Herb Garden Soil Preparation Techniques

Beyond the chemical requirements for fertilization, you also want to make sure that you are supplying the right nutrients for your herb garden.

Fertilizing Your Garden: A Two-Stage Program
  1. Broadcast Fertilizing.

    When you're preparing the bed for spring planting, apply a complete fertilizer -- such as 10-10-10 -- evenly to the entire garden according to the soil test recommendations. Do not overfertilize. A hand spreader helps keep the job neat as it distributes the granules. Turn the fertilizer into the soil with a hand spade or tiller and smooth out the surface to prepare for planting. This first fertilizing step will see most of your herbs and vegetables through their initial period of growth. Halfway through the growing season, the plants will have used up a lot of the nutrients in the soil, and you'll have to replace these nutrients.

  2. Sidedressing.

    As the nutrients are used up by the plants, a second boost of fertilizer will be needed to supply the plants with essential elements through the remainder of the growing season. Use the same complete fertilizer at the same rate as used in the spring, but this time apply it as a sidedressing to the plants. With a hoe, make a four-inch deep trench along one side of the row, taking care not to disturb the plant's roots. Apply the fertilizer in the trench and then cover the trench with the soil you removed. Rain and irrigation will work the fertilizer into the soil, becoming available to the plants.


The Gardener's Recycling Plan

The backyard compost pile is the ideal way to reuse most of your garden and kitchen waste and get benefits galore. Composting is essentially a way of speeding up the natural process of decomposition by which organic materials are broken down and their components returned to the soil. The decaying process happens naturally but slowly. The proximity, moisture, and air circulation of a compost pile encourages this process. Composting converts plant and other organic wastes into a loose, peatlike humus that provides nutrients to growing plants and increases the soil's ability to control water.

Composting can save money you would otherwise spend on soil conditioners and fertilizer. It can save time, too, since it gives you a place to dispose of grass clippings, weeds, and other garden debris.

When planting an herb garden, remember to compost.
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This compost pile serves many uses in the vegetable garden.

Garden waste can be turned into good compost in less than a year if the pile is properly managed. When the compost is ready -- coarse, dark brown, peatlike material -- it can be used for many purposes. Compost can be added to potting soil for starting garden seeds indoors. It can also be used as a mulch to protect a plant's roots from the hot, dry summer sun. Compost is also an excellent material to incorporate into garden soil to help control moisture: either increasing the water-holding capacity in sandy soils or improving drainage in heavy clay soils. The more organic matter you add, the more you improve the texture of the soil. Blend the compost into the soil to a depth of 12 inches, making sure it is evenly dispersed through the entire planting area. When compost is added to the soil, it will absorb some of the soil's nitrogen. To compensate for this, organic or inorganic fertilizer and work it into the soil with the compost.

Except for diseased and pest-laden materials or materials that have been treated with herbicides, almost any type of garden waste can be composted. You can also use such kitchen leftovers as vegetable and fruit peels, vegetable tops, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and eggshells. Don't use meat products or greasy foods, which tend to smell bad and attract animals. Composting material should be kept moist but not soggy, and it should be supplied with a nitrogen fertilizer (manure, dried blood, bone meal, or commercial fertilizer) to keep the microorganisms active for faster decay.

Compost forms as organic wastes are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. These microorganisms don't create nutrients; they just break down complex materials into simple ones that the plant can use. Soil microorganisms are most active when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of them work best in a moist, slightly alkaline environment. Microorganisms work fastest on small pieces of organic material.

There are two basic types of microorganisms: those that need air to work (aerobic) and those that don't need air (anaerobic). It's possible to compost in an airtight container, thanks to the microorganisms that don't need air. A tightly covered plastic trash can will convert an enormous amount of organic kitchen waste into compost in the course of a winter. The classic outdoor compost pile should be turned regularly (about once every two weeks) with a pitchfork to provide air for the microorganisms that need it.

There are several handy composting devices on the market. Each has its own advantages, but a compost pile need not be fancy to work well. A simple bin made with old cinder blocks, lumber, or fencing material can be used. Tucked aside, but not too far from the garden, the bin can be square, rectangular, or round. It should be four to five feet across and about three feet high.

There are almost as many different methods of composting as there are gardeners. Follow these basic steps of composting to be a success.

How to Start a Compost Pile
  1. Start with either a one- to two-foot pile of leaves or 6 to 12 inches or more of compact material, such as grass clippings or sawdust. You can compost hay, straw, hulls, nutshells, and tree trimmings (except walnut). However, unless they're shredded, they'll take a long time to decompose. Use any organic garden or kitchen waste (except meat scraps), as long as it contains no pesticides or diseases.

  2. Over this initial pile spread a layer of fertilizer. The nitrogen will help activate the microorganisms, which in turn will speed the decay of the organic materials. Add about 1/2 cup of ground limestone (most microorganisms like their environment sweet). Then add several shovelfuls of garden soil, which will provide a starter colony of microorganisms. It's handy to have a small pile of soil nearby when you start the compost pile.

  3. Water the pile well. The pile should be kept moist, like a squeezed sponge. Keep adding garden waste to the top of the pile as it becomes available. As the layers become thickened and compacted, repeat the layers of fertilizer, lime, and soil.

  4. About once every two weeks, turn and mix the pile with a pitch fork or digging fork. This will ensure that all the components of the pile, not just the center, will heat up. As the temperature in the compost pile increases, weed seeds and harmful disease organisms are killed, and the decay process will not be delayed.
Now that your soil is ready for your herbs, let's talk about how to plant and grow herbs.