Here’s a guide to improving your Florida garden soil

As gardeners, we are challenged. Florida’s soils are mostly made up of sand. Most of the plots are filled with earth when the house is built, which creates additional challenges. But no matter what you grow or where you grow it, nothing is more important than your soil.

Good soil can provide good drainage, nutrients, bacteria that fight nematodes, and organic matter that traps water and nutrients. Sand doesn’t do any of these things well.

It is for this reason that most gardeners buy soil or soil improvers. However, this is not easy. If you’re coming from other places, some of the floors that worked there might not work as well here.

If like me you used to be ambitious, you can buy compost soil by the cubic meter, have it dumped in a truck, and then push the earth to its destination in wheelbarrows. But most of us buy the earth by the sack.

Sagged topsoil has no legal definition and can come from any location, including the bottom of a retention basin or soil from deeper layers filled with heavy metals. The key is to avoid buying it if you don’t know what it is or where it is from.

When adding soil to the soil, the goal is to add composted organic matter. This is plant and animal material that rots to make the nutrients it contains available to the plants. Some people like to use animal manure. Be careful not to use fertilizer from animals that have been fed forage from fields that have been treated with some herbicides, especially vegetables. The herbicides are now also effective in plants such as beans and tomatoes. Some herbicides have long half-lives and can reverberate in the soil for a long time.

For container mixes, gardeners need soil that will hold back just enough water, but not too much. The correct amount will depend on the plant that will be planted in this container. There are special mixes for succulents, cacti, African violets and orchids. However, if you’re growing annual plants, vegetables, or perennials, you just want soil that has water and nutrients in it long enough for the roots to use. You want well-drained soil.

Many of the mixes available on the market contain chemical fertilizers. I wish they didn’t but they are unlikely to listen to me. Since planting can damage roots, fertilizing salts can further damage the roots. Many gardeners I know plant and then wait for them to grow before adding fertilizer. This is difficult with the fertilizer that is mixed into the potting soil.

I’m not sure how much fertilizer is in these mixes. Otherwise they usually drain well and that is often a big problem with bottled potting soil mixtures. They are usually rated well.

If you buy a bagged mix and find that a handful is moistened, your plant roots will not do well in that soil without some manipulation.

Unfortunately, the bag soil will become damp and you cannot predict this from the bag or label. But you can fix it. All you have to do is add some pearlite or vermiculite. Perlite is available from nurseries. It’s an overheated mineral that holds space in your potting soil and provides the drainage your plant roots need. Vermiculite is also a mineral with a smaller texture.

Given the different types of organic material on the labels of some potting soil – from bat guano to chicken litter to cow dung – I want to remind you that it is always advisable to wear gardening gloves when working with potting soil and in the garden. Organic material doesn’t just consist of cottonseed husks, seaweed, and pine products.

Several of my fellow gardeners have mentioned over the years that their floors have become water resistant or hydrophobic. The water rolls off and runs off. This also happens in nature with earth in the ground.

You can overcome this by using a commercially available wetting agent product or by dissolving a bar of castile soap in a bucket of water and pouring it over the bottom. Do not use dish soap that contains elements that will damage your plants. The wetting agent breaks the tension on the soil surface and allows the water to penetrate.

When you have deciduous trees in your lawn, you have a wonderful resource that will pay off. As these leaves filter down to the ground, they give us the opportunity to absorb the nutrients in the leaves. The leaves decompose over the winter months, leaving behind the nutrients the tree worked so hard for. Instead of bagging them and leaving them on the curb, why not wrap them around your plants? We run them through the lawnmower to shred them a little. It accelerates the decomposition. You can toss a layer of pine bark or pine straw over it if you’d like. It will keep them in place too.

Composted materials don’t stop here. The process of breaking down compost and feeding the microscopic organisms in your soil is endless. But also gardening. And that’s good. You need to keep feeding the microorganisms that are helping your plants.

Becky Wern is a Master Gardener Volunteer at Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida / IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer .

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