I know what you’re thinking… TAP DANCING? How is that going to make me a better gardener?
While dancing in your garden is super fun and highly recommended, that’s not exactly the kind of TAP I’m talking about.
TAP stands for “Test, Amend, Plant”, and is the acronym I like to use to get a new garden started (or an existing one rebooted.)
I came up with this because many new (and even old) gardeners jump straight to the planting phase and then message me a few weeks later in a panic asking what’s wrong with their garden… and more often than not, they just got really excited and completely skipped the first two steps. It’s okay- I’ve been guilty of this too. After all, dealing with soil chemistry can sound like a lot of work! But it doesn’t have to be. (Plus, there are few things worse than spending lots of time and money on seeds or seedlings only to watch them underperform or worse, wither and die.)
And this is why learning to TAP is essential to gardening.
The first thing you should do when assessing your soil is test it. Testing is the easiest and best way to figure out what, if anything, is wrong with your soil’s NPK levels as well as your soil pH. If you’re working with existing soil in your yard, these are the bare minimum tests and will impact how successful you are!
If your garden soil is fairly consistent across all planting beds, you’ll want to take a sample from each one and thoroughly mix them together in a large clean plastic bucket. You can use something like this Tubular Soil Sampler (7″L x 1/2″Dia.) if you don’t have clay or hard-packed soil, but honestly? A long shovel and a good clean plastic bucket (not metal!) should get the job done, as long as you are getting samples 6-10″ deep from multiple locations. Make sure your soil is not soggy or too dry when taking samples. (Usually 10-15 samples mixed together will give you a good reading. However, if your terrain varies a bit, you’ll want to take and mix separate groups of samples for each planting area.)
If you choose to use a shovel, it’s helpful to mark the top soil line on the shovel with a piece of colorful tape so that your sample depths are consistent.
In order to do the actual tests, you’ll either need to send your sample in to a lab, or get an at home testing kit. The Luster Leaf 1601 Rapitest Soil Test Kit is a great affordable way to get your hands dirty in the world of testing and figure out your garden’s basic needs.
If you’re not a DIY person, I highly recommend finding and contacting your local ag extension office. I’ve been working with ours in Oklahoma for the last few months as I prepare new plots for spring, and they’ve done everything from very quick turnaround soil testing to letting me borrow soil core sampling tools to sitting down and talking with me about what amendments would be most helpful based on my test results, saving me tons of time and money in the process. (A basic sample through your local ag extension will run about $10-20; they can also test for salinity and other micronutrients in your soil, and sometimes even heavy metals or other contaminants if you live in an area where that is a concern.)
Once you have your results, here’s how to understand them:
pH: I don’t care what the other books say, as long as you’re amending your soil with a good, balanced, and fully composted compost every time you plant, most garden herbs and vegetables will grow well in soil with a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. If you’re using the home pH test kit listed above and your pH test result is orange, dark orange, or red on your home kit, you may need to add lime to combat acidity. And if it’s dark green, you may need to add sulphur to reduce alkalinity. You can also use compost or coconut coir in place of sulphur; I cannot recommend manure exclusively, as it tends to have too high a pH as well as increased levels of soluble salts, and DON’T recommend peat moss, as it’s a non-renewable resource that involves too much ecological damage during harvest to be worth it.
NPK: If any of these register as “deficient” or “depleted”, it’s time to move on to the next step.
Whether you have a window garden, a raised bed, or a full-blown backyard, making your own compost can save you a lot of money in the long run.
Worm castings are by far the best, most inexpensive, and most renewable soil amendment and fertilizer available.
If you don’t have much money or space but have a little time, I highly recommend making friends with someone who raises worms (or ordering some Red Wiggler Live Composting Worms on Amazon) and starting a worm compost bin. It’s easy and weird and fun and you can do it with old nursery flats outside or in a rubbermaid container in your garage or on your patio, plus you get to feel really smug for throwing less food scraps away. (If you’re just looking for a plug and play option to use that isn’t huge or hideous, I’ve been eyeing The Worm Inn for a while now as at 18×18″ it has the smallest footprint I’ve found, and may attempt a DIY of it at some point with an old duffel bag and some PVC. But please let me know how it works out if you decide to go that route!)
If you don’t have much time but have a little money, then I definitely recommend starting off on the right foot by buying the best bagged organic compost you can get your hands on, or if you are doing a very large space, ordering a truckload instead.
I also recommend boosting the nutrients a bit and increasing mycorrhizal activity (a fancy sounding word for the fungal filaments in the soil that help your plants’ roots absorb nutrients and water) prior to planting with any of the following additions:
Of course there are others you can use, but these are the ones that have been most successful in my own experience (and are honestly pretty dang cheap on Amazon right now and ship for free if you have Prime which is crazy!)
If you decide to choose one from your local garden center instead, just be sure to read the labels and err on the side of organic. Most amendments and nutrients will have the NPK ratios on the box or bag, which will help you choose the one that will boost the nutrients your soil needs the most (adding a balance of all three will rarely hurt anything, but it is easy to overdo nitrogen with synthetic fertilizers, which is why I don’t suggest them!)
You may want to test your soil again after amending and before planting, or if you feel like your calculations are correct, wait to test again until the end of the season and just get to gardening already.
Which brings us to the last bit:
By now you’re probably pooped, but don’t throw in the trowel just yet!
What you plant and where you plant it will be critical to your long-term success in every garden you build, and for future seasons, composting plus proper crop rotation and cover cropping will help to recondition the soil without you having to buy as many additives in the process.
In order to have the healthiest soil possible, we need to mentally divide our garden space even further, rotating our garden’s “givers”, “borrowers”, and “takers” between plots rather than growing them in the same space year after year, to ensure better disease and pest control while still providing variety.
“Givers” are plants that replenish the soil by fixing nitrogen, add active organic matter back into your soil, improve soil tilth, suppress weeds, and provide food for beneficial insects come springtime. (This link provides a wealth of information on what each giver will do for your soil if you’d like to dig in further.)
Examples of givers include:
Beans, Peas, Favas, Vetch
Mustards and Arugula
Forage Radishes and Turnips
Clover, Oats, Rye
“Borrowers” are herbs and vegetables that aren’t heavy feeders, meaning they don’t deplete the nutrients from the soil as quickly as some others you may want to grow.
Examples of borrowers include:
Other Root Veggies
“Takers” are many of what you’d consider summer veggies- they are heavy feeders by nature in order to produce their fruit in large quantities, and therefore cause heavy soil nutrient depletion.
Examples of takers include:
“Borrowers” can be grown at almost any time that your weather allows them to be: among givers when they’re first planted, after givers are tilled under, on their own while amendments are settling and adjusting, or even in between takers if you’re gardening in a compact space.
“Givers” are generally planted in the fall after “takers” have been harvested, and tilled under in the spring. Many “givers” are actually edible as well!
Ideally, each of the “taker” families should be rotated with the other two completely through your gardens’ plots before being planted in the first plot again. This way you’ll always have half of your garden in producing mode, and the other half of it in replenishing mode (and you can still eat from all plots, which is the goal of this dance, amirite?)
If this isn’t feasible where you’re at due to space or sunlight, just make sure that you amend your soil with some form of organic compost or nutrients (or grow and till under a “giver”/cover crop) before planting another heavy feeder in the same spot.
The interesting thing in this process is that it’s not like the nutrients and minerals that these “taking” plants deplete from the soil vaporize or anything- those nutrients literally stay put in the parts of the plant that you don’t eat throughout the rest of its life cycle. This is one of the main reasons why composting is so critical to a sustainable garden.
Well, I think that should cover most of your soil building bases until springtime. It may be a little too late to plant cover crops this year, but don’t despair! You’re prepared for the next season, and you still have plenty of time to test and amend.
In my next post, I’ll discuss how to select what to grow if you’re new to the game. Until then, don’t forget to TAP, and happy gardening, seedlings! <3
(The information above is a collection of excerpts from my unfinished book. If you found it to be helpful, please consider making a donation or buying one of the items through the Amazon affiliate links above. Every penny counts, and my dream is to buy myself enough time to finish writing and editing it so that I can help as many people as possible grow more of their own food. Thank you!)