well as some old oat and barley hay that I was going to throw in. Blueberries are not a concern, but I mentioned them because almost all of the discussions about PH seemed to be about blueberries....although I would just like to produce an optimal vegetable garden. – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 16:26
  • Blueberries would be a nice bonus, but I'm not above being realistic, lol. We also have been burning the trees we cleared last year, so I'll definitely use that as well. You have been MOST helpful. Thanks again!! – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 16:30
  • If you are willing to put in some time turning the piles, it's relatively easy to "hot compost" horse manure and thus kill the weed seeds. It practically does it itself, but you do need to re-arrange the pile at least once so that the outside, cooler part is relocated to become the central, hotter part, so all of the seeds are killed. You'll get more benefit from the trees if you make them into charcoal rather than just burning them. A simple charcoal reactor is easy to make from a 55 gallon drum or two. – Ecnerwal Apr 5 '17 at 16:32
  • I didn't realize their was a difference between charcoal and just burning, lol. I will look into how to do that :) – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 16:39
  • You want to stop at charcoal, not burn all the coals down to ash. Ash may be counterproductive in an alkaline soil environment. You can even take the crude approach of dumping dirt on the fire when it's mostly burned down and then sift the coals out of what's left, setting any more woody chunks aside to re-burn with the next batch, but a nearly-sealed container makes it easier to just burn off the volatiles and be left with more charcoal relative to the amount of wood you start with. – Ecnerwal Apr 5 '17 at 16:43
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If you are gardening for fun not for profit, its not that important to focus that much on "PH".

Your land is unique. You can't come up with the perfect solution the first year. It will take time before you know what to plant and when and where. So you will have to make several tries and be a good observer.

  • If you can afford it, by a truckful of organic compost, and mix it with your soil - maybe 50-50? at least 20% of compost to make significant difference
  • If you have more time (what I would do in your place) is take a good rake, and gather all the humus that lies beneath your trees on the place you've chosen for plantation. Remove branches and stems that are not decomposed yet, remove rocks. If you come up with some earth rather blackish like compost you could by, then its something where vegetables will be happy to grow. Maybe not every vegetables, but most of them.

You must probably adapt the crop you'll plant to your landscape. There's a lot to (re)discover when it comes to Agroforestry.

  • 1
    We can buy compost from our landfill fairly cheap by the truckload, so that is certainly an option. I worry most about introducing noxious weeds that would otherwise not be there though. I bought some compost a couple of years back and ended up with some of the best cantaloupe and pumpkins that I've ever grown, only...I didn't plant them...they came with the compost....and we were just using it as ground cover between rocks, lol. I have also thought about gathering the dirt beneath the trees as it does look pretty good. Wish me luck and thanks so much for the help! – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 16:34
  • You were lucky. Compost from your landfill will not only have tons of weeds but tons of pesticide residues. NOT good idea for vegetable gardens – stormy Apr 5 '17 at 18:14
  • Yes, the pesticide thing freaks me out so I am really hoping to find completely organic options as well. – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 19:18
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I can offer up two suggestions to enrich your soil. The first option is to mix horse manure and chicken manure (3:1) in your existing soil. I use store bought manure but since you are planning to use fresh manure, I would be careful in terms of what vegetables you plant in them for contamination concerns. The second option is to use compost (homemade or bought from the store) and mix that with some vegetable fertilizer to enrich your soil. I have used both methods and they worked for my vegetable garden.

  • I think this year i will go with store bought just to be safe, but what kind of contamination should I be concerned about in using fresh? My dad has added fresh horse manure to his garden every year for the past.....well.....he's 82...so however long he's been gardening, and I always wondered if that was the best idea.... – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 19:25
  • Fresh manure is high in nitrogen and can burn or dehydrate your veggies. You want to compost them before using (throw them in a pile and add leaves/grass clippings) to the mix. It should decompost well and ready for use quickly. For meat eating animal manure, there are risks of parasites and E.coli from my reading on the web. I am not an expert but I prefer to play it safe. – JStorage Apr 5 '17 at 19:43
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    A fairly standard "bio-safety" recommendation is that manure (fresh) should not be applied with less than 120 days to harvest. Plant happiness is against fresh, period. Now, if it's been composting since the fall (i.e. your manure pile grows in a linear manner, so you can find "the old stuff") and you scrape off the outer foot or so as "possibly not cooked enough" you have a perfectly nice source of cooked, aged, composted manure, (already not fresh by more than 120 days.) And you can put that outer layer at the core of a pile of newer stuff, to cook it properly. – Ecnerwal Apr 5 '17 at 21:55
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You most certainly can change and SHOULD change the pH of your alkaline ish soil. I've done the same thing as I live in a high cold desert with volcanic pumice soil, little organic matter.

Definitely need a soil test that you can get from your Coop Ext. Service in your area. How did you get your 7 - 8 pH number? That soil test will also tell you what the chemistry of your soil or nutrients for plants.

First, I would make my garden beds so that you won't have to mess with the walkways and you'll be able to make some beds acidic for blueberries and acid loving plants such as potatoes. There are few plants that do well up at pH 8 however and it might not be that high anyway after a real soil test. Most plants do best at neutral or 6.5 to 7.0. If the test you've done is accurate after getting your real soil test then you've got a good method, you'll be needing to test your pH quite a bit.
. Lowering pH is tougher than raising it but totally doable. Sulfur is the best way and least expensive to lower pH. I wouldn't use aluminum at all for a vegetable garden, it is a heavy metal. Aluminum also messes with chemicals like phosphorous the plants need.

Sulfur is your best bet. Once you get your beds double dug and firmed such as mine in the picture you sprinkle sulfur on top of the bed. This is better than mixing it in as you are forming your beds so that you can control how much you are using. You'll be doing this when it is warm weather. If it is cold at night no big deal but the sulfur only works when it is 60 and above and when the soil has warmed. These beds are considered raised beds. No sides or support. As I make my beds the first and only time I am throwing DECOMPOSED ORGANIC MATTER purchased in bales of 2 cubic feet into the pile of soil that gets a good 3 to 4 feet high. Then I form the bed with a rake and get a piece of plywood throw it on top and jump up and down on it to get rid of air pockets. 3-4 feet is now down to a foot as you see in my picture. Then I decide which beds need to be acid such as that back bed with the blueberries and where I want to grow potatoes.

This is best done in parts versus going for the full number or one point lower than 7.0 for instance. The formula is 4 to 10 oz per square yard. I did 4 oz per square yard for the beds I wanted to reduce from 7.5 to 6.0. For the others I only did 2 oz per square yard to reduce from 7.5 to 6.5. This is only the first application which would be half of what is necessary by the books. Then I dig those trenches at the bottom that you see. These are to collect water as it trickles through your bed and they are slightly sloped to drain outside the garden. I go for 10" wide by 6 to 8" deep and throw the soil up on top of the beds on top of the sulfur. Rake to smooth and do the plywood jumping again. Water well, at least 4 to 6" deep. Best to use an oscillating sprinkler so that the water has time to soak in before the next pass of the sprinkler. Water every other day for a good 2 weeks. Test your pH again.

For most beds your pH should have dropped half a point and I would start planting in those beds. Your potatoes and blueberries should wait for one more application without being planted. Just easier. You could go ahead and plant if you have a short growing season. Based on the change of pH in your soil you observed from the first application. All soils are different such as a clay soil or a soil with lots of organic matter will need more applications and more sulfur than a sandy soil low in organic matter (such as mine). Temperature matters as well.

You need to let us know where you live, what your zone is and it would be nice to know the soil type. Grab a mason jar and put a cup of your soil and fill with water shake it up real well and allow to sit undisturbed for a day or two until the water is clear again. You'll be able to see the different percentages of sand and silt and clay as well as a little layer of organic matter on top. Sand on the bottom then the silt and last layer is clay then organic matter. Get your soil sent in following the instructions of the Cooperative Extension Service you use.

When that soil test comes back you will find your soil has very little of the chemicals plants need with which to make their own food through photosynthesis. This is because a virgin ecosystem, think of rain forests, have all the nutrients and chemicals plants need tied up in the living part of the system. Very very very efficient. As soon as something dies it is decomposed and then that decomposed matter is gobbled up by the life in the system. When forests are cut down by good old humans we are actually MINING the ecosystem and removing all of the nutrients and chemicals. Guess what? We are then relegated to REPLACING these chemicals or our crops will not do well. Your test should give you an idea of what is lacking in both macro (NPK) and micro nutrients such as calcium, molybenum, iron...boron...there are quite a few. Later you will learn how to tell when your plants have too much of a certain nutrient or too little just by looking. You'll want higher nitrogen for your leafy greens and lower nitrogen in relation to phosphorus and potassium for your tomatoes.

There are also pH UP and pH DOWN in liquid form now for your garden. I use that for my potted plants. Here I pot tomatoes, peppers so that I can treat them individually and move them inside to my little greenhouse at night. We have a hard freeze once or twice per month all growing season long, sigh.

Always use potting soil for pots and starting seeds in doors. Never use your garden soil in pots. Here is another place to use your pH tester (s). I always use 2 or 3 different methods to ensure one of the testers isn't malfunctioning. That is how important knowing the pH of your soil is. I congratulate you for caring at this level to set up your soil and garden! You must have gardened before or had master gardener training?

To add organic matter, after throwing it in for your initial bed making, just put it on top of your beds, after you've planted your starts and at least once or twice more through the season. This is the DECOMPOSED organic matter I get from the dang store. I have horse manure that I use for the winter and that has to be DECOMPOSED, DRIED OUT, NEVER FRESH.

Because herbivores eat lots of weeds and weed seeds there will be lots of weeds BUT if you dump 2" on top of your soil 2 or 3 times during the growing season you inhibit germination of those seeds. Smothers the weeds already growing. Weeds are the least of your worries in a garden. I just don't know why others get so wigged out over weeds, grins! And I've done this commercially as well, no problemo. No pesticides or herbicides...until later in the season but that is based on your area, your weather, if you have a polytunnel like the one I started out with in the picture...so not to worry. I use great fertilizer that is 'organic', low in numbers and has the micronutrients I need as well as certain bacteria and fungus necessary for 'happy' plants. Keep asking questions. We can try to help you not to make the same mistakes we did...new greenhouse over larger garden and same beds now 4 years old

btw; don't use manure or organic matter for 'fertilizer'. Great for tilth but you need to know what you've got to include micronutrients and pH.

..first garden in high desert pumice soil pH 7.5

  • I purchased a PH tester that has 3 prongs that stick in the ground. It's not probably the best, but it actually turned out as expected since our area has a history of being high in alkaline. I'm interested to know the nutrient level, so I'll be looking into actual soil tests for sure. We live near a plant that digs Azomite from the ground and sells it, and the terrain looks very similar, so I'm sure it's a long shot, but I would like to know if my soil contains these minerals or if I should go down the road and buy them. – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 16:52
  • Go buy them. Bagged sulfur is best and you'll know what you are getting. That is why I buy my decomposed organic matter as well so I know what I am getting. And my fertilizer!!! Best store is a Cannabis store that sells pots and books and starting and potting soils and other pH testing methods and GREAT fertilizers. I don't go to the grocery store for this stuff, grins. Lowes and Home Depot for stuff I know that is on sale? – stormy Apr 5 '17 at 18:21
  • Oh my gosh! You all are a wealth of information!! I live in Utah, btw, and am in zone 7...ish. For the most part that is accurate, but we do get extreme heat at times, as well as some late frosts in the area that I want to develop since it is near the mountain. I will certainly start working on the various items you have mentioned. I am in no way a master gardener, but have gardened for a long time. I am just looking to understand the process better and why sometimes things grow really well and others do not. I have done 'lots' of research, and have 'lots' still to learn :) – Sher Apr 5 '17 at 19:17
  • @Sher Somehow I knew you were in that area of the world. Hey, I get my seed potatoes from Colorado and they are WONDERFUL. The owner actually has a son who is a SOIL EXPERT. Let me get you their info; shoot...it is 'Potato Gardens'...I've talked at length with the owner and purchased some stuff to add to my newly acidic beds for potatoes...they call it ACTON 4-1-2 ORGANIC SOIL ACTIVATING LIQUID. You mix with water. Will help maintain acidity and give your soil more...LIFE that you have to have for healthy plants. I'll go find the phone numbers...I hate 'products' unless I've researched – stormy Apr 5 '17 at 19:46
  • And...sweetie, the more you know the more you know what it is you don't know. My goodness this is a field that requires an awful lot of know how, education, books. and spans so very many subjects. Tough to find decent advice and information on the internet!! – stormy Apr 5 '17 at 19:50

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