Week 2: May 13-18 – Soil, Spinach, and Successful Compost


  • Soil types and testing
  • Compost types and quality

Summary of the Week:

  • Lessons and discussions on:
    • The different types of soil
    • The importance of soil testing
    • The benefits of compost
    • Spread buckwheat and clover
    • Planted a row of spinach
    • More weeding!

After seemingly skipping over spring altogether this year, a couple of cool, damp evenings reminded us of the diverse weather conditions common to gardening in Vermont. We started Week 2 with a lesson on soil and compost. Healthy soil is critical to the growth of your plants and overall success of your garden. A good place to start when trying to determine the general health and makeup of your soil is by conducting a soil test.  We learned that soil testing is important for various reasons. Soil tests can outline the status of important nutrients and elements such as calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. As we saw in the example soil tests during class, the results will tell you if you have a deficiency, good amount, or excess of the specific element while also providing you with suggestions on how to correct the levels to ensure your garden is successful and the soil is healthy for years to come. Soil tests are also important for urban gardening, especially in a city like Burlington with historic homes, to detect and determine the potential presence or levels of lead in the soil. As a result of lead being used in paints, lead can end up in the ground through runoff and other forms of contamination. We learned that to ensure the soil you use in your home garden is safe, you should have a soil test done. Do not worry if you find that your soil is contaminated because raised beds are often a solution to the problem. Soil tests are an important step in gardening that should not be forgotten or skipped because of their ability to show you what your garden needs and how to go about correcting the levels for optimal plant growth and ultimately a good harvest.

When analyzing your soil it is also important to determine the type of soil that makes up your garden. Soil can typically be made up of sand, silt, and clay. Ideally, the soil should a good mix of all three. Sandy soil can drain too quickly, while soil that is made up heavily of clay may not drain well enough. Also note that macronutrients are very important to the health of soil. The most important three are:

  • Nitrogen (N) – proteins, the transfer of energy, chlorophyll and photosynthesis
  • Phosphorus (P) – root growth, energy storage
  • Potassium (K) – photosynthesis, energy creation

To aid soil in its quest to be healthy and provide successful crops, remember the importance of compost. The importance of compost is outlined by Edward C. Smith in his book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, “Compost is the magic elixir that brings your soil to life and keeps it alive”. Compost can help plants fight diseases, stabilize pH levels, and feed the soil. Compost is also a great way to reduce the amount of waste taken to the landfill; it is much better to compost the waste at home and for the benefit of your garden.

Many aspects of this lesson and soil knowledge are highly technical and complex. For more information on the specific elements found in soil and their roles along with details on composting, take a look at chapter 6 or pages 119 to 155 in Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible. Another helpful website is http://extension.psu.edu/agronomy-guide/cm/sec1. Also, on that same website check out “Section 2: Soil Fertility Management” for more information.

After filling our brains with information on soil and compost, on Monday we picked up where we had left off with our weeding and transformed the garden yet again. With many hands, the weeding was quite effective. On Wednesday, after also learning all about the ins and outs of soil health, we spread a layer of buckwheat and clover as a cover crop along the teaching garden’s border with the other gardeners. Cover crops are a good way to help soil health and fertility. After raking the cover crop into the soil it was time for some more planting. In another joint effort, we planted a row of spinach in a shared plot. Soon the garden will be bursting with peas and spinach to share.

Denise giving a lesson on soil and compost as the sun sets on a chilly night.
Weeding the border of the garden before spreading the buckwheat and clover.
The buckwheat seeds waiting to be spread.
Raking the buckwheat into the soil.
Watering the row of spinach.

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