Monday, March 23, 2009


Soil: Part one in a three-part series

By Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

For Judy Frankel, a day without putting her hands in soil is like a day without embracing her young daughter. Though parenting brings her immense joy, it is gardening that keeps her tied to the earth’s seasons and cycles. Regular harvests also provide her with a steady stream of ingredients for her everyday cooking endeavors.

As a master gardener, home garden enthusiast, and fruit tree specialist, Frankel knows that a bountiful supply of home-grown goods doesn’t come without preparation. “It all begins with good quality soil,” she emphatically states.

Soil, the home for nutrients, water and other valuable elements for plants, requires time and attention; but the results are worth the effort. It is from this healthy foundation that garden vegetables can thrive.

In this three-part Q & A series, Frankel shares with visitors the steps in creating a home garden. Her expertise in this field comes not only from her hard work—but also from her training and passion for producing food grown in her own backyard.

S.M-L: What are the benefits of having a home garden?

J.F.: The benefits of having a home garden: PROXIMITY! It's great being able to walk into your own backyard and pick a carrot or a bunch of basil. It's great that it's so fresh when you need it; you can't beat the FRESHNESS! The TASTE is another reason: if you have sweet soil, you'll have sweet tasting veggies and fruit. Supermarket varieties are limited to what can travel well. And the VARIETY cannot be beat! You can grow so many more different vegetables than you could ever get in a supermarket! Some of the veggies are just beautiful, like purple kohlrabi. Try finding that at a VON's. So BEAUTY is another reason: it just looks pretty, in the landscape and in your house when you bring it inside! Then there's SAFETY: you know how it's grown, that the seeds are heirloom or open-pollinated varieties that haven't had any tampering with their genes, and that you haven't sprayed chemicals on the plants or used petroleum products to fertilize your soil (which produces inferior plant cell walls that are weaker AND less nutritious than organically fertilized food.) So there's another benefit: NUTRITION. There's the untold other benefits as well: EXERCISE for the gardener and THERAPY in terms of psychological benefits from being outside, in the sun and smelling the plants and soil. It's AROMATHERAPY and PSYCHOLOGICAL therapy!

S.M-L.: Where should a garden be located (sun orientation etc.)?

J.F.: Locate your garden in the sun, sun, sun! A southern exposure is great for most vegetables. There are a few things that can do okay in the shade: lettuce, spinach, some herbs like cilantro don't need a whole lot of sun, but will grow a lot faster if they get some sun. I've taken out trees to allow more sun to get through to my garden.

Taking out trees requires a certain amount of preparation, spiritually. I always do a little prayer and acknowledgement of the tree before removing it. All gardens have a special kind of energy about them, and you don't want to ruin it by being callous.

S.M-L.: What are the first steps in getting started?

J.F.: The first steps:
1. Find a location that has sun.
2. Decide whether you want raised beds or if you will be digging. Then build that raised bed or dig that existing soil to a depth of at least 8 inches, or follow double digging practices.
3. Get a soil test or sample the soil yourself.
4. Amend, amend, amend your poor soil or build your new soil according to my soil recipe (*posted at end of interview).
5. Plant and water

S.M.-L.: Why is good soil so important?

J.F.: Good soil is important because it is the foundation of your garden. Plants need nutrients from the soil and sun to grow properly. The soil provides macronutrients like nitrogen and micronutrients like copper via bacteria that does the work of digestion for the plants. The best way to think of it is that you're actually eating your soil. So whatever goes into the soil comes through the plants into you.

S.M.L.: How would a beginner know what kind of soil they have at home?

J.F.: To know what kind of soil you have, all you have to do is dig into it and feel it. There are only a few components that make up your ground. It could be mostly rocks, sand, clay, silt, and/or loam, or a combination of these. But soil isn't nutritious to your plants unless it also "has a life."

It needs to contain some more mystical elements: humus, for example, which is an elusive thing. It's what happens when compost is broken down to its maximum degree, yet it cannot be defined. It's the "soul" of the soil. It's what makes soil a living thing.

There are so many organisms and microorganisms whose only function is to break down decomposing matter: everything from earthworms to bacteria. These organisms are essential to good soil. If, while you're digging, you see strands of white, you're looking at a complex system of bacteria working synergistic-ly with plants' roots. It is the most elegant system of species working across living systems and yet helping each other.

S.M.-L: Do you recommend soil testing?

J.F.: There are at least four ways to test your soil:
1. Quick and dirty: dig into your soil and notice if it's sticky and heavy with clay, or sandy, or feels like you're cutting through chocolate cake. The recommendations are the same, no matter what soil you have, so you may decide not to go for the full-on testing, and instead just do a pH test. pH is important to know so that you can adjust it according to what you will be planting there. For example, blueberry bushes and gardenias like acidic soil.
2. Soil test kits can be purchased at the local garden center and will measure nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as well as pH.
3. Public lab tests, run by the state can give you more accurate results and more information. Refer to: to find out more about using the UC Extension program's testing lab.
4. Or, private labs can give you even more detailed analysis, especially if you are concerned about your soil having a specific toxicity based on previous use. For one such lab, go to: Keep in mind that these labs and their specific tests can be quite costly.

Even if you do a soil test, you will not necessarily have all the information you desire because testing in one spot of your property means you only know what is going on at that exact spot. Soil varies from one area of your property to another, which is why it is important to realize that the prescription is going to be the same no matter what kind of soil you have.

Soil test reports almost always come back with the same recommendation: add organic matter! This addition is even more important if your soil is primarily made out of clay or sand.

S.M.L.: What are the necessary components to creating good soil?

J.F.: The most important components of healthy soil are the following (my recipe for good soil):
• Organic matter
• Air and water
• Macronutrients: like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur
• Micronutrients: Minerals like iron, boron, manganese, copper, zinc, and molybdenum
• Microorganisms: Bacteria, beneficial fungi, and the like.

Most soils just need a regular addition of compost (organic matter) or kitchen scraps to stay healthy. But some soils are so compacted, especially our clay soil, that without digging and mixing with compost, they cannot support healthy plants.

Conversely, if you build a raised bed and just add compost, you will be missing many of the other ingredients that go into healthy soil. You need to add peat moss or perlite to improve aeration and moisture retention, especially if the compost is not well broken down, like a lot of the free compost that comes from municipal composting operations.

I had six raised beds filled with compost and realized, after adding the peat moss and perlite, that I was going to have to bring earthworms in or else I wouldn't have worms in my beds.

Some soils, where only synthetic fertilizers have been used for years, may have few if any micronutrients because these minerals simple are not found in non-organic fertilizers. If you've been growing plants with the types of fertilizers that say 20-20-20 on them, your plants may be slowly taking away all the micronutrients, leaving little for future generations of plants.

Micronutrients can be added in one pass, but you will have to establish a deficiency with a soil test first, because adding too much is harmful. When you do add micronutrients, you have to follow the soil test's recommendations. If, however, you consistently add compost and organic fertilizers or manures to your garden, you will have a steady supply of micronutrients. The easiest way to be sure to have enough, but not too much, is to use fish emulsion and/or liquid seaweed, because these fertilizers have trace amounts of micronutrients.

Macronutrients can be added easily by purchasing either Whitney Farms or Kellogg's products. Of the two, I prefer Kellogg's. These two companies do an excellent job of using crop residues, animal residues, and beneficial microorganisms in many of their mixtures. The resulting slow-release organic fertilizer will provide your plants with the best nutrients possible, while also providing the bacteria and fungi necessary to process the macro and micronutrients, making them available to the plants.

When plants take up organic fertilizers, the resultant cell walls are stronger and hold more vitamins and minerals, thus providing us humans more nutrition and a more powerful flavor as well. My veggies always taste better than standard supermarket fare because they're organically grown.

S.M.L: When is the soil ready for planting and starting a garden?

J.F.: If you follow all the basics for getting soil ready, it's not the soil that dictates when to plant, it's the type of things you're planting. You have to plant specific to the season and the zone you're living in. You can plant peas in September or October through December in So Cal, but in zone 6, you'd be hard pressed to get them into the ground in April, even though that's when they should be planted.

S.M.-L.: What can a gardener do on a regular basis to keep the soil fertile?

J.F.: My number one recommendation is to COMPOST. If you regularly add your green waste back into your soil, you will decrease the amount of inputs you need to bring from the outside. Save your kitchen scraps in a bowl or container right on your kitchen counter. I used to put my container in the fridge overnight to prevent smells and fruit flies from accumulating. Now, I just put a lid on the container at night, and when it fills up, I dig a hole somewhere in my garden and dump it right into the ground and cover it up with soil.

In the summer, when the flies do accumulate, they like to sit right inside my compost container. I shut them up inside the container and release them outdoors, then bring the container inside and keep it closed most of the time.

Composting outdoors is a commitment, but local organizations often give free composting classes that will help you get started. The main point is: adding organic matter is the same as regular exercise. It will keep your garden healthy. Use compost that the city gives away for free or make your own. I use compost as a mulch, and every time I plant a new rosebush, tree, bramble, or plant, I mix it into the planting hole.

Stay tuned for part two in this series...