What's the most important factor in developing a beautiful and productive garden? Questions such as this one have been asked of me hundreds of times over the fleeting years. Oh, I've come back with all the seemingly correct answers, but sometimes I have wondered if I've really zeroed in on the absolute most important factor.
If I remember correctly, I've told folks about selecting the best varieties or cultivars. I suspect I've also talked some about planting seed and plants the right depth and choosing the most desirable location.
Perhaps the need for sanitation and cleanliness in the garden area have been pointed out. Of course, disease and insect control and prevention are often discussed. The list could go on and on; however, when forced to give my final answer to which of these is the most important, things get a little dirty.
Now, dear reader, this is not an X-rated column. It is simply a column about dirt.
Actually, my county agent when I was a 4-H Club boy back in the 50s and early 60s impressed upon me that "dirt" was the stuff that stuck to your pants when you slid into second base.
So what I really want to discuss is soil. Yep, that's the answer. Soil is most important because it is the foundation for all things grown that aren't hydroponics or certain mushrooms. Of course, I realize that container-grown plants are often grown in artificial soil mixes. For this discussion we will include those mixes, as they do substitute for soil.
The gardener should understand that most plants have specific soil preferences. Blueberries love extremely acidic soils, while tomatoes need a much higher pH. Azaleas prefer their homes slightly more acidic than roses. While this type of knowledge is important, it's much more important that seed, shrubs or trees be planted in soil that is high in organic matter and well stocked in nutrients.
Soil testing is the obvious method for determining nutrient levels in the would-be garden. Testing the soil can also indicate organic matter levels, if you are willing to pay a little extra. I would suggest that most of our good old North Georgia red clay needs organic help. Simply put, help your soil through the use of organic amendments.
A soil test provides the gardener with pH, phosphorus, potassium and certain minor nutrient levels. Once those levels are determined, dolomitic lime can be used to raise the pH while sulfur will lower it. Phosphorus, potassium and other nutrient levels should be improved through the use of either organic or commercial fertilizers.
Only a house built on a strong foundation will stand the test of time. The same is true of the beautiful and productive garden. The foundation of the garden is its soil. Build it properly and carefully, and the garden above it will also stand the test of time.
Gene Anderson is the interim Hall County extension coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994. E-mail email@example.com.