Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension P. O. Box 68 LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068 Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Soil - The Foundation for Success in Gardening

Soil is the foundation of gardening. Florida soils consist generally of  vast, deep beds of fine sand - the former beaches of ancient times. Florida soils have been classified into 335 named categories - depending on texture, color, and organic content.

Left to herself, Mother Nature creates "top soil" very slowly - about one inch per century - as the litter of leaves and other plant wastes fuel the dynamic ecology of soil organisms and chemistry. You can assist nature and create healthy soil. Healthy, living soil  will keep your plants happy and be the foundation for successful  gardening and landscaping.

An important first step, is to test your soil to determine its pH - a measure of acidity or alkalinity. This important measure is represented by a scale of numbers from 1 to 14 - called pH.  A pH of 7 indicates neutral or balanced soil. Each higher whole number means 10 times more alkaline. Each lower whole number means ten times more acidic. You may need to adjust your soil pH depending on what you wish to grow.

The Hendry County Cooperative Extension Service can send your soil for testing to the soil testing laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville. A complete analysis costing $7, will reveal your soil pH and existing amounts of major plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and magnesium (N,P,K, Ca, Mg). Their report will advise on pH amendment and fertilizer rates to favor the plants you indicated you wish to grow. A simpler analysis, showing only soil pH and amendment, costs $3.

Soil chemistry is very important. If the pH is wrong, plants may not be able to take up the nutrients even if plant food is abundant in the soil,. Most vegetables and flowers will thrive in soils with a pH of 6 to 7. Potatoes and tomatoes prefer a more acidic soil. Azaleas, ixoras and hibiscus also require acidic soil. Most native plants will generally be satisfied whatever your soil.

Powdered, agricultural lime or dolomite will increase pH values, making soil more alkaline or "sweet," as some people say. Wettable, powdered sulfur will lower pH, making soil more acid or "sour."

Organic matter is an important and affordable soil builder which helps increase nutrients and water availability to plants and helps to balance the soil pH. Unlike chemical fertilizer, most organic fertilizers will not burn plants. On most of our sandy soils, organic content is generally less than 1 %.  All of our soils will benefit from the addition of organic material which breaks down to form humus.

To help increase the organic content of your soil in lawn areas, mow rather than rake leaves.  Persistent raking removes this valuable resource source of organic matter. If you mow your own lawn or have a lawn mowing service, leave the clippings where they fall. This will save time and improve your lawn. The clippings are where your fertilizer is going, so don't throw it away.  Salt-based fertilizers may help reduce soil humus and often over stimulate plant growth. If you use these powerful chemicals, follow directions carefully. Over application can do more harm than good.

To increase the organic content in your garden soil, mulch regularly and deeply with fallen leaves, grass clippings, rotted hay (don't use dry or baled hay, as it contains weed seeds), stable bedding, or compost. In the garden aisles and borders, where durability of the mulch will reduce frequent replacement, use pine needles or coarse wood chips. Wood chips are often available for free from your utility company or for a small delivery charge from tree trimming services.

You can avoid the labor of turning compost piles by simply spreading mulch where you wish to build soil. This works particularly well under shrubs, around trees and in planting beds. Bottom layers of the mulch will decompose naturally while the surface remains attractive. Mulch promotes better drainage in heavy marl soils. Mulch helps hold water in thin, sandy soils.

Some gardeners plant cover crops of cowpeas, millet, Sudan grass, sesbania, or other nitrogen fixing, soil building plants. These so-called "green manures" are tilled back into the soil, usually at the prime of their growth, to enrich the soil as they decompose.

Soil ecology is important part of successful gardening: diversity gives health, strength, and resilience to all your plants.  Building soil should be a continuing aspect of landscape and gardening program. It's not rocket science, but will help you produce healthier more productive plants.   Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or  863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an Equal Employment Opportunity - Affirmative Action Employer authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap or national origin.

Home                       Index