There is one very important element that makes those who have it great vegetable gardeners. No matter how good your site is, which varieties are chosen or how much time and energy you devote to the garden, you’re only as good as the soil the plants are growing in. Good soil makes good gardeners.
The problem is that in the Okanagan Valley, there aren’t many examples of good soil. We have sandy soils, gravelly soils, rocky soils and clay soils. I am deeply envious of those who garden north of Vernon; Armstrong and vicinity, where the soil is black and rich.
The ideal for a vegetable garden is a soil that has enough sand particles to ensure good drainage and enough clay particles to hold nutrients and moisture for plants to utilize. Too much sand and the soil won’t hold any moisture. Conversely, if there’s too much clay the soil won’t drain and water and air can’t move through to transport nutrients to be taken up by plants.
If you’re planting a vegetable garden for the first time and your home is relatively new chances are you won’t have much to work with; any soil that was present was stripped off when the house was built. This topsoil is the surface layer of soil that was built up over many years as plants and other organisms died off.
Topsoil is the best soil for a vegetable garden and many companies advertise that they have topsoil for sale. Buyer beware; find out where the soil is from, whether it’s been screened for weeds and rocks and what has been mixed into it. There is a wide range of interpretations over what qualifies as topsoil in this valley.
In most situations there is something resembling soil to start and good soil can be built over time. Time is the key word, as topsoil takes decades to build. Don’t expect amazing results next year from improvements made this year. I’ve been working compost into my vegetable garden for over 15 years and the soil, while pretty good, is not ideal yet. The last glacier that moved over my property did not leave much for me to work with.
Adding organic matter annually to the soil you’re working with will pay off with a better crop of vegetables. Your own compost is worth its weight in gold, even at today’s high prices. If you are serious about vegetable gardening, you need a compost bin, it’s that simple.
Peat moss is a smart choice for organic matter in our valley. It retains moisture in sandy soils and helps to lower the soil pH, which tends to be high and alkaline. Animal manures and mushroom composts are good, but work them in well and make sure they’ve had a chance to break down in the soil before planting your garden.
Straw and leaves, worked in before winter and left to decompose, can be excellent sources. Consider also planting a cover crop in the fall, and then working the material into the soil in spring before planting. Seed for cover crops is available at your garden centre in September.
You can start building your soil right now, the ground is recovering rapidly from winter and the wheelbarrow and shovel are beckoning from the tool shed. This is one building project that will pay off deliciously.

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