Gardening from the Soil Up- Study in Soil Health

Gardening from the Soil Up- Study in Soil Health

Gardening from the SOIL Up

Fredericksburg Gardeners Facebook Group September Monthly Meeting

I taught this class last spring at Herbal arts collective with Downtown Greens, 2018. This ebook is a partial understanding of our soil structure and ways to improve the health of our soil. Our gardens are only as productive as our soil, our soil is only as productive as the amendments we provide.

Analyzing your soil is key to understanding your soil health

The one summary of this information is – Organic Matter = Healthy Soil. Either you collect it from your lifestyle or you purchase it, without it environmental will reduce the nutrients and eventually strip the soil of the necessary microbes to sustain life and agriculture.


This is a basic understanding of soil health and improving your gardening soil for healthier vegetables.

The ebook, Gardening from the Soil Up, discusses:

  • soil quality
  • soil health
  • soil composition
  • composting Basics
  • basic garden pH

All gardens require soil…and this is the subject matter of this class.


You have a pre-existing garden and are looking to improve the soil, raised or inground beds.

Scenario #2

You are interested in starting a garden and are looking for a garden plan


  1. What is in our Gardening Soil?
  2. What can good garden soil do for our plants?
  3. What is soil?
  4. Determining Soil Health
  5. Composting Basics
  6. pH Basics for Gardening
  7. You can test your garden pH with vinegar and baking soda
  8. What is my Soil Texture?

“Soil is the building block of any productive garden, be it vegetable or flower. Vegetables and flowers require the gold standard of soil to start and maintain their health throughout the growing season.” Caroline Nicotera
  • We are in the Piedmont Region of Virginia and ZONE 7 for all gardening maps.




  1. What is in our gardening soil?

It’s often said that organic material in soil consists of:

“the living, the recently dead and the very dead.”

This is a helpful way to understand the processes that shape soil and make it fertile.

  • The living portion

  • of soil is made up of plant roots, and of the numerous microbes and other living organisms that improve soil structure by breaking down organic material.

  • The recently dead

  • components include deceased soil organisms, green plant material and fresh manures. They decompose readily, and release nutrients quickly.

  • The very dead

    portion is humus, the final residue of organic matter breakdown that’s important for soil structure and disease suppression.

For fertile soil, all three forms of organic matter should be present at all times.

Earth’s Pedosphere

The Earth’s body of soil is the pedosphere, which has five important functions:

  1. medium for plant growth
  2. means of water storage
  3. supply and purification
  4. modifier of Earth’s atmosphere
  5. habitat for organisms


  1. What can good garden soil do for our plants?

Good Amended soil will:

  • Reduce pests
  • Yield higher harvest
  • Support successive plantings
  • Have a higher microbe activity per square inch of soil
  • Allow deeper tap roots carrots, beets and potatoes


  1. What is Soil?

The word soil is derived from a Latin word solum meaning ground. Soil is a mixture of inorganic and organic materials, both of which are products of decomposition.

Inorganic component of soil is mineral constituents which are blended into the soil from breakdown of rocks, by fragmentation or weathering.

Organic Component of Soil is partially decomposed remains of soil organisms and plant life including lichens and mosses, grasses and leaves, trees, kitchen scraps and all other kinds of vegetative matter.

Soil can be defined as the uppermost crust of earth, which is mixed with organic material                          and in which animals, and microorganisms live and plants grow.


  1. Determining Soil Health

There are 17 elements that soil is made up of – 3 being the most valuable.

The 3 Most important elements are:

  1. Nitrogen– (N) 79% gas in the air. Nitrogen can also become available for plant use from organic N sources. Animal manures and other organic wastes can be important sources of N for plant growth. Nitrogen is the essential constituent of proteins, which plants need to fabricate the chlorophyll responsible for plants’ green foliage. (compost & manure)


  1. Phosphorus – (P) Phosphorous is the key element plants need for flowering, fruiting and rooting. You see this compound primarily in the form of bones (bone meal) Phosphorus is one of the three nutrients generally added to soil as fertilizer. One of the main roles of P in living organisms is in the transfer of energy. Adequate P availability for plants stimulates early plant growth and hastens maturity. Manure contains soluble, organic, and inorganic phosphate compounds that are highly available (Bone Meal)
  2. Potassium– (K) is critical for plant vigor as it regulates metabolism Potassium (K) is an essential nutrient for plant growth as it increases root growth and improves drought resistance. micas are minerals that contain most of the K. (K) is found in potash from ashes.


  • (fruit and vegetable compost)
  • Bury citrus rinds
  • Add wood ash
  • Add kelp meal or seaweed


  • Increasing soil moisture increases movement of K to plant roots
  • Air is necessary for root respiration and K uptake.
  • Root activity, plant functions, increases with optimum soil temperature for is 60-80°F.


What does 5-8-3 mean on a fertilizer bag?
The numbers refer to the percentage by net weight of total nitrogen (N; always the first number), available phosphorus (P; the second number), and soluble potash or potassium(K; the third number). In other words, a 5-8-3 fertilizer contains 5 percent nitrogen, 8 percent available phosphorus, and 3 percent soluble potash.


  1. Composting Basics-

The Composting Process

What is compost?

Compost is decomposed organic material, such as leaves, shredded twigs, and kitchen scraps from plants.

To gardeners, compost is considered “black gold” because of its many benefits in the garden. Compost is a great material for garden soil. Adding compost to clay soils makes them easier to work and plant. In sandy soils, the addition of compost improves the water holding capacity of the soil. By adding organic matter to the soil, compost can help improve plant growth and health.

Composting is also a good way to recycle leaves and other yard waste. Instead of buying peat moss, save money and make your own compost!

The Composting Process

The composting process involves four main components: organic matter, moisture, oxygen, and bacteria.

Organic matter includes plant materials and some animal manures. Organic materials used for compost should include a mixture of brown organic material (dead leaves, twigs, manure) and green organic material (lawn clippings, fruit rinds, etc.). Brown = carbon, Green = nitrogen. The best ratio is 1 part green to 1 part brown material. Shredding, chopping or mowing these materials into smaller pieces will help speed the composting process by increasing the surface area. If the pile has more brown organic materials, it may take longer to compost. You can speed up the process by adding more green materials or a fertilizer with nitrogen (use one cup per 25 square feet).

For piles that have mostly brown material (dead leaves), try adding a handful of commercial 10-10-10 fertilizer to supply nitrogen and speed the compost process.

Moisture is important to support the composting process. Compost should be comparable to the wetness of a wrung-out sponge.

If the pile is too dry, materials will decompose very slowly. Add water during dry periods or when adding large amounts of brown organic material.

If the pile is too wet, turn the pile and mix the materials. Another option is to add dry, brown organic materials.

Oxygen is needed to support the breakdown of plant material by bacteria. To supply oxygen, you will need to turn the compost pile so that materials at the edges are brought to the center of the pile. Turning the pile is important for complete composting and for controlling odor.

Wait at least two weeks before turning the pile, to allow the center of the pile to “heat up” and decompose. Once the pile has cooled in the center, decomposition of the materials has taken place. Frequent turning will help speed the composting process.

Bacteria and other microorganisms are the real workers in the compost process. By supplying organic materials, water, and oxygen, the already present bacteria will break down the plant material into useful compost for the garden. As the bacteria decompose the materials, they release heat, which is concentrated in the center of the pile.


You may also add layers of soil or finished compost to supply more bacteria and speed the composting process. (1 part green organic material to 1 part brown organic material).

In addition to bacteria, larger organisms including insects and earthworms are active composters. These organisms break down large materials in the compost pile.

How long does it take?

The amount of time needed to produce compost depends on several factors, including the size of the compost pile, the types of materials, the surface area of the materials, and the number of times the pile is turned.

For most efficient composting, use a pile that is between 3 feet cubed and 5 feet cubed (27-125 cu. ft.). This allows the center of the pile to heat up sufficiently to break down materials.

Smaller piles can be made but will take longer to produce finished compost. Larger piles can be made by increasing the length of the pile but limiting the height and the depth to 5 feet tall by 5 feet deep; however, large piles are limited by a person’s ability to turn the materials. You may also want to have two piles, one for finished compost ready to use in the garden, and the other for unfinished compost.

The surface area of the materials effects the time needed for composting. By breaking materials down into smaller parts (chipping, shredding, mulching leaves), the surface area of the materials will increase. This helps the bacteria to more quickly break down materials into compost.

Finally, the number of times the pile is turned influences composting speed. By turning more frequently (about every 2-4 weeks), you will produce compost more quickly. Waiting at least two weeks allows the center of the pile to heat up and promotes maximum bacterial activity. The average composter turns the pile every 4-5 weeks.

When turning the compost pile, make sure that materials in the center are brought to the outsides, and that materials from the outside edges are brought to the center.

With frequent turning, compost can be ready in about 3 months, depending on the time of year. In winter, the activity of the bacteria slows, and it is recommended that you stop turning the pile after November to keep heat from escaping the pile’s center. In summer, warm temperatures encourage bacterial activity and the composting process is quicker.



What to Use:

  • Leaves
  • Some manures (cow, horse, sheep, poultry, rabbit, llama)
  • Lawn clippings
  • Vegetable or fruit wastes, coffee grounds
  • Shredded newspaper or white, unglazed office paper
  • Trimmed plant materials
  • Shredded stems and twigs

Don’t use:

  • Meat or dairy scraps
  • Some manures (cat, dog)
  • Shiny printed magazine paper
  • Diseased plants or plants with herbicides applied



Tips for Starting a Garden:

  • Each garden requires 6 hours of sunshine.
  • Plant gardens 5feet + from trees, shade
  • Turn over garden soil, removing grass and weeds before planting
  • Raised beds control moisture levels and weeds better.


  1. pH Basics for Gardening-

“If your garden soil does not hover around pH7.0 — you have two options. You can either take measures to lower the pH, or you can choose plants well-suited to growing in acidic/alkaline conditions.

You can lower the alkalinity of your soil by adding organic materials like pine needles, peat moss, and composted leaves. You should always make small changes, over time -so make your soil amendments and wait for it to work before making any more.

“Raising the organic matter content of soil will usually move the pH of both acidic and alkaline soils toward the neutral range. This is because organic matter plays a buffering role, protecting soil from becoming overly acidic or alkaline. Finished compost should be the primary method you use to improve the soil with extreme pH issues.

7.You can test your garden soil pH with vinegar and baking soda

Collect 1 cup of soil from different parts of your garden and put 2 spoonfuls into separate containers. Add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the soil. If it fizzes, you have alkaline soil, with a pH between 7 and 8.


If it doesn’t fizz after doing the vinegar test, then add distilled water to the other container until 2 teaspoons of soil are muddy. Add 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes you have acidic soil, most likely with a pH between 5 and 6. If your soil doesn’t react at all it is neutral with a pH of 7 and you are very lucky!

Why Test My Soil?

Healthy plants should be able to get all of the nutrients they need from the soil.

But if your soil is too acidic or too alkaline, those nutrients won’t be available, no matter how much fertilizer you add.

Acidity has a strong effect on the ability of plants to absorb nutrients as well as health of soil organisms.

Most nutrients absorb nutrients best in soil solution ranges from 6.5 to 7.5.

pH Basics

pH is a measure of the acidity vs the alkalinity of the soil, and determines the capacity of that soil to exchange nutrients with plants growing in it.

pH is usually measured on a scale of 1-14:

  • A pH of 7 indicates neutral soil
  • A pH above 7 indicates alkaline soil
  • A pH below 7 indicates acidic soil

Not all plants are the same – different crops prefer different levels of acidity – for example:

  • Strawberries will yield well at a lower pH of 5.5 to 6.5
  • Carrots love balanced soils pH of 6 to 7
  • Sunflowers thrive in soils ph 7 to 7.5

Keep in mind that most annual veggies prefer a bacterially dominated soil, which is leaning towards a pH of 7 – 7.5

What can good garden soil do for our plants?

  • Increase the nutritional value of our produce
  • Increase the microbe activity in our soil which reduces the pest population
  • Encourage pollinating insects to visit
  • Discourage erosion
  • Encourage larger hydration and thus a greater output of oxygen from the plants, respiration/expiration.

Without good soil, a spiral effect occurs which there is no return until the soil is amended and a new crop is planted. Which is usually next season as fall is usually approaching when we decide to stop all efforts.

the success of your garden depends on making healthy garden soil. The more you can do to keep your soil healthy, the more productive your garden will be and the higher the quality of your crops.

8.What is my soil texture?

Silt – smooth like flour, not sticky or shiny. Clay – soft, shiny, sticky when wet, forms ball, stains hands. When clay is heated, it hardens to make bricks and pottery.

Soil type is generally classified by the size of these inorganic soil particles:

  • sand (large particles)
  • silt (medium-sized particles)
  • clay (very small particles)

The proportion of sand, silt and clay particles determines the texture of your soil and affects drainage and nutrient availability, which in turn influence how well your plants grow.

The ideal soil (or loam) has equal amounts of all three, making a fertile soil that is free draining and easy to dig. However, each type of soil has its own advantages as well as disadvantages and different varieties of plants are suited to different soils.

Sandy soils :

  • large particles and gaps between them
  • This allows water and nutrients to drain away freely, making
  • sandy soils less fertile than heavier soils.
  • Sandy soils tend to dry out in the summer but they warm up quickly in spring (allowing seedlings a good start)
  • much easier to dig than clay-based soils

Good for growing root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, but you may struggle with nutrient-hungry cabbages and broccoli.

Plants with shallow roots are prone to drying out as sandy soils lose moisture faster than heavier soils.

To make sandy soil less sandy, mix 3-4 inches of organic matter (like compost) into the soil


Clay and silt soils :

‘heavier’ soils – have small particles.

water is less likely to drain away but the soil is more likely to become waterlogged. raised beds can greatly improve drainage for clay soils.

Heavier soils are more fertile, but take longer to warm up in the spring and are harder to dig.

Cabbage, broccoli grow well, but root vegetables (carrots) are likely to struggle as they have to push through the heavy, often compacted soil.

The top four inches of clay soils often dry out completely in the summer months becoming almost like concrete. However, because clay soils are generally nutrient rich, have a high water-holding capacity, and can be very productive.

       Heavy clay soil will be improved with the addition of 2-3 inches of organic matter worked into it. Then add another inch or more to the top each year. Raised beds will improve the drainage and keep you from walking on it, which can compact the soil. Try not to till unless necessary.

Loam Soils: are “intermediate” between sands and clays and are the best of both worlds. They are usually fertile, hold water well but also provide good drainage, and are easy to work with making an excellent medium for growing most plants. Many wildflowers do best in a loam soil.


Minerals are roughly half of the soil in your garden consists of small bits of weathered rock that has gradually been broken down by the forces of wind, rain, freezing and thawing and other chemical and biological processes.



Share this information with a friend or peer gardener. The more we amend our soil in this Fredericksburg Area, the less garden pests we will encounter like Squash Bugs and Mildew. Strong soil repels pests.

Reach out to a gardener on our FB page and encourage them to download this book.

Best of Gardening,

Caroline Nicotera

Moderator for Fredericksburg Gardeners Facebook Group

Owner Terra Stone Organics

Terra Stone Organics

Terra Stone Organics is a natural soap company, located in Fredericksburg Va. Est. 2016. Our artisan soap studio uses only the purest vegan oils and botanicals in our recipes. Our process of infusing herbal botanicals into olive and coconut oils is mixed with other skin loving properties to reduce wrinkles, moisturize dry skin & rejuvenate sun soaked skin. We produce Goat’s Milk and Vegan soaps, Spa Bath Bombs and Body Lotions. Most of our botanicals are local to Central Virginia and from our own gardens. Presently we are expanding into online, creating content for our clients and sharing the love of pure skincare without harsh chemicals and preservatives. Feel the Difference….

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