ask-ruth-pictureDear Ruth,

My garden was just OK last year. I harvested some vegetables, but not that many. Some of my plants weren’t growing very much, and my friend thought they needed fertilizer. I want to do better next year. Do you have any suggestions?

Arden, NC

Dear Fred,

Here’s the deal. I hope you won’t feel discouraged, because every year that you garden, you learn a little bit more about something. Your garden will reflect what you learned the previous season and therefore should show steady improvement annually. Even veteran farmers are always learning new tricks and trying out ideas for the first time.

The summer was very dry for most of us, and vegetables require about one inch of water per week. If you were not watering your garden, at least occasionally, that may have been your main problem. Plants that don’t receive adequate water are operating in survival mode, not in maximum production mode. Next year consider investing in some sort of watering devices…soaker hoses, drip irrigation system (excellent for water conservation), sprinkler, or watering can. Water deeply once or twice a week (unless you have tiny baby seedlings), rather than shallowly every day.

If you did water religiously this year, then you may have had some sort of fertility problem. When preparing a bed for planting, I incorporate compost into the soil, plus I like to add some of my worm-casting to each planting hole. If my garden plants start to look “lame” as the season progresses; I usually side-dress or foliar-feed them with some sort of organic fertilizer. Granular-type organic fertilizers should be gently scratched into the soil. This keeps the nutrients from washing away in the rain and directs them to your plant roots. I also use a Seaweed/Hydrolyzed Fish Blend for foliar-feeding, and sometimes as a drench. To foliar-feed your garden plants, mix the product with water as directed by the instructions, and then use a spray bottle (small scale), pump sprayer (bigger) or a backpack sprayer (bigger yet) to apply the fertilizer. Coat the leaves well on both sides if possible. The plant will absorb the nutrients through their leaves. The same product can be mixed up and poured on the root zone of the plant as a drench.

Besides water, your plants require an adequate supply of oxygen (air) to prosper. A crumbly soil indicates that there are spaces in the soil structure that hold air and water. If your soil is compacted clay, your plants cannot breathe well, and organic matter must be added to the soil to lighten it. If a hard crust has formed on the soil surface, cultivating the soil (hoeing) will loosen that crust and allow the plants to have access to more oxygen. In my experience, plants show noticeable improvements after you hoe around them…because you have made the soil more receptive to the air and water that is so essential for plant growth.
I suggest that you do a soil test this fall. The test results will indicate what additions should be made to your soil. And guess what? Currently, soil testing is a free service in the state of North Carolina.

Soil Testing –Step by Step:

  • You will need the correct box for sending in your samples. These free boxes and sample information forms can be obtained at your County Cooperative Extension Service. In Asheville, the Master Gardeners (a Cooperative Extension program) usually have a table at Asheville City Market where they give out soil test boxes, and other great information. Reems Creek Nursery, in Weaverville, usually has them too. To find the location of your county’s North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service click here. Boxes can also be gotten at the NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division in Raleigh, NC.
  • Take soil samples from your garden area. Zig-zag around and across your garden, taking 15 to 20 samples that are about 6-8 inches deep. Take the core samples when the soil is dry enough that it can easily be mixed. You can use an ordinary shovel or trowel, but do NOT use tools that are galvanized, brass, or bronze. They can contaminate the sample with zinc or copper. The form recommends using iron or stainless steel tools to collect the samples.
  • Mix all the veggie garden samples together in a clean plastic bucket bucket(do not use a galvanized bucket). The bucket should be free of fertilizer, lime, and other contaminants. Crush any clods, and mix the soil up well, as if you were making biscuits. If you are taking samples from a number of areas in your yard (such as lawn and blueberry patch), segregate the samples from each area because grass and blueberries have very different pH requirements. Mix all your lawn samples in one clean bucket, and all your blueberry patch samples in a different clean bucket. To ensure that the soil test results will be accurate (1) identify/label each separate bucket so they don’t get mixed up, (2) label the sample boxes and be sure that the box contents match the bucket contents as labeled, and (3) correctly fill out the Soil Sample Information Form so that the soil test results are meaningful for each particular area you are addressing.
  • Label the soil sample box using permanent ink. Fill in your name, address, and sample ID (you make this up). ID each area you sampled with a name no more than 5 letters…for instance VEGIE for your vegetable garden, GRASS for your lawn, and BLBER for your blueberries.
  • Put the well-mixed sample into the brown soil sample box. You must use the designated sample boxes. Veggie garden, blueberry patch, lawn, and flowerbed, etc. should all be sampled separately and boxed separately. Fill the box about 2/3’s full or to the “Fill Line” on the box. Do NOT seal the soil sample box with tape. Do NOT send soil samples in a plastic bag. Fold the box flaps according to instructions.
  • Fill out the Sample Information Form. Obtain this form at your NC Cooperative Extension Office, or download it. Use permanent ink or a #2 pencil to fill out the form. It is self explanatory, with an example on the back of the form. You will need to list each individual sample box and its sample ID name (such as BLBER for blueberries). Specify a crop code (the codes are on the back of the form). Gardeners should use the codes under “Home Lawn & Garden”. The home vegetable garden crop code is 024, etc. In the case of blueberries, use the Farmer crop code (075 or 076) because their pH and fertilizer requirements are quite different than some other berries. For each sample box, specify how much lime was applied in the last 12 months, and the month and year it was applied.
  • Fold the Sample Information Form and insert it between the flaps in the top of the soil sample box. Do NOT put the Soil Information Form inside the soil sample box.soilbox
  • The samples must be mailed to Raleigh (this is your only expense) or they can be hand-delivered to the NCDA & CS Agronomic Division in Raleigh. DO NOT take them to your local Cooperative Extension Office…there may be some exceptions to this, but Buncombe County Cooperative Extension definitely does not take them. It is important to pack the soil sample boxes in a sturdy box (like corrugated cardboard) for shipping, and to use packing materials like newspaper (not packing peanuts) to keep the sample boxes from moving around and spilling in transit.

Shipping Address:
If you are shipping via the US Postal Service mail to:
1040 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1040
If you are using a private carrier (UPS, FedEx, etc.) mail to:
4300 Reedy Creek Road
Raleigh, NC 27607-6465


Your Soil Test results will be available online under “Find Your Report” in the left-hand column navigation bar. It usually takes about one week. In late fall through early spring, it may take the Agronomic Division several weeks to process the samples and post your results since many farmers send in their samples during this time. You can include an email address on the Sample Information Form and the results will be emailed to you. If you not have a computer, you can go online at the library or an extension office to obtain your results. The Agronomic Division no longer mails Soil Test results. In rare cases …say you are 90 years old, have never had electricity, and live in a far-flung corner of Madison County…you can request that the results are mailed to you.

I asked Dr. Jeana Meyers, with the NCDA & CS Agronomic Division, why she thought soil tests were important for organic growers. She responded by saying, “one of the main reasons organic growers should use soil testing is to make sure they have enough phosphorus in their soils because P sources are either slow or expensive for organic farmers, so they have to plan in advance. The other important reason is that organic growers often bring in large amounts of compost – animal, mushroom, food composts – and some of these can have extremely high levels of nutrients or heavy metals such as zinc. For example, zinc is fed to animals and then builds up in their compost and because it’s a metal it stays in the soil. Low levels of zinc are necessary for healthy plant growth, but high levels can be toxic to plants, especially at low pH. An organic farmer needs to know what is in the materials he or she is applying. Compost samples can be sent to the Plant Waste Media and Solution Lab and analyzed for $5.”

Here are a few helpful links:
View a Soil Testing instructional powerpoint
Fertilizing with Organic Nutrients: > Soil Fertility Notes > Soil Fertility Note 12
Frequently Asked Questions about Soil Testing and Fertilizer
Thanks for writing, Fred. Your soil test results should provide insight into why this year’s harvest may have been meager. It’s possible that something as simple as a pH adjustment could make a huge difference. I hope next year’s garden is kickin’!
All my best,

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She also served on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors. In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.